Australia news May 22, 2017

Cricket Australia's good business methods not always good sport

Learnings from industrial relations in the corporate world may not be helping Cricket Australia as much as its directors seem to think
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The odd couple: David Warner and Ed Cowan have contrasting on-field methods, but similar political leanings off the field © Getty Images

When they opened the batting for Australia, Ed Cowan and David Warner were habitually termed the "odd couple". Tortoise and hare, academic and bulldog, absorber and aggressor. They offered to journalists on deadline the sort of quick, lazy study familiar to filmmakers who use copious scenes featuring smoking to denote character depth.

But there was one thing the two shared then and still do now that says rather more about Australian cricket in 2017, and the pay dispute that is currently occupying plenty of minds around the country. Cowan and Warner are both conservative in their political leanings, and have each shown an entrepreneurial bent in line with plummeting union membership across Australia over the past 25 years. Yet both are committed members of the Australian Cricketers' Association, and have made their case publicly over the past two weeks.

It was Warner's pronouncement that "[CA] might not have a team for the Ashes" that summed up the players' blunt response to a threat from Cricket Australia's chief executive James Sutherland that they would cease to be employed if they did not agree to the board's terms by the end of June. A few days later Cowan followed up with words to the Daily Telegraph that were more eloquent but no less determined:

"It's about wanting to be a partner, as the players have been, and enjoying promoting the growth of the game. The point needs to be made loud and clear that, by turning down that offer, these guys have shown that they're willing to take a pay cut for the benefit of all cricketers and the benefit of the game. They want both CA and the players to be accountable for how cricket is administered. The players will take less money to ensure the game is in good health."

Cowan, educated at the exclusive Cranbrook School, studied economics at the University of Sydney and might easily have found himself in blue-blood political ranks were it not for his cricket ability - the sort of young man who would have always eschewed union membership. His work outside the game has included starting up of a company trading in renewable espresso pods.

Corporate Australia has become used to being able to deal from a position of considerable advantage, and the majority of CA directors are drawn from that background

Warner, by contrast, was raised in the housing commission district of Matraville in Sydney's east, but has emerged as a self-made man in the traditions of former blue-collar manufacturing employees who are now far more likely to be working in individual trades or small businesses. After their roles were redefined by the early 1990s recession, these groups were termed over the years as "Howard's battlers" or more recently "Tony's tradies", per the two recent conservative prime ministers John Howard and Tony Abbott.

Over that same period of time, which also happens to be the field of experience enjoyed by the nine directors on CA's independent board, union membership in Australia has dwindled dramatically. Back in 1992, the figure stood at around 40% of the workforce. Earlier this month it was reported to be less than 15% overall, a level reduced still further when public-service organisations were subtracted.

Corporate Australia, then, has become used to being able to deal from a position of considerable advantage, and the majority of CA directors are drawn from that background. There's a former Wesfarmers chairman, Bob Every, veteran of numerous battles over the work practices of truck drivers delivering goods for Coles supermarkets. Another director, Jacqui Hey, also sits on the board of Qantas, where in 2011 the entire fleet of aircraft was grounded by the decision to lock out disputing employees. And of course, the CA chairman David Peever, formerly of Rio Tinto, has well circulated views on third-party negotiations in the workplace.

In that context, the strategy outlined by CA's board and the tactics employed by CA management make more sense than if viewed simply in isolation. The threat to discontinue existing terms of employment in the event of CA's pay offer not being accepted as the basis for negotiations comes as part of a similar sequence of events as in other recent episodes in the business world.

These included the summary terminations of expired enterprise bargaining agreements for major companies such as AGL (electricity) and Griffin Coal and Aurizon (rail freight) over the past three years, all with the blessing of the national regulator, the Fair Work Commission. Not surprising, then, to hear complaints from CA's camp that the ACA are operating "like an old-style union".

CA directors, including chairman David Peever, formerly of Rio Tinto, have grown used to holding a negotiating edge through their corporate background © CA

However the parallel story over the past 25 years has been of the rise of players' associations across Australian professional sport. A key moment arrived in January 1993, when the previously supine AFL players' association made a show of force by having 134 listed players meet together to discuss possible industrial action if the league continued to stall over the AFLPA's log of claims. It remains a key event in the story of player and league relations, as much for demonstrating the players' will to operate as a collective as for the gains made at the time.

Four years later cricket's moment arrived when the national team voted to withdraw their services from several high-rating limited-overs matches in December if the then Australian Cricket Board did not come to the table. The subsequent compromise led to the fixed-revenue percentage model that has existed, in one form or another, in every MoU deal struck since.

Other moments have included strike action taken by the national women's soccer team, the Matildas, over pay and conditions in 2015. The players withdrew from a tour of the United States and a match against the world champions, and were ultimately rewarded with significant improvements. In the words of the midfielder Hayley Raso, it wasn't "something that we wanted to do but in order for the game to grow and for the future of women in sport, I think it's something we had to do".

Players' associations around Australia are more conscious of what is going on in other sports following the foundation of the Australian Athletes Alliance, with its board comprising the chiefs of the nation's eight major professional sports - cricket, AFL, rugby league, rugby union, soccer, basketball, netball and horse racing. In 2014, the alliance unveiled a charter that included the right of all members "to have any dispute resolved through impartial and expeditious arbitration in which the athlete has an equal say in the appointment of the arbitrator" and also "to organise and collectively bargain".

Collectivism among the players has made it harder than ever for CA to play the game of divide and conquer © Robert Cianflone/Getty Images

Players, then, understand strength in numbers as a concept that extends beyond the middle and onto the bargaining table - membership of the aforementioned players' associations stands at 100% in the shared knowledge that their small, organised workforce can have a huge influence on events. That belief in collectivism has duly been bolstered by numerous examples over the past two decades, making it harder than ever for CA or any other sporting body to play the old game of divide and conquer.

Perhaps because the league's move to a fully independent board at arm's length from its clubs coincided with that 1993 exercise in AFLPA power, the AFL's governors have invariably struck a more conciliatory tone with their players than CA has done with its present posture. This has not only been true of enterprise bargaining but also in terms of appointments. One of the league's longest serving commissioners was the former Australian Council of Trade Unions secretary Bill Kelty, while Andrew Demetriou went from helming the AFLPA in the late 1990s to becoming chief of the league itself a few years later. If the players have not always got all they wanted, they have at least felt able to communicate.

This is where the make-up of CA's board comes back into view. Among nine directors, it features a pair of former players, Mark Taylor and Michael Kasprowicz; the latter was also a one-time president of the ACA. But in recently making the CA case for a break-up of revenue sharing in his other role as a television commentator, Taylor demonstrated that it was the view of corporate Australia, rather than its sporting equivalent, that holds sway on the board.

So it is that Warner and Cowan are united alongside the rest of Australia's cricketers on an argument over the principles underpinning their relationship with CA. A relationship defined, funnily enough, by the David Crawford-Colin Carter governance review that brought the current independent board into being. The players, they wrote, may not be co-owners, but "their long-term position is best served by working in partnership with CA". Sounds more like the sentiment of Cowan than that of Taylor, doesn't it?

Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @danbrettig

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • randolf on May 30, 2017, 9:27 GMT

    @JOSE...P: The sustainable solution to these ever emerging "boards vs players pay disputes" is to have the players themselves owning and managing the whole-cricket hog in every cricketing jurisdiction - thus, allowing the players to have a say in all aspects of the development and operation of the game. All that the players have to do is: if they don't have the management professionals they need among their ranks, is to hire them on legally binding contracts - with the authority to fire them when they are not producing. Then the players would have full control of all aspects of the cricket business; and thus, should have nothing to complain about. But right now, I think that the players should understand that they are only being employees of CA, who owns the cricket business; and no serious employer shares his gross revenue with his employees. Hence, this current impasse should now end via a resolution by the ACA to own cricket in Aus soon; but they should accept the CA's deal now.

  • randolf on May 29, 2017, 9:07 GMT

    Any by-stander who is naive enough to believe that the senior Australian players are driving this dispute, not necessarily to feather their own financial nest, but because they are in sympathy with the less privileged players is living fools paradise.

  • prasad on May 25, 2017, 15:06 GMT

    @jose sir and @dungerbob absolutely love your conversation.myself,an economics and a finance buff,can very well gauge your economic articulation of providing a logical and a non-partisan solution yet backing your party on the ideological spectrum to the hilt and thereby influencing laymen like us to base our stand.through the course of the standoffs between unions and employers,what we often neglect,heck,never factor in,is the public perception to the stand of both the warring factions.the ironic co-incidence being that the latest nobel is being awarded to a research on contract theory to oliver hart and holmstrom.the game lies in who grabs the public sentiment in their favour.guess,we need to revisit the nobel or the research or perhaps the lauretes.maybe,they would be happy in inviting these stalwarts for a cup of coffee or shall i say 'breakin the ice'.needless to say,I'm a physics grad,a physics enthusiast,an indian and a huge aussie cricket fan.

  • greg_s3867972 on May 25, 2017, 14:08 GMT

    It is an absolute pleasure to read posts on a thread, that address the issues raised in the article, without the jingoistic and nationalistic bias that permeates nearly every other thread. @ JOSE...P and @DUNGER.BOB - thank you for your thoughtful and knowledgeable insights and opinions on this dispute. My humble and simplistic observation (with a bit of input from casual conversations with several current players known to me personally), is that the Top Liners are NOT after more money for themselves (they feel that if they perform well that income stream is in their own hands through endorsements - very similar to the tennis world where endorsements far out weigh any prize money/contract money), but rather that the lower level players that are expected to train like full time professionals and play like full time professionals, be rewarded with a wage that allows them do just that. Also that they are responsible for the revenue which is linked to their MOU through team performance.

  • Vallur3226231 on May 25, 2017, 5:14 GMT

    @JOSE...P

    Sir, Your posts are very logical & illuminating, as always. After knowing you from my MBA student days under you in the 60's, I am not surprised at all.

    I, having time after retirement, and being a cricket nut like you, browse thru this site, once every day, though I rarely comment. I make a point to read your comments, and enjoy them.

    How much I wish this site was there in my earlier working days, while spending years in many cricket starved countries!

    A small feedback. I feel your insights and eloquence could be a bit overwhelming for most. Wonder, whether you can tone them down a bit. Please, don't stop posting them. I know that you will not, based on my comment, as you always encouraged us to give you feedback, without any hesitation. Hence this comment.

  • cornel0635077 on May 25, 2017, 5:11 GMT

    The administrators and the players need each other. Time for negotiation lads. In the aftermath the top administrators roles need close scrutiny. This mess should never have made it into the public arena.

  • Jose on May 24, 2017, 15:50 GMT

    Errata

    End of Part 5 below:

    Is there anyone out there who can be that outside agent? Any of the greats among the retired; but still strong & respected voice among the CURRENT ACTORS? VILLAINS OR HEROES! DOESN'T MATTER?

  • Jose on May 24, 2017, 14:22 GMT

    SOME FACTS & SOME HOPES Part 5

    Cowan's voice was a sprinkle of water on the still burning embers. But players' announcement, that they can manage everything on their own is only adding fuel to the fire. If you don't like me calling it 'fire', call it freezing of the already frozen divide. Resolution will come. Rather has to come. For the welfare of everyone. More importantly for the good of our beautiful game. --- * A Mexican standoff (as mentioned in Part 4) is a confrontation in which no participant can proceed or retreat without being exposed to danger. As a result, all participants need to maintain the strategic tension, which remains unresolved until some outside event makes it possible to resolve it.

    .

    Is there anyone out there who can be that outside agent? Any of the greats among the retired but, still strong & respectable voice among the great players of the past?

    Part 4

    Who will benefit from an early resolution? EV

  • Jose on May 24, 2017, 14:21 GMT

    SOME FACTS & SOME HOPES

    Part 4

    Who will benefit from an early resolution? EVERYONE! Why still the impasse? Positions got frozen like a "Mexican Standoff"*? Why the freeze! Result of the excessive posturing, which unfortunately still continues. One decent voice in the whole cacophony, is that of Cowan. Unfortunately, Cowan's voice may not be the sole & whole voice the entire group of KC's and all other hangers on, who can advice but can't deliver, either in the dressing room, or in the CA's board room, but can only add on to even more posturing.

    ACA 's effort to control the cricketers' Brand/IP is only a side issue for its own survival, with some conflicts with powerful agents. ACA can't conduct the auction for BBL & bilateral, where other boards & ICC are involved. They also suffer from the lack of track record & won't be taken seriously by the sponsors and broadcasters, who are going to shell out the huge amount of revenue: the pie from which everyone wants a larger slice.

  • Jose on May 24, 2017, 14:17 GMT

    SOME FACTS & SOME HOPES

    Part 3

    "Increasing costs" look a nice argument to flaunt, to stop the % of revenue logic. But that (increasing cost) will be more than offset by the increase in revenue; which will be at a much FASTER rate, nullifying the increase in costs.

    Don't both CA & KC's aware that rate of increase of revenue is in multiples of the rate in increase of costs, irrespective of inflation, women's needs, and add a few more, if you want? Yes. They do. That is THE cause of the whole dispute. To repeat, to have a bigger bite on that MUCH HIGHER growth in PROFIT which will automatically follow the EVEN HIGHER growth in REVENUE.

    Who will get hurt if the confrontation continues: EVERYONE, for quite some time. Till rules of running the game completely change, which will take more time than the time for KC's to retire. And, perhaps almost all Managers are found out, as good ones for the corporate sector, but bad ones for cricket.

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