Q and A with Cycling Australia CEO Nick Green

Cycling Australia CEO Nick Green on stage

Cycling Australia CEO Nick Green on stage (Image credit: Cycling Australia)

Nick Green has been in the role of Cycling Australia CEO for just over two years in which the national federation has set about reforming its business and governances structure that has strengthened its financial position. A former gold medal winning rower with several years of sports administration under his belt prior to joining Cycling Australia, Green has brought his experience and knowledge to the sport with his aim of improving cycling from the grassroots through to high-performance.

In a wide-ranging interview with Cyclingnews, Green outlined his achievements in his two years with Cycling Australia, how to improve the governing body's finances, his Rio Olympic experience, and the upcoming Australian 'summer of cycling'.

Cyclingnews: Two years in, what do see as your major achievements as CEO?

NG: If I look at the annual report for 2016, most of our achievements have been the 'boring side of cycling' and that is re-establishing our business structure, our governance reform, our leadership of the sport, our key personnel. So we have spent a significant amount of work on putting the structure and vision of a business to be successful. The model previously was very much a high-risk business strategy, there was no clarity around evolution, there was no clarity around a real strategic pointed pathway. We have launched a strategy 2020 and our vision for the sport by the 2020 Olympic Games and everything that goes around that and being very clear and concise in what we are trying to do as a business.

For the first time, the national federation will start to involve in a new partnership conversation with new events that also allows us to talk to a new audience. That also allows us to have a new conversation in the advocacy space. We haven't previously had a role in the advocacy space and I think it's fundamental that we do because of the large participation in cycling broadly across the country. We feel that we want to have an influence and also contribute to the conversation around safe riding, better gender parity, better integrity of the sport being managed and those key messages around advocacy. We are very clear on that. as a business there are so new areas we want to focus in, we have made that very clear but at the same time, half of business in terms of our funding is dedicated to high performance. While we have a very successful year-on-year out high-performance strategy and athletes, the reality is that in the able body we were unsuccessful in the Olympic Games and very successful in the para games. We have an obligation to refocus and re-energise our high-performance strategy between now and the Commonwealth and Olympic Games to ensure Australia has an aspirational view and reinsert itself as the leading cycling nation in high performance around the world. We know that success also leads to great visibility in the sport, great role models in the sport, a great aspiration for the general cyclist.

We have a spent a lot of time restructuring the business to be successful in the future years and very proud of what we have done. It has been particularly difficult to be moving at the speed we wanted to but we are undoing a number of existing long-term obligations that we didn't think were suitable to the business. We had to face some real financial challenges when we started two years ago and we are really pleased, even though it is very modest, that we have been able to deliver two years in a row surplus's and it hasn't come with any fanfare, it has come with some suffering in getting the business right. As a scorecard, we have done well in some aspects but there are a lot of other aspects we haven't done well in because of our focus on trying to fix the business and being very much fiscally conservative which has led to our inability to have the resources and people that we would like to do everything the cycling industry wants us to do immediately. Along the way, there have been some gaps that have opened up that we are now in a better position to address for 2017, 2018 and beyond.

CN: Was it important for you to be starting in the role at the same time as a fresh board and president?

NG: I think we all had a mandate to have a fresh look at the business. Our board came in two months before I started and one their first jobs was to appoint a CEO. The board was hand-selected by the Australian sports commission to really address the immediate issues of the organisation at the time. That was that financial and governance reform so we had a skill set which enabled us to do that. We have now implemented a strategic plan for the organisation, the skillset of our board will also evolve according to the skill set of the organisation. You will see an introduction into our board of more skills and knowledge around high performance and elite development. That is essential. Malcolm Speed, our chairman, has been a very successful sports administrator and his knowledge around bringing the sport back into stability was really important. In the bit over two years that he has been here, he feels he has the organisation in the position where it can evolve and flourish and therefore it is time for new leadership from a president point of view. It was important to have the new refreshed look at the sport but at the same time, the board recognises that as we evolve as a business we need the skill sets on the board to help the business evolve.

CN: Malcolm Speed steps down from his role as president two years into his four-year term at the end of this year, in terms of a replacement president will you and Cycling Australia again be looking at someone with a non-cycling background again?

NG: The appointment of the board director is done at a board and sports commission level so there have been interviews and discussion on a suitable replacement and I don't know who the person would be at this stage. I do know that they are extremely close and probably a couple of weeks away from making an announcement. It is very clear what skill levels we need at the board and president and I think they are searching for the appropriate president with the appropriate skills to help the business grow and evolve and also have cycling knowledge on the board. Whether that is the president or people on the board, that is up to the current board to decide what is the best skills matrix we need on the board.

CN: What has been the biggest surprise you have faced in the role?

NG: What hasn't surprised me is the passion that cyclists display to their sport and I have seen that first hand. What has surprised me is the level of silos that operate in the sport. I look at it quite strategically, there are six million people who ride on a very regular basis in Australia. There is a really strong voice among those cyclists, whether it is at a recreational level or whether it is at an elite level. It is a really strong and powerful voice and the sport has not seen that as a real asset. There is a continued push that everyone wants to operate their own little space and not come together to form a strong voice and strong opinion about things. Cycling Australia has historically been as guilty as anyone in trying to operate and own its own patch and hasn't really opened up to see where the strength of the sport could be. A classic example at the elite level is three separate bodies established from Cycling Australia to Mountain Bike Australia to BMX Australia. The inefficiency of having three separate organisations representing the sport doesn't make sense for me. For us to come together it has been a very difficult to even have a conversation about how we do actually share our resources to be more efficient and therefore the savings we make can be invested for the benefit of the sport. That is just one level but it also happens all around the country. Cycling events are naturally trying to protect their own path and those big ones are owned by governments and governments are trying to have their share of economic benefits exclusive of their state so they won't necessarily share riders and share thinking and share strategy because it might impact their business model.

There is common sense for the industry to say 'let's come together and try to share our unity and voice for the betterment of cycling'. That has been a little bit frustrating to even sit in a room and bring people together for common good. I say that, but Cycling Australia needs to now establish its leadership position on that front and we haven't been in a great position to lead. We are in a better position to lead and it is our job as the national federation to really step up.

CN: 2016 was your first Olympics as Cycling Australia CEO, compared to previous Olympics as chief de mission and as an athlete, how did you find the experience?

NG: I found it really hard really. The chef de mission role was challenging and complex for a number of reasons when managing a team of 800 people. This time, I am sitting at the Olympics as an observer and I am still a board member of the Australian Olympic Committee so I was able to get access to accreditation by being an AOC board member. I had the privilege of being able to go to all the cycling events and as a former athlete and now sports administrator, I found it really hard to watch athletes perform. I have been to seven Olympics in various forms and what my Olympic history tells me is that the Olympics are a wonderful occasion when athlete performances sometimes can be unexpected and sometimes the favourites don't perform and the underdogs do perform. I think from our point of view, the results speak for themselves, we went into the Olympics with very high expectations and all the benchmarking even up to the Track World Championships in March led to us believing it was going to be a successful Olympic Games. What no one expected around the world was the level that Great Britain had increased their performance and on the track in particular. In the three or four months between the world championships and Olympic Games that had increased their performance by five or six percent to win the gold medals. We were increasing our performances by one and a half to two percent and that wasn't good enough. From sitting there as a spectator it was very frustrating because I know the athletes have the potential and the talent but to see none of that come to fruition, I almost lived every race and emotional aspect of the athletes.

In the history of the Olympic Games, there have been two significant milestones of the last 50 years that have influenced the way that Australian sport has been shaped. One was the 1976 Olympic Games in Montreal and other was the Olympic Games in Sydney. Both those milestones really established a funding appetite and cultural appetite for high performance. Rio was the lowest haul as the Australian Olympic team since Sydney and what that has created is a model of funding that doesn't buy us consistency year on year out. Plus, there has been no new investment into the sport of cycling. While Australian cyclists believe in their heart that we can be and should be number one nation in the world. The reality is that we are very close to that but we are still number two in the world. For those, who like to be number two, that is one thing but I don't think many cyclists like to be number one. They aspire to be number one. We are being out-funded by most of our competitors by between two and three times. There needs to be a milestone in Australian sport that changes our interest and the way we support our athletes. Funding is not the only answer but it is one of those answers that a consistent funding model that allows you to invest in capability and invest in technology, people, and pathways. I think from our point of view, we are very close and our results indicate that we have been very close, at the Olympic Games it is those marginal gains that we need to address that will make the difference between a gold and silver. That is our focus over the next four years. 

CN: In the latest annual report, Cycling Australia reported a profit for a second year running. What do see as the major revenue streams for Cycling Australia in the coming years?

NG: One of the things that is probably little misunderstood with our role in running a national membership scheme is the cost that it takes. We have 33,000 or so people on a Cycling Australia membership and that process doesn't make us a cent. In fact, we probably lose money on our membership but it is a service that we feel obligated to provide to ensure the adequate insurance and adequate pathways to race. We see membership as a service that we have to increase dramatically for the customer. Where that will be beneficial is if we cast our net out and bring the general cyclist into the fold and offer them the same services as we offer our racing members. In particular, the insurance platform and the benefits we get for being a bigger entity. The more people we have in our membership, the less our insurance premium is going to cost and cycling is a high-risk sport and insurance premiums do grow so that becomes a focus point in how we become more efficient and how do we service our members and the fact that we can talk to new members, whether they are recreation or racing, that allows us to reinvest money.

As I previously said, we work in silos and from a commercial point of view, the sport has been working in silos. We have an untapped potential in having better commercial revenue throughout broadcast partners, through our corporate partners who already investing heavily into our sport but doing it in a better-coordinated way. One of the things we have to address is the way we sanction cycling events. If you look at the Tour Down Under and Cadel Evans event, collectively both those events would drive something between 60 and 80 million dollars of economic benefit to their particular state. That is done through economic and tourism benefits. Cycling Australia, in essence, gives them permission in our sanctioning approval for those two events to generate that sort of revenue. We need to start addressing what is the appropriate sanctioning fee that is line with the intentional market expectations commensurable with the market return that those two events generate. In essence, what we are saying is that Cycling Australia, because we sanction those events, without our sanction those two events cannot occur. We need it to be a bit more commercially orientated around the fees that we charge but also the services that we give back.

CN: We are about to enter the 'summer of cycling' in Australia. It is the first year in which Australia will have two WorldTour events, and there is two UCI women's races along with the national championships and several more events. What are the key outcomes for CA from this period of racing?

NG: Cycling has got its time in the public landscape for the people to focus on the sport. Through the winter, it's football codes. Tennis is coming on in January and this period of time allows the sport to profile its assets to the people and our assets are our athletes and our people. Not only domestic people but we are buoyed by the fact that international superstars of the sport want to race in Australia because of the quality competition and plus it is winter in Europe and summer in Australia and that helps as well. We have worked hard with stakeholders and particularly with the UCI to make sure that we can protect the dates but also elevate some events to have greater recognition from the UCI so it does attract international riders. There are five major events sanctioned by the UCI in January next year with three male events but what we have been able to elevate, and we started his last year, was the highly sanctioned women's events at the Cadel Evans race and Tour Down Under. Not only have those events been elevated to attract global competitors, they have also been broadcast on TV. Our sport in the last two years has had four broadcast platforms from Channel Nine to Channel Seven to Fox Sports, and SBS showing the international side of the sport. No other sport can really boast that so part of this of time allows the sport to get on television, have a global audience, have live coverage and spectators can watch some of the best cyclists in the world.

From a cycling point of view, the sport is showcased but what it also does and in particular for the state governments who are investing in cycling, it provides them with significant benefits back to their regions by hosting their major events. We are also building an appetite for government to continue to invest in cycling events because they deliver return. Every cycling event on the calendar of summer of cycling is funded by government, at some form or another so without the investment by respective state governments these events won't occur, it is a combination of us protecting and enhancing the events for spectators but also for the profile of the sport and a return on investment for governments. At the moment, the summer of cycling has done that over many of years and we will continue to protect that space so it can continue to do that in the future.

CN: What can cycling do to attract the crowds and TV audiences in a busy summer sport landscape that also includes events such as cricket, tennis and football for example?

NG: I could encourage sport loving fans to do all of them but sometimes you need to prioritise where you spend your money. We know that cycling events are better watched live. We do know the experience when you are there, whether that is the nationals or the Cadel Evans event or the Tour Down Under, the atmosphere is electrifying. You can get a glimpse of it on television but you are better off watching it live. If there is such a plethora of choices, I would like to think the cycling community can get up and close with the athletes and watch it very closely. At the same time what we will aim to do next year is have some of the events on digital platforms and handheld devices so while you are watching it live you can experience both.

CN: A consequence of the Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race going WorldTour is that it is no longer on the Oceania Tour. How do you see the Oceania Tour and would you like to see NRS races potentially gaining UCI status to join the circuit?

NG: We are a victim of our own success in some respects and the same applies with the two women's events at the Cadel Evans event and Tour Down Under with them being elevated to UCI status. It has been successful on levels but we are mindful that are some consequential outcomes with us pushing for an elevation of an event. We haven't found the ideal mix at the moment to suit everyone's needs. We have been working with and pushing the UCI to work out ways that could we have a better platform in better years that would allow our aspiring athletes to ride with some of the best cyclists in the world. At the moment, the UCI rules are what they are and we have to abide by them. It's definitely a conversation we have had, we are thinking about it and we know that with success in elevation comes with challenges on the other side as well.

CN: Will you be backing Tracey Gaudry to continue as Oceania President and UCI Vice-President?

NG: Pleasantly it is not my decision, it is the board of Cycling Australia's decision. I have been watching Tracey perform on the global stage for the last two years and my view is that she is excellent at that work. She is influential, she is diplomatic, she is a very strong leader on the global stage and I think we all know in the 118-year history of the UCI Tracey is the only female that's been on the executive board. She holds herself superbly on that stage and my view would be to keep one of our valuable assets in the sport. Not only for the betterment of the sport but also from the influence they had from Australian and Oceania point of view and Tracey has been extremely influential in what she has done in the Oceania region.

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