When Ella Fitzgerald sang of potatoes and potahtoes, Kelly Ryan was listening.
In her view, obstacles should rather be seen as opportunities – a mindset which will be pivotal to her success as Netball Australia’s incoming CEO. A highly respected marketing executive and business leader, Ryan will face a multitude of challenges as she looks to drive netball forwards in a marketplace impacted by factors such as competition from emerging women’s codes, the boys’ club and Covid19 related financial issues.
Ryan said, “It’s an amazing time where there is a lot of focus on women in sport. Even just five or ten years ago, it wasn’t spoken about as much as it is now. The challenge will come as there are a lot of competing products that exist, but I’d like to think that netball is at the forefront, and will continue to be an attractive proposition for people to play or contribute in some way, shape or form.”
Having spent 15 years honing her skills in the world of Australian Rules Football, netball is a change of sporting scenery, but one that Ryan is excited to make. She said, “Netball is a phenomenal sport, not only as one of the largest participation sports in the country, but it has really strong connections from a global perspective.
“For me, the notion that it enables women and girls in particular, and there is an opportunity to really empower them, was something that I was really keen to continue fostering and driving.”
While Ryan doesn’t officially start her role until the 7th of July, she’s already embracing it – talking about ‘we’ and ‘us’ as she unravels just where she will start. Ryan explained, “To begin with it will be a ‘listening’ tour. I’ve got a short window of time to learn as much as I can about the positives and also the challenges of netball. I need to be listening for quite a while until I feel I’ve got all the information I need before I can start deciding where the priorities lie.
“My first priority will be focusing on the people. I’ve spoken to the board a number of times, and also the executive members of Netball Australia, and I want to speak to every single staff member that I possibly can. Then there are the stakeholders, and the member organisations of each state and territory.
“One of the things I want to focus on is providing a fantastic culture for everybody in netball, and that comes down to the people. We need to make sure we are attracting the best people that we possibly can, and that netball is a destination product for those who work within it.”
People have a high priority in Ryan’s raison d’etre, and she believes netball is a good vehicle to share that message. “Sport can be taken a little bit too seriously, but one of my mantras is that while we are not saving lives, we are absolutely changing them. We have an opportunity to showcase those stories. We can be a voice for all sorts of issues, we can empower women and girls, but also be inclusive and welcoming to anyone that wants to take part in our game.
“We want to provide opportunities for everyone to participate in our sport – regardless of gender, race or religion, and as well as playing that means coaching, umpiring, spectating or in another capacity. Netball has a great opportunity to be the most inclusive sport that exists.”
While Ryan has only just embarked on her learning journey within the ranks of netball, an essential task is familiarising herself with the State of the Game review finalised late in 2020. One of it’s key findings was a vital need to provide far greater opportunities and support for Australia’s First Nations’ people.
“There is particularly work that we all have to do when it comes to our Indigenous Australians, and that is something that I will try and get my head around as quickly as possible – what has happened in the past in netball, and where the opportunities lie in the future.
“I’ve had a fair amount of exposure to that coming from the AFL industry, and collectively we have to work a lot harder in this space. I knew there’s a lot of good intent, but how we actually achieve it is something I’m keen to explore further.”
With a new television rights deal starting later this year, Ryan’s background in marketing will be important as Netball Australia looks at further revenue building. She said, “We need to understand the whole ecosystem, as there are many facets to it.
“We need to make sure that we are maximising the current opportunities that we have, look for new ones, and commercially evolve our thinking. Netball is a collective, and one aspect can’t coexist without the other. So if we can grow our viewership of Suncorp Super Netball that obviously creates more commercial opportunities that we can invest back into grass roots and community level, and vice versa.”
With mainstream media dominated by male sporting codes, Ryan is already thinking outside the square, and believes that netball can be a leader in providing digital content. “We already have strong coverage on our digital platforms, but we also need to look at our relevance across a whole range of other platforms.
“We have an opportunity to be story tellers, and learn more about people connecting with our sport – whether they are playing for the Diamonds, a Suncorp Super Netball club, or a Saturday league. I grew up playing netball in a small country town, and it was a vital part of it’s fabric and economy. The connections are there, and we can continue to create and grow them.”
After winning the AFL’s prestigious Graeme Samuel Scholarship, Ryan honed her leadership skills at Harvard University, completing an Authentic Leadership course. It gave her a greater insight into what’s needed to drive an organisation like Netball Australia. “One of the best things I took from it was the diversity of people I was around, and learning from their experiences.
“It helped me understand that everyone has their own story, is on their own journey, but that we come from a common place. Particularly in regard to women, there’s an enormous amount of work to be done, and the equality piece is still progressing. We are a long way off picking up the paper and seeing women’s sport plastered across the front and back pages.”
With gender inequality also an issue in sport’s leadership – across Australia’s 63 national sporting organisations less than 15% of high performance coaches and 25% of CEO’s are women – Ryan hopes that her appointment might inspire others. “It’s an honour to be seen as a role model. If I can spark a fire in someone out there who wants to aspire to a role like this, that would be phenomenal.
“I came from a small country town in regional Victoria, and never in my wildest dreams would I have thought I could achieve something like this. So if that can create a shining light for someone else, and help give them ambition and drive to succeed, then I take a lot of pleasure out of that.”
With her unique skill set, an enthusiasm that bubbles over in conversation, and a determination to empower our sporting community, Ryan is set to make a considerable impact in her new role. And while netball is fortunate to have her services, Ryan has a more modest mindset.
She said, “I’m incredibly fortunate and honoured to be in this position, and I hope to do it the justice that it absolutely deserves.”