‘We’re not trying to be the biggest, we want to be the best’: Roc Nation president Michael Yormark

In 2013 Roc Nation Sports became part of Shawn ‘Jay-Z’ Carter’s music and entertainment empire. Five years on, with dozens of leading US athletes on its books, it has the world of soccer in its sights. President and head of branding Michael Yormark talks about how music, lifestyle and personality inform its unique approach to its clients.

‘We’re not trying to be the biggest, we want to be the best’: Roc Nation president Michael Yormark

There are people who make an impression whatever they do. Shawn Carter, better known to millions as Jay-Z, is one of them: a hip-hop titan who has been one of the more compelling figures in popular culture for two decades.

His business career had already taken some surprising turns by 2013 when he announced that his music and entertainment company, Roc Nation, would be creating a sports division. Whatever it did, people were bound to pay attention.

Roc Nation Sports has since become reputed as one of the more forward-thinking and disruptive talent agencies in the industry, and the whole enterprise is headed up by a man who has made his own career departure – even if it is less dramatic than those of Jay-Z. Michael Yormark was appointed as president and head of branding at Roc Nation in 2014. His background, like that of twin brother Brett, had been in the business of teams – Michael Yormark was president and chief executive of the National Hockey League’s (NHL) Florida Panthers before making the move to New York. Now, it’s in the lives of artists and athletes.

“Running a team, the playbook doesn’t really vary from day to day, week to week, month to month,” he says, speaking to SportsPro in July ahead of an appearance at The Brand Conference in London in September. “It’s pretty simple. But your playbook when you’re working with athletes does change from athlete to athlete, and it also changes during the evolution of that athlete’s life and career. So the goals and objectives of an athlete during their rookie season is going to be very different from what they want during the middle of their career or the end of their career.

“I look at Kevin Durant as a great example. We’ve been working with Kevin now for four or five years and he’s gone through a lot of different phases of his career. When he first joined Roc Nation he had certain goals and objectives. Once those were accomplished, he went into what I would call ‘phase two’. Now, he’s in a ‘phase three’: being a little bit older, 29 and about to turn 30, you tend to look at your career a little bit differently both on the court and off the court. So the real difference in working with athletes as opposed to a team is that with the athletes, you’ve got to be flexible, you have to be a little bit more mobile, you have to be able to change course, and the playbook changes.”

Michael Yormark was appointed as president and head of branding at Roc Nation in 2014

Durant, who has won consecutive NBA Finals MVP awards since moving to the champion Golden State Warriors at the start of the 2016/17 season, is one of just a few dozen athletes on the Roc Nation Sports roster. His stablemates include fellow NBA players like Jeremy Lin and youngster Josh Hart, the WNBA’s Skylar Diggins, baseball star and founding client Robinson Cano, and boxers Miguel Cotto and Andre Ward.

“When an athlete or an artist joins our company, it’s really important that they understand that they are joining a bigger family – a family that’s going to be committed to helping them achieve their goals and objectives 24/7,” says Yormark, when asked what qualities Roc Nation looks for in a new client. “And, you know, quite frankly, it’s not just during their actual career. One of the big things that we focus on here at the company is really post-career development as well. We’re looking for long-term relationships with all of our clients.

“I think another differentiator is that we really look at ourselves as a 360-degree agency. I guess the best way to describe that is that it’s basically one-stop shopping. Whether it’s an artist or an athlete, obviously we’re going to focus on their goals and objectives whether it’s on the field, on the pitch or on the stage, but we’re also brand-builders. One of the things that we do really well is help them develop their brand off the stage and off the field and off the pitch, which in our minds is equally important.”

The controlled scale of the agency’s roster is in keeping with a “less is more” approach.

“We’re not trying to be the biggest agency in the world, we want to be the best,” Yormark adds. “In order to provide the level of expertise and service and commitment to our clients that we want to, it’s not about having a roster of 100 athletes or hundreds of artists, it’s about being very selective, very strategic, working with a small group of artists and athletes that are really leaders in their space and that require and deserve a high level of service, attention, focus and commitment.” 

 It’s about being very selective, very strategic, working with a small group of artists and athletes that are really leaders in their space

For those athletes who are signed to Roc Nation’s books, the emphasis is on comprehensive service. The agency sees itself as being in control of the full breadth of any client’s career and public profile.

“From a sports standpoint, obviously, we negotiate the on-field contracts – or on-court or on-pitch contracts,” Yormark says. “In addition to that, we also focus on marketing, brand partnerships, building out an athlete’s commercial platform.

“We’re also focused on helping that athlete expand their social and digital reach. As we all know, social media is very important today as it relates to engagement and fan activity, and those are the things that we feel very passionate about. We also handle the public relations for all of our athletes as well as their philanthropy – whether it’s supporting a cause that they’re passionate about or starting a 501(c) (3) foundation, that’s something that we offer at Roc Nation as well.”

The typical Roc Nation athlete, he adds, is “great at what they do” and boasts a number of other personal qualities. “We want to make sure that we sign athletes that are really passionate and committed to being the best, both on the field and off,” he continues. “We want athletes that want to be part of a family and want to be part of something that’s different and unique and disruptive, in a very positive way.”

For the most part, Roc Nation has been operating in the US major leagues and in boxing. The plan now is to expand aggressively into the global soccer market. “That’s a growth opportunity for us,” says Yormark. “We see enormous opportunity.”

Bayern Munich’s German international defender Jerome Boateng was signed all the way back in the summer of 2015, but Belgian striker Romelu Lukaku joined only this year. Both of those clients require a slightly different tack from others the agency looks after, with Roc Nation only in charge of commercial interests as each player has his own set of representatives to handle contractual and transfer matters. For Yormark, getting that adapted set-up to work is a case of trying to “develop relationships with their other representatives” – CN Sports in Boateng’s case, and Mino Raiola for Lukaku –  “as much as you possibly can”.

Bayern Munich defender Jerome Boateng is one of two Roc Nation soccer clients

In the longer term, however, the intention is to build up the in-house knowledge required to navigate the sometimes arcane intricacies of soccer’s transfer market and offer newcomers the same kind of all-in offer that US clients enjoy.

“We here at Roc Nation are quick studies, and I have been leading the charge on the football side of the business,” says Yormark. “We’re learning quickly. We’re talking to a lot of people.

“We are actually in the process of hiring a consultant who has been part of the Premier League for the last 20 years, understands the league, understands the football business, knows all of the key strategic relationships. So through that relationship with that consultant, we’ll continue to learn a little bit more about the business and how things are done.

“But, you know, listen: it’s fairly simple. If you know how to negotiate contracts, if you’re good at developing relationships, if you’re a quick learner, all those things combined will ultimately lead you to success.”

That consultant would come into a soccer operation with a new centrepiece in London, where Roc Nation Sports expects to have an office open in the fourth quarter of 2018 that would serve as its global soccer headquarters. Yormark has high expectations for the soccer division, believing it can be among the most influential in the world within the next three to five years.

Plenty has already been learned from the work that the agency has been doing with Boateng and Lukaku, much of it speaking to the need that Yormark outlines for that more flexible playbook. In the case of Lukaku, whose profile skyrocketed last year after a UK£75 million move from Everton to Premier League giants Manchester United, the Fifa World Cup in Russia was confirmation of long-gestating star status. The 25-year-old was the spearhead of Belgium’s best tournament performance in recent memory, with the Red Devils thrilling their way to a third-place finish and only just edged out in the semi-finals by champions France.

“Obviously, we signed him about 45 days before the World Cup started,” Yormark recalls. “We had a very aggressive strategy to amplify his brand and his visibility and his exposure prior to the tournament. When you think about the last 60 to 90 days, it’s been a perfect storm for him. He joins Roc Nation; we do a couple of high-profile interviews, one of which was with The Players’ Tribune and really for the very first time enabled Rome to talk about his life story, which was very powerful and compelling, and went viral and was picked up by every major media outlet in the world.”

That article, titled ‘I’ve Got Some Things To Say’, gave fans an insight into Lukaku’s childhood of grave poverty in Antwerp and the drive that allowed him to make an extraordinary early impact in Belgian soccer. It opened up on the image of a player of whom relatively little was widely known beyond the pitch.

“We then consummated an incredible partnership with Puma for his boot deal,” Yormark continues. “And then he gets to the World Cup and he has a magnificent tournament. He ended the tournament as the second leading goal scorer behind [England’s Harry] Kane. So the world now knows who Rome is, not only as a great footballer but they now understand his life story, what inspires him, what motivates him, what pushes him each and every day.”

We’re not trying to be the biggest agency in the world, we want to be the best

Hip-hip icon Jay-Z founded Roc Nation Sports in 2013

With the tournament over, Roc Nation will now take Lukaku into what Yormark calls “phase two of his brand-building”.

“We absolutely need to capitalise on the incredible visibility and exposure that he received going into the World Cup and that he received at the World Cup,” he adds. “Rome is actually going to be in New York and we’re going to sit down and discuss what that phase two looks like. And we’re really excited about the future.”

For Boateng, a world champion in Brazil in 2014, this summer’s experiences were very different indeed. The 30-year-old played less than two games in Russia, struggling as Mexico tormented Germany on the break in their opening match, and then sent off late in a dramatic win over Sweden. He was suspended for the final group game, where a stunning defeat to South Korea meant Die Mannschaft were eliminated from the World Cup in the first round for the first time since 1938.

Yormark is phlegmatic about that outcome, and insists that Boateng’s representatives will be “turning that page very quickly” and moving on to the next chapter in his career.

“I think it was disappointing not only for him but obviously for the entire team,” he says. “But I don’t think that experience has in any way damaged his brand. Jerome is an elite player, one of the top defenders in the world. During the beginning of the World Cup there was a ranking that came out about top footballers that speak to lifestyle and fashion and culture, and Jerome was number one. He has developed a unique following in the world of fashion and lifestyle. That’s an area that we will continue to capitalise on.

“He plays for one of the biggest teams in the world, Bayern Munich, which provides him with consistent visibility and exposure to a global audience. We have helped him develop a very robust commercial platform and he has six or seven great corporate partners that do a terrific job of promoting him and enhancing his exposure and visibility.”

Media reports over the summer have linked Boateng with a move to free-spending French champions Paris Saint-Germain. It remains to be seen just how firm those links are but one thing that will be on the cards is the Europe-wide launch of a new lifestyle magazine based around his interests. For Roc Nation, that will be a chance to further Boateng’s burgeoning cross-market appeal. A musical artist will be profiled in each edition, beginning with DJ Khaled in issue one. 

“When you put an artist and an athlete together, there’s an opportunity to amplify both of their brands and to expand their demographic reach,” says Yormark. “That’s one of our priorities as we continue to leverage the different areas of our business.”

The music industry is an obvious point of crossover for Roc Nation Sports. The Roc Nation music label and entertainment agency looks after the interests of megastars like Rihanna and Shakira, not to mention Jay-Z and wife Beyoncé Knowles. Its founder is also the man behind the Tidal music streaming service, creating more mixed media opportunities for Roc Nation Sports clients.

“There’s the old saying that every athlete wants to be a musician and every artist wants to be an athlete,” jokes Yormark. “So I think there is crossover. You take a guy like Rome Lukaku who idolised Jay-Z growing up and listened to all of his music, and really understood our company culture even before we sat down with him because he’s been listening to Jay’s music and studying Jay his entire life. So when a guy like Rome joins our company, when there’s opportunities to integrate music and sport, we try to do that.

“If you look at how we announced his Puma partnership, it was through an album cover. It was a unique way of combining his passion for music and sport together in a major, major announcement with a major brand.”

An album cover was created to announce Romelu Lukaku's new Puma partnership

If music and lifestyle are part of the media image Roc Nation projects for its athletes externally, they are also a notable part of the process of setting an internal culture. Yormark himself is notorious within the sports industry for how fastidiously he sets about his own day.

“I do have a different kind of lifestyle,” he says. “I get up at 3.30 in the morning and I’m dedicated to health, wellness and fitness. I work out very early. I’m very disciplined in terms of my diet and how I live my life. I’m very routine-oriented. And, quite frankly, I do it for myself first because it’s how I want to live my life.

“But I also believe that it does create a deeper connectivity to the athletes that I work with. Athletes have to be dedicated to health, wellness and fitness. Their lives tend to be a little bit more routine-oriented.”

Yormark recalls an early conversation he had with Lukaku about shared habits and interests – one of several discussions he sees as having been important in growing a bond with his new client.

“Even though I’m quite a bit older than Rome, it started with health, wellness and fitness,” he says. “It started with how we live our lives and our lifestyle. Again, that helps me connect with the athletes on a different level. Their lives are so dedicated to being healthy, being fit, and if one of their representatives can live a similar lifestyle and really identify with that, I think it helps to create a stronger bond and a stronger connection.”  

That may in itself be a singular case, and just a small part of how Yormark and Roc Nation put together relationships with and for the athletes they represent. But it is also an example of the importance of understanding each of those athletes on a personal level now that the individual beyond the sporting performance is an ever bigger part of the sell – just as it has been in music for decades.

“You’ve seen the evolution of athletes really becoming businessmen and businesswomen, and I think you’re going to continue to see that,” says Yormark. “It’s more than just excelling on the court or on the field or on the pitch. It’s really about building a brand and then leveraging that brand to achieve the goals and objectives that athlete has for life, and we continue to see the evolution of that in how athletes really begin to diversify their lives and how they leverage their success in sport to create new opportunities, to develop platforms that quite frankly can impact business and impact society.

“You look at the Kobe Bryants of the world and you look at the LeBron Jameses of the world and you look at the Kevin Durants, just to name a few athletes. You see how they’ve leveraged their success in sport on the court to create other opportunities for themselves and their families, and to take positions on issues that in those cases impact our society here in the US.”

The challenge for Roc Nation is to get them there.

 Michael Yormark is speaking at The Brand Conference on 26th September at Lord's Cricket Ground