Membership spike pleases new Sharks CEO but challenges on horizon

Two new recruits have given Sharks CEO Barry Russell plenty to smile about during the first few months in his new role but the future of a couple of veteran club stalwarts will give him a tougher time.

Cronulla are enjoying a spike in memberships and Russell believes part of the reason is the club's two high-profile signings, Josh Dugan and Matt Moylan.

On the flip side, they face the prospect of saying farewell to two more stars at the end of this season, long-serving duo Paul Gallen and Luke Lewis.

After reaching 14,325 members in the Sharks 2016 Telstra Premiership-winning year, there was a surprising dip in support.

"I think that [grand final hangover] had worn off," Russell told NRL.com of the post-title euphoria not translating into more memberships.

"In 2017 we missed the semis (lost qualifying final) so it's faded I think. But we've got an exciting future."

The loss of high -profile players hooker Michael Ennis and fullback Ben Barba for 2017 also didn't help. That turned around in 2018 with the arrival of Dugan and Moylan.

Russell can't produce cold, hard data on how those two representative players have attracted more members, but the figures don't lie. This time last year (by May 9, 2017) there were 13,595 and now there are 15,231 – a jump of 12%.

"You get any star players coming to your club, like Moylan and Dugan, can only benefit anything you do whether it's community work, memberships, sponsorships," Russell said.

"Those two guys in particular, I've been impressed with the amount of work they're doing in the community, and how compassionate they are. They've been busy for us.

"It's refreshing. They are very hands-on with the fans. It's unprompted."

Moylan giving his boots to a young fan on the Southern Cross Group Stadium fence after their round-nine win over the Eels – reducing the boy to tears – is one of those off-the-cuff moments.

Russell has two popular but ageing bulls in Gallen and Lewis off contract - their future will be handled delicately.

"I look at this way. They are two quality people. It's not every day a club has a 300-game player who is also a premiership winner. And we've got two of them," Russell said.

"So the experience and the wisdom is priceless. Yes, they have injuries – so we'll see how it plays out. There's no timelines or ultimatums on them."

Gallen (four games) and Lewis (six) have each spent time on the sidelines - it will be up to them to decide if Father Time is tapping them on the shoulder.

Barry Russell in his playing days for Cronulla.
Barry Russell in his playing days for Cronulla. ©NRL Photos

Even if the 30-somethings did ride off into the Shire sunset, it wouldn't dampen the club's spirits for too long.

Russell has only been in the chair eight weeks, but he was left no nasty surprises like Bulldogs CEO Andrew Hill as far as salary cap compliance goes.

And off the field, the $3.8 million loss for the Sharks football club last financial year, will be turned into a small profit within two years, according to Russell.

A lot of that is due to the success of the three residential towers, with 460 apartments in total, being built adjacent to Southern Cross Group Stadium – stage one already has residents; stage two is completed, and stage three begins by the end of May.

"We're just settling on stage two at the moment; people are starting to move in," Russell said.

Cronulla star Matt Moylan.
Cronulla star Matt Moylan. ©NRL Photos

"There's a percentage flow-back to the club from every unit sold. It helps us set up the future. Stage three starts in about a fortnight's time.

"In a couple of years time it will be all finished. I've seen a lot of developments around Sydney through my time with Harvey Norman (nine years commercial manager) and this is a premium location ... golf courses and beaches nearby.

"You can't be built out. I've bought in there myself."

Cronulla were known for so long as cash-poor and in the 1998 rebuild after the Super League war, there was a push to merge with the Rabbitohs to create the South Sydney Sharks. It was at the same time as North Sydney and Manly; Wests and Balmain; St George and Illawarra formed joint ventures.

The Sharks don't need to contemplate that fate any more as they are finally reaping the benefits of being asset-rich – they own their land, stadium included. Now the trick is for the football club to cut its reliance on the Leagues Club.

"The challenge for me is to ensure our commercial revenue streams are intact and solid so that we can ultimately have a football club that's financially independent – that's our goal," he said, setting himself a deadline of three years.

"With sponsorships, memberships and other revenue streams we can be financially sound and independent – and there's many football clubs that make money."

But wait, there's more.

Sharks fullback Josh Dugan.
Sharks fullback Josh Dugan. ©NRL Photos

Sites in the Sutherland Shire are being scouted to build the Sharks' high-performance centre. The NSW Government has given $8 million and the Sharks are lobbying the federal government and local council. The plan is to start building midway through next year.

"We're looking at a couple of sites. It was planned for in the stadium initially but we feel taking it outside will give us a far better touch on the community," Russell said.

Russell played 77 first-grade games with the Sharks (1985-91), famously winning the Rothmans Medal in 1988 ahead of the red-hot favourite, teammate Gavin Miller.

Paul Gallen and Luke Lewis.
Paul Gallen and Luke Lewis. ©NRL Photos

He is the eighth Sharks CEO since another former player Greg Pierce left in July 2007.

"You obviously need business and commercial acumen too," he said when asked if being a former player helped or hindered being a CEO. "And if you've got the footy side, that's a bonus. I know how the structures work from the ground up.

"We've had a high turnover in CEOs here. I'd like to bring some stability to the position and stay here 10 years."