From league to football, David Gallop has grand goals, including ridding the sport of its rat-bag element and growing into Asia. By Gerard McManus
David Gallop’s recent elevation as Football Federation Australia CEO is a sign that professional management in Australian sport is coming of age.
A cricketer by upbringing, and after having successfully run rugby league through its most tumultuous decade, Gallop’s move to football brings with it vast amounts of corporate skill, marketing experience, expertise and connections, but no intimate knowledge of the code as a player or coach.
Gallop’s predecessor, Ben Buckley, was a former AFL player – and his predecessor, John O’Neill, a former rugby union player and coach – making Gallop’s appointment a step closer to full maturity in Australian sport.
It is an inspiration to the many hundreds of young people studying at college for a career in professional sports management. David Williamson’s folkloric play The Club is becoming, like the black and white television replays of old grand finals, a rerun of how management in sport used to be. However, even Gallop concedes professionalism cannot supersede passion entirely.
“I’ve always liked and admired football (still referred to colloquially and officially in Australian metropolitan media as “soccer”) so it’s been an easy transition for me in that regard,” Gallop says during an extended interview at FFA headquarters with Management Today.
“Football is both a sport and a business. Ultimately, running it is still about striking the right balance, and having a passion for the game is one element in that balance. Yet passion is also a distorter of logic in boardrooms involved in sport.”
Gallop has hit the ground running at the FFA. He put the brakes on the Federation’s wobbly expansion plans, and has declared a 10-team only moratorium in the A-League competition for the next five years.
Gallop is keen for the private owners of the franchises, mostly wealthy soccer enthusiasts with deep, but not bottomless pockets, to break even and then become profitable.
Gallop has also helped deliver to Australia’s legion of UK football fans a sell-out Manchester United exhibition match against the A-League All Stars in July, and (at the time of going to press) an almost done deal to secure a second exhibition match with Liverpool.
Gallop is in the middle of what he describes as “the most competitive sporting market in the world”. And, while it is a cliché Australians love their sport, the cut-throat competition for eyeballs and backsides on seats is fierce, with the AFL, rugby league and rugby union vying for more market share.
To compound the competition even further, A-League football, withits season skewed towards the end of summer and early autumn, is also in competition with the tail-end of the cricket season.
“We need to be on our game in terms of running a competition that fans engage with, which means fans need to be going to games or watching them on TV with a genuine belief their team can win on any day,” he says.
“A fair and close competition – that’s why you have things like salary caps to even out playing talent.
“Competition heightens the need to look for what makes your product unique, and we’re certainly keen to highlight what a great experience you will have if you come to our games and be part of the singing and dancing that happens.
“We offer a level of inclusiveness for boys and girls, diversity for different ethnicities and the potential to be internationally exposed – they are all our points of difference.”
While Gallop is thrilled by the unique passion injected into the game, he also acknowledges elements of it have to be curbed, including an end to flares and ethnic hostilities.
“Our crowds and the behaviour in our stands is unique in Australian sport – 99.9 per cent of fans are creating an amazing atmosphere at A-League games that other codes can’t match,” he says. “Unfortunately that 0.01 per cent of people who behave badly get the attention and we need to make sure those people are dealt with and banned from our games.”
Competitors AFL and the NRL have always feared the full potential of the sleeping giant of soccer – knowing the vast number of juniors who spend their formative years playing the game.
In fact, new entrant Western Sydney Wanderers, with its marquee import Shinji Ono, has been a far bigger success story than the AFL’s Greater Western Sydney, despite the tens of millions the AFL has spent on establishing a foothold in Sydney’s west.
At the same time, Western Sydney has been fertile soil for Australian soccer, producing the likes of Harry Kewell, Mark Schwarzer and Mark Bosnich.
“A big part of our strategy is to convert the 1.7 million participants into active consumers into the A-League and of the elite end of the game. Significant steps have taken place recently through the creation of our online registration system MyFootballClub and through the creation of a uniform second tier across our state member federations through the National Premier Leagues. All of our clubs are engaged in activities to touch the grassroots of our game.”
Another group Gallop is using to proselytise the game is young men, perhaps those who were inspired and rusted onto the game by Australia’s best World Cup performance in 2006.
“Our research shows we are now head-to-head or perhaps even ahead of cricket in the 18 to 34-year-old male avid fan demographic,” he says.
“This is an important segment. It is not the only segment, but they are high- level consumers who go to games, watch it on TV, download the app, talk about it on social media, and actually become missionaries for the sport.”
Gallop has one of the most high-profile management roles in the country. All his decisions are closely scrutinised and discussed publicly in the media and on various net forums. At any one time he can have thousands of critics of each of his management decisions. Stakeholder management, therefore, with all its groups and sub- groups, is a unique and vast undertaking.
“It is important the fundamental pillars are in place,” he says.
“Certainly, in my previous job I believed in having a close and even competition and a deep level of engagement – these were the fundamental pillars.
“You then need to react appropriately to the unexpected events. If you don’t react appropriately, then people lose faith in the sport.
“Being a lawyer, I think you are trained to gather the evidence before you make a judgment on a situation and I think that has held me in good stead.”
Gallop’s achievements and battles are widely known, including the historic stripping of Melbourne Storm of two premierships for salary cap breaches, and being both a participant in and healer of Super League’s split from the game.
His management style has been described as reactive rather than proactive, but during his time at the NRL there was a raft of controversies to respond to, including alleged sexual assaults by high-profile players.
He introduced a now internationally regarded program, known as “Playing by the Rules”, to teach players at all levels the potential pitfalls in social circumstances and about appropriate and inappropriate behaviour towards women.
But establishing programs and protocols only goes a certain way to changing culture.
The flip side to some of the key drivers of success in football codes such as masculinity, invincibility and untouchability, are the high-profile occasions of anti-social off-field behaviour where these traits are sometimes acted out.
This leads to a potential organisational conflict of interest between club administrators, whose goal is channelling the above traits into winning, and their responsibility of the code to the wider community.
Whereas the goal of winning is club- based, the goal of player responsibility and community acceptance is a wider code goal, and it is therefore not always the case that clubs will be guaranteed to work toward the collective good.
Gallop’s view is to allow clubs to retain responsibility for both.
“How your game is regarded in the community is critically important; you need to be making a difference in people’s lives through community engagement beyond the 90 minutes players spend on the field on the weekend.
“Equally, where players bring a spotlight on the game for inappropriate behaviour, there needs to be strong consequences for it and there needs to be a strong message of deterrence.
“Ultimately, you have to give clubs the first opportunity to fix (this) because they are the employer of the player, but there needs to be an over-arching responsibility for the league to step in where it believes the game hasn’t been adequately protected.”
In other words, Gallop prefers layers of responsibility for off-field behaviour rather than separation of responsibility.
Another managerial quandary in elite sports management – and all management for that matter – is driving duty of care on player/employee welfare.
By the nature of sport and the unpredictability of youth, players are vulnerable to all manner of physical and mental harm from substance abuse and gambling habits to life-long injuries.
Asked whether player welfare was primarily a legal, moral or financial responsibility, Gallop says the over- arching attitude clubs should adopt is to see player welfare as protecting their assets.
“Sports people are the asset of football clubs, and those assets need to be carefully looked after because they are not easily replaceable,” he says.
“And that leads to financial reward and to welfare programs that protect them away from pure football.”
Protecting club assets is a sensible and prudent strategy, but it is inevitable some problems are likely to emerge long after “the asset” has reached its use-by date.
Beyond the current consolidation strategy, Gallop has his eyes northward into Asia “down the track”.
“Football has a great opportunity because of its place in Asia and you could actually envisage that one day there may well be Asian teams in the A-League because the growth opportunities into Asia are enormous,” he says.
Gallop is a big believer in fairness in sport. Perhaps it is his training as a lawyer, but he has always been a supporter of salary caps and an open competition.
Ultimately, Gallop says a fair competition is a necessity because all fans need to believe their team has a chance of winning – otherwise they won’t show up.
He has a steady approach to the job, and after a decade in rugby league, Gallop is practically unshockable, though it is inevitable new issues will regularly jump out.
Gallop gives the appearance, at least, of quiet confidence that football in Australia under his watch will be able to finally shake off its adolescence and become a serious force to be reckoned with – not only in Australia, but in the region.
Having crossed the Rubicon of Australian sport from league to soccer, and once he has taken the game to the next level, maybe Gallop can set his sights on fixing ailing British and European soccer administration where money has so distorted the game that fairness and hope for teams such as his beloved West Bromwich Albion do not exist.