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Q&A with Alison O’Brien

Name:   Alison O’Brien

Position:   Director of Insight & Customer at the Rugby Football League

About your position?  

The Rugby Football League (RFL)  is the National Governing Body for professional Rugby League in England with the strategic objectives of more players, more spectators, more viewers, financial sustainability for the sport and excellent governance.  I am responsible for all insight, data, research and customer activities.  I provide strategic business planning support for Executive Team colleagues and the Board to strengthen the strategic direction of the organisation, further developing and interpreting insight to formulate innovative strategies for growth of the organisation and the wider sport.  I introduced and maintain customer segmentation to improve understanding in support of strategic objectives.  I am responsible for growth of the customer database and its growth as a strategic and commercial asset.  I am the champion of information, responsible for all data & research activities and data and insight reporting in the Rugby Football League & Super League Europe.  I produce analytics to review performance and to identify new audiences and support retention of existing ones.  I support the identification of hot prospects for central event tickets.  I am responsible for our customer services team and customer strategy.  In addition, I am Chair of the organisation’s Leadership Group, a cross functional management team of 13 to support the delivery of key organisational projects, and I provide mentoring and coaching to the team to support development of their leadership skills.  I am also the RFL’s Director on the European Rugby League Board.

What do you enjoy about your job?  

Lots!  Helping an organisation understand its customers and use data when it has not traditionally put much emphasis on that is very rewarding.  I have a small team and limited budget, and enjoy getting really involved in projects from start to finish.  It’s rewarding to see analytics delivering a change for the better.  Working in sport provides so many opportunities that you don’t get in other sectors.

What have been the highlights so far? 

In my day job, I would say there have been so many from introducing a customer segmentation to producing a report on the social impact of the sport that played a critical role in securing government funding at the start of the Covid pandemic.  Outside of the day job, I had the opportunity to travel to Australia to experience some of the Rugby League World Cup in 2017, and supported colleagues delivering a Four Nations Tournament in the UK in 2016, which saw me get on to the Anfield pitch for the trophy lift – and really impressed my teenage son who is a massive Liverpool fan.

What made you interested in going into this type of work (when you first started out in your career)? 

I fell into data, research and insight when I was lucky enough to secure a year placement as part of my Business Studies degree with Reebok.  There, I used data to analyse sales and got involved in customer focus groups, including for global advertising campaigns.  I enjoyed researching the what and asking the why, trying to predict trends etc.  So, from there I developed a career in data and insight and spent a lot of years working with data and researching customer behaviour in FMCG and grocery retail before moving into sport in 2016. 

What do you find are the down sides to the job (travel/long hours / missing family events/etc)? 

I don’t think I’ve ever had a 5 day week 9-5 job, but working in sport takes that to another level.  I’m lucky to have a supportive family who understand my work is very important to me.  I see the long hours and travel as opportunities to achieve and experiences to enjoy.  I have over the years learned to prioritise important family events and family holidays; achieving a work life balance that works for you and those around you is so important to your health and happiness both in and outside work.

What advice would you give women wanting to do what you do?  

Do it and with confidence.  There is nothing stopping you.  Working with data and insight is really interesting, and sport offers great career opportunities for all.  I have found a number of supportive networks of women who work in sport and have benefited from the support of some great male coaches and mentors.

What advice would you like to give the 25-year-old you?  

Have confidence, sell yourself and go after opportunities; you will surprise yourself and succeed.  Finding an organisation and a role you love is amazing, but it’s important to find the work life balance that works for you and those important to you if you are going to be ultimately successful and happy in all areas of your life.  That won’t be easy, but it is possible. 

What hopes do you have for the women working in the sport business industry in the future? 

I don’t think my hopes for women are any different from those for anyone working in sports business.  Reward and recognition, opportunities to progress and long and successful careers.


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