After two decades of involvement in Australian basketball, Sally Phillips became head of the WNBL in 2016.

By Daniel Herborn


Posted on September 26, 2018

With the WNBL, Australia’s women’s basketball competition, returning to free-to-air television recently, The CEO Magazine caught up with Sally Phillips for an in-depth look at the challenges of running a sport, the importance of physical and mental well-being in executive life, the rapidly changing professional sports landscape in Australia and how the league has changed since she was a player.

You resigned from your role back in December 2017; what made you decide to stay?

I really want to make a difference for the WNBL and women’s sport in Australia so that was a big driver for me to hang in there and stay. When I resigned late last year I was in a really bad place with my health, my anxiety levels were through the roof to the point where I wasn’t functioning and I was becoming very reclusive; something had to give! My Mum taught me from a very early age to treat people the way I would like to be treated and I have followed that mantra my whole life. When I first started in my role that was exactly what I did, treating all the different stakeholders I had to deal with on a daily basis in a way that I would expect to be treated in return. In business, and also in life I guess, I have learnt that this approach is perhaps a little naïve and only sets you up for disappointment.

I was left with a choice, to leave or to invest some time into my own development so I could become more resilient and learn to deal with difficult situations. I still felt I had so much more I wanted to achieve for the WNBL and our athletes.

So I was left with a choice, to leave or to invest some time into my own development so I could become more resilient and learn to deal with difficult situations. I still felt I had so much more I wanted to achieve for the WNBL and our athletes so I attended a 6-week mentoring workshop with Craig Harper and it really turned my life around. He taught me not to expect people to “think, react, communicate or behave like me. The only person who sees the world (exactly) like me, is me.” If I expect others to see the world like I do I was going to be constantly disappointed and frustrated, so I needed to get over it and create a better relationship with myself so I had the confidence to move forward without needing validation or approval from others – especially from people who are not personally invested in me!

I’m now working with the incredible Michelle Redfern participating in a six-month Mentoring to Advance Women female leadership development program so I’m on the right track and really enjoying the challenges that I am presented with and the opportunity to make a difference.

Fast forward nine months and I’m doing a lot better, I try to surround myself with supportive, like-minded people and I’ve also made some big changes to my life away from work to create a healthier and happier me. It’s onwards and upwards!

The WNBL returned to television this past season, how has the league been working to leverage this greater exposure for the game?

The big win for the WNBL was our recent signing of Chemist Warehouse as the league’s naming rights partner for the next three-years; we’d been without a naming rights partner for the last two and not being on TV really hurt us. The support we’ve received from FOX SPORTS Australia to bring us back to TV has been a real game changer, and with SBS now joining us as a free-to-air partner we need to capitalise on our commercial growth.

I urge basketball fans from around Australia to tune in each week and watch the WNBL or to buy tickets or memberships and support your favourite WNBL team. Getting back on TV is one thing, our next challenge is to increase our ratings figures and attendances each week so the league and our clubs can further enhance opportunities to leverage new relationships with prospective commercial partners.

Women’s sports such as AFLW and the W League have grown quickly in the last couple of years. Do you see this as a challenge or an opportunity for the WNBL?

I definitely see the increase in support for Australian women’s sport as an opportunity for the Chemist Warehouse WNBL. The WNBL has been around for 38 years making us Australia’s longest running elite women’s sporting competition, I can say with confidence that our rich history in the Australian sporting landscape should stand for something when we are talking about opportunities for our game moving forward. The Chemist Warehouse Australian Opals are one of Australia’s most successful sporting teams and those players have all been developed by competing in the WNBL. The WNBL competition plays a vitally important role in the continued development and success for the Opals on the global stage.

We do face challenges though, one of those is the constant comparing of women’s sport to men’s sport in the commercial space. Right now men’s sport can blow us out of the water when it comes to the normal key deliverables a corporate partner might be looking for, that being audience and reach – eyeballs! Deliverables that the WNBL can provide to a commercial partner are all around accessibility, engagement in the community and positive role models. The work our WNBL clubs and athletes are doing in the community to engage with grassroots basketball is fantastic. Women need to stop being compared to men; our WNBL athletes are playing the game their way!

Women need to stop being compared to men; our WNBL athletes are playing the game their way!

I honestly believe a brand’s impact in the community will increase significantly by being aligned with the WNBL, we can offer real value that will help brands tell their story; consumers connect with personal stories. Female athletes are incredible role models and in a time where we are wanting the next generation to be full of confidence, self-belief and resilience, alignment the WNBL will assist brands in driving those important, impactful messages.

Basketball has always had strong levels of grassroots participation in Australia, but what are the challenges in converting these junior players into fans of the league?

For me, its all about “You can’t be what you can’t see!” With the Chemist Warehouse WNBL now being broadcast with FOX SPORTS Australia and SBS, I certainly hope that this increase in visibility will help with players of the game converting into fans of the game.

All Australians now have the opportunity to tune in each week to watch the WNBL, exposing those kids who perhaps play the game but haven’t converted into a fan yet to just how amazing the WNBL is. I speak to people leaving WNBL games each week that are first-timers and they are always blown away by what an incredible standard the WNBL is.

As one of the top three leagues globally you only have to attend one game to be converted, the standard is extremely high. I think the other important factor here is the way our clubs and athletes are engaging with the community. The vision of the WNBL is to be Australia’s most accessible, inspiring and globally elite women’s professional sporting league and our clubs are definitely raising the bar when it comes to engagement with their local community and basketball at the grassroots level, we understand that we need to be relevant and engaged with our fans.

What is more important in your role, having an understanding of the sport and its participants or more general leadership and partnership-building skills?

Everything! One of the challenges faced by many people working in sport is that you are under-resourced, so I have to wear many hats! Relationship building is a number one priority for me. First and foremost, I want to ensure that league management has a strong and meaningful relationship with our Clubs, we need to be inclusive and transparent. On-court its game on, but off court I want to see teamwork!

As a former player having played basketball since I was eight years old, the only way I know is the team way. This game means a lot to me and I believe that if we can all work together greatness can be achieved. The other area I invested a lot of my time into when I first started in my role was finding a new broadcast partner for the league – this was all about partnership building. When Paul Maley and I first met with Rebecca McCloy and Adam Howarth at FOX SPORTS Australia we were authentic and honest and that stood us in great stead in beginning a partnership for the Chemist Warehouse WNBL with FOX SPORTS Australia. We had a very important story to tell and bringing any sort of arrogance to the table would have been disastrous, I’m really proud of the partnership we have built with FOX SPORTS Australia.

What would be your quick pitch to convince an Australian sports fan who has never attended a WNBL game to come along?

Without a doubt, you’ll witness some of the very best women’s basketball in the world; you’ll see some of the best players; nine current Chemist Warehouse Australian Opals will be playing in the Chemist Warehouse WNBL this season! As a Mum of two daughters I can also guarantee that the WNBL is an incredible sporting event to take your family to. Our clubs are continuing to raise the bar by providing an exceptional game day experience for the fans, so you’ll have a blast! And most importantly you’ll have the opportunity to meet our amazing athletes after the game, getting up close and personal with your favourite players for autographs, photos, the opportunity to connect and spend a few moments with your WNBL hero!

What is the best part of your job?

I gain enormous value being involved in challenges and activities in which people work together and have enduring feelings of comradeship and loyalty to each other, its what makes me tick and want to get up each day. Being around people that genuinely love the Chemist Warehouse WNBL and want to see it reach new heights is inspiring. I also love the feeling of making a real difference.

When I was a WNBL athlete from 1990 – 2000 I certainly didn’t have anywhere near the same opportunities that our athletes have now. We were paid terribly – there was no minimum wage, we were all trying to combine working full-time and studying with being an athlete, it was a pretty tough slog! Whilst conditions are a lot better now, I recognise that there is still a long way to go when it comes to equality for women in sport and I want to be a part of changing the game for them, ensuring that all female athletes in Australia have the same opportunities as men.

Read on: The CEO Magazine talks to NBL CEO Jeremy Loeliger about Andrew Bogut’s return, the Ben Simmons phenomenon and more