Upon his arrival in 2009, Saracens Rugby Club CEO Edward Griffiths instilled a unique and unorthodox philosophy for his team that centers on people-building both on and off the pitch. His dedication to the “process” has led to Saracens becoming one of the most recognizable global brands in rugby, just in time for the introduction of the sport to the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. With the recent announcement of CME Group’s sponsorship of Saracens, we’ve taken the opportunity to catch up with Mr. Griffiths to get his thoughts on a variety of subjects.
It has been quite a season for Saracens having made it to the final matches of the Heineken Cup and Aviva Premiership while also opening up Allianz Park. Can you reflect on the progress the club has made over the past 12 months?
It’s been another great year for the club both on and off the field. To have finished on top of the Premiership with a record number of wins and record number of points was great. We lost the two final matches which was disappointing, but we need to take a broader view and see that the club is moving forward.
What are your thoughts on the newly formed European Rugby Champions Cup?
The sport in Europe is sometimes difficult for people in the United States to appreciate. There is an in-built concept to most sporting structures in Europe that is between the clubs and the national bodies, and the national bodies run the national teams and typically generate the revenues.
In the past, the European Club Cup has essentially been run by the national union and not necessarily in the interest of the clubs. In simple terms, the clubs are taking control of the competition in which they compete in, so that means it’s a fairer competition in terms of on the field and a more profitable competition off the field. It’s been a bit of a challenge to take control of our own competition, but I’m glad that it eventually happened.
How would you describe your leadership philosophy in regards to building a positive culture for the club?
Basically, we gather talented people together. We treat them unbelievably well and in return they try unbelievably hard — that’s the process we follow. We focus all of our efforts on the process, and we’re content with the outcomes.
Our process, which is key, is looking after people. We just believe that you get more out of people by treating them well, by looking after them as opposed to scaring them. In a lot of professional sports the mantra is to “treat them mean to keep them keen.” We’re at the other end of the spectrum. We want them to feel unbelievably comfortable, unconditionally loved, and supported in everything they do.
Not only the players, but their wives, parents and children as well. We believe this is the way to get the best out of people. Our success on the field over the past five years and the success we’ve had in building people and supporting families more than justifies our approach.
Explain the off-the-pitch development program the club has implemented to prepare players for post-rugby life.
It’s a reality for all of our players that in their mid-thirties or even earlier, they won’t be able to continue to be a professional rugby player. It’s a kind of secret dread or fear about what on earth they’re going to do after rugby to earn an equal amount of money — to keep their wives and children in the way that they’d want to keep them.
We as a club have really tried to address this. Most professional clubs will say: “Well, that’s got nothing to do with us. What happens to them after their sporting life is not really our problem; it’s really for them to sort out.”
In the last few years, we’ve employed three permanent staff to develop second careers for each of our players. Within this program (which is unique in professional sports), it’s actually compulsory for a professional player at Saracens to either be studying at a university for further education or to be doing one day a week of work experience in a relevant field which they’ll move onto after rugby.
We compel our players to address and prepare for their second career. If they don’t know what they want to do, they can try out lots of jobs in different industries until they find what it is that they want to do. We want to ensure that on the day they retire from rugby — whether it happens suddenly through injury or by natural retirement in their mid-thirties — that they are completely prepared.
In most pro clubs, it’s a bright light being in professional sports, followed by darkness and uncertainty afterwards. We’re trying to maintain the bright light so that our Saracens players will move onto their second careers with confidence, excitement, and no fear at all.
It’s a multifaceted program and we invest in it. It’s extremely good business in that by looking after our players, by addressing this fear, it allows players to stay with our club for less money than they might be able to make elsewhere because they can see the wider, longer-term benefits; it’s all a part of the package of playing for Saracens.
Our players are completely comfortable with the reality that with the second-career planning you get at Saracens, in the long run they’ll be far better off by staying with our club. We get an academy player at the age of 18, and he knows he will be a part of our club for 16 years and be provided unconditional support throughout, which demonstrates why so many players stay at Saracens for their entire careers.
What synergies do you see between Saracens and CME Group that should make this partnership successful?
We’ve known CME Group for about a year and what we’re finding within the organization is a company that’s completely focused on its people. We know the London office very well, but have also met with the offices in New York and Chicago.
There appears to be the same kind of people-orientated focus in the company that sits very well with us. When CME Group people get together with Saracens people, there seems to be a great understanding and synergy with a shared value code which ensures a good relationship.
We’re delighted to have CME Group on board sharing in the benefit proper of an association with Saracens — through creating hospitality opportunities for CME Group staff and their customers to exposure alongside the Saracens brand, which is becoming recognized now as the most prominent club brand in world rugby with the establishment over the past year of nine Saracens clubs around the world.
As in any association — be it a marriage or a sponsorship agreement — in the best situations you bring out the best in each other, and I think over the past year at a series of events and occasions, and throughout the whole journey of the sponsorship, CME Group and Saracens certainly seem to bring out the best in each other.
On your recent trip to New York, the club visited Madison Square Garden for a Rangers game. What are your thoughts on the NHL and the recently renovated arena?
Madison Square Garden is a storied, fabled place going back to the Muhammad Ali fights, and around the world, everyone knows about MSG. I think the challenge with these fabled venues that are recognized in sepia in history is to modernize them and to keep up with the times, and it’s clear that they’ve achieved that.
It’s a magnificent, modern, comfortable indoor arena that’s generated a fantastic atmosphere. Many of our players were curious about the NHL as there isn’t that much of a following in the United Kingdom, and they really enjoyed it. It was fast, engaging, and we saw a good game that the Rangers came back to win. Our players were impressed by the speed and athleticism and physicality of the hockey players. It was a unique and very good experience.