Ricky Simms: Setting the pace
Ricky Simms is one of three directors at PACE Sports Management, a well-respected athlete management firm based in Teddington near London. Among the company’s 70-strong stable of clients are Usain Bolt, the fastest man on the planet, current 5,000 metre world champion Mo Farah, reigning Olympic 400 metre champion Christine Ohuruogu, 2012 Laureus Sportswoman of the Year Vivan Cheruiyot and a whole host of Kenyan long-distance runners.
Ahead of this summer’s Olympic Games, Simms sat down with SportsPro in June to discuss London 2012, the wider world of athletics and what its like to manage such high-profile names.
What impact has London 2012 had on your athletes, especially your British athletes, in terms of their commercial/sponsor interest?
Six years ago, there wasn’t so much going on commercially for the British athletes. You didn’t see them on sports drinks bottles and cereal packets. But definitely in the last four years brands in the UK have wanted to be associated with the top British talent. So there has been so many more opportunities for our athletes. I wonder what will happen after 2012 but I think some of our clients have been in a very fortunate position, like Phillips Idowu, for example, who has had a lot of deals since the [Beijing] Olympics. But then there’s Christine Ohuruogu, who was a big star of the 2008 Olympics from a British point of view. She was injured in 09/10 so she missed it a little bit. So you had to be on top at the right time and definitely some guys have done well out of the Olympics.
How would you assess the commercial state of athletics as a whole? Where are the main areas that can be improved?
Like everything, you have to give it TV time. The general public have to know the athletes in order for the brands to do something with them. Certainly, a brand can build an athlete but they’re not going to be interested in them if they don’t have a high profile already. We need to get athletics on TV all the time. We need to have the kids. You know, they know who Usain Bolt is but they need to know also who Mark Lewis-Francis, Simeon Williamson are; they need to aspire to be these people as well. Social media has been a good opportunity for a lot of sports. Athletics can do more. A lot of athletes can do it themselves now, they have their own websites and Facebook and Twitter etc. That’s something as a company we have to really try and encourage. Every management company I guess has to. A lot of brands come to me now and the second question they ask is, how many fans does, say, Mo Farah have on Facebook, how many Twitter followers, likes etc. It has become very important.
Phillips Idowu perhaps falls into the Bolt mould – he’s charismatic, he stands out from the crowd. When it comes to marketability, is it more important for athletes, more so than any other sportsmen, to have a big personality?
I think athletics is such a diverse sport. We have long distance runners who have to run 120 miles a week and eat really well. And then you’ve got shot-putters, massive big guys, who could probably drink and smoke and it wouldn’t affect their event as much as in some other events. You often find shot-putters are not big characters. Phillips is for sure in that he stands out for the sponsors in his image and style and everything. But I think in athletics you get all sorts, you get the quiet guys. There’s not really one type of person in athletics.
How would you describe your relationship with Bolt? Is it similar to that of some of your other athletes like Vivian Cheruiyot, who you coach, or Mo Farah?
No not at all. Usain is a guy who likes to have fun people around him. I always think we’re like brothers. You know I spend more time with him than I do with my partner. We know each other very well; his coach is the strict one and I’m the one that supports him and tries to make it as easy for him as possible. It’s not the same with Vivian. I have a very close relationship with Vivian, I have a very close relationship with Mo Farah, and I have a very close relationship with Christine Ohuruogu. There are some clients that, when you do a lot of things for them, and I guess when they get bigger, you work with them a lot more then.
You mentioned in a recent interview with the Evening Standard that your job “with an athlete is more like what Alex Ferguson does”. Who is your role model in sport?
I’ve been fortunate enough to meet some of the people I like and I think Alex Ferguson is one I really like. Now I’m not a Manchester United fan – Usain Bolt is a massive fan – but to be at the top for so long, and to deal with so many of these big personalities is incredible. We were at their training ground one time and Cristiano [Ronaldo] and Wayne Rooney and Rio [Ferdinand] and all the guys were there and you look around and think, how do you keep these guys under control? I really admire the way he’s kept to his principles and the club always comes first. And then you look at someone like Jose Mourinho who has a different style. He’s been successful and you look at that style of management – and I know some people don’t like his style as much – but it’s always interesting to watch and see what these guys are doing. And they’re doing it in a different sport, there’s more media attention on them but our job is dealing with personalities and there’s so many personalities. So many people will try and do what they think, try and get the best they can get, so you’d love to be saying a separate thing to every one every day but that’s impossible. It’s just interesting to look at these guys.
What is your personal management and negotiation style?
You know, I love watching The Apprentice - it’s the only thing I watch on TV. I think its funny when especially young people come into business – Alan Sugar uses the word their ‘bullshit’ – they come making it a lot more complicated than it needs to be. I’ve had the opportunity to meet with the Richard Branson’s of this world and have dinner with them, some of the big players in some of the major brands in the world, and really these are all just normal people who just go for a run in the morning and go home to their wife and kids in the evening. And I feel like every one appreciates when people are making things simple and straight forward and not overcomplicating things unless they have to, to understand what they want, understand what we want, be honest and open up front, and that leads to better relationships. And so far I think everyone that we’ve worked with, whether it’s with Usain or someone else, very few of them have said ‘oh, I don’t want to work with them again.’ Of course, you can have a difficult athlete sometimes, so you can’t always be Mr Nice Guy. But life’s too short to make it harder than it needs to be.
So you can tell very early on whether you want to work with someone?
With athletes, we’re in a strong position at the moment that we have a lot of athletes who would like to work with us. What’s nice is we don’t have to work with everyone. Every one we work with, we have to build a relationship with them and when things are going well everyone’s nice, everyone’s happy. It gets difficult when people start to complain and create problems, when we’re not doing well. Generally, we try to work with athletes who have potential. Also if we can start working with athletes when they’re quite young, when they’re not a big name, you keep them out of the news, keep their behaviour professional. And then three or four years later, they’re used to that treatment. Usain’s got a documentary coming out soon and at one point he says I treated him the same from the first day we met to yesterday. He feels we work hard and then he gives back. When you bring someone in who’s been round the block a few times – if we’re approached by an athlete and they’ve had three agents already and four different coaches, you can’t help thinking its only going to be a matter of time before the grass is greener somewhere else. Many people have met me here trying to work in partnership with our company to do this or that and we can easily see the people full of whatever…it doesn’t take long. I remember sitting here with Mo Farah when he was just a kid and some people wanted to work with him and they were talking such nonsense. Mo was so excited but when we were walking back to the office I said ‘forget it, none of that is going to happen’. And maybe now that he’s world champion it can happen but it wasn’t going to happen then.
Finally, what do you see yourself and Bolt doing after he retires?
Usain has the opportunity for sure to go into other things. He’s so used to being centre of attention so its important that someone else is thinking about what he does after his career, whether he DJs a little bit or whether he goes into another sport. With the ads that he’s done and the directors he’s worked with, he could have a career in the movies or whatever. But certainly there’s a lot of time to decide what he does next and if I don’t have the expertise then we’ll have to find people who do have the expertise to take him there. But also, through our company doing well, I’ll have the opportunity to do other things, possibly go into other sports – definitely in sports but perhaps into some other fields. We’ll keep this company going but I don’t think it’s possible to have another Usain in my lifetime because he’s so big now in sport. I can’t see another kid going to dominate and get the headlines as much.
The full-length interview with Ricky Simms appears in the August 2012 edition of SportsPro. To subscribe today, click here.
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