Sport into business – surveying the options for when final whistle blows – BBC Sport


Ireland women’s hockey captain Katie Mullan and Paralympic sprint star Jason Smyth are both familiar with the Sport into Business programme

Back in 1996 Channel 4’s Cutting Edge documentary series followed Paul Gascoigne for a year as he considered a move away from Rome.

Gazza’s undoubted talents had never really flourished with Lazio where injuries restricted England’s mercurial star to 40 matches in three years.

Guided by his solicitor Mel Stein and accountant Len Lazarus, a £15,000 a week move to Glasgow was negotiated and during the sojourn at Rangers his brand of football helped bring in silverware.

While Gascoigne’s capacity for sometimes unwise tomfoolery was never far away, neither was his propensity to press the self-destruct button.

A quarter of century later we have seen how the life of one of the game’s high earners of the 90s has sadly spiralled downward aided by alcohol addiction, depression and highly publicised personal problems.

While watching Gazza’s Coming Home, the signs are there to be seen.

In the programme Gascoigne, during a break from filming a potato crisp commercial with his former teammate Gary Lineker, jokes “I think I spend more on other people than I do on myself.

“My mam never asks for anything. My dad’s great. He never asks for anything apart from a house, a 740 BMW, a boat and a canny wage. My dad’s been alright.”

However, the look of desperation and insecurity in his eyes reveals that it is no laughing matter. Gascoigne tells the interviewer, “People have to make money while they still can.

“I’m in the same boat. I make sure the work I do, I enjoy. You know you will have money for the rest of your life.”

Former Ireland rugby international Gary Longwell, who now works as a sports psychologist, says the ending of an elite sports career can be a profound change

Battling against young candidates for jobs

In this present era where sport has developed into a global industry laced with multimillion dollar endorsements, sponsorships and contracts, there remains the dilemma for some full-time sportsmen and women that like it or not, their careers will come to an end and they will not be in the financial comfort zone.

“The change for sports people when they step away from the elite level can be profound,” says sports psychologist Gary Longwell.

“Age can be a problem for those in their mid-30s who start to look for a job and are up against somebody 10 years younger. Many go from having a high to a low income earning stream. That can be hard to adjust to”

Longwell knows all about the hazards that they face. Following a successful rugby career with Ulster and Ireland, the former second row was in charge of the Ulster Academy for eight years preparing players for the professional game before taking his wealth of experience to the Sports into Business programme at Sport Northern Ireland.

“Our role is to make them aware that if they sort out their lives ahead, then they can focus better on performing in their sport,” says Longwell.

“They all have incredible skills that they can adapt to other situations.”

A partnership was developed with retired business leader Alistair Pollock and since 2018 they have been helping athletes make the transition away from sport with potential employers keen to tap into the talent pool of a highly motivated group.

“Over the years, I have come across people who were totally committed to their sport,” says Pollock.

Shirley McCay told employers that athletes could do as much in two days as others might achieve in a week

McCay’s 30-second speech ‘most powerful I’ve heard’

“However, no one was preparing them for life beyond sport or showing them how they could exploit their sporting success to further their career.

“On the programme, we get athletes to ask questions about themselves and apply the same principles that made them successful in their particular sport to the next stage of their life” adds Longwell.

“Time management, lifestyle choices, and decision making are some of the challenges they have to consider. Some are good at making the transition which needs to be smooth.”

Katie Mullan, Ireland’s 26-year-old hockey captain, who has successfully dovetailed her sporting career with a medical engineering degree has first hand experience of the Sport Institute’s Business into Sport programme which is akin to an amalgamated version of a speed dating session and the television series Dragons.

“Some of the squad preparing for next year’s Olympic Games went along to different meetings which gave us the platform into the business world,” says Mullan.

“People were there because they wanted to be. Hockey isn’t a full-time sport in Ireland so the squad is used to combining work commitments with the different aspects of sporting life.

“We tried to show how our drive and determination could be used in work. Hopefully employers would see the long term benefits of having Olympians on board. Most seemed supportive.”

Include business investor Paul Rothwell on that list.

“I’d only heard of the hockey women after Ireland did so well at the World Cup,” admits Rothwell.

“I met Katie and Shirley McCay. They were impressive talking about leadership and about the highs and lows of a seven days a week commitment to their sport.

“At the end, Shirley told the gathering that any athletes they chose to employ could do as much in two days as others might achieve in a week.

“It was the most powerful 30 second pitch, I’ve ever heard. I nearly got up on my feet and cheered.”

Scheme is ‘no old boys network’

Rothwell’s response was to connect Katie Mullan with the medical company Axial3D where she is now employed a few days a week as a medical visualisation engineer.

“I convert scans into 3-D printed medical models which assist surgeons who have the dealing with complex difficult traumatic injuries. My work is so fulfilling helping in patients recovery,” says Mullan.

Alistair Pollock is quick to dismiss any suggestion that the Sport into Business scheme is some kind of Old Boys network.

“It’s about opening doors and putting together two things – business and sport – that don’t sound like bedfellows,” adds Pollock.

“Sport is exciting. Business can be seen as dull and boring. It can be as simple as having a chat with someone who knows someone who may provide useful advice.

“Imagine a successful sportsperson who thinks they would like to become a chief executive but has no idea what that means or entails. That chat can prevent someone making the wrong choice.”

Smyth dips toe into sports administration

Making the correct choice of what to do next with his life has not been a quick decision for Paralympic sprint champion Jason Smyth, who has made use of the Sport into Business programme.

“To be honest, I don’t know where I want to go after my running career finishes. When you are competing at that high level for a long time, everything else is pushed to the side,” says the 32-year-old, who has stepped inside the board room to get a feel for that world.

“The skills that athletes have are transferable into business, but for me it’s wanting to find what is the best use for those skills.

“While you may want to move away from sport, it might be an area you want to get involved in, considering how much you have given to it in the first place. However, would I want to open a gym? Not really to be honest.”

Smyth is dipping his toe into sports administration. He serves as a board member of Netball Ireland, the National Council for the Blind of Ireland and the World Para Athletes Commission.

“Let’s be honest. Given the way things have been going lately with the pandemic, there is a shift in society as to what work is, where it takes place and the need for greater flexibility. Who knows what it will look like in a couple of years time.”

When Ulster and Ireland centre Darren Cave retired from rugby in 2019, it was a clean break from the sport that has dominated his life. He wanted to leave on his own terms.

“What would happen after the rugby end always worried me. I remember talking about it with the Irish Rugby Players Association a long time ago,” says the 33-year-old.

Darren Cave ended his rugby career last May

“I wasn’t getting the opportunities I wanted. I could have played on for another couple of seasons, but I saw that as a bit of a bandage. It didn’t solve the problem.”

“Through a conversation with someone I met, I saw for the first time in 10 years something I could see myself doing. Looking at how the economy has declined, I count myself fortunate.”

Cave has moved contentedly into the ups and downs of foreign exchange as well as another business partnership, but remains concerned about others from within his rugby family who have not prepared for retirement.

“I have three ex-team-mates who are pretty good friends. They have gone through problems with divorce and the law.

“I saw people leaving the game, their income falling off a cliff, their normality being changed, and them losing their identity. It concerned me.

“They didn’t leave the game on their own terms and now have bad feelings towards Ulster. I didn’t want that. It’s important for me to be able to take my kids back to Ravenhill some day and say this is what Daddy did.”

Paul Rothwell is concerned, too, that while initiatives such as Sport into Business are giving those athletes willing to listen to advice from the business world another target to aim for, other talented sports people are not fulfilling their potential.

“On the other side of the coin there are people who are retiring early from sport because they feel they can no longer make the sacrifice,” adds Rothwell.

“They are afraid that if they don’t develop an alternative career now, they won’t get a job later.

“We are losing great athletes for those practical reasons. There is nothing to encourage them through this. That should worry us all,” he says.

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