24/04/2024

Image: Supplied

Being the CEO of a successful WAFL club such as South Fremantle comes with responsibility.

For Cameron Britt, being a leader was his destiny from an early age.

Growing up in Victoria, a then 14-year-old Britt got his first taste of leadership when selected as a middle school Head Boy in year nine at Yarra Valley Grammar School.

His selection in his mind, came with a tag of “imposter syndrome” as he had only been in a new environment for only a year.

“But I felt like there was imposter syndrome there to some extent because these are all students, peers I’d only known relatively speaking for a short period,” Britt said when recounting his selection.

“Whereas a lot of them had come through the primary school ages. That private school together or at least had been through year seven together. So they had a minimum of 12 months more altogether, but probably a little further again.”

Britt speaks with humility, about how grateful and privileged he was to lead, although it “felt a little bit uncomfortable” thrust into the leadership spotlight.

With his peers entrusting him as reliable, Britt’s focus turned to his career path in the latter high school years. Initially, the articulately spoken Britt had his sights on becoming a lawyer after completing work experience in the city for his uncle with Phillips Fox, a Senior Industrial Relations Partner.

Pursuing a career in law only grew after partaking in further work experience at K+L Gates, who have amalgamated.

By his final two years at Yarra Valley Grammar, he gravitated towards sports, having been selected as captain of boy sport in year 12. A selection, adding to his desire to take the sports industry pathway, having participated in skiing, athletics, football, and basketball.

“Probably also a case of thought, getting at that time, getting those high-end marks to get into law, I thought it is a challenge for me as well,” Britt said.

“I’ve probably had just had a degree of reality there. So I thought sport could be for me. And I thought if you could carve out a living in something you love, which I think is probably the foremost challenge and ambition for all of us in life.

“If you get paid to do something you love doing anyway, that’s when I had a bit of that transformative moment.”

With his dreams set on a career in the sports industry, a fresh-out-of-school Britt chose LaTrobe University in 2003, which recently introduced sports management to their lengthy list of University courses.

Britt was one of the first intakes to the degree.

He clearly remembers the first year, where the course was general, with a few students dropping out. But his second and third years are when the valuable opportunities to obtain work experience for his degree proved a stepping stone.

“And for me, is this course gonna ramp up?” Britt said.

“And I mean, I’m certainly no quitter. I see everything through, and I’ve never had thoughts of hey, I need to bail out of this.

“But year two and then certainly year three was magnificent because it tightened up and specialised, and there were opportunities to go out and have practicum projects within sporting environments. There were opportunities to receive mentorship if you could enable it.

“They were very big on if you can go out and get the connections and networks, the uni will endorse it. But it wasn’t necessarily done for us. So that was good.”

By his third year at LaTrobe, Britt knew he wanted to work in a sporting organisation. Courses involving sports law, sports policy, and sports marketing underlined his passion, having initially set his sights on being a player-manager.

After three years of study and practicums to build his profile, Britt graduated in 2005.

Finding his first full-time role was the next challenge.

With a freshly minted University degree, he came across a position with the Australian Drug Foundation. His involvement was working in a program called Good Sports that helps community-based sporting clubs around the country build healthy practices, fundraising and responsible use of alcohol.

His mission was to establish healthier sporting clubs to benefit community participants and help sporting committees manage governing their club.

Working in an open environment saw a youthful-spry Britt travel around the country to meet sporting clubs, attend national committee meetings, and build his brand as an up comer in the sports industry.

Britt recalls his time as “beneficial”, with endless opportunities for promotion and not being “pigeonholed” to a specific assignment.

By mid-June 2012, after gaining trust and establishing credibility, Britt’s next destination would be at the prestigious Essendon Football Club as Community Manager.

The Bombers looked to be reforming themselves back to a formidable force under coach and club legend James Hird, sitting in the top four for the majority of the season until injuries derailed their season, eventually missing finals altogether.

On a commercial level, brands such as Yakult, Adidas, and highly-regarded car brand Kia were aligning themselves with the club as they aimed to market themselves superciliously in community and commercial partnerships then the other 17 AFL clubs.

Revenue was flowing in like a river.

In 2011, the Bombers recorded the sixth-highest profit of $2,059,379. Also, that year they generated the third-highest merchandise revenue at $2,563,026 and the fourth-highest sponsorship and marketing revenue at $15,132,108.

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In 2012, Essendon recorded the third-highest revenue in sponsorship and marketing at $15,920,153 and the highest profit of all clubs at $12,345,536.

Britt recounts the off-field success as a “performance factory” in his first six months at Windy Hill until one of the biggest bombshells dropped.

The ASADA investigation.

Stephen Dank, the club’s sports scientist, who previously worked for NRL clubs the Manly SeaEagles and the Cronulla Sharks was found guilty of administering the program. As too Hird (banned from coaching in 2014), replaced by another club legend, 1993 premiership captain Mark Thompson.

Prior to the 2016 season, 34 players, including skipper Jobe Watson were given year-long bans.

Amid the ongoing coverage of TV news trucks, cameras, and reporters waiting outside Windy Hill’s four walls, Britt, promoted to Community Manager, remembers having conversations with his staff of eight, telling them to remain “stoic” and keeping a positive frame of mind.

“Mistakes may have happened, but it’s a good place to work,” Britt tells about the difficult times during the ASADA investigation.

“We have really good intentions. And we are a high-value and principled organisation. We just got to keep turning up and doing the work.”

After weathering one of the arduous phases in his career, Britt began looking for a new chapter to turn the leaflet over.

A move to Western Australia.

Britt’s finance, now wife, who had been in Melbourne for nine years, was looking to return home to be closer to family. Packing his bags to move across the country in April 2015 signalled a new beginning.

An adventure he had his sights on changing industries to join the oil and gas industry around community and social responsibility.

However, securing a position wasn’t linear, with the WA economy taking a hit, recording its first budget deficit since 2000, presenting a challenging time in the jobs market.

“But I thought I’ll have the pick at some choice roles. But it was quite difficult,” Britt said when job hunting.

“And I wasn’t in a mad rush. I was getting to know Perth, and (I) was staying with my wife’s parents in West Perth, playing golf, and just socialising, and all the rest of it.”

It be six months before Britt landed a position.

Britt would land a CEO position for the highly successful Joondalup Wolves in the NBL1 West basketball league. Along with Chief Operating Officer Ryan Thompson, the new pairing took over, replacing the successful husband-wife partnership of Van and Mary Kailis, who were the heart and soul of the helm since 1986.

Britt’s vision was to build the basketball trajectory in the Northern suburbs by capitalising on the population’s exponential growth.

“Wonderful people had done a great job. It was their life, not their job,” Britt said, talking about Mr and Mrs Kailis.

“But again, it was okay how do we modernise, and how do we capitalise on this growth opportunity?

“So we embarked on that, more programs, more players, re-branding, a lot of fee for service stuff around technical, like shot doctor and defence attributes.

“And again, there was a healthy appetite for parents to find programs and opportunities for their kids up there to consume basketball. But also to improve basketball, and the sky was the limit.”

Britt’s first task involved knocking down the old Joondalup Basketball Stadium, through approval of Venues West and State Government funding, building a brand new basketball arena at HBF Arena, with the WA Government putting in $20 million.

The Joondalup Wolves received $12-$13 million, where the facility underwent a new building of a new court facility, with a show court, meeting rooms and change rooms.

“That was a really exciting journey, and we were able to grow revenues, grow participation, the rebranding. So we were pushing new merch designs. The game was booming,” Britt said.

“But, from having two or three NBA household names to almost having an Aussie on every second roster, it was great. It was sort of riding this wave. You could feel of success and interest again in basketball, which was good.”

Britt’s lengthy portfolio of CEO responsibilities included bringing talent I.D. of American imports onto the roster and the club’s strategy brand. His dedication to propelling an already well-run organisation saw memberships increase by 62% in 2018.

In four and a half years, he achieved everything except for a championship – losing four consecutive titles in the men’s competition from 2016 to 2019, which he describes as being a “little bit traumatised”.

With his work complete at the Wolves, Britt wasted minimal time getting into the comforts of football.

In November 2019, he became South Fremantle CEO, joining a club with a rich history, searching for its first premiership since 2009.

Having already been in a fast-paced footballing environment at Essendon, Britt wanted to relish being back in the football cauldron.

“I thoroughly enjoyed my time at the Wolves, but I think the football industry, if I’m being really honest excites me more. We’re a football state in WA. And I think the cut thrust and energy that flows through a footy club is something that I enjoy and I guess motivates me, particularly at a place like South Fremantle,” Britt said.

“So when I walk through the door, just an immersion in history and culture. And I guess just pride in the place and those players who have come before who are present day, male or female. And then also who are to come in the future. We have such a motivation to just provide the very best example that we can of ourselves.”

Heading into season 2020, the Bulldogs were to celebrate their 120th year in the WAFL.

Even before a ball could be bounced, the season would be postponed indefinitely with the highly contagious COVID-19 virus spreading rapidly around the world.

The grimness brought about uncertainty.

Uncertainty on whether a season would eventuate and revenue implications. Not only for the league but for the nine clubs – Claremont, Peel Thunder, West Perth, Perth, Subiaco, East Fremantle, Swan Districts, East Perth, and South Fremantle.

Amongst the unknown, in the next 24-48 hours, Britt engaged constantly with club President Peter Christie and then General Manager of Football and Community Marty Atkins.

Conversations centralising around its stakeholders and people in the football department.

When elaborating on the uneasiness, Britt is succinct about the apprehension within the club.

“It’s their job, it’s their livelihood, there’s mortgages, there’s families, there’s loans, there’s whatever that this could get bad,” Britt said, referring to club employees and his staff.

“But we’re going to get through it together, and we will communicate as actively and openly as we can and as regularly as we can.”

For the ensuing four months, Britt kept in close contact with the WA Football Commission on when the season would begin. The soliatry piece of health information the club could go by was the latest updates from State and Federal governments.

To keep the loyal and passionate South Fremantle supporters yearning for their football dose, Britt and his team collated with a WAFL YouTuber to play the club’s classic matches on a Friday night, such as the 1980 and 1997 Grand Finals.

“It almost became our match day,” Britt said.

“But we would just want fans and members to tune in. So we would promote it during the week, and then we’d have this digital relationship.

“And because there wasn’t much else to do in this period, this COVID period, particularly engaging with the footy club, that our fans would tune into these classics on YouTube, which was great.

“So that was good. And we thought it was important. And there was still membership sales. There was still merchandise sales. We’re almost living in this virtual competition of nostalgia.”

After months of waiting for the season’s green light, proceedings began on Saturday, July 18, with the campaign reduced from 20 rounds to only nine.

The Bulldogs hit the ground running, demolishing East Fremantle in the Derby by 95 points in front of 4,002 spectators at Fremantle Community Bank Oval.

As the season progressed, and the team playing excellent football, the bidding for who would host the Grand Final became a intriguing talking point.

Optus Oval had hosted the previous two WAFL Grand Finals since opening in 2018.

But because of COVID crowd-cap restrictions and finanical constraints, an alternative venue was the only option.

Fremantle Oval was one of six venues to put in their bid to host the Grand Final, including Lane Group Stadium, Pentanet Stadium, Bassendean Oval, Revo Fitness Stadium, and Leederville Oval.

In the following weeks, Britt feverishly worked away in organising and formulating a compelling bid to win over the Football Commission to why Fremantle Oval should host the ultimate day.

Britt’s thorough pitch included the entire Fremantle Community Bank Oval, plus the area’s entertainment precincts, cafes, restaurants, bars, pubs, parkland, and the beautiful ocean.

An enticing pitch, Britt intuitively believes, delivered the club to win the right.

“I think we were confident in the strength of our bid and the work the preparation we’ve done in preparing the elements of the bid. We had an opportunity to present to the football commission, so the board of the footy commission and their executive.

“I felt like it went well. I mean for our oval, it was just such a compelling option that you can get.”

Afterwards, Britt phoned the team’s coach, Todd Curley, about the significance of having Fremantle Oval host the Grand Final. To which Curley nonchalantly replied, “Oh, we’ll play anyone, anywhere. We believe in our list,” Britt recalls on this particular day.

Winning the prize of being the Grand Final host seems a gateway for a smooth ride through finals.

However, that path took an almighty jolt as Claremont, behind Alec Waterman’s four goals, blew away the Bulldogs, with the Tigers recording a resounding 47-point win.

The following week, the Bulldogs responded, pulling away from West Perth after a tight first half, winning by 21 points, booking a re-match with Claremont in the Grand Final.

On a crisp Spring day, Sunday, October 4, with barely a cloud in the sky, Britt reminisces on the ephoric day.

A day, the Bulldogs would win a classic by three points in front of 10,179 spectators for its 14th premiership in one of the most pulsating Grand Finals in recent memory.

“I just remember walking in, and when we come week-to-week, there’s 2000 people,” Britt said.

“You’re great, cool a South Fremantle game. Walking in or in the official function and then sort of walking out at crowd capacity, the next moment, just pre-bounce 10,000 people.

“Just a sea of red and white in our home ground with our team running out for the Grand Final. It was magical, and I’ll never forget it. Absolutely a career highlight, and the game threw it all in that it was the Hollywood script for us.

“But I thought, I thought I was gonna have a heart attack in that last quarter. My heart was beating through my rib cage and out of my chest.

“And we were brave. We hung on. What was it three points? Fairytale ending to our season.”

In July 2022, the Fremantle Council approved the redevelopment of Fremantle Oval.

The redevelopment aims to demolish the current club administration facility with a four-story building by incorporating a bistro restaurant, bars, childcare,commercial gym, plus full state-of-the-art category 4 AFL changeroom facilities, sports science, and medical to emphasise the Fremantle community atmosphere.

When discussing further plans, Britt touches upon building a grass bank and having a vibrant atmosphere not just for football matches, but for communities, families, and tourists.

In his time as South Fremantle CEO, he has faced numerous obstacles.

Most notably, navigating through the unknown of the COVID-pandemic.

But it’s other facets that he’s constantly looking to improve upon, having two daughters under the age of five.

“So a footy club, regardless of role, but certainly CEO, it gets in your veins, and you never clock off per se,” Britt said about the consuming CEO responsibilities.

“You’re always thinking. You’re always thinking about ways to improve the club, any present challenges or issues, and upcoming opportunities.

“The mind’s always ticking. And again, that’s not just a football person talking about football. I’m sure that multi-industry and people who are invested in their role, regardless of what it is, they should always be thinking because I think that’s how it works.

“But the detriment to that, if you can’t balance it, you’re overthinking, and you’re thinking work and footy when you probably need to be thinking family, and park, and playground, and dress-ups.”

Britt’s journey has seen him accumulate one of the elite reputations in his field as CEO.

His astuteness and flexibility to think outside the box have him as one of the next awaiting AFL club CEOs in line. Despite this, a modest Britt doesn’t look too far ahead.

“I mean, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have aspirations to do that or other senior management roles within sport. But for me I just want to contribute wherever I am,” Britt said.

“And continue to work with great people, which I have here (South Fremantle Football club). And it’s funny if a leader, if a manager doesn’t say this, then they’re lying. But you are made to look pretty good by those who work for you.

“And yes, it’s my role to create a culture and motivate and set strategy and get us all pointing in the right direction.”

Getting a foot into the door of the sports industry presents various challenges.

Britt keeps his message to those with ambitions as simple as possible, harpering on acquiring as many different experiences to build an all-round skillset. On the outside, the sports industry paints a glamorous picture, but from Britt’s first-hand experience, it is about being proactive and seeking opportunities.

“So there’s probably a bit of an attraction and a sexiness, if you will, of the sports industry which is there. There are some great rewards and some great profile and brand,” Britt said.

“But far more so, there’s hard work, sweat, sometimes tears. But a lot of hours burnt, a lot of shoe leather worn, and that’s just the nature of the beast.

“But I can only speak for the sports industry. If you’re prepared to put in the time and the ethic, then you will pull the rewards out as well.”

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