Tuesday, 29 May 2018

OSM - The Fine Art of Sports Management

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If sports management was easy then everybody would be doing it. But with the legendary tale of that handshake between Arnold Palmer and Mark McCormack, founder of International Management Group [IMG] is so often quoted that people forget the many relationships that failed along the way. Or indeed ever since those halcyon days of the industry when management of brands and securing sponsors was a novelty game to everyone. As pioneers Palmer, McCormack and then Jack Nicklaus with Golden Bear, blazed a trail that founded the keystone to what golf is known as today. With most golfers on Tour these days living a lucrative playing - once they breakthrough - and enjoying all the spoils the sport can offer once the achievements are garnered along the way.

The arrival of Tiger Woods twenty years ago only enhanced the financial focus on the sport as his accumulation of titles opened new doors for IMG. And unbroken success which all of a sudden made the impossible possible and that the 18 Major titles record would be matched by Tiger even in Jack's lifetime. In the same way that Roger Federer in tennis has rewritten tennis history at Wimbledon – despite Bjorn Borg’s amazing achievements; or Lionel Messi in football eclipses in his wake the names of Pele, Maradona and Cruyff to a large degree, with every additional title he collects. Or Annika Sorenstam in ladies golf who with her own commitment and ability became an iconic sports personality that has yet to be equalled. With many other sports boasting their breakthrough characters also.

But in the times we live the media, sponsors, and the players are more advanced in understanding their brand, the value of sponsorship and indeed how best to promote themselves to a commercial audience. Twitter being a classic example. Making it more complex these days for any management company to do their job as simply as they would like. With even just the media demands now, print, broadcast, internet and social, all requiring quotes, interviews and sound bites. Then the sponsors naturally seeking to maximise their spend every time they put money down for an event and the ruling federations trying to maintain the codes intact as the pressures from all sides mount and mount. Battling to balance the extending season which now averages close to 12 months. Unless players take a break, as they are forced to in tennis.

Such commercial advances may bring more money. But they also bring more time demands for the talent which requires "real" management, control and understanding. 

In many ways the money is easier to come by but the pressures are increased. Paling in contrast with the early days when Palmer and McCormack secured their first sponsors no doubt. It is perhaps this evolving world where talent now seek to manage themselves more, in order to protect and control image, and struggle with sports management companies in their current format. Which in reality have changed little since IMG became the dominant players in the sports management world and has seen everyone subsequently try to emulate them. The truth being now that young world class athletes are savvier, more self-aware and better informed about what they want. And don’t want. Also more acute too about money matters, which often are triggers for breaks ups or misunderstandings.

Whatever the reasons are for the rumoured rift of World number 2 Rory McIlroy from Horizon Sports, his management partners for the past eighteen months, it can only be a result of some sense of unease from the talent side. In this case the 24 year old from Holywood, County Down in Northern Ireland, holder of two major titles at the same as Tiger Woods and Jack Nicklaus did. A talented prodigy who has set his own standards thus far and may feel that the atypical management structure does not suit him any longer. Especially given that prior to Horizon he was part of International Sports Management, with whom he won his first major, the US Open at Congressional in 2011. 

The chemistry of such relationships can hinge on a thread at times and test the genuine depth of the relationships, particularly when titles and wins dry up. After all, a percentage of the on-course income is a vital part of funding the support team for any golfer and a valuable delivery of annual income. Albeit the annual sponsorship commissions are normally too shabby either. However the lack of winning can cause much soul searching in a golfer and too often the caddie is the first casualty after a poor season. If not a swing or putting coach, with the management company usually the more extreme option. Or indeed even more drastic, a change of club suppliers. And having withstood the collapse at The Masters in 2011, McIlroy defended his caddie and was rewarded with the major at Congressional and then the PGA Championship at Kiawah Island.

But this year, after a stellar year in 2012, when he reached the coveted number spot with frequency, McIlroy switched clubs with much hoopla and immersed himself one hundred percent in the Nike brand. Underestimating perhaps, through youthful exuberance - the potential pitfalls. All so well-articulated by Sir Nick Faldo at the time and based on his own bad personal career experiences. Something even Tiger did not do in his time and has seen Rory McIlroy pay a high price this season with a number of cuts missed and the now infamous walk out at The Honda Classic in April. In what appeared for all intents and purposes from the outside as a visible on course meltdown and very uncharacteristic for the normally bubbly young prodigy. But something was obviously wrong, and then went horribly wrong, with the post walk off press management almost amateurish as Horizon Sports scrambled to button down the rampant world media. 

Which for a small Dublin based organisation - facing an international media crisis - just proved too much to handle at the time. And something that would be bread and butter for an IMG. In addition McIlroy has also found himself in the middle of an – unnecessary – but on-going debate about the 2016 Olympics and what country he will represent. Unnecessary because it is still three years away. 

Or indeed who will he be allowed represent with a number of groups and organisations joining the discussion. Including Peter Dawson at the R&A, Lord Coe and a host of other peripheral organisations. In what is a matter of little relevance at this time and an unwarranted distraction for a man who is proud of his Northern Ireland roots. But cannot help that the politicisation and religious divide is a legacy that still carries unhealed wounds for many on the island still today. That the game of golf happens to be one that covers 32 counties i.e. the whole island – and is not specific to the Republic or Northern Ireland as is in the case of soccer for instance. The added complication being that golf in Ireland does not have a standalone Federation and is therefore managed across a number of agencies and bodies. Some of the purely designed for amateur sport and then the Government who dish out the money to support national events, such as the Irish Open.

With a romantic partner earning her keep at the top of women’s tennis, it has undoubtedly not escaped Caroline Wozniacki some of the shortcomings over recent months and perhaps that a young agency from Dublin who hit the big time so quickly, may have been out of their depth at times. 

It has to be remembered too that the McDowell victory came after forty years of European drought at the US Open and 2010 became the year that the record was smashed by the golfer from Portrush since Tony Jacklin. Whether Horizon had the power to manage results is open to question. Especially when another Northern Ireland golfer reclaims the trophy within twelve months and then followed by Darren Clarke winning the Open Championship at Royal St George that same year. Or when Padraig Harrington broke the Fred Daly record at Carnoustie beating Sergio Garcia in a play-off in 2007. Then retaining it the following year at Royal Birkdale in more dramatic fashion. 

Clearly when the golf gods smile it is a force beyond any sports management company. 

But in the case of McIlroy the unrest has been evident since the start of the year where he has been at the end of more bad news stories than good. With the new clubs becoming part of the perceived problem – albeit $25 million more dollars more a year in his pocket – McIlroy is struggling to make the cut week in and week out. All a contrast with events of last year where Rory’s golf responded itself to every crisis with an end of season on the PGA Tour that saw him win some of the biggest events. Followed by a Ryder Cup at Medinah which he was mature beyond his years. Even though how he was allowed sleep in on the final day of the singles and nearly missed his tee time was very bizarre in itself

When faced with all this, and no doubt Rory’s own agonising, his father Gerry, who worked all the hours to get his son to the top, coach Michael Bannon and many others must have wondered what was going on and how best to regain control of this runaway train. In evaluating all the variables the conclusion must have been that Horizon Sports was perhaps the weakest link at this time, even if the money was rolling in all around thanks to their work

For Rory it’s never been about the money it seems. It is about winning. It seems losing is not something that sits well in his vocabulary given he is so competitive. So given all that it makes sense that he must seek a new balance with his back up team to ensure his talent can shine – and he chases the Woods records. As in some cases in sport, it is the winning that solves everything. 

In this case Conor Ridge and Horizon Sports may be the variable that needs changing in order for the winning to return.

One hopes it can all be done and dusted between them with a handshake.

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