Just about managing: an interview with Chubby Chandler

International Sports Management founder Andrew ‘Chubby’ Chandler talks to SportsPro about his career, the evolution of his company and his stable of European Tour golf stars.

Just about managing: an interview with Chubby Chandler

As the managing director and founder of agency International Sports Management, Andrew ‘Chubby’ Chandler has been the architect of countless sporting careers over a quarter of a century. Yet his own career continues to evolve, with new clients, a burgeoning interest in horse racing, and a role in setting up the Turkish Airlines Open.

Not since the halcyon days of the 1980s has the European Tour produced such a rush of major winners as it has in recent years. Five of golf’s last 11 elite tournaments have been won by those on that circuit. 

During that earlier period of continental supremacy – when players like Sir Nick Faldo, Ian Woosnam, Sandy Lyle and Seve Ballesteros were picking up green jackets at Augusta – Andrew ‘Chubby’ Chandler was, by his own admission, a journeyman golfer. In the European game’s second coming, he has been at the forefront with his hugely successful agency International Sports Management (ISM).  

Founded in 1989 – with little more than a box of business cards, Chandler’s innate ability to secure travel deals, four golfers and a little-known South African sponsor – ISM has progressed to become one of the major players in European golf and with interests far beyond. Chandler’s larger-than-life persona has long been a major asset to the agency but his empathy, as a former player, is arguably his most valuable attribute. The Greater Manchester man says that “by smoothing out the administrative, marketing and logistical difficulties for a player, he can concentrate 100 per cent on his game”. The successful and prolonged golfing careers of ISM stalwarts like former world number one Lee Westwood and the 2011 Open champion Darren Clarke certainly attest to this.      

Although ISM is rooted in the representation of golfers, the organisation has expanded to take on cricketers, show jumpers and snooker players. The cricket arm of the company, which is run under the careful eye of former England batsman Neil Fairbrother, boasts arguably the highest-calibre collection of modern English stars in one agency: leading batsman Joe Root, bowling stalwart Stuart Broad and prodigious all-rounder Ben Stokes to name a few.      

Nevertheless, golf is Chandler and ISM’s flagship division, and the high point of his management career arrived in 2011 when three of his charges – Charl Schwartzel, Rory McIlroy and Clarke – held the Masters, the US Open and the Open Championship respectively. 

McIlroy has since moved to new representation and Clarke’s form waned under the burden of being Europe’s 2016 Ryder Cup captain. However, Chandler has kept evolving and continued to do what he specialises in: nurturing young talent. With emerging players like Matt Fitzpatrick and Danny Willett beginning to blossom, the future continues to look bright for the Cheshire-based agent.    

It was in 2016, with Yorkshireman Willett, that Chandler returned to golf’s top table. The Masters, the first major of the season and to some the most important golf tournament of the year, seemed to be heading the way of the then world number one Jordan Spieth, who held a five-shot lead going into the back nine of the last round. What followed has already passed into infamy, with the American finding the multiple water traps through Augusta National’s notorious ‘Amen Corner’, losing six shots in three holes. Willett emerged from the field to win the prestigious green jacket by three shots from the beleaguered Spieth and Chandler stablemate Westwood.

Such blue-chip days are rare and often represent the denouement to a manager and player’s collaboration: most of their work is behind the scenes and seldom seen or heard about. 

Chandler’s munificent nature and memories of struggling on the European Tour have meant that he is always willing to assist the careers of promising golfers, offering advice or even reaching into his own pockets. It was in this spirit that he set up a standalone ISM brand, the ‘Class of 2016 and 2017’, which instead of doling out one-off donations creates an infrastructure for a select group of young players that provides them with collective sponsorship deals and, in turn, allows them to thrive on the fairways. Chandler – as he has for countless golfers before – acts as their manager and mentor, and will almost certainly end up as a friend.

--

How and why did you begin ISM?

I played on the European Tour from 1974 to ’85. I wasn’t dedicated enough, probably because I didn’t have a mentor to point me in the right direction, and I think that the money that it was possible to earn then was nothing like what is possible now. It was sort of like a holiday – well, that was the mindset, almost. I played OK in ’85, ’86 and ’87. Those were my finest years.

From the late 70s I used to do a bit of travel organising for guys and the odd hotel deal for the people I played with: Michael King, Carl Mason and Nick Job. Looking back, that was the beginning of my job – but at the time you don’t realise it. 

I survived on tour because I got sponsorship. I was doing corporate golf in the 70s; there weren’t a lot of people doing them at the time. The first corporate gig I did was for a company called SeaLand, who are a container company. I remember being nervous as hell about doing a clinic but the first shot I had to play was a nine iron and when it flew into the air, the crowd gasped and I thought, I’m alright here. You realise what level you are at thereafter. It is very noticeable when you have young pros turn up how nervous they are about hosting a clinic at the start. However, by the time you are a seasoned pro, like Darren Clarke or Lee Westwood, it becomes commonplace. Lee and Darren have their repartee, stories and quips, and it is much easier for them but you do see people go through it.

I managed to earn enough sponsorship to keep playing while I wasn’t playing very well. I got to ’89 and I did a little bit of work for a management company who, in my opinion, had no idea: they were trying to sponsor players and then take a cut of their winnings. This meant that if you didn’t sponsor the right people you were never going to get anything back! It was really odd – and I told them that – but they wouldn’t have it.

It became obvious to me that their model wasn’t right and there was a way of doing this and I could do it. I had the opportunity of a nice sponsorship deal that came out of some corporate work in South Africa with a company called ICI – the boss was a guy from Manchester – and they also sponsored the South African golfer John Bland. They said to me, “I want you to replicate what you did in South Africa and do it in Britain.” I told them that I had finished playing but I would like to manage the programme, set it up, and I would find two players to sponsor. 

So I went down to the European Open in Walton Heath in 1989 with some business cards. I found four of my friends – Carl Mason, Derek Cooper, Denis Durnian and Phil Harrison – and told them that I was going to start a management company called International Sports Management. I knew they weren’t managed by anyone – that was the easy part – and put ICI logos on two of them and off we go!        

We went into the new year and by the middle of the following year, the secretary and I were managing 15 different people. The company evolved in August 1990 when a friend of mine, a lawyer from Ireland called Dougie Heather, rung me up and told me of a young lad who wanted to turn pro. He said that it wasn’t a management situation but added, “If I put you in the situation, you might end up working together.” This player had already won all sorts of amateur tournaments and Dougie said, “If you come on Monday, he will have played the Irish Amateur, he will be leading the qualifiers and he will win the tournament and then you can speak to him.”

Sure enough he did all of that, and we talked for an hour on whether he should go pro or not – the Walker Cup was in Ireland the next year, which was an obvious pull for him. Eventually he turned to me and said, “I just want to play golf. Can you do everything else?”

We agreed on this. He asked me about a contract and my thoughts were that Arnold Palmer and Mark McCormack never had a contract – they just shook hands and got on with it – so if it was good enough for them, it was for me. 

And, that golfer was, of course, Darren Clarke. We still don’t have a contract today. 

That is when it all started really. It was a practice run managing the guys that I had played with, but this was suddenly very different. Darren was the first golfer who came to me that I didn’t know and wanted representation. It gathered pace from there and suddenly we had Andrew Coltart, Paul McGinley and Lee Westwood. Lee didn’t play in a Walker Cup but he was connected to Darren and his dad got in touch with me the day after Darren won his first tournament.

As we came through we became almost specialists at helping guys turn pro and achieve their potential quite quickly. That is the part of it that I really enjoy – I love helping young talent through. The other thing is that you become very big personal friends with them very quickly: Lee, Darren and Danny [Willett] are very close friends of mine.

The difficult thing is that it became an awful lot about me because I have the name ‘Chubby’ and the big persona, basically. Somehow you have got to try and disperse some of the work because if you are not careful, everyone wants to talk to you all of the time. I have got really good salespeople now.

Since that handshake in Ireland 27 years ago, how has the organisation developed from a one-man band to a multinational management firm?

It grew steadily through the 90s. We saw a similar growth through the 2000s, when we added cricket and our first client was Andrew Flintoff. Then our golfers started winning majors – but then the trouble is that you become flavour of the month and it is, of course, very hard to turn people down. And we got too big; too many players. So in the last couple of years we made an effort to reduce in size: it is much easier to service properly with less people, which gives them more opportunities and less admin for us. We have got back into a situation where we have probably only got ourselves 18 clients, which is dead right. I have got a handle on everything.

There is part of me that is a control freak but there is also part of me that just wants to know what is going on, to make sure everything is in order. That is where we are now and we have quite a lot of stuff to do with Turkish Airlines, too. The events side I like; we should be good at this because if you manage players you should be able to run events. 

For an old boy I am fairly forward-thinking. I am not too bad on social media and I understand it; I am always open to new ideas and aware that something is going to happen in the game that is going to radicalise it and no one has come up with it yet.

How, in your opinion, has the sporting and commercial landscape changed – especially with the addition of social media and other platforms? Is it still a case of it being the same as it ever was, just slightly more digital?

I think that social media is an evil and an asset. It is an evil because it promotes intrusion into your life and it is an asset for the same reason: people are able to get closer to you. I find it absolutely fascinating the way that [Donald] Trump has used it – he has everyone panicking. No president had gone directly to the people like him. Sometimes, people don’t know what he is doing but I think he knows exactly what he is up to.      

Social media has a massive part to play in modern sport. I try to explain to every young player that Twitter, Facebook and Instagram are seriously important: Twitter in particular because it is a bit more instant than everything else. It is like your own PR agency if you use it correctly and make it interesting. Some people get it very right and some people get it wrong, and I can’t work out the fine line between the two but to have that tool is very important. 

Whereas the most important thing to a sponsor used to be the logo on the players sleeve, it isn’t now: it is about how good they are at social media and how many followers they have. That gets their brand out there far quicker and far better than something on your sleeve. The sleeve advertising doesn’t talk but social media does. 

It is really interesting how it has changed. We are trying to promote social media and we are trying to instil the importance into our young lads on our Class of 2016 and 2017. The young pros nowadays have to be good at it.

What is the thinking behind the Class of 2016 and 2017?

It came about because I have the emotions of being someone that played the game and I understand how a youngster that has no funding needs funding. If they come to me – and I am so soft – it ends up costing me fortunes as a company. It is too hard to make the money and then to just give away 60 to 70 grand away to three young lads that have no sponsorship. 

I first had this idea 20 years ago that companies should sponsor a group of players rather than a player. Firstly, they have got more of a direct interest. Number two, they have a greater chance of a player doing well. The whole thing seems to work better. What I didn’t work out 20 years ago was that that should then be a standalone brand: the Class of 16/17 is its own brand within ISM.

We managed to get 15 sponsors for the Class last year. About seven of those were paying and the other eight were services or barter. The lads had a watch, protein, biltong, a car – and then the money sponsors gave them some cash! 

You have got some sort of control of them, too, because it is your money – it’s not my money really but it is funnelled through us. Next year, we will be much stricter. The Class of 16 was the first year and we learned a lot from it, so with the Class of 17 the contract will be a lot tighter – we will put in certain stipulations and if they don’t do them, it will stop. 

In 2017, we will have two levels – a Challenge Tour level and a EuroPro Tour level. This will mean that we will have some young ones trying to get on to the Challenge Tour and also Challenge Tour guys trying to get on to the main tour. It looks like we will have three of each and we have probably just about got all of the funding in place but we haven’t quite decided on who the three and three are – two of the three junior kids will be two of the two junior kids from last year, probably Haydn McCullen and Billy Spooner. They are learning to cope corporately from a young age – 18 and 19 – which is great, and they are developing social media skills, PR and media.

The next stage up, you end up with quite exciting talents to follow then. I like it – I am very hands-on with it, it is a nice little project. Darren will be getting involved this year with the young ones because we look like we are going to get involved with a sponsor that will involve Darren and the kids, which will mean that he will almost be like a paid mentor. 

Like I say, I am progressive for a 63-year-old: I like new ideas and getting away from the establishment. I am a massive cricket lover and I like all forms of the game: the first day of the Mumbai Test I sat down at 9.30am and I didn’t move until 4.30pm. But I am also getting up early every morning to watch the Big Bash [T20 tournament in Australia] and I love a 50-over match as well. As a sport it completely covers it for me, cricket. 

We have a very successful cricket arm – Neil Fairbrother is an unbelievable mentor. He is a mentor to six or seven of the England group. It is unbelievable how much players like Joe Root, Stuart Broad, Jos Buttler and Ben Stokes look up to Neil, so much so that I would suggest that he is a bigger influence on them than any England coach. They always come out for dinner with us, even during the match. 

Arnold Palmer and Mark McCormack set the bar of what was possible for a modern sportsman’s off-course earnings. How much do you see them as inspirations and did you use any of McCormack’s commercial templates to aid you when you started out?   

None, really. But it would have been unconsciously done – following that route – because Arnold Palmer was my hero. I had two heroes in golf: one was Arnold Palmer and the other was Seve [Ballesteros]. Arnold Palmer was amazing – an absolutely magnetic character.

I had breakfast with him a couple of times and was in his company a bit at his tournament at Bay Hill. He was just a man’s man and wanted to get into the locker room and have a beer with the golfers at the end of play. Just an amazing guy. He was very clever because he never put much money in anything, whereas a lot of golfers get carried away and invest in various schemes. Arnold Palmer only ever invested in his own brand. In a way that is how we have tried to do it. 

When he died this year he was still just about the third-highest earning golfer at 80-odd. His only big investment was in the Golf Channel but he made millions from it!

I had lunch with McCormack a couple of times. A very interesting man – different but obviously a very sharp mind. I would say that the nearest thing to McCormack in England today would be Eddie and Barry Hearn at Matchroom. They have both done an unbelievable job, separately. Eddie has completely revitalised the British boxing scene and what Barry has done with the darts is staggering. 

They would be the closest to McCormack. I’m not, because they have got hold of sports as entities. 

How important would you say that the role of the agent or manager is in modern sport?

I’d like to think that I am not an agent; I’d like to think that we are a management company. The difference being that a manager manages and mentors, whereas an agent just gets them commercial deals. Sure we get deals but we do so much more. You would never call Neil Fairbrother an agent: he wouldn’t know how to do a commercial deal but the reason that we have all of our cricketers is because of him. He mentors them. 

I think that we are very important to some people. When I played I wanted a manager because I wanted to say that I had a manager, and there are people nowadays who want a manager for the status as opposed to actually needing a manager. I am very careful when young people come to see me now because some of them just want cash or invitations but forget that it is actually them playing that makes them successful in the end. 

I never say no to a chat but when you realise that all they want is to see how much money we will give them I am less interested – I always go low to ensure that we are not the ones that discover! We are lucky enough that enough good players come to me and you can detect those, and work your way forward with them.

You often talk about the fact that you have made ‘all of the mistakes possible – twice’ but always learned from them. What are the mistakes that you feel that have shaped you for the better over your career?  

Hopefully not twice!

Number one, because of the way it all started with Darren and Lee, I took on too much responsibility. So I think that you disperse the load a little bit more because at one stage we were doing absolutely everything and you are not qualified to do it all. When you start out you want to keep a hold of everything but that is not a good idea, so we now have specialist people that look after the money like Arena. 

Delegate that and focus on the bits that you are really good at. What I am good are deals, career and schedule. Focus more about the player’s career than anything.   

You were a former European Tour golfer and you also use a former player in Neil Fairbrother on the cricketing side. Do you feel that former sportsmen are able to offer a better perspective to their stars than other agents?

You can look it in different ways. An accountant has the right experience for some parts of the job, the lawyer has the right experience for some parts of the job, the golfer or the cricketer has the right experience for parts some of the job.   

My guess is that the right experience for the job comes from the past player more than the other two. If you go to any accountant they will be able to do a job on the numbers of anyone but you go to any person managing somebody and they don’t know anything about what their client is doing, they are hopeless.       

Do you approach each sport differently or do you have a tried and tested formula, especially on the sponsorship front?

No. I have better sponsorship salespeople now than I have ever had. We try to be as creative as possible when we are doing a sponsorship presentation. We are doing alright at the moment and we are making good inroads in a lot of places with a lot of bigger brands. So we don’t have a template because some brands want visibility, some want social media, some want experiential stuff, some want just to come to a golf course and have a pro come and have a Q and A with them. You try and work out what everybody wants and then you try and be creative within that framework. 

The great thing about Darren is that he is an unbelievable corporate animal. Brilliant. As soon as you put him in a corporate situation a little red light goes on and off he goes – doesn’t matter whether he has had a good day or a bad day, he knows his job and does it really well. Because of that skill and the profile that he got following the Ryder Cup, he is still in demand – his deals are still running and new ones are coming along. He is actually going to the 2017 Masters on a corporate basis and not playing the tournament – he has three or four gigs and will make a nice amount for the week.

You have a wide range of stars in various sports. How do you keep the existing clients happy and attract new ones in?  

You don’t all the time. Some leave and others stay. You get a gut feel that you tend to get right most of the time. Sometimes I get it wrong – I got one wrong this year, in fact – and at the time you feel it but there is nothing you can do about it.              

But over 25 years I haven’t got it wrong too often. You just know where you should be and you know how much of an arm to put around people and how much of a kick up the arse you need to give. Hopefully you get it right most of the time. Looking back on my time, I would say that I got it right more than I got it wrong.

You represent jockey Harry Bentley, and you and Lee Westwood own horses together. What are your plans in horse racing?

It is just ownership. We are proper mug owners. We know enough and we follow it enough but we never meddle in the trainers’ work. We have been very lucky in that we have had 26 winners in 2016. Along with owning the horses, going racing is my hobby and I have made an effort to go as much as I can over the last year.

You are heavily involved in the running of the Turkish Airlines Open in Belek. How did that come about and what goes into running it?  

We run it with the Turkish Golf Federation, which is fairly small because of the low participation in the country. It started with a phone call from David Clare who worked over in Turkey and said that they want to have a tournament. My first question was, “What is the budget?” And he said that they had €10 million to €12 million. I went over to Turkey two days later. 

They had already rung the European Tour and the tour had presumed that they had a €1 million tournament and were going to give them the middle of March and no real date. I went over and they said that they wanted to put golf tourism on the map and they had to have Tiger Woods play they said, “If Tiger doesn’t play we won’t know anyone.”

We didn’t manage to do a conventional tournament – I had the budget but no date. I managed to jam the tournament into the middle of both the PGA Tour and European Tour schedules but I got eight of the top 11 to play. We actually ran it, unusually, on a Tuesday to Friday. 

We got it done and had Rory there and Tiger there. The next year we were at the beck and call of Tiger’s schedule, so we worked out when he could play. At the same time the European Tour wanted to set up a thing called the Final Series and Turkey’s money was big enough for that and the date worked such that Tiger could play, too. So we stuck it in there and that is when it became a 78-man field. 

You have shared many picture perfect moments with your clients. What is your fondest memory of your management career?  

Darren winning The Open at St George’s in 2011 probably just edges Lee getting to number one in the world. Both occasions are vivid in my memory. Lee got to world number one on his birthday, winning a tournament in Indonesia. However, Darren, at 42, when we all thought he might have just missed his chance of a major win, was unbelievable: he completely out-golfed the field on a Portrush type of weekend. Simply amazing.