Kelly Ryan has been the CEO of Netball Australia for about eight weeks. After stepping into the role on July 7, she has presided over a sport fighting through COVID disruption to reach its end, struck two major agreements to ensure the future of her sport, and been a parent in lockdown.
Ryan sat down with The Inner Sanctum to discuss how the role has panned out so far.
“It has been, as everyone keeps saying, a baptism of fire, and I couldn’t agree more,” Ryan said.
“[The season] has been really busy, and then there is certainly a number of other really key strategic projects that we are trying to work on as we speak.”
Ryan has plenty of experience in the sporting arena, including much of the last decade in the AFL, but netball presents a new challenge on a number of different fronts.
It was announced in May 2021 that under recommended governance reforms, the Super Netball League Commission merged with Netball Australia to align the grassroots and top levels of the game.
“I haven’t known life any different in terms of having two boards into one,” the CEO explained.
“Having one board is certainly a lot easier and a lot more efficient in trying to have to navigate, especially what we’ve had to do at the back end of this year in terms of the season.”
When Ryan stepped into the role, the league was spread across three states, with the NSW teams and the Queensland teams based in Victoria. Two weeks later, the entire league had relocated to Queensland in an effort to escape COVID-19 border closures and finish the season.
The first eight weeks of the CEO appointment haven’t just been about keeping the season going. Netball has been in a unique position where a broadcast deal was signed to expand the league’s coverage and visibility, and had few further agreements in place.
That has all changed since the mother of two has taken up the role, and she has since finalised two major agreements to keep the competition going, after getting through the biggest priority, keeping the season alive.
“I think we all agreed that running the competition was the most important thing to do,” she explained.
“So we had an amazing collegiate view from all the teams that we’ve got to get this done, and we know there will be some financial pain at the end of this, but we will work together as a collective to get ourselves through that.
“So that is obviously a big body of work for us, to work through how we can claw back some of those costs and pay our way for this season, but knowing that we’re all together to be able to deliver it was first and foremost the most significant priority.”
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The biggest injection of cash that Netball Australia had seen before Ryan’s entrance was the new broadcast deal. The possibilities of the new broadcast deal are seemingly limitless.
“I think it’ll be fabulous,” Ryan explained.
“I think Fox, through Kayo and obviously Fox Sports, has an incredibly strong base in terms of sport, they really understand it.
“They have fantastic production qualities, and things like that that are really designed to lift the experience of the game, and they’re the things that we’re really excited to work with them on as we lead into 2022, around what the actual presentation and product of SSN looks like from a broadcast point of view.
“They’ve been fabulous to work with in terms of getting that balance right, of what are the right timeslots for not only the best broadcast numbers, but also how we make sure that we can fill arenas with people at the same time, so it also adds to that whole experience.”
But once the former Gold Coast Suns and Western Bulldogs executive arrived in the big chair at Netball Australia, the wheels started turning.
In the week since the Super Netball Grand Final, Netball Australia has been able to secure Suncorp as a naming sponsor for up to five more years for the sport’s top-flight competition.
That injection of cash, combined with the money coming in from the broadcast deal meant that there was more than enough capital to finalise the pay deal for players.
The landmark deal allows teams to get set up for their 2021 rosters, and for players to start to think about their 2021 plans, but Ryan explained that there is plenty more that underpins all those agreements
“These are a really complex set of arrangements that you really have to get right, and there are so many parties involved with them,” the CEO said.
“There are so many aspects that go into it, and we want to make sure that we do that in a methodical and collaborative way.
“There are regular conversations on what this looks like, but with all the great intent that these conversations are designed to really enhance the sport for the future.”
And it certainly has. The new pay deal includes a landmark arrangement that the players will receive a share of the player-generated revenue. This step allows for the long term negotiation of how much the players can take home if the sport achieves the rapid growth that so many hope it will.
When asked about the importance of timing in those negotiations, as they have been finalised just following the season, the CEO explained that it wasn’t necessarily about the progress of the negotiations of each agreement, but also how they all fell into place.
In the space of a week and a half at the conclusion of the season, Netball Australia announced an international netball series against the English Roses, the agreement with Suncorp and then the pay deal for the players.
“Sometimes these things just don’t have definitive timelines, you’ve just got to back yourself to get them right when it matters the most,” Ryan explained.
“All of that comes together in a way that will make sense,” Ryan had said ahead of the announcement of the agreements.
The newly-united Board has also rallied around Ryan. Her experience, including previous roles with the Gold Coast Suns and the Western Bulldogs mean that she is no stranger to the competing and aligning priorities of elite sporting organisations.
While at the Western Bulldogs, she was part of the board that directed a premiership-winning season, and formed an AFLW side that has continued to thrive since its entry into the competition.
“We have a remarkable board full of so many amazing individuals in their own right, that have really come together, again, in quick succession to help us to deliver what we need to do,” Ryan explained of the Netball Australia board.
“Not only from SSN, but they have a really clear vision for where to take the sport, which is incredibly inspiring, so we’re really fortunate to have the board that we’ve got leading netball at this time.”
And so there is little doubt that today Kelly Ryan will sit back with a sense of satisfaction.
In her first eight weeks as the CEO of Netball Australia, she’s kept the sport’s showpiece competition running to a successful conclusion, despite the challenges of COVID-19 border closures.
She’s come to terms with a major sponsor to secure the sport’s future, she’s arranged an additional international netball series, and she’s helped finalise pay deal that keeps netballers as the highest-paid female domestic athletes in Australia, and brought them to the table as true partners for the growth of the game.
Not bad for eight weeks in lockdown.
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