For the Love of the Game

Todd Greenber in a football trophy room

In the sports administration field, Todd Greenberg is a game changer – meet the former chief executive of the Canterbury Bulldogs, who helped turn the ailing club's fortunes and culture around, and is now at the helm of football for the NRL.

At 42, Todd Greenberg is one of Australia's leading sports administrators. He's been the award-winning chief executive of arguably our most controversial professional footy club; held a lynchpin executive role at Sydney's Olympic stadium dealing with everything from The Rolling Stones to the Bledisloe Cup; and he now holds the impressive title of Head of Football at the National Rugby League (NRL).

Insiders believe he'll eventually assume the throne of either the NRL or Cricket Australia, since league and cricket are Greenberg's major passions (as a teenage batsman for Randwick, he aspired to winning a Baggy Green).

Since completing his Masters in Sport Management at UTS in 1997, the father of two has won plaudits galore, including NSW Sports Administrator of the Year in 2009 and being called one of 'Sydney's top 100 most influential people' by a glossy magazine.

Yet Greenberg's meteoric rise has involved massive challenges, particularly in 2008 when he left the security of ANZ Stadium where he'd been general manager, commercial operations for seven years to grasp what was then the most poisoned chalice in Australian sport – chief executive of the scandal-ridden Bulldogs rugby league club.

Back then, the Bulldogs were in a dire state. In 2002, the club – then on top of the NRL table – had been exposed as salary cap cheats. The club's board also became embroiled in a failed shopping centre development, among other off-field dramas.

Why did Greenberg take the job?

"I had some sleepless nights beforehand," admits the life-long Bulldogs supporter at his new office in the NRL's headquarters in Moore Park. "The Bulldogs were in a big hole. Untold issues off the field with players, with fan behaviour, with corporate governance.

"But adversity usually provides opportunity. Having worked there for four years (as operations and events manager, from 1998-2001), I knew a lot of the people and understood the culture. I went in with eyes open, knowing there would be difficult moments."

And so there were.

"In that first year, I terminated a lot of players' contracts, players whose values didn't align with what I thought the club should stand for (he cites Willy Mason and Reni Maitua). We also kept losing games, so we finished last that season. Our best player, Sonny Bill Williams, walked out on his contract in the middle of the night (to play rugby in France). Our crowds went down. We lost $1 million in that first year. All our sponsors told us they wouldn't renew in 2009. Then the GFC hit..."

Riding the highs and the lows

Still, the severity of the crisis didn't hit Greenberg until he offered a leading charity the chance to put its logo on the Bulldogs jersey for the 2009 season for free – and the charity, Camp Quality which helps children with cancer, turned him down. Greenberg had gone to meet Camp Quality's Chief Executive, Simon Rountree, thinking it was a million dollar offer that couldn't be refused. Free TV exposure. A fee on jersey sales worth $100,000 cash. Plus a pledge that the top 25 Bulldogs players would make repeat visits to Camp Quality's sick children. Greenberg recalls Rountree saying, "I wouldn't touch you lot with a barge pole. There's no way I'm going to put our logo next to yours."

Shaken, Greenberg begged Rountree to let him come back with some of the players and the club's female staff. Eventually he won the chance to pitch to the Camp Quality board, which agreed to a year's trial, but told him associating with the Bulldogs was "the biggest risk we'll ever undertake".

Greenberg immediately gathered all the Bulldogs players.

"I told them, these guys are dealing with kids who've got cancer and they think we're the risk. Every decision, every action you make, on or off the field, will impact not only on us but also on Camp Quality. We have an obligation to do what's right."

That anecdote speaks volumes for Greenberg's style. By the time he left the club earlier this year (2013), people ashamed to admit they were Bulldogs fans had returned to the fold. Membership had grown sixfold. The club was back in the black. It had reached a Grand Final. And newly recruited players discovered they needed to demonstrate not only that they had footy skills but they also shared Bulldogs values.

Hard slog pays off

In 2012, Greenberg was approached about becoming Chief Executive of Cricket NSW, where he'd begun his career in 1993 after graduating from the University of New South Wales with a degree in Sports Science. It was during his six years at Cricket NSW that he decided that if he was going to fulfil his leadership ambitions he needed to take his Masters degree at UTS. For three years, he'd drive every Tuesday to UTS's Kuring-gai campus to study from 2pm to 10pm. Newly-married to Lisa, who he'd met when they were fellow fitness instructors at an Oatley gym, the final year was a strain.

"We'd just had a new baby. I was still playing cricket. And I was working full-time," he recalls. "It was pretty taxing. But I'm glad I stuck it out because it provided me with an enormous amount of life lessons."

His tutors were practical and inspirational, he says. "The things I was learning at UTS I was applying on a daily basis, professionally and personally. It also opened my eyes to other facets of the sports management industry. I made a huge number of contacts. And the Masters degree gave me a lot more structure and opened doors."

Greenberg turned down the top job at Cricket NSW, but was interviewed for the role of NRL Chief Executive. That position eventually went to former banking chief David Smith, who asked him to be Head of Football. Greenberg now oversees all aspects of the game in Australia, from development programs for children to State of Origin and internationals.

"Good governance is the most underrated commodity in sport," Greenberg insists. "That is why rugby league is yet to achieve its full potential: the governance models haven't been good."

The NRL's crowds, club membership, commercial revenue are still significantly below that of the Australian Football League, though TV rights are now comparable. "We've still got a long way to go," Greenberg admits. "The catalyst for change in our code is increased membership."

Rare days off are spent with his wife and two teenage children "within a 5km radius of my house (in Oatley)".

"I'm a very simple person. We've got a great newsagent, a baker, a deli, a pub and a beautiful park. I don't need to go anywhere else."

This article first appeared in the August 2013 edition of Tower Magazine.

Words: Steve Meacham
Image: Nick Cubbin