'I'm saying this for the first time': AB's manager's road to the top

NZ Herald

Newly appointed All Blacks commercial manager Megan Compain admits to having been quite dismissive of rugby during her playing days as a professional basketballer. But through a mixture of fate, luck, astute relationship management and a hustler’s mentality, Compain has nevertheless scaled the ranks of sports marketing and management to this year land one of the most important jobs in rugby, having long since discarded her previous indifference to the code.

In a sometimes heartfelt, sometimes hilarious and sometimes hair-raising interview on the latest Between Two Beers podcast out this week, Megan Compain reflected on a life journey that was already quite remarkable well before taking up her latest post.

The 48-year-old enjoyed a compelling sports career that includes being the only Kiwi woman to have so far played in the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) in the US, three professional basketball seasons in Europe, and having represented New Zealand for 10 years and played at two Olympic Games.

She has since also worked globally for Adidas, done three World Cups as an All Black staffer, become a board member for Basketball New Zealand and a Sky Sport commentator.

But having originally gone to the US as a 16-year-old in search of basketball glory, and now boasting an impressive catalogue of anecdotes on her brushes with the likes of Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash, it was arresting that one of the things Compain elected to get off her chest during a podcast otherwise brimming with optimism, was a grooming incident she’d never previously addressed.

“At 16 I was subjected to an inappropriate relationship with someone in a position of power through my involvement in sport,” Compain said. “It created in me long-lasting guilt, blame, and self-doubt, and it took years for me to understand and accept that it wasn’t my fault.

“I was 16 and I was in this environment overseas. I was with someone I really trusted and was a very much a father figure and he abused that trust. It was slight. Like little bits at a time, little bits at a time, little bits of time.

“You can look back now as a grown mature person and go, ‘God, all the signs were there’, that I was getting kind of groomed into this position of isolation, dependency, guilt, and then it manifested itself into a relationship that I wasn’t prepared to cope with at 16.

“And it did all blow up... I’m saying this for the first time, I walked into the sea and I didn’t know if I was going to come out.”

Tall Ferns Megan Compain on court against Slovakia. Photo / Photosport
Tall Ferns Megan Compain on court against Slovakia. Photo / Photosport

Despite an improved focus on gender equality in sport, Compain said protecting young female athletes from potential abuse remains a fundamental issue that has to be addressed.

Females who find themselves in these situations often feel they can’t speak out for fear of retaliation, loss of their sporting career opportunities, and sometimes worst of all, not being believed.

“I hope through sharing a little of my story that it may give someone who could be feeling unsafe the courage to stand up, the confidence to report and expose abusive behaviour, and the comfort to know that they are not at fault.” For decades Compain continued to question whether she should have done things differently herself, before ultimately deciding it was not on her.

But combined with a lack of recognition of her own basketball achievements, for years it fuelled a sense of inferiority, self-hatred and even imposter syndrome.

“Something that I experienced, which I was so ashamed of - to then have 10-15 years worth of self-hatred and come out the other side and realise that it wasn’t me - to just being on a massage table and feeling unsafe.

“And that’s a real problem. It’s a problem in sport that still exists. I can’t understand why that is. Why are there not more measures in place to keep our athletes safe, and our young women safe?

“We know sport is a window to society? So whatever’s happening in sports is happening in society? Can we actually start to create safer environments?”

Compain said it was one of the reasons she is so passionate today about raising “value and visibility” for women in sport.

Media-wise Compain continued to fly under the radar, and even for years afterwards tended to personally downplay her basketball achievements.

That, she said, only finally changed when Labour came to government in 2017.

“Grant Robinson stood up in his first speech as a sports minister, saying ‘women in sport is a priority for this government’. And it genuinely took that kind of vision and spotlight to start to change the perception of everything to... ‘oh, wow, you know, what I did really does matter’.”Because then I started getting invited to speak at panels or do this or do that. And every time I told the story people said ‘amazing’ and I’m like, ‘so you’re clapping, you mustn’t have known that’.”

But if Sean Marks stepped in a room, people would know Sean Marks - and I’m not comparing the two of us because he’s a phenomenal person, basketball player, and now general manager, and a great, great mate.

“But it was different. When he made the [US NBA] league the following year [1998] it was a much bigger deal and announcement.

“And when the government decided that they were going to put a focus on women’s sport, and a lot of different opportunities to talk and to be valued came about, that was when I started to own my story and own my success.

“It did take a little bit of that external validation for it to feel like, ‘Oh, no, I can be proud of this -people actually do think it’s cool.’

“And the funny thing is, people would always say to me they’d know me for a year and a half, two years, and they’d come up and go ‘I didn’t know you went to two Olympics’.

“I mean, no. Why would I introduce myself as ‘Hi, I’m Megan, I went to the Olympics’. In my head, I go, ‘I went to two Olympics with all those other teammates of mine, they went to two Olympics, so it’s not just a me-thing... But it was a real good opportunity to start to celebrate that, own it a little bit and be proud of what I did achieve.

“And that started helping the self-healing process as well.”

Despite a glowing basketball CV, after the Athens Olympics (2004) and approaching her 29th birthday, Compain found herself broke, living in London with no real work experience to speak of.

“When I left Athens, I didn’t get on the team plane home to New Zealand. I just walked out, and, you know, nobody asked, nobody cared.

“We’d done quite well in Athens, we’d beaten China and gone on to the quarter-finals. But none of it mattered and I think I was just really done. But I was the happiest I’d been in those first few days in London, just going ‘I’m free’.”

Compain landed a job with shoe company Roots Sport - UK distributors of And 1 basketball shoes, where she had a previous relationship - and then a couple of months later was invited to apply for a sports marketing job with Adidas, which took her to Germany.

The All Blacks 2005 Northern Hemisphere tour provided further networking opportunities, even though Compain was far from being a rugby fan.

“I grew up, you know, never really watching a rugby game... I fully appreciate and respect the sport now, but there is a little bit of a chip on your shoulder when you play a non-traditional New Zealand sport.

“I had a lot more animosity towards netball, obviously, but rugby was just ‘Yeah, yeah, just not interested. What did you say? I was flipping through Slam magazines’.”

Indeed, the first rugby game Compain ever attended was the All Blacks in Ireland in 2005, with Adidas supplying tickets. There she met Steve Tew, then the CEO of New Zealand RugbyUnion.

With Adidas having a contract with the NBA at the time - as well as with the All Blacks - there was quite a cross-over of interest and Compain was able to do the introductions, hosting a lot of them at rugby games in Europe.

Over the next couple of years, she got to know Tew and All Blacks manager Darren Shand well. Then in 2009 when Compain had left Europe and was travelling in South America, a job came up for All Blacks sponsorship manager.

She applied for the job in Ecuador, was interviewed while in Peru and finally got offered the job in Bolivia. But her job interview had to be done on a mobile phone, with a really bad delay and the NZRU made her sweat over the appointment.

“The HR guy said, ‘You know, we’ve had some really great candidates, and they’ve been here because we’ve been able to sit across the table with them and... it’s just a little bit harder to get a real feel and connection and I don’t even know what you look like’.

“And I said, ‘Oh, just Google me’. I got the job and I started at New Zealand Rugby and apparently the Google mention had made the rounds. The first time I met Piri Weepu, it was like, ‘Ah, gidday Google’.

“So [former All Blacks media manager] Joe Locke and Piri Weepu nicknamed me ‘Google’. That was how I got involved in rugby.”

As sponsorship manager Compain had to bridge the gap between the commercial team and the All Blacks’ environment, where coaches were fiercely protective of sponsors encroaching or taking focus away, while also being “The Brand Police” for the players. Here her approach was not just to inform players of obligations, but to supply an understanding behind why they were there.

Rather than “don’t do this, don’t do that”, Compain’s message was, ‘When you do this, this is what happens - and this is the value that it has attached to it and why a brand like Adidas is 25 years in partnership with New Zealand Rugby’.

“These players are all commercial beasts now. They understand the power and the value of the brand.”

Within this sphere, the growth of social media has made things even trickier these days.

“Even when I started and it was, you know, Facebook was kind of a thing, but there was no Instagram or Snapchat or TikTok or anything like that. It was a lot easier to fly under the radar. You go back to like, Dan Carter never breached his obligations. Nobody knew what Dan Carter was doing, other than when he was stepping out on the field as an All Black, but today the cameras are everywhere.

“It’s our responsibility to make sure the players are put in a good situation... It’s like watches. We’ve got a wonderful watch partner called Tudor, which is the baby company of Rolex.

“They’re amazing, and their watches are beautiful, but hardly ever worn when you’re a rugby player... but then when they sit in front of media, and they put their hand up and they’ve got a Garmin [watch] on or their Apple is on, it’s ‘Ah, let’s switch it off.”

Compain said her background in having worked with commercial partners was helpful in transitioning into rugby, but so also was having been a high-performance athlete.

“One of the biggest compliments I was ever paid was by [former All Blacks coach] Steve Hansen.

“When I first started, he took over the reins, and I started getting a lot more integrated with the team. He said, to me, ‘What you’re really really good at is knowing when when to be around, and more importantly, when to not be around’.

“So I kind of see that as there’s times to have a conversation, and there’s times to just completely walk away, because this is not going to serve anyone’s purpose.”

For Compain it was always critical to build a relationship and trust with players.

“So that when, when I was asking them something, they knew that it was coming from a place of respect, rather than a place of authority.

“It’s going to be really interesting, though, because I am in a different role now, and you’ve got to have that professional distance.”

Compain left rugby in about 2020, had a child and then worked for her partner’s advertising agency, then turned down an opportunity to work for (world football governing body) Fifa, before the All Blacks commercial manager role came up.

New Zealand Rugby saw an opportunity to split the management role, previously fulfilled by Shand, into logistical and commercial responsibilities in a bid to give better focus to off-field detail.

”I think we’d be living under a rock if we didn’t say the last few years have been challenging for the All Blacks team and New Zealand Rugby in that relationship and connection.”

Her responsibility is to manage all off-field requirements so they don’t impact performance, but also to facilitate the investment in the game from sponsors, commercial partners, broadcasters and fans. In essence, her job is to make sure the All Blacks are winning off the field.

“Off-field requirements have grown so much in the last 10 years and the expectations are so much greater. And you have to have a sole focus on that to actually make sure it does stay out of the way of performance.”

But Compain admitted her day-to-day interaction with All Blacks coach Scott “Razor” Robertson has not been high so far.

“I think in 18 months, it will be smooth, but there’s a lot of newness, and there’s a lot of new people, this is a new role.

“So I’m just treading carefully but just trying to make sure that I stay ahead of the game in these space that I need to stay.

“As I said to Razor, ‘If this goes well, I should be invisible to you. If this doesn’t go, well, that’s when, you know, my stuff’s going to come across your desk when it shouldn’t. And my goal is to only have you involved in the stuff that you need to be’.

“Everything else, we’re so well planned and we’re so connected.”

But Compain is conscious Robertson has a significant point of difference with his style.

“He is a visionary and he is a storyteller. And he likes to stand up and tell that story.

“We need to work through a strategy around how we connect Razor to the audience, to the fans through traditional media, through our broadcast media.

“Not only Razor, but the rest of the team as well. I think we want to make sure that we are giving him the platform, but protecting him a little bit, especially early on, because he is so in demand...

“He understands the power of the media, in respect of, I guess he hasn’t been burned by them yet.”