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Leaders from three top National Sporting Organisations (NSOs) engaged in a discussion on commercial strategies and challenges facing Olympic sports.

The panel at the recent SportNXT conference in Melbourne was moderated by MI Global Partners CEO, Rob Nelson, the featured insights from Hockey Australia CEO, David Pryles, Basketball Australia CEO, Matt Scriven, and AusCycling CEO, Marne Fechner.

They explored the financial dynamics of Olympic success and the hurdles posed by commercial restrictions, notably the International Olympic Committee's Rule 40.

Rule 40 was a focal point, with Hockey’s Pryles illustrating its impact by comparing it to a sports team unable to showcase sponsors' logos during pivotal matches, such as grand finals.

He said to imagine an AFL team or NRL team playing their entire season, jerseys emblazoned with sponsors' logos, only to enter the grand final (big dance) with all commercial branding stripped away," Pryles said.

This analogy underscores the restrictions Olympic sports face, limiting their ability to leverage sponsorships during critical moments of global visibility.

Despite these constraints, the panellists shared a collective optimism about overcoming commercial challenges. They highlighted ongoing negotiations with the Australian Olympic Committee (AOC) to seek more accommodating arrangements and that collaborative effort aims to amplify the voice and bargaining power of NSOs in discussions on commercial rights and visibility.

The discussion also touched on the recent unification under AusCycling, which Fechner credited with providing a more cohesive commercial strategy. This alignment has already begun to show promise, with notable partnerships with ARA and Great Wall Motors signalling early successes in the face of Rule 40's challenges.

Fechner also advocated for leveraging Australia's cycling enthusiasm more effectively, suggesting a potential shift away from traditional sports commercialisation strategies.

"We're contemplating how to authentically engage with the 8 million Australians who love riding bikes, beyond the competitive aspect," Fechner said. This approach requires a bold reimagining of cycling's commercial and engagement models, aiming to tap into a broader audience base.

Basketball Australia's Matt Scriven shared insights into the complexities of managing commercial outcomes within the federated structure of Australian sports. He emphasised the need for agility and innovation to keep pace with rapid changes in consumer expectations and technology.

Strategic initiatives like the Hockey One League were highlighted as key moves to enhance visibility and commercial outcomes for sports. Pryles detailed how this initiative, alongside a broadcasting deal with the Seven Network, has significantly boosted hockey's profile and commercial viability.



Infrastructure's role in sports commercial success

The session also broached the critical role of infrastructure in sustaining and expanding a sport's commercial success. Fechner, Pryles, and Scriven concurred on the necessity of significant investment in facilities and technology to elevate the athlete and fan experience, which, in turn, could enhance commercial outcomes. This infrastructure-centric viewpoint aligns with a broader vision for ensuring sports' longevity and relevance in the fast-evolving entertainment landscape.

Pryles detailed Hockey Australia's strategic move to leverage a significant investment from the WA state government, which culminated in a $142 million commitment towards a world-class facility.  Pryles noted that the infrastructure was set to enhance the sport's profile, facilitate the hosting of more local major events, and foster a new era of commercial viability and growth for hockey in Australia.

"With the right facilities, we can host international events, increase our sport's visibility, and thereby attract more sponsors and commercial partners," Pryles said.

Matt Scriven pointed to the infrastructure challenges faced by basketball, particularly the scarcity of court space, which impedes the sport's grassroots growth. He highlighted the dire need for more basketball courts to accommodate the burgeoning interest and participation rates across the country.

He said that in Canberra alone the sport was turning away a thousand kids a year due to the lack of available courts, emphasising the urgent need for government and private sector investment in sports facilities.

Marne Fechner discussed how AusCycling is navigating the complex infrastructure landscape, from urban cycling tracks to mountain biking trails. She stressed the importance of partnerships with local and state governments to secure access to and develop cycling-friendly infrastructure. Fechner highlighted how such infrastructure not only supports the sport's grassroots and elite levels but also plays a crucial role in ensuring cyclists' safety and broadening the appeal of cycling to a wider audience.

"Safe and accessible infrastructure is fundamental for encouraging more people to take up cycling, whether competitively or for recreation," Fechner stated.

The panellists concurred that innovative and strategic investments in sports infrastructure could serve as a catalyst for both sporting excellence and commercial success. They urged NSOs, governments, and the private sector to collaborate more closely on infrastructure projects that would benefit sports and communities alike.

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