cfo graham maher rugby

Staying Ahead of the Game

Queensland Rugby League CFO Graham Maher
is excited by the possibilities the digital revolution is creating in sport

As a lifelong rugby league fan, becoming CFO for the Queensland Rugby League could well be seen as a dream job for Graham Maher. He admits it’s an enviable position, but is quick to point out he must be as dedicated off the field as the players are on it. “In sporting administration, you don’t employ fans; you employ people for their ability to do the job,” Graham says.

While the National Rugby League (NRL) competition represents the game’s shop window, the Queensland Rugby League (QRL) looks after everything below that in the sport-mad state, as well as State of Origin. Just as a company has a commitment to its shareholders, the QRL’s remit is to support all the clubs and players it represents equally.

“The young boy or girl playing under-6 sat Innisfail should expect the same level of service and delivery as an adult player in Ipswich, Gold Coast or Brisbane,” Graham says.

NRL is the main source of revenue for QRL, with the pool of money from TV rights and sponsorship shared between the 16 participating clubs (three of them in Queensland) and the state governing bodies.

“The biggest thing for us is funding security. You’re looking at revenue growth, and you’ve got the grant funding aspect – for us the NRL. That’s dependent on so many things.”

Naturally, he and his colleagues take a keen interest in the fortunes of the game at the elite level of the National Rugby League. If the game is in good shape at the top level, the trickle-down effect for the Queensland Rugby League is obvious; similarly, adverse headlines prompt consternation at the QRL’s office on the doorstep of Brisbane’s Suncorp Stadium.

“Player behaviour is a hot topic in the community and the impact that can have on sponsors is enormous,” he says, reflecting on the importance of setting high standards of governance.

“The big sports in Australia –rugby league, AFL, rugby union – all these codes have the ability to influence society because kids aspire to careers in sport, and they look up to sports stars. If you take a stance on community concerns, it brings benefits.”

How Graham came to end up working in rugby league was a slight surprise to himself.

“It’s a funny one – I grew up playing a lot of sport and I’d had a long affinity with various sports, but sports administration was something I never considered as a career,”

Born in Brisbane, Graham grew up in Cairns and, finding he had a natural aptitude for maths, a commerce degree was a logical progression. From that, he found his way to Price water house Coopers and, after almost five years, left to work for former client Pinnacle Investment Management Group.

“I didn’t necessarily want to be a partner in an accounting firm, and I didn’t want to be an auditor for a career. I found I really like working with clients to solve problems and help them grow their business,” he says. But those skills gleaned in the world of the Big Four firms still stand him in good stead. “You run into people who have come across from PwC or KPMG, and you have a way of working in common: you’re taught to ask questions – not take everything on face value – and look at the easiest way of doing things,” Graham says.

After Pinnacle, roles with a property group and an energy start-up followed before his first leap into a CFO role with workforce provider Workplace. However, a management restructure meant that his role soon became redundant. Then, with impeccable timing, the QRL job bounced up.

Three years since signing on the dotted line, his enthusiasm for the job is unabated. In fact, he says:

“I don’t see what I do as a job because I’m in a role where my work has a community focus as well.”

Graham fits the mould of the modern CFO, adapting to the changing world of business. The pace at which the digital era has affected sport is little short of phenomenal, from waving your on-screen bar code through the turnstiles to live streaming matches on your phone.

“If you go back 10 years, people didn’t have the capability on smartphones to deliver what gets delivered now,” he says. “Now I can be out at dinner with the phone next to me watching the Broncos versus the Cowboys live.

“The speed at which info is delivered is just multiplied – but with that, you’ve got to be careful of disengaging from the fans who are watching the game at a stadium.”

Social media is now a must-have for large organisations and while the benefits of fan engagement are obvious, the commercial rewards haven’t always been as clear. But as Graham points out: “We’re at that tipping point now where there will be tangible financial and non-financial benefits.”

The Queensland Rugby League has six staff members delivering content for its digital channels, and those efforts give the QRL impressive reach. He says: “We actively look to be a seller to partners – we reach over a million people across our social (Instagram, Facebook and Twitter) and media (website)platforms. If you’re an advertiser Queensland Rugby League can capture people’s attention – we’ve got that medium and we’ve got that cut-through.

“The opportunity we’ve got to monetize that reach is huge, but it takes awareness of knowing what people want, not what we think we should be offering.”

Such high-tech fan engagement is nevertheless built on solid foundations. Away from the giddy heights of State of Origin blockbusters, the QRL’s mandate is to develop the game state-wide, and in such a huge territory that can only be done by getting out to the community.

A team of 80 staff work to grow the game, stretching from Thursday Island down to the Tweed River, while QRL has several corporate partners – for instance, BHP supports female and Indigenous programs.“I think the fact we’ve got people all across the state is crucial to our success,” Graham says.

When it comes to creating a healthy culture, Graham says there is no substitute for building solid networks inside and outside the organisation. “Relationships are absolutely vital, particularly in sport,” he says. “Being able to rely on relationships is vital to the business, and sharing information and working collaboratively is key.

“We’ve spent a lot of time in our business making sure people are aligned and the culture is aligned.”