In episode eight, Ian Byers talks about the motivations, challenges and successes of setting up a sports management company with Paralympic champion Hannah Cockroft MBE.
Ian is Managing Director of 17 Management, a sports management agency whose clients include Paralympic gold medallist Hannah Cockroft MBE and Paralympic bronze medalist and 9 times grand slam champion (wheelchair tennis) Jordanne Whiley MBE. Ian strongly believes in establishing a culture and creating the right environment to allow talent to perform to the optimum. Ian describes the ethos of the company in a nutshell, “what is in the best interest of the athlete”. Ian is a UK Athletics Approved Athlete Representative, FA registered intermediary and a UK Anti Doping (UKAD) Accredited Advisor.
Read more about Ian and 17 Management here:
- Paralympic champion Hannah Cockroft launches own sports management company
- Hannah on a mission: Paralympic star wants to inspire next generation
- A balanced future for commercialism in women’s sport.
THE TRANSCRIPT BELOW WAS TYPED FROM A RECORDING AND NOT COPIED FROM AN ORIGINAL SCRIPT. BECAUSE OF THE RISK OF MISHEARING AND THE DIFFICULTY IN SOME CASES OF IDENTIFYING INDIVIDUAL SPEAKERS, WE CANNOT VOUCH FOR ITS COMPLETE ACCURACY.
TX: 15.1.17 – Ep 8. Ian Byers – sports management agent on enabling talent
HOST: TAMMY PARLOUR[Music]
TP: Welcome to A Question of Performance. I’m Tammy Parlour and in this series I’ll be talking with leading figures from sport and business about what improves, limits and drives performance. Join me for 20 minutes of discussion twice a month to hear a range of views on what it means to be successful, how to cope with failure and what people have learnt along the way.[Music]
I’m here with Ian Byers who’s Managing Director of 17 Management a sports management company that boasts a host of Olympic and Paralympic stars on their rosters. We’re here to discuss how a management company can move the obstacles in order to encourage high performance. But before we do that, it’s probably useful to explore the origins of 17 Management as a company. Without doubt, the company’s roots both define their ethos and shine a light on why they’ve been so successful. So how did 17 Management originate?
IB: I went to London 2012 as a fan and I went to the Olympic Games. I’m just a massive sports fan and I’d always intended as soon as London won the bid I thought when it comes round I’m going to take two weeks off work and I’m going to get every ticket I possibly can and I’m going to go every event in sport and ended up with 18 tickets.
So I went to the London 2012 Olympics – inspired, and I thought well, I’ve got to go to the Paralympics now. Whilst the Olympics inspired me the Paralympics absolutely blew me away. Something just absolutely clicked inside; I’d just never seen anything like it before. I think in the first few days of the Paralympic Games it was disabled people doing sport, but after the first couple of days I think the crowds, and certainly myself, saw through the disability and just saw elite athletes.
I came away from the Paralympics in London, totally totally inspired and I said to my wife, “I’m going to get involved in disability sport.” I’d no idea how at the time, and it did seem a bit of a rash thing to say really, but Hannah Cockroft tweeted one day, “Is there anyone out there in Twitter land could build me a website?” and I just happened to have built a few websites for a friend and it was just something I liked doing, and Twitter is one of these things I think there’s an element of fate that maybe you see a Tweet and then 20 minutes later you’d probably never have seen it, so I just happened to see it and I wrote back and said, “Look, you don’t know me from Adam, Hannah, but yes I’d love to build you a website. I went to 2012 totally inspired and it’s just a little bit of giving back.” I met with her and her family and we all got on great and we sort of dealt with the enquiries that came through the website and things and sensed after a while that things weren’t great between Hannah and her agent, and she came to me one day literally crying her eyes out saying, “I’ve got real problems and I can’t trust this agent. I think they’re stealing from me, they’re doing my reputation a lot of damage,” and I said, “Well, look between us, I’ve got a business background and experience, between you, me and your Mum let’s keep the balls in the air as best we can, let’s find you another agent that you’re happy with and then we’ll carry on as we are,” but, we never actually got to that day because the more I got involved in Hannah work the more I loved it. The reason it seemed to work so well I think that because I was doing just as a hobby, no other word describes it really, so just completely on a voluntary basis, every single decision that was made was made in what I believed to be Hannah’s best interest. There was never one decision was what’s best for my wallet? What am I actually going to get out of this? Not one. Obviously, further down the line, we decided to start the management company, but that principle we’ve adopted to this day and that’s possibly what makes us a little bit different from some of the other management companies out there.
TP: When did the shift happen from this being a hobby to actually setting up the company?
IB: We started to talk about it in – gosh – 2014, but I’d been in the construction industry ever since I’d left college and it was a pretty high level stressful job and I just was starting to feel that I’d taken the job as far as I could take it. I was actually getting married and I’d sorted planned actually to immigrate to the US and that was very much the plans. Hannah was like, “No, no, don’t go, don’t go.”[Laughter]
And my Mum was the same, and there was an elements of lots of people starting to approach me as well saying, “I see what you’ve done for Hannah, would you represent me?” and I’m having to say, “Look, no, that wasn’t the plan,” the plan was very much to help Hannah out until she found someone else and then just sort of take a backseat really. So we never got there, we took the decision that we would start the 17 Management and we integrated Hannah as part of the business, and it’s just gone from there really.
TP: So was it smooth sailing?
IB: Early on your instant reaction is you need clients because if you don’t have clients you don’t have a business. The reality is that’s not true, you actually need the right clients. But there are lot of people out there that think they need management but the reality is that they don’t, they’re quite capable with just a little bit of organisation of doing it themselves, and that certainly one of the things we’ve learnt now is to really explore the question at the beginning why are you talking to us? Why do you think need representation? We do an element of agency work with trying to identity and bring in sponsors for people, but we’re very strong on the management. So really taking care of anything and everything that is causing stress or maybe impacting on performance, whether it be a relationship issue maybe with your coach or with your governing body we’ve been involved trying to resolve those sorts of issues whether it be media pressure or request for appearances, so we just take of trying to manage everything just to allow the athlete to just focus on what they’re doing best and that is train and compete.
TP: So, just to fully understand what it is that you do, can you talk me through a day in the life?
IB: There’s no real typical day. The main thing certainly at the end of the Rio Paralympics, so we had two clients that represented Team GP in the Olympic Games, Todd Bosworth who did incredibly well, he went into the 20 k race sport and ranked 37th and he finished in 6th place and he led the Olympic Games final for well over an hour, which was an incredible achievement. On top of that, Tom then, two days later, proposed to his partner on Copacabana beach and the media frenzy that followed that was just nuts, it was just crazy. His Tweet had a million engagements and we were getting phone calls from all over the world all wanting to talk to Tom who was obviously at that point now in Rio, so trying to manage that on Tom’s behalf whilst he was in Rio was quite challenging.
Then our other athlete that took part in the Olympic Games was Jade Lally and Jade is in the women’s discuss and she went in and ranked about 6th in the world? And, to be honest, she didn’t have a good game, she came pretty much last. And so there was a lot of managing expectation there because Jade was pretty devastated obviously with her performance. She had thrown at the London Anniversary Games in the Diamond League and came in 3rd place, so she went in really full of hope and expectation, certainly to make the final but not to make the final was devastating for Jade, so there as an element of trying to manage the disappointment. So with Tom, you’re trying to manage the over expectation if you like, and with Jade the disappointment of not achieving perhaps what she should have done.
Then we moved to the Paralympic Games where obviously athletes like Hannah Cockroft and Hannah Russell came back with three medals – in Hannah Cockroft’s case three golds and in Russell’s two golds and a bronze. So, again, around the Games and it’s still sort of going on to now, we were getting maybe 40 or 50 media requests a day and just to try keep on top of all of that was fairly challenging.
TP: So you had a busy Rio?
IB: A busy post Rio. During the actual Games itself wasn’t too bad, but certainly post that.
TP: A number of your athletes are Paralympians, is interest in Paralympic sport growing? Is it developing? Do you see a difference over the years?
IB: Yes it’s growing. It still doesn’t compare to the Olympic sport, but I guess with both really, Tammy, everyone wants to be associated with winners. So, the Hannah’s, for example, there have been a lot of interest in them, whereas a guy like perhaps Rob Oliver who made his final, he was the only Para canoeist not to know, and the people who didn’t quite so well maybe Jordanne Whiley nine grand slam titles in stunning form going into the Games but then picked up an injury which curtailed her singles opportunities, although she picked up a bronze in the doubles it was certainly below what was expected. It does go in big sort of swings and roundabouts really. When successful the Paralympians are in great demand; less successful the Paralympians really drop off the radar, whereas the Olympians if they’re less successful are still sort of there, if that makes sense?
TP: Does that put a lot of pressure on the athletes?
IB: As an athlete, I don’t believe any athlete doesn’t go out there not wanting and expecting to do their best, because any job you do nobody wakes up in the morning and thinks, ‘I’m going to go to work today and have a shocker,’ everyone goes…
IB: …believing that they’re going to do well – if they’re not they shouldn’t get up, to be honest. Obviously funding for all of the sports is based on their performance. UK Sport set the targets. For example, Paralympic athletics had a target of 13 gold medals. Now if Hannah Cockroft was to think, ‘Well hold on, I’m going to bring home three,” so that’s just under 25% of the gold medals for one person, if she’d screwed up completely and hadn’t got any, rather than the 13 target suddenly they’re looking at 10, or something like that, they over achieved so I can’t remember exactly how many they won. But if a sport underachieves by that much then the UK Sport funding could be cut and people could lose their jobs and there are always those pressures too, so I think just thinking, ‘Oh if I don’t win I’m not going to be in the public eye,’ if you start thinking of the wider implications of you failing to perform, then [laughs] well I wouldn’t go on the start line.
TP: Ian, you’ve spoken about athletics assesses and the sport success and so forth, is 17 Management successful?
IB: It depends how you define successful.
TP: Exactly, well that was going to be my [laughs] follow up question?
IB: [Laughs] To me, success is people appreciating a little bit of what you do, it’s not just about the bottom line. If you’re measuring success in terms of the bottom line – no, I’d suggest we’re not that successful yet, but we’ve only been going for two years in a completely new industry. Are we doing better than we thought we would? Yes, we are. Are our athletes doing well? Yes, they are. Is that down to us? Well, I’d like to think a little bit, but, at the end of the day, it’s them that put all of the hard work and effort in. How would you define success, Tammy?
TP: For me, it’s about constantly growing and learning. And there are some setbacks and things, but if I feel as though I’m forwarding then I feel as though I’m being successful. And that’s in relation to anybody else, that’s just as far as my own progress.
IB: Taking that as definition, then yes, 17 Management is successful, because we’re certainly moving forward, we’ve taken some decisions in the last few weeks to try and expand, as you said earlier, because of Hannah Cockroft’s involvement we’ve been known perhaps as a para management company, whereas we do represent able bodied male and female athletes too. And we’re just moving now into team sport – as we see there’s of growth in team sport, particularly women’s team sport, so we’re now working with Elinor Snowsill who is a Welsh Rugby International, and I think women’s rugby is certainly a sport where there’s going to see incredible growth in the next few years, certainly off the success of the Sevens in Rio. Obviously women’s hockey is very much a hot topic at the moment – again, on the strength of the gold medal in Rio. Women’s netball obviously, again, the professional league now in the UK will help propel netball forwards. I think there is a lot of growth in team sports. We’ve also just started working with FS Professional Football, a guy who plays in league one.
TP: A lot of things happening, a lot of things bubbling along.
IB: Yes, absolutely.
TP: Any dreaming of America at all?
IB: [Laughs] No at the moment, not at the moment, certainly not [laughs].
TP: [Laughs] Brilliant.
IB: Tammy, we just want to do business the right way and be known for doing it the right way, if that makes sense?
IB: Yeah, that’s what we’re about as a company. As I say, we’re more management than agency. We do in the quieter times identify potential sponsors and talk to sponsors, we’ve been reasonably successful like that, but certainly some of athletes more than others and it’s, as we said earlier, everybody wants to support the winners it seems, and certainly those that are succeeding are the ones getting the sponsors, okay?
TP: I’ll just ask you some quick fire questions.
IB: Of course.
TP: What did you eat for breakfast?
IB: Today I had porridge with a banana. I have to admit I stirred in a little bit of Nutella and [laughs] a cup of black tea.
TP: Brilliant. What’s your favourite of kit, sports kit?
IB: I’ve got a torch from the London Paralympic Games, so I think because that was an absolute turning point in my life I would have say my Paralympic torch.
TP: Sporting hero?
IB: When I was younger, my sporting hero was Ian Botham, he was just a genuine all-rounder but I just loved his attitude sort of no nonsense, never say die spirit. And I think that was really typified in 1981 when he pretty much single-handedly won the Ashes for England having been stripped of the captaincy after the first two Tests, which I think to lose the captaincy of the your country must be a real kick in the teeth. And to bounce back from that, and as I say, there were two Tests following that, Headingly and Old Trafford if I remember rightly where he just totally dominated the games and it was just his spirit. And then to move from cricket into the charity he’s done and then from there into broadcasting, so certainly in my younger days Ian Botham was my hero. Now, I’ve got to say all the guys I work with on a day to day basis, they’re all my heroes really, all of our athletes, they just inspire me every day to get up and get on with what I do.
TP: Most useless piece of advice you have received or handed out?
IB: I’m not one for useless advice, Tammy. I’ve had plenty of good advice in the past.
TP: Okay, let’s turn that over then. A good piece of advice you’ve been given?
IB: If it’s not working do something about it. And that doesn’t matter what situation you find yourself in, it doesn’t get better on its own so if something isn’t working, do something and change it.
TP: How about greatest passion outside of sport?
IB: Oh, my life is sport 24/7.
TP: Is there anything else outside of sport?
IB: There really isn’t.
TP: Okay, last question then, best performance enhancer?
IB: Well you can’t beat a glass of red wine in the evening [laughs] but, I’m not sure if that counts.
TP: Oh, I’m with you there, I think – yeah, nothing beats a glass of that a day.
IB: Okay, in that case, we’ll go for a glass at the end of the day, that’s a nice way to finish your day.
TP: Well thank you so much, Ian. I really appreciate talking to you today.
IB: Tammy, it’s been a real pleasure, thank you.[Music]
TP: Thanks for listening. You can follow the conversation on Twitter, Facebook and also don’t forget to subscribe online to aquestionofperformance.com.[Music]