The WACA is reaping rewards from a controversial sponsorship decision almost 12 months ago.
Western Australian Cricket Association chief executive Christina Matthews says the (then) controversial move to drop Lion and Coca Cola as sponsors in favour of Healthway has proved to be one of her best business decisions.
The message promoted by Healthway, which works to reduce harm from alcohol and drugs, runs counter to that often associated those previous sponsors, but Ms Matthews said convincing all parties of the benefits of the change almost a year ago was a challenge.
Cricket Australia, which has a long-term alignment with Carlton & United Breweries, was slow to come on board, despite the WACA’s new health-focused direction.
“It started with a bit of controversy – we were very clear that we were doing it for reasons of setting examples for people and Healthway was doing it to send their message of alcohol and sport not mixing,” Ms Matthews told Business News.
“It wasn’t the best message that Cricket Australia wanted us to send.
“The great thing was that the players, both male and female, were absolutely thrilled that we were doing it … they were sick of having that reputation, they wanted to be seen as role models and they wanted to start a new platform for the WACA and the people who play and work for the WACA.”
The increasing prevalence of high-profile sportsmen (there are few women) featuring in alcohol-related public incidents presents problems for sporting organisations, particularly when alcohol companies are among their major sponsors.
The WACA had a long-term relationship with Lion, with its XXXX Gold brand becoming the association’s official beer.
“We knew the reputation that we had in the marketplace was for an organisation that tolerated alcohol and drug abuse without really disciplining players – people were getting away with things left right and centre,” Ms Matthews said at a recent DiabetesWA event in Perth.
She said the association wanted to step away from the close relationship between alcohol and sports.
“We wanted to come up with something that was very public and made us very accountable and let people know where we were heading,” Ms Matthews said.
“We had some friendly discussions with Cricket Australia and now we co-exist quite easily around that and I’m pleased to say that they’ve supported us in those endeavours,” she said.
From the WACA’s perspective, the new focus had provided some very positive opportunities, including attracting new companies as potential sponsors.
“It’s been great for everybody in the organisation,” Ms Matthews said.
“It’s the benchmark of what we do now in looking for partners that complement us and that we can complement.
“It sets us apart and encourages other companies to get involved because they’re seeing us going down a path which is about social responsibility.”
The decision was demonstrative of Ms Matthews’ wider strategy to improve the WACA’s reputation, following her appointment as chief executive in January 2012.
“It’s fair to say I didn’t know what I was walking into; I had all sorts of people giving me advice over in the eastern states – all we really knew about the WACA other than the very strong history is that they’d had some financial issues,” Ms Matthews said.
Very early on she championed a new strategic plan, which, at its core, had a target of becoming a leader in Australian cricket.
“We did that because it’s a very simple thing for people to understand; to be a leader you have to stand up and take risks and you have to measure yourselves against others and yourself in order to start leading the country,” she said.
It wasn’t long before the WACA’s resolve to achieve that goal was tested, when several Perth Scorchers players were stood down following a boozy dinner during a tour to South Africa. Coach Lachlan Stevens quit not long after, as did captain Marcus North (although the latter denied the affair forced his hand).
“[That time] was a symbol and an opportunity,” Ms Matthews said.
“It was a symbol of what we had been doing leading up to that and it was an opportunity for us to make very big change very quickly in an environment that may have taken two or three years to do.”
Ms Matthews said that, as a result of its strategy, the WACA had become recognised as a standout around the country, and player participation was increasing significantly.
“We’re now seen as a benchmark for a lot of programs across Australia. It has been a very quick turnaround and very strongly bought into by our staff and stakeholders; it has been wonderful to watch that unfold,” she said.
“We’ve increased participation by 60 per cent in the last two years and 25 per cent of that overall participation is now female, 44 per cent of it, at entry level, is female.
“They’re figures that I certainly didn’t think were possible, but the staff have done an outstanding job.”