A versatile defender, Nigel Smart was the first Adelaide Crow to play 250 AFL games for the club. Since retiring in 2004, the three-time All-Australian and dual premiership player has lived overseas, had a run at State Parliament, completed an MBA at the University of Adelaide and held a variety of executive positions. The father-of-three’s career has come full circle and he is now flying high for the Crows again but on the other side of the white line as the club’s Chief Operating Officer.
Before you became a professional footballer how did you think your career would turn out?
I think I was like any other southern suburbs kid in a working class area. I didn’t have too many goals or aspirations at the time. I followed my friends to (Flinders) university without really knowing what I wanted to do. I did a BA majoring in geography and politics and moved in to work and football.
While you were at university, you played three years in the SANFL for South Adelaide before the Adelaide Football Club joined the AFL in 1991, how was that transition?
When I started playing for the Crows it was only part-time. I think my first base salary was about $8500, which back then was a reasonable amount of money but it wasn’t a lot compared with some of the other players. We had a big squad and I was part of that squad but it was purely and simply a part-time profession. Even in that Grand Final period (1997-98) we were only training three times a week. Full professionalism didn’t start until the early 2000s – towards the end of my playing career. So you just had to balance up study, football and work and get that balance right. During that period I worked for SA Brewing as a sales rep and then a sales manager and I then worked for Toyota Motor Corp as Network Development Manager and set up a dealer network for success for Toyota. It was challenging and fulfilling but at the same time I was playing football so I had a combination holistically of developing myself from a career point of view and a football point of view. I was very lucky because they complemented each other – I found I could work all day and then go to training and I would actually perform well in terms of football because I found that balance between mental and physical stimulation. I don’t know today if I could just focus on footy 100 per cent – I’d need to do something else.
How did you adjust to life after football following your retirement as a player in 2004?
That question of ‘what do I do now’ came up and I lived overseas for a period of time in Canada and France with family, which was almost like a gap year or maybe a cleanse and then it was about what I was going to do next. I found it really hard because what I actually realised was that at the end of your career you have this enormous ego and I had to manage that but also I needed to realign my skill set. With good intentions to give back to the community I ran for State Parliament in the seat of Norwood and gained some valuable insights into not only the Liberal Party but also the Labor Party, established some relationships in both parties, worked really hard in the electorate and learnt a valuable lesson about leadership because Mike Rann blitzed that election. No matter what I did – and I made some mistakes in the campaign – it was more about the leaders, Rann and Rob Kerin, being the main elements that decided winning and losing for many of the candidates. I don’t like losing but it was a good lesson to have at the time and one that I appreciate in a weird sense.
Following the unsuccessful tilt at politics in 2006, how did you get back into the business world?
There was a bit of soul searching after that in terms of ‘where do I go to now?’ I had an opportunity to start a career progression again through a disability organisation, Disability Works, where I started in a business development role teaching and educating people about being inclusive in their work practices. It was a near entry-level role but again it was a good grounding for me to get back to the realisation that I wasn’t an AFL player any more. AFL players are taught to have this enormous self-belief and when your career finishes you kind of still think that. I had to somehow deflate the ego and have a realisation that I just needed to work hard, apply my skills and develop my capabilities, including my education capabilities. That’s why I went back to university and completed an MBA at the University of Adelaide.
By that point in time you’d had some experience in the business world, how did the MBA solidify all of that for you?
I think the concepts of applying knowledge back into your work practices were important. There are two things with the MBA; one is the actual application of the theory into practical information and then applying back into the work situation; the second one is the relationships you make with the other people in the MBA. You make friends, associates and future business contacts that you still keep in contact with as well. One thing I had to learn is that every individual who you meet could be a subject matter expert in something that I’m not. People have their own stories, their own expertise and their own connections to others so as I get older I never try and take anyone for granted, whereas before I probably did. During the education process right through to where I am now, I’m becoming more rounded in terms of my view of not only people but also society and community.
At what point did you move into more of an executive role?
I moved to another South Australian organisation called Jobs Statewide and they were in employment and labour hire and had a bigger footprint and more staff.
From there I moved into the CEO role at the very good charity Variety South Australia. I had about 12 months there and then the role of Chief Operating Officer came up and I applied for that. There was a time when I was out of work after my failed candidacy at Norwood when I actually said I’m going to have to invest in me and give myself a plan to get into a C-level role in 10 years. Included in that was to trying to educate myself – so the MBA played a part – and now I’ve been the Chief Operating Officer here since 2013 and doing a job to try and improve the commercial outcomes at the footy club.
What does the COO role at the Crows involve?
It’s a great role because it’s dynamic. You’re spanning from digital through to community through to fan base to merchandise to stadium to activation to events. We have great people and it’s an expanding role. But we don’t take that for granted because things can change really quickly – we need to perform on field and if we do, commercial success is a lot easier to achieve.
We have two areas: on field and off field. Off field the club had done OK when I came on board. We were transitioning from AAMI Stadium, Adelaide Oval was new in the future but if we looked at our commercial benchmarking and the core areas of our commercial business – membership, ticketing, sponsorships, partnerships – the general areas we get money into the club, we were probably average and in some of those areas below average. But probably the perception out there was that we were pretty good. So coming in I found myself probably wanting to help the club change that and work those benchmarks so we were a leading club in the AFL. A number of those things have turned around and have started to improve. Attendance is number one in the AFL, membership is growing, our fan base is far, wide and strong, we are probably in the top four when it comes to avid fans. The football club monetises the fan base so whether you buy a piece of merchandise or go to a game, that’s how we make money as a football club. Our fans have been super supportive and last year most of our games were sold out and in light of that our partnerships and sponsorships have grown and our merchandise and the way we sell that also has probably moved us into the top echelon of AFL clubs.
We’ve got a women’s team starting up and we’ve had good sponsorship backing for that team, participation numbers are growing. What I’m really happy about as a past player is that we’ve got growth in a very competitive professional sport.
Has being a past player with the club helped you in your off-field role?
I think it has helped but being a past player doesn’t mean much. You’ve got to have other capabilities to be able to do the role, everything from managing people, managing performance, having at times tough conversations, giving and receiving feedback. I think what being a past player has done, it’s given me the ability to where necessary make comment in regards to football – I don’t do that very often – but I can say my opinion because I’ve played the game. The football department is well led and they’ve got good people so being a past player just gives you some confidence in that field of football.
What does the future hold for Nigel Smart?
Life is incredibly short. My father passed away quite young at 56. I’m 47 so it gives me a benchmark in terms of you don’t have long on the earth so you want to make it count. What I do understand is that without a complete focus you are not going to perform and you are not going to do it with quality. My focus is on the footy club now and certainly getting 2017 commercially set so we can succeed and outside of that family and experiences are going to be a very important combination for me.
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