16th May, 2017 · Profile

10 questions for supercars CEO

6 minutes to read

One of our nation’s most referenced expressions is that Australians are obsessed with sport.
In considering such a theory there is no ‘one size fits all’ when it comes to Australia’s top sports. The categories vary somewhat in popularity, depending on which criteria you use to evaluate your sport – like, for example, which sport is:

  • most watched on television most attended
  • most participated in
  • most searched, and;
  • the strongest in fan avidity.

Interestingly, if we examine some recent research that covered the most popular sports by ‘participation’ for all Australians over six years, the top 20 went like this:

  • Swimming 14.4%
  • Cycling 10.8%
  • Soccer 8.2%
  • Dancing 6.0%
  • Basketball 5.0%
  • Bush-walking 5.0%
  • Tennis 4.4%
  • Cricket 4.4%
  • Athletics 4.0%
  • Netball 3.9%
  • Aerobics 3.2%
  • AFL 2.9%
  • Gymnastics 2.6%
  • Martial Arts 2.1%
  • NRL 1.6%
  • Body Surfing 1.5%
  • Surfing 1.5%
  • Volleyball 1.5%
  • Softball 1.2%
  • Field Hockey 1.1%

At the big end of town, where the financial stakes are highest in the Australian sports industry, there are basically six sports that go head-to-head when competing for the corporate sponsor dollar. The differentiation point of these six sports compared to the others is the magnitude of sponsorship amounts, as well as the serious payments to their athletes, the full season national calendar of events, strong gate receipts, club/team memberships, significant television rights and mass media coverage.

These six sports are AFL, Cricket, Soccer, NRL, Rugby Union and Supercars. Whilst the athletes in these sports are the stars of the show and attract all the fan and media attention, the year-round 24/7 responsibility for the health and wellbeing of the sport falls to the behind-the-scenes administrators. They must painstakingly conduct these sports to the most professional business standards and structures.

The CEOs of these sporting bodies normally only flash into media prominence when some form of controversy erupts in the sport. Controversy will always be part of sport, both at the elite end and at junior level. Too often we sit in judgement of our sports administrators through their handling of the dramas versus the incredible hours of dedication, commitment and winning strategies they put in place away from the media glare. As I have noted in a previous article, the demands and responsibilities of running anything to do with the sports industry are far greater and more complex than running conventional commercial enterprises.

In Supercars, the man who sits in the big chair of the sport is Sydney-based James Warburton.

James was the former television superstar dealmaker executive who, on 1 June 2013, took over the reins of V8 Supercars from the flamboyant and opinion-polarising personality, Tony Cochrane.

James recently agreed to a Q&A interview for ‘Automotive Dealer’ magazine, as he prepares to commence his fifth year at the helm of the Supercars organisation.

JC:  What do you rate the best three goals/tries you have scored in your four years?
JW:
1) The richest media deal in the sport’s history. It doesn’t matter the sport, the media rights and, particularly, broadcast rights are fundamental to the health of the sport and the viability of the teams.
2) Brokering the ‘Team’s Deal’ between the equity shareholders (financial top-up) which, frankly, was an absolute necessity to underpin the sustainability and viability of the teams.
3) Renewing our key races with every single state government. This management team has done close to half a billion dollars’ worth of deals for the sport in four years.

JC: What do you rate the three biggest challenges the sport faces in the next two to three years?
JW:
1) Continued pressure on people’s leisure time as well as increased competition for sports, including new formats and variants from the large established sports.
2) The changing global nature of automotive manufacturers and clarity around their product plans.
3) Becoming a regional championship and the patience and focus required to deal with Asian promoters and governments.

JC: What do you consider are Supercars’ best assets compared to our major competitors, in particular the football codes?
JW: Without doubt the accessibility of our events to ‘look in the changing room’ with our Paddock and access to our superstar athletes/drivers is without peer. People who have never been to a race are continually blown away by this aspect.
Ownership and control of our media platforms, from broadcast to digital and social, gives us complete control of our product. Our digital and social platforms are second only to the AFL and continue to grow at a staggering rate. This puts us in a hugely advantageous position when we consider the long-term direct-to-fan pathways.

JC: With the big push by Supercars this year to install female driver, Simona de Silvestro, in one of the 26 available seats, what will be your evaluation success markers at season’s end?
JW: Bathurst in 2015 showed from the outset that this initiative would be successful. The addition of the Super Girls Wildcard drove an additional $25 million of PR for an already mature event.
We always said that the drive had to be on ‘merit’ and we are not surprised to see the early accolades that Simona has received from the experts. Ultimately, performance will dictate success, so it was crucial we received a three-year commitment for the initiative.
Our sport is dominated 65:35 by male attendees, and initiatives like this will generate interest and usher in a new generation of fans, some of whom have lapsed or never considered following Supercars.
At a grass roots level we have an important obligation as a sport to show young girls and ladies that it is possible to make it in the top tier of motorsport.

JC: The most inspiring leader in my career was American John Rock who, on his first day, declared no interest in visiting and entertaining our 20 most successful and “noisy” GMH Dealers. Instead, he stated his focus would be with the bottom 20 Dealers to enable them the opportunity to overhaul the big Dealers and thereby generate a bigger sales pie. Can you find a way to change the regularity of the series’ under-performing teams?
JW: We’ve focused on making sure the rules stay consistent. Change tends to lend itself to the bigger and better-resourced teams getting on top of things much quicker.
There is no silver bullet; all teams are governed by the REC and do an amazing job. Ultimately this competition is one of, if not the, toughest motorsport competitions in the world. Team Penske was beaten to pole position at Clipsal by 0.0001 of a second or 5mm across a 3.22km circuit. Eighteen metres regularly separates the top 15 cars in qualifying, which is why the fans love our product.

JC: In my last article I noted how Delta Goodrem’s appointment as Supercars Ambassador was irrelevant to our audience and incapable of creating growth. You felt my commentary was erroneous. Please convince me otherwise.
JW: I sure did, in that you suggested Delta would do nothing for our existing fans. That is exactly the point. Delta became an Ambassador to further our appeal to new or non-fans.
A case in point is my niece, who is 19. She has never been to, nor would ever have been likely to attend, a Supercars event. She, along with 10 of her girlfriends, have already booked to come to the Gold Coast to see Delta perform and take in some racing as well.
Delta is one of our most successful female artists and has a huge TV presence, with The Voice, House Husbands and an upcoming mini-series, and to have her as an Ambassador is a huge asset for Supercars.

JC: Can I get a brief comment on the three areas I have crusaded on to achieve improvements in our sport:
i.    The Supercars Board of Governance should replace the self-interest team owners with independent commissioners.
JW: The Supercars Board and Supercars Commission are in the shareholding agreement and unless this was a decree from the Shareholders (Archer and teams) and voted appropriately it will never change
ii.    The sport should immediately trial a revolutionary non-championship 20/20 equivalent at our four lesser lights events.
JW: Our formats have improved dramatically in the last four years. We have a ‘Big Bash’ style format on our agenda and, hopefully we will detail that in the not-too-distant future.
iii.    The sport should take an anti-hoon community-minded initiative and ban the after-race burnout winner’s ritual.
JW: Personally I am probably with you, but this is something etched in global motorsport.  However it’s certainly worth considering.

JC: What are the key differences you have observed between the television industry and motorsport?
JW: The differences are too lengthy and detailed to mention. Both industries are driven by absolute passion and are all about entertainment. Television seems to have less of a glass jaw and moves on quicker – maybe that’s because their races/results happen 365 days a year at 9.35am, with ratings.

JC: What are the toughest parts of your role heading up the Supercars business?
JW:
A) Professionally, it is just the stakeholder management – too many opinions by too many people and the constant creation of drama, so you must just block out the noise and focus on at the job at hand.
B) Personally, being away from the family on the weekends and missing out on so much is tough.

JC: If they were to do a movie on James Warburton, who would you like to portray your career/role?
JW: Steve Waugh. A no-nonsense and tough guy I have unbelievable respect for.

 

John Crennan
Motorsport Contributor