If the NRL is hoping for a club to fold as part of its expansion plans, Cronulla won’t be that team.
That’s the emphatic message from Sharks chairman Dino Mezzatesta, who is adamant the Shire outfit will be around for the long haul. In an in-depth interview with The Sun-Herald, Mezzatesta opens up about the the salary cap investigation, the club’s financial dramas, the decision to appoint rookie coach John Morris and the future of chief executive Barry Russell.
Will the Sharks fold or relocate?
Cronulla’s financial dramas are well publicised. Despite a big increase in NRL funding, the Sharks posted a $3.2 million loss last year. That prompted a raft of redundancies before Christmas, while the club is still waiting for a long-awaited payday from the development of its precinct. Other dramas include the stepping down of premiership-winning coach Shane Flanagan and the prospect of going into the season with all of the club’s major sponsorship properties unsold. While the NRL insists it wants all of its existing clubs to survive and thrive, it won’t bail clubs out of financial trouble, raising fears the Sharks could fold or be forced to relocate. Mezzatesta is having none of it.
"Cronulla will not be the first club that falls victim, or becomes the first casualty, to the NRL’s intent to maybe expand the game or use an existing license," Mezzatesta said. "That won’t be our club.
"Sometimes those tough decisions need to be made, things like having a bit of a restructure and there have been some redundancies as a result of that.
"I can sit here and tell you very confidently we won’t be that club that will be relocating. Whilst we’re faced with adversity, it makes it hard to write sponsorship. But I have never come across a more resilient brand than the Sharks."
Salary cap investigation
The Sharks are already facing an $800,000 NRL fine relating to Flanagan, but a further financial hit could be coming. Russell self-reported a $50,000 anomaly to head office, although the probe could uncover further salary cap issues. Mezzatesta said the fact the Sharks brought the matter forward should be taken into consideration.
"We as a group all agreed it was the right thing to do and to this day we would do it all over again," he said. "From what we have self-reported and where we are today - is it disappointing we’re still waiting? Yes it is.
"I’d like to think the NRL would give us some leniency on the basis the competition is about to start and I certainly wouldn’t want this hanging over our head running into a competition. I will continue to work with the NRL to expedite that process and help us out.
"It was a self-reported matter concerning $50,000. Let’s see what the end result is."
John Morris got the nod to replace Flanagan ahead of fellow NRL coaching rookies Cameron Ciraldo and Justin Holbrook. There was some surprise the club offered him a three-year deal instead of a shorter tenure.
"You think about giving a person an opportunity and I don’t think it merits giving him anything less," Mezzatesta said. "What he has done so far is impeccable. If you look at our roster, the next 3-5 year time period is critical. Therefore, he gets a really good go at in terms of retention and a hard look at recruitment and the strategy looking forward.
"To do that appropriately you have to give him tenure and we’ve backed him 100 per cent."
Three directors have stepped down since the salary cap probe began. Now there is growing speculation that Russell will do likewise once he navigates Cronulla through the salary cap findings.
"Barry commented in the press conference [on Friday] that he is our CEO - he is our CEO today, our CEO tomorrow and he is locked in," Mezzatesta said. "That’s where we stand as a club and we support that. We will continue to work well with Barry and the extended team."
Cash for the future
The redevelopment of the Shire precinct was seen by many as the silver bullet to the club’s financial troubles. However, Mezzatesta said membership increases and revenue diversification were also part of the plan to secure Cronulla’s future.
"We’re very fortunate to have a great development partner in Capital Bluestone who work closely with us," he said. "They have also got a responsibility to deliver a community centre in the Shire and that’s really important for our club as well.
"We know the development is on foot and the business is tasked to ensure that when those funds materialise we invest them appropriately to ensure there is a sustained revenue stream in the future."