Questions surround company offering a digital ‘one-stop shop’ for grassroots sports
29th January 2021

With TV rights income falling, sponsorship flattening and COVID-19 threatening gate income, the new battleground for the major sports will be the competition for grassroots support.

Cricket, netball, the four football codes, basketball and other Olympic sports know they can no longer rely on lucrative TV contracts or generous government grants to survive. However, strong community support, via participants and volunteers, guarantees a sport’s future.

Despite not previously delivering a grassroots digital platform to a national sporting organisation, PlayHQ has already signed up Cricket Australia, the AFL, Netball Australia and Basketball Victoria.Credit:Fairfax Media

Importantly, sports are turning to digital companies to provide online access to registrations, results, fees and fixtures. Historically, sports have not had success with technology providers in the participation space and are looking to shift to new solutions. Given the costs of such solutions are often passed on to the participant, as evidenced in soccer, it is an important decision to get right.

PlayHQ, a Melbourne-based digital provider, and its CEO Sam Walch, believe all sports have essentially the same needs and that one platform can be the answer to their problems. PlayHQ is 25 per cent owned by Codeware (a digital consultancy where Walch is also CEO), along with the AFL, Basketball Victoria and private investors.

Despite not previously delivering a grassroots digital platform to a national sporting organisation, PlayHQ has already signed up Cricket Australia, the AFL, Netball Australia and Basketball Victoria to what Walch says is a “one-stop shop” to provide this information online, including via mobile phone.

But PlayHQ, along with the sports that have engaged them, has attracted queries and criticism – not only for its ownership structure but for the procurement processes that led to it signing sports to a technology that was developed for Basketball Victoria and is therefore not proven at a national level with any sport.

‘Other sports are being progressively rolled out in accordance with specifically tailored platform enhancements and a managed timetable agreed with the codes.’

Furthermore, critics say the software will take another two to three years to develop and implement for Cricket Australia, the AFL and Netball Australia.

Walch rejects this, saying: “The platform is ready and operational. Basketball [Victoria] went live over 12 months ago. Other sports are being progressively rolled out in accordance with specifically tailored platform enhancements and a managed timetable agreed with the codes.”

Other basketball states are yet to sign up. Basketball Victoria’s CEO, Nick Honey, once listed as one of four directors of Codeware, is a director of PlayHQ, but, according to Walch, he has no equity in the company.

Cricket Australia late last year announced it had signed up with PlayHQ and would phase out its MyCricket platform, leading to suggestions of a conflict of interest involving the chairman of PlayHQ James Sutherland.

Sutherland is the former chief executive of Cricket Australia, prompting accusations his company is monetising a fix of a product developed during his tenure at CA, albeit one that was seen as outdated by grassroots supporters.

PlayHQ chairman James Sutherland is the former CEO of Cricket Australia.Credit:Simon Schluter

Sutherland’s LinkedIN profile shows he became chairman of PlayHQ in October 2019 and the selection of PlayHQ by CA, after a 12-month procurement process, appears to have taken place in mid-2020. Both Sutherland and a CA spokesman insist he had “literally nothing to do with it”.

Cricket Australia originally went to tender along with New Zealand Cricket, Cricket Ireland, the England and Wales Cricket Board, and the ICC. Twenty-seven providers, including some based overseas, submitted tenders; seven were shortlisted. However, all the other cricket nations withdrew from the process, possibly because of politics and them being at different stages of their technological development. CA then appointed PlayHQ in what CA insists was a comprehensive and transparent process.

In the case of Netball Australia, its 2019 annual report promised “a new digital road map” developed “using digital agency Codeware”. PlayHQ, which is a quarter owned by Codeware, was subsequently appointed.

Walch said of any suggested conflict: “Codeware provides a variety of digital services for sporting organisations and in 2018 and 2019 supported Netball Australia in building a digital network of websites including sites promoting the Diamonds and the Super Netball competition. In a separate process, PlayHQ was asked, along with other providers, to participate in a competitive bid process over several months in relation to a digital platform to service community netball.”

However, as with basketball, other netball states do not appear to be joining, with reports Netball Victoria and Netball Queensland are taking a different direction.

The AFL, the Melbourne-based “industry” known for using its number of participants (AusKick) as a lever for government grants, has also announced that it plans on coming on board with PlayHQ, again without going to tender. By taking equity in the PlayHQ platform as part of its deal, the AFL is seemingly looking to derive a financial return from not just its own participants but those of other sports, too.

Walch, a previous executive at both AFL and Cricket Australia, rejects this, saying the AFL is merely an investor, implying its sense of social obligation outweighs its desire for a financial return.

“Sports that invest do so with the same upside and risks as any other investor,” he said. “They have not been ‘gifted’ their equity. All sports have paid for their share of the PlayHQ equity. The founders, investors, and clients of PlayHQ are aligned in their fundamental belief in the importance of community sport and the need to provide a state-of-the-art digital solution for the modern age.″⁣

The linkage of the AFL, Cricket Australia and Netball Australia, all headquartered in Melbourne, under a CEO who is a former senior executive with both the AFL and in cricket, will resurrect memories of the same three sports uniting two decades ago to control a federal government $100m package to encourage primary schoolchildren into after-school sport.

It was only when then Prime Minister John Howard intervened to ask whether the rugby codes were involved that the program was made available to all sports.

The rugby codes have been using a Sydney-based company, Assemble Sports, for their grassroots digital platforms, Rugby Australia since 2018 and the NRL since 2019.

Assemble Sports managing director David Silverton says: ″⁣Ultimately every sport is different and therefore they have specific needs. We have built our technology so that we can cater for this.

Recognising and allowing for these differences, even across sports like rugby union and rugby league, means that the administrators and participants can have the best possible experience.

“As an example, we recently signed up an ice skating state body. Clearly they have needs that are quite different to our existing clients and we don’t think it is right for the sport to have to compromise either.”

Nevertheless, Walch remains committed to his one-size-fits-all solution, emphasising the importance of volunteers.

“Sport in Australia over the last 15 to 20 years has wrestled with delivering simple, functional, easy-to-use technology that reduces the burden on volunteer administrators and allows more people – players, parents, coaches, referees – to easily interact and engage with sports they love or want to try their hand in,” he says.

“These are the fundamental problems PlayHQ is working with sporting codes to solve via a ‘one-stop shop’ that offers simplicity, superior convenience and best in class digital experiences.”

Insiders suggest PlayHQ has spent $90m developing its model but Walch says: “As a private company we don’t disclose our financials, but investment to date is a fraction of industry rumour.”

Other sports, like Football Australia, which has the largest participation base in Australia, know that they too need to get this right. Without significant broadcast rights, football relies on participation to survive.

Given recent controversies surrounding increased participant fees at Football Queensland being used to cover bloated administrative costs and executive salaries, they can ill afford a failed investment in participant technology.

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