Bill Pulver, CEO, Australian Rugby Union Share PDF Print E-mail
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It’s an interesting time to be a rugby fan with the sport – in Sevens form – involved in the Rio Olympic Games.

Regarded as a success in most quarters, rugby will be back in Tokyo but the future remains unclear.

iSportconnect sat down with Bill Pulver, CEO of Australia Rugby Union to discuss his career, Rio and more.

iSc: First of all tell us how you got involved in sports business and became CEO of Australia Rugby Union

BP: "I simply played rugby as a kid, at school and grade rugby at university, I have no background in sports administration at all. It was in fact the previous Chairman of Australian Rugby Michael Hawker, he was Chairman in 2012 and he had no Chief Executive at the time and we were actually playing golf together and he asked me to throw my hat in the ring.

My first response was no. However, I do love rugby and six months later, I was in the job as the CEO. Not having any background in sport administration is not a disadvantage because, the business of sport is basically about treating sport as a business. Many of the fundamental leadership traits required are actually much the same as any other industry - so here I am!”

iSc: How difficult is it to come into sports business from the outside?

"I wouldn't say overly difficult because the commercial imperatives in sport are exactly the same as any other industry. What is difficult is the governance model. We have a federated model similar to many other sports, where there is a governing body such as the Australian Rugby Union, then you have the state unions that essentially operate in isolation. If you are the head of a corporation you have direct control over all your constituents, in sport you don't. A lot of people talk about the politics in sport but it's not politics in rugby; it's passion. You talk to different people who have a different team or organisation that they support and it's that passion for their own team that often causes interference into rational thoughts. It wasn't hard to learn the industry as I knew rugby really well already.”

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iSc: What are the main issues facing Australian Rugby Union and how have you overcome them?

BP: "The main issue is the competition for hearts and minds of young kids. In Australia, we operate in the most competitive winter sports market in the world. With AFL, Rugby League, Soccer and Rugby Union. We’re all competing for the hearts and minds of young kids. At the same time you've got what I would describe as a level of disruption to the sports industry and that is that young kids have so many entertainment options today, compared to when people like me grew up. Kids these days are less likely to participate in team sport and they are less likely to actually watch team sport. Participation is arguably the toughest challenge. To grow participation you want to have successful national teams as well. if your Wallabies and Wallaroos are performing well, that helps drive growth in participation in the sport Once you have young kids participating and International teams performing well, then it's really about creating a talent performance pathway, to help those young kids achieve their dream. There is never a shortage of challenges in the world of sport."

iSc: How do you compete with the commercial value and interest in other sports in Australia?

BP: "We compete very well. Rugby has a few important points of difference. One is that we are a game for all shapes and sizes. The little solid kids can play and the tall skinny kids can play. Another point of difference is that we are a truly international sport and have a truly competitive international team. We are currently ranked number 3 in the world. A terrific performance in the World Cup last year brought tremendous commercial success. AFL and Rugby League are largely domestic games only. Soccer's an international game, but we're only ranked about 45th in the world. We also have a unique set of values in rugby that aligns itself well with sponsors, the values of integrity, passion, discipline, respect and teamwork. At the end of the day, we're competing in the same pool for commercial revenues and when you have a number of different teams competing against teams in a number of competitions, we're in a special position as there are a lot of competitors."

iSc: Was the Olympics a success for rugby?

BP: "It was an extraordinary success. Our women's team only came together back in 2013. They are an amazing group of young Australian women. Their win in the world series this year and now the gold medal has done amazing things to Australian rugby. The men's team didn't really perform to their full potential, but Sevens at the Olympics was an overwhelming success. We were pleased with the programme, the crowds were good, the rugby was entertaining. We understand the IOC loved it. We've only been allocated two Olympic Games in the first instance but we're clearly hoping that they will now make it a permanent sport on the Olympic agenda."

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iSc: Rugby Sevens seems to be something that is continuing to grow, is this something you expected and what is behind the growth?

BP: "Sevens rugby is incredibly important from a strategic perspective. It's a great starter game for young kids, instead of having 15 on each side, having 7 on each side creates more space, gives them more of an understanding of the sport and it can also be played in a non-contact form. When you think parents occasionally have reservations about playing rugby due to its physicality, Sevens is a great way to launch kids into the game. At the global level, women's sevens rugby is the fastest growing sport in the world. Strategically, we want to normalise the role of women in the game, as this will help grow the number of men in the game. We know where girls go, boys will follow, and mothers will then start to encourage their young children to play the game as well. The World Series is very similar to the Formula One series, they are playing in all the glamourous destinations around the world - from Paris to Sydney, all these outstanding destinations. It's a great spectator sport, it's great for broadcasting and it's great for fans."

iSc: One argument often mentioned is that rugby is too dangerous for school children, do you understand that argument and what are your thoughts on it?

BP: "If you are going to play tackle rugby, you are playing a contact sport. We don't shy away from that fact. On the injury issue, we have made terrific progress in refining the laws of the game to make it incredibly safe. Things like the heavy contact in the scrum has been replaced by a process that brings the scrum together in a less physical format. There's been a lot of good work done on rugby’s laws to make the game safer. There's been a lot of good work done around concussion. If players do get concussed, they are immediately taken from the field and follow strict protocol on returning to the field of play. So we don't shy away from the contact in rugby, but we've done great things in terms of making the game safer to play.”

iSc: What does a day in the life of Bill Pulver consist of?

BP: "I can tell you about today. It started with an update of overnight e-mails and communication. It often has an interview like this involved. I'm always talking to lots of people from different quarters of the industry, and thankfully very good people. I've got a meeting with all the state union heads to talk about the strategic future of the game, I’ve got a meeting to discuss some elite player contract negotiations. I've got a meeting with my finance team to review commercial outcomes, which is a high priority for us, I've got preparation time for a meeting with all the staff at the ARU and I've got some legal meetings to discuss outstanding matters. So it’s fairly frenetic and unrelenting, but it is what it is and I enjoy it a lot."

iSc: What does the future hold for Australian Rugby Union?

BP: "We have an extraordinary future. Rugby is a truly important sport on the world stage, as we have over 120 countries around the world playing the game. It has enormous global popularity. The World Cup in England last year was a runaway success and it's the third most successful sporting event on the planet, after the Olympics and Soccer World Cup. The Sevens side of the game is growing, particularly in new markets such as America where there are about 850 colleges with both men and women playing Sevens rugby. Now that Sevens rugby has a pathway direct to the Olympics that's going to grow enormously. At local level in Australia, club rugby around the states has enjoyed a fantastic year. We're going to see very significant growth on the women's side of the game and that growth will help reinforce growth on the men's side. We will be launching a national women's university sevens series in 2017 which will be followed by a men's series in 2018. We'll continue growth and at an International level. I’m confident we'll have a very prosperous future."


imageResizeBill Pulver previously worked with global marketing research firm ACNielsen in Australia, rising to the role of Managing Director. He was later based in Tokyo as Group Chief Executive for Japan and Korea.

From 1999-2001, Mr Pulver moved to London as President of ACNielsen eRatings.com, an internet audience measurement operation.

Six years based in New York followed as President of the NASDAQ listed internet media and market research company NetRatings Inc.

From 2008 to 2010, Mr Pulver was Chairman of Repucom International, a global leader in sports marketing research.

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