A view from the top
23 August 2017
Starting as Baseball Australia CEO in April this year – after almost four years heading up Hockey Australia – Cam Vale comes to the sport at a critical time, with Australian baseball looking to prove it can set its feet in the crowded and competitive domestic sporting market.
I spoke recently with Vale about his early impressions of the role, his vision for Baseball in Australia, how close the ABL came to expansion and whether Aussie baseball can finally harness that ever-present ‘potential’.
“It’s been a really good four and a half months. What I’m seeing is certainly a lot of opportunities for the sport to grow and be successful, which is what I was told coming in,” Vale says.
“Baseball’s had a number of descriptions as a second tier sport, a sleeping giant and I’m largely seeing the opportunities that are there, but also the challenges. Sometimes they can be the same thing.”
“People in baseball have been free with their time in putting their ideas forward and getting me up to speed and I see also a sport that has an optimistic outlook too, that does think big and does want their sport to be bigger and better.”
“If I compare it to hockey,” he said, “hockey was a fraction more conservative when I started - maybe people were a bit more guarded and little bit cautious about where the sport can and should be.”
“I’m seeing a lot of opportunities and I think most in the industry that I’ve been dealing with are certainly articulating that as well. In fact I’ve had a range of people from club land who have reached out - not in a way that tells me everything they think Baseball Australia’s done wrong, but to genuinely put forward ideas or ways to help. That’s always a good thing.”
Having worked with the Melbourne Storm in the NRL, North Melbourne in the Australian Football League and with the Kookaburras and Hockeyroo teams, there is one part of his new role that Vale says will take some adjustment.
“Probably one of the only major differences for me has been that my entire sporting admin life has been in team sport, but there’s always been either a professional team or a team that is full time, particularly from the hockey side,” he says.
“Not having that regularity of connection with coaches and athletes has been a bit of an adjustment for me - I feel it’s missing and it’s one of those opportunities that I see as key. Team Australia.”
“Having our national team with a greater presence, greater visibility in Australia and hopefully over time, seeing what we can do to actually develop our high performance system that might be similar to sports like hockey, AFL, rugby league, etcetera.”
Funding, the Olympics and the Cuba series
Baseball Australia’s planning for the Southern Thunder took a massive hit in June this year, when the organisation was blindsided by the Australian Sports Commission (ASC) and Australian Institute of Sport’s (AIS) decision to freeze baseball’s high performance funding allocation.
“I expressed my disappointment with that announcement,” Vale says. “The reason I did that is because I’m an administrator who hopefully will be here for a good period of time, and I think it’s important that CEOs speak up on behalf of their sports and defend their sports - and in this case I felt compelled to because we were very disappointed with the outcome.”
“Having said all that, we do believe with the Australian Institute of Sport that the outlook is optimistic. Glenn Williams (Baseball Australia’s High Performance Manager) and I caught up with them last week to really clear the air, to communicate where we’re headed and to get feedback about the chances for more funding in the future.”
“I don’t want us to be looking for a handout or begging for funding - what I want is for us to show that we’ve got a clear, successful strategy for our national team and the teams which support it, and that the AIS would want to invest in that.”
With Baseball returning to Olympic competition at the Japan 2020 Olympic Games, there’s a chance to get the sport back on the minds of those holding the purse strings.
“Glenn and I probably have to better educate the AIS about baseball and what the opportunities are,” Vale says. “There’s no doubt if you’re not an Olympic or Commonwealth sport, you do fly below the radar, particularly with the AIS’ ‘Winning Edge’ Strategy.”
“So it’s back onto Glenn and I to communicate and lead up to the AIS as best we can and convince them that the investment in Baseball at the pure high performance end is there.”
“It’s fair to say that the Australian Sports Commission, from the participation side, have recognised that we’re an improving sport and have changed our categorisation (from Category ‘D’ to ‘B’), so on the participation side we received an increase in support.”
“The onus is on the sport to continue to lead and try to change - if it’s thinking that needs to be changed, or outcomes that need to be changed, it’s up to the sport to do that and I accept that.”
One of the biggest opportunities Vale speaks about is the national team. While it can be a logistical challenge to organise, he’s keen to make best use of the country’s best.
“I think we’re going to be on a really exciting path with the national team - it’s one of the best assets that I see,” he continued. “I know we can’t play all the time and we don’t necessarily have the availability of all our players like other sports do for weeks or months on end, but that can make it a really special thing, particularly playing in Australia. That has to be part of the plan.”
A key part of this plan is the proposed international series with Cuba, announced by the Foreign Minister Julie Bishop in late June.
“The plan is hopefully for a 4-6 game series towards the end of 2018, certainly in our summer season.” Vale says.
“With Cuba being such a strong baseball country, there’s a tremendous education piece we can put out not just to the baseball community, but to the broader sporting community and get them behind our national team.”
Vale sees the Southern Thunder as a linchpin of Baseball Australia’s push for the sporting public’s hearts, minds and wallets.
“One of the key things is to educate people that we’re ranked eighth in the world, we’re competing against countries where baseball dominates and we can compete and we can be successful, but not undersell the challenges there are.”
“Cuba is a baseball powerhouse and I think educating people about that here hopefully elevates the support and enthusiasm of the Australian sporting community to get behind our national team.”
Building deeper connections across Asia
Just about every Australian sporting league has a desire to get a foothold in the colossal Asian market. Some seem to think it’s just a matter of showing up and becoming rich, while others have more long-term plans for engagement.
Vale travelled with ABL Chief Executive Ben Foster in July to meet with officials from the NPB, KBO and CPBL. The trip proved useful in more ways than one.
“Even for me coming in, well aware they were big baseball countries but going there, meeting with the Commissioners of the leagues and some of the teams, was an eye opener because of the enormous potential. When you physically see it, you’re talking with people and you see the size of these competitions,” Vale says.
“From a pure Baseball Australia perspective, which includes the ABL - it’s important to stress that the ABL is part of BA, it’s not two separate entities - we need to look at Asia for how we can make the sport grow and be successful in this country.”
“Some of the opportunities are again linked to the national team, and hopefully one of those three countries will be announced at some point in the next month or two about maybe some activity we’ll have with them, which will be really exciting for Team Australia.”
The ABL’s history of team alignments between clubs from the NPB, KBO and CPBL has been a feature of the ‘rebooted’ league. Vale points out that a large part of the trip was to strengthen these links to keep bringing high quality players to Australia.
“What sport in Australia has to be really good at is appealing to Asia about the return on investment for them to be partners with us,” he says.
“We shouldn’t treat these markets as ‘easy markets’, or thinking ‘it’s a percentage of this and if we get that then it’s all happy days’. We need to be very strategic about how we can align really well with them for mutual benefit.”
“I do see Asia as very important for our sport’s success. Hopefully we will be one of the sports in this country that leads that engagement where I think others have treated it superficially or not been in that true partnership mode and that’s what I’d like to see come out of it all.”
An Asian ABL club?
It was common knowledge that plans were afoot to bring one or possibly two Asian sides into the ABL for season 2017/18. But how realistic a proposition is it, and how close did it come to fruition for this season?
“There has definitely been interest,” Vale says. “I think it’s a realistic thing that we can and should be considering in the future - but like any plans around expansion, where sports have probably been successful or not is how well prepared they are, the lead in times to do it, all of that sort of thing.“
“The best way I sum it up to other people in the sporting industry is that we’re effectively the winter league for Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, and they want to play their players here, or they want team alignments or they might go the next step and want to have a team in our league. It is the perfect and tangible opportunity to think ‘how do we make that work for us’?”
“It (an Asian club) was certainly a very realistic thing we were exploring. I would say it had its moments where it was very realistic for this season. It’s not in place - as we’ve seen with the announcements for this season - and it’s certainly something that I want to be considered for the future.”
It’s not just Asia where opportunity is knocking, too. Australian sporting clubs are looking to widen their reach beyond the traditional. Collingwood, the Melbourne Storm and GWS Giants entered franchises in the new Super Netball League and AFL and A-League clubs are buying into e-sports teams.
“I have, dare I say it, had a meeting with an AFL club asking about what’s happened in other sports, and if baseball is going to look at partnerships with an AFL club,’ Vale says. “There’s also businesses and other people who are interested in our local teams as well.”
“I suppose my attitude is quite simple in that I need to represent that the door is open for engagement. Whether that’s out of Asia or Australia, if it’s an opportunity that will make the sport better, I will look at it. That’s what we did in Asia and it’s a realistic and viable option for us moving forward.”
‘Multi-sport’ clubs have been in Europe for decades and Vale can see the local sporting environment is changing.
“It’s something that again we’ve got to be as open as we can as to what’s the best structure for the ABL to be successful in the future,” he says. “The sport’s done a great job to get us to where we’re at and we should never, ever forget MLB’s investment to begin with and throughout has helped us get to this point.”
“As much as they’re not a partner investing in the league any more, I never want to forget the fact that that respect should always be shown.”
Where to now for the ABL?
Seeing an opportunity is one thing, being able to grab it and take it to a conclusion another thing altogether. A sustainable, viable ABL may well be achievable, but Vale and his team face the million dollar question - How do you make it happen?
“I think now, what’s the best evolution for us?” says Vale. “Is it Asia? Is it expansion in Australia? Is it better consolidation and different ownership with our existing teams, or is it a hybrid of all three?”
“I think we’ve got so many viable options to make the ABL successful, and the ABL to me needs to be successful - it’s the shop front into the sport and should have a massive impact on growth…it should certainly play a part not just in our player development but potentially in areas like our coaching development and umpiring development.”
“You’re never static in this space - even if you do find a good solution or a piece that falls into place for a given season, I think it’s important to not just sit back and think ‘well it’s all done’, you’ve got to constantly look at how you’re going to get better.”
Vale is realistic about the size of the task ahead and it appears that he’s keen to build on Australian baseball’s foundations, rather than knocking everything over and rebuilding.
“I’m always careful not to make quotes too early in my tenure but I certainly won’t be a CEO that suggests we need to be very innovative and make people start running the opposite way around the bases or create some hybrid form of the sport,” he said. “The sport itself is a successful product and to be frank, when you’re in my role, when that piece is already in place, I think most other problems are quite solvable.”
“I’ve got some colleagues who I won’t name, but they’re CEOs at national bodies and they have a tremendous challenge because they’re in tough sports - whether it’s climate, or facilities, or equipment, they’re just difficult sports to even try and do this.”
“I’ve at least got the product - one of the best and biggest sports in the world - and I’ve got all these opportunities. It’s then a matter of how do you take them, how do you create them. That’s what really drew me to this role,” he said.
Australian Baseball Alumni extends its appreciation to Cam Vale for his assistance in preparation of this story by AJ Mithen. You can listen to the whole interview on the latest episode of “A Sporting Discussion”, which is available by podcast at http://tiny.cc/asdpodcast.