Date posted: 13/09/2018 11 min read

Kicking goals at the Roosters: Mark Bouris

In the lead-up to the rugby league grand final, celebrity businessman and TV host Mark Bouris FCA tells Acuity why he loves the Sydney Roosters and how his role on the board will help the club survive.

In Brief

  • Bouris’s background as a chartered accountant and his business head give the Roosters’ board credibility and some serious muscle.
  • The game plan is to build a viable club for the future and his skills help the club keep a tight rein on expenses.
  • Bouris says sports clubs always need financial help and CAs who offer pro bono work can enjoy tremendous rewards.

Businessman Mark Bouris FCA AM is no stranger to the spotlight. In 1996, he shook up the Australian mortgage market with the launch of Wizard Home Loans. That was followed in 2007 by Yellow Brick Road Wealth Management, a company that Bouris continues to helm as executive chairman. But it is his television work hosting The Apprentice, The Celebrity Apprentice Australia and, more recently, The Mentor that has seen Bouris become a household name.

What may be less well known is that for the past 15 years Bouris has sat on the board of one of the oldest rugby league clubs in Australia – the Sydney Roosters. He took on the role of director in 2003 after being approached by his friend and long-time Roosters Chairman Nick Politis. As a long-term supporter and life member of the club, Bouris is clearly passionate about his involvement and the skills he brings to the Roosters. Waving away any suggestions that he gains a personal commercial benefit from his involvement on the board, Bouris is quick to point out that league is his favourite team sport: “I love the Roosters. My kids love the Roosters. So I do it because I want to give back to the club that I am a fan of.” 

Photographs: Dave Wheeler

It’s not about the power

The Sydney Roosters are well-placed this year to reach the NRL Grand Final. They finished the regular home and away NRL season in first place. It means the Tricolours are just two wins away from the Grand Final, which they last won in 2013 thanks to the magnificent Sonny Bill Williams, who is now a member of the New Zealand All Blacks rugby union side.

The Roosters enjoyed a consistent 2018 season after a slow start. Offseason superstar buys Cooper Cronk and James Tedesco have clicked with their teammates, and the foundation club is now a solid chance of winning the Provan-Summons Trophy on the last Sunday in September. With this sort of record, it’s interesting to examine the part that Bouris may have played in the success of the club.

Bouris is also a director of Easts Leagues Club which runs bars, restaurants and other entertainment to support the Roosters. Having a stake in the football and leagues clubs makes Bouris an integral part of the Roosters “family”. However, he says the jury is out on just how much power he and his fellow directors wield at the football club (as distinct from the leagues club). “The chairman probably has the greatest input – as directors we don’t wield power as such.” Rather, Bouris believes power is shared among fans, sponsors, the players, coaches and even the NRL – indeed, all of the club’s many stakeholders.

As Bouris sees it, the ability of an individual director to have influence in a club environment can boil down to personal input. “All the directors offer their time on a voluntary basis,” he says. “None of us get paid to be on the board, so it becomes a matter of who’s got the time and inclination to provide input into the football club with their own particular brand of expertise.” Key decisions around the buying and selling of players are made by coaching staff, not the directors. “The board gets to hear about it to the extent that it’s part of the salary cap,” explains Bouris. “And we are advised on who’s coming up for renegotiation, and whose contracts are about to expire. But we don’t have input on selecting players.”

Managing costs is the real game

Bouris’s background as a chartered accountant combined with his formidable business acumen certainly gives the Roosters’ board both credibility and some serious muscle. But while Bouris sees parallels between his role with the Roosters and his involvement in commercial entities, he says a key area of difference lies in the club’s ability to increase revenue. 

Like most football clubs, the Roosters’ revenue is derived from four main sources: an annual grant from the National Rugby League (NRL), gate takings, membership fees and sponsorships. “It’s really hard to grow any of these revenue streams,” explains Bouris. “The club has no control over the NRL grant. Gate takings and membership can be grown, but only marginally. And sponsors are only able to pay so much because you’ve only got so much space for branding to appear on the players’ jerseys. It makes cost control the real game.” 

Happily, Bouris says, expense management is an area in which the Sydney Roosters excel, with expenses tracked “right down to the minutiae”. Bouris believes his accounting background combined with four decades of business experience, have given him the skills to help the club keep a tight rein on expenses.

Nonetheless, as CAs who have offered pro bono services to a club will know, sports-based enterprises are more about people than numbers. Reflecting this, Bouris’s 15-year tenure as a director of the Sydney Roosters has given him insights that go way beyond figures. Each football season delivers a fresh understanding of what it means to be a professional in the NRL, and one aspect that has taken Bouris by surprise is the complexities and vulnerabilities of the players involved. 

He believes it is easy for fans to watch the stars of the club out on the field and assume that they are bulletproof. The reality is very different. Bouris notes that many of the players are young men, often barely out of their teens, with varying levels of maturity, who require plenty of help and guidance. Yet the players are often heavily criticised and punished by the media (as well as financially by the NRL judiciary) if something goes wrong. “We hold the players to account quite highly, a lot higher than anyone else of their age group,” observes Bouris. “But most of them aren’t doing anything worse than others of their own age – they’re just being young men.”

Putting the club’s needs first

As both a director and a fan of the Sydney Roosters, Bouris wears two very different hats, and he is conscious that he and his fellow board members sometimes make decisions that the fans don’t agree with. It goes with the territory of building a club that is sustainable over the long term, and Bouris knows there can be times when the board of directors cop criticism from the Roosters’ heartland.

“We are aware of what everybody says,” he explains. “But our game plan is to build a viable club for the future, something that will survive. We won’t run into the problems that other clubs have faced, where they have run out of money. We’re always trying to work out how we can be successful in the future so that our fans, their children and their grandchildren will have something to look forward to.”

For now though, Bouris acknowledges that the NRL is facing headwinds. The Australian Football League (AFL), for instance, is rattling the market. Rugby union is also a competitor of sorts, along with soccer – and so league is just one of a host of sports vying for marketing dollars and network airtime.

He says part of the problem is that the NRL clubs don’t have custodianship of the product. They may play the games out on the paddock, but they don’t manage the code. That said, the NRL is fighting back. “I think AFL started to take some market share from us,” admits Bouris. “But this year we have seen a lot more pivoting around the brand. We’ve got the women’s competition, which is a great thing. And we’re going a lot more into the grass roots.” 

He’s also quick to point out that the code has become a lot safer: “The NRL has taken plenty of important steps, taking the punching out, and taking out the head-high [tackle] and the shoulder charges.”

Rewards in club life for CAs

Bouris says the opportunity to become involved in a sporting club is something CAs should consider. “It’s very rewarding in a lot of ways to back young people and help them improve their lives, especially when you get to watch them in a sport you love, playing for the team you love. “As a chartered accountant you may have a skill that is good for football clubs. Or it might mean you have a different way of looking at things. Whatever the case, sporting clubs are almost always under financial pressure, and they need people with financial skills and also management and marketing skills.” 

Possibly the greatest rewards … come from seeing young blokes rise through the ranks who are happy and who know you are there looking out for them
Mark Bouris FCA AM

The rewards of offering pro bono support to a club may not be measurable in dollar terms, but that doesn’t diminish their value. Bouris sums it up like this: “It’s very fulfilling to reach the end of the year and see that the club has not just met budget but also performed well on the field. Possibly the greatest rewards, though, come from seeing young blokes rise through the ranks who are happy and who know you are there looking out for them.”

Anthony O’Brien is a business journalist on the NSW Central Coast.