Tony Crawford is the Chief Financial Officer, as well as the Head of Club and State Services, for the National Rugby League (NRL) in Australia. The NRL runs the world’s premier Rugby League competition comprising 16 teams, including one from New Zealand, and attracts about three million people to its matches each year with more than 100 million viewers on television.

Tony joined the NRL in 2013 in the Club and State Services role before taking on the CFO responsibilities in 2016. Tony comes from a non-traditional background for a CFO, having spent a large part of his career in the business advisory, insolvency and restructuring sector.

Can you talk about the journey to get to where you are now?

My formative time was spent in insolvency and restructuring where I was a partner of specialist insolvency firm Ferrier Hodgson.

I came to the NRL because of my restructuring background where my initial role was to assist financially strengthen clubs. I spent time in a number of those businesses suffering financial distress to help them through what was then a difficult time. After three years in the club role, I was offered the opportunity to be CFO.

What are the nuances of being a professional sports CFO?

Sports businesses can be unique. The NRL can, at times, beat the unique end of the scale. In sports businesses, decisions are not in all cases made on purely commercial terms. There is a range of stakeholders that are taken into account that you would treat differently in a traditional commercial setting. You have the clubs; the media - who in some cases are also broadcast partners; and the fans; all of whom have an interest in the business, almost like a shareholder but founded in passion. Taking those stakeholders on the journey is different for a traditional commercial business.

Your role seems to go far beyond the traditional CFO role. How so?

The role is founded on the traditional CFO role but sport brings with it unique stakeholders and, as I mentioned, we engage with each of these stakeholders differently. My role involves, for example, deep engagement with the club businesses, which are not businesses owned or controlled by us, though I spend a lot of time with those businesses. I am interested in the broader financial integrity of the entire sport; the clubs are a major part of that. We want to sponsor the growth of club businesses so they are financially sustainable. Ensuring the business (as opposed to the football) of clubs is getting enough attention is an ongoing challenge.
How we engage with key stakeholders, and my part in that is the main difference to a traditional CFO role.

How does Data Analytics impact on your role?

We are currently investing in our digital footprint. Over the next 3-4 years, our digital spend in terms of investing in a platform and our capability is $150 million. This is the major strategic project for the business. Aligned to this is our data analytics capability. The NRL and sports generally in Australia are positioned behind the US pro-sports businesses, for example, in digital and data. This is one area where there is acceleration, particularly in data analytics, that helps us understand and serve the customer. This is where things are trending in sport, but that’s no different to a traditional commercial setting. We are building our data analytics capacity aligned to our digital development. This is being driven by our award-winning CDO, Rebekah Horne (an Odgers Berndtson appointment).

What keeps you awake at night?

I wouldn’t say anything particularly keeps me awake at night, although there are things I obviously have to apply more focus to at different points in time. About two-thirds of our revenue is related to the sale of rugby league content to broadcasters. Broadcast revenues are contracted for 5-year terms which provide greater certainty for the business. However, this is offset by a natural concern about revenue concentration risk. As part of that, I am focused on facilitating the business to grow and diversify revenue within strategic and risk parameters.
While the NRL probably looks fairly simple from an outsiders’ perspective, there are challenges like any business. Some of our businesses are sub-scale and we need to identify opportunities to grow these businesses. We, like all businesses, need to take sensible risks to grow. Making the non-broadcast business more diverse and robust is one of my priorities. There are opportunities to play a different role in parts of the game-wide supply chain. At the same time, our digital business will also play a big role in growing and diversifying our revenues.

What is the best thing about being a CFO at the NRL?

I think many people in senior roles come to work because of the team and the environment. For me, the NRL is no different. It is a great team of people I work with. We are regularly confronted by unique or unusual challenges compared to a traditional business. The executive team is reasonably new. As a team, our growing capacity to tackle these challenges and the collective approach is satisfying to be a part of. In some cases, the outcomes achieved may not have been possible only one or two years ago. I can see the emerging strength of the team and the character of the people within it. For me, it is the combination of those things that gets me out of bed and keeps me interested.

That aside, there is the obvious involvement in elite sport and rugby league in particular. Being involved in sport is a privilege. Sport demands that the players give their absolute best. The competitiveness of the business of sport, particularly in a crowded market like Australia, means it is no different for those administrating the sport. That test is also very rewarding.

How has the CFO role evolved?

In my view, the CFO has moved beyond being a numbers person, that is a given. The CFO is a critical part of the team running the business. That and a range of other characteristics are what sets you apart as a CFO. The core elements will remain. You have to be an influencer and a trusted partner within the business. You need to be resilient; capable of facilitating, yet have the courage and capacity to be the person who says no. You also have to be the person who gets to yes – to help take risks that grow the business. You are often the moderator ensuring proper alignment of key business decisions with risk and strategy.

In my opinion, future CFO’s will differ to the past. The future CFO role will demand a greater diversity of experience. A CFO with broader business experiences outside the traditional finance-centric path will contribute differently and add more value. CFO’s will move away from being pure numbers people to being critical participants and contributors in the business. Their diversity of experience will help drive this evolution.

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