pro-manchester sports lunch review

Friday, 15th March 2019

By pro-manchester comms manager, Mel Hill

We recently held our sold-out sports lunch at The Emirates Old Trafford, discussing business in sport and life after sport.

Hosted by BBC Sport presenter, Alex South, our first panel, focusing on business in sport included Ray Evans – Yeh Group, Hollie Costigan – Lancashire Cricket and Tony Faulkner – VSI Executive Education.

What is the single biggest challenge in sport?

Hollie Costigan: “For us, our biggest challenge over the next few years is how we balance both sides of our business. We host a full season of cricket as well as nationals and at the same time, we have a lucrative and successful events side of the business.

“How do we ensure our conference and hotel side of the business is reinvested into the game? We have realised that we need to achieve this sustainably over the next few years.”

Tony Faulkner: “A lot of challenges, I think focus on the next generation of kids and how they relate to playing sport. We have a huge challenge with e-sports taking individuals away from physical playing. Don’t get me wrong, there are pros and cons to e-sports, they are a lot more inclusive, for example.

“We need organisations to continue to encourage children to play sports by going into schools, otherwise the talent will dry out.”

Ray Evans: “I personally think most people who have a passion for sport naturally have a passion for challenges and when you go into it you know from day one you’re going to have a challenge.

“When we created Kitbag, loads of huge brands like Adidas and Nike said we were nuts to think people were going to buy on this thing called the internet. You have to be ahead of the curve in sport, like in business.”

Do millennial fans look at clubs differently and is it important to be more sustainable?

Hollie – “It’s very important that brands and sports clubs are taking part in more initiatives. There’s a reason people come to that club and that’s because they have an emotional connection. Millennials definitely have sustainability and environmental issues higher up their agenda. Clubs now have a responsibility to do that within the sport.

“We now have a reusable cup scheme to stop the purchasing of single-use pint pots. Fans got behind it and supported it. They can either keep the branded cup or get refunded at the end of the day.

“We are also looking at environ friendly energy providers and food waste – across the whole business, not just from a sports perspective.

What do you think of athletes being their own content creators?

Tony Faulkner – “We have a lot of athletes across multiple sports on our programmes and they’re very careful with how they engage with their audience and what they engage with. They’re aware of the value of their brands and can make it interesting for themselves.

“In order to add value to their brand when they’ve stopped playing they’ve started creating their personality or launching brands using their online platforms now, rather than when they finish playing.”

What sustainable efforts are Yeh Group making?

Ray Evans – “The textile industry is the second biggest polluter on our planet. The company I’m working with in Asia is the biggest supplier to some of the biggest sports brands.

“Over the past few years, they have innovated a way to dye fabric without the use of fresh water which may not sound life-changing, but when you look deeper water scarcity is still affecting 40% of the planet’s population – 780m people cannot access water every day.

“On flip side of that, when you see one football shirt takes 25L of fresh clean water, it will make a huge difference to water poverty. The textile industry uses equivalent of the Mediterranean Sea every two years to dye fabrics, this just is not sustainable.

“Young people care and have a lot to say about the impact they’re having on the planet in the future. In order for brands to be sustainable, they need to start thinking about these young people’s views, because they are your consumers.”

Our second panel focussed on life after sport and included: Bex Wilson – Former Team GB athlete, now programme manager at the Dianne Modahl Sports Foundation Gareth Farrelly – Former footballer for Aston Villa, now solicitor at Bermans Everton and Bolton Wanderers and Yvonne Harrison – Managing Director of Project 92.

Gareth, you left school at 16 and became a footballer – how did you go from being a footballer with a limited education to a certain point to becoming a successful lawyer?

“These things are far from straightforward. Footballers sometimes get bad press – there are quite a few ex-professionals who have worked as lawyers and there’s different challenges in that. People in the old days had to look at what they would do after sport due to money, but players now are looking at what they’ll do afterwards to help with things such as their mental health – the boredom can really affect you when you finally retire but have nothing to do and need to fill a void.

“When you are a footballer, football is your sole focus, you need people to guide you to another focus and help you to fulfil your potential. Due to the money in the game, you have no financial issues which gives a great opportunity but it’s a different challenge to fulfil yourself when you retire.

“To answer your question, it wasn’t easy and took a lot of hard work and commitment to become the lawyer I am today, but it was because of the support around me I was able to do that, and I think that support is really important to players.”

We all know about the finances in football being hugely rewarding, in Olympic sports, it’s not quite the same. How did you go about that?

Bex Wilson – “I was fortunate to secure National Lottery funding after winning the world junior championships. This then escalated to the bobsleigh team being funded. When you go from amateur to professional, it’s hard. I went from the top woman to the fifth best in the UK. When I saw myself come down the rankings, I made a decision to forfeit my funding and remove myself from the British rankings to mentally and physically sort myself out in order to rank high enough to quality for the Olympics.

“I did this, then we finished 11th at the Olympics. We were 10s of seconds out and it sadly wasn’t where we had predicted to place – due to the cost of equipment and money in sport – by coming 11th we got our funding removed.

“Money was never the reason I was driven in sport and isn’t really a great driver of mine anyway but the reason I came out of sport – the main driver was my mental health. It’s so hard to have such extreme highs and lows that I wanted to remove myself from the whole situation.”

How is UA92 helping athletes?

Yvonne Harrison – “Character development principles will be presented to pupils throughout UA92 – people with common sense, work ethic, drive – a lot of people in business don’t have this.

The concept has come around because the lads [Manchester United’s class of 92] were prepared for life – football was their passion, but they were developed when Sir Alex Ferguson had them doing work experience that showed them if they didn’t work hard, this where they would be – they worked at superstores and fishmongers and speak of how much they hated it, which gave them that extra drive.

“Gary Neville was asking to sit in on-board meetings 10 years before retirement to understand business and the business in sport.

“The group launched a foundation because they’re passionate about sport being a tool to help mental health, homelessness and young people at risk of offending. It helps these people who are on the cusp of facing a huge challenge before they have reached that breaking point.”

How difficult is it to leave sport behind?

Gareth – “When you’ve spent your life doing something you’ve wanted since you were a child, it’s really difficult.

“You still have to respect the game as that is the most important part of that. The role models outside of football for the individual have to be as important as the role of those within the game.

“My story is slightly different because I’m a lawyer now, but that’s because I was bed-ridden and recovering from surgery and had a call from tax attorneys about an investment I trusted to make which was the spark that made me want to make a difference.

“Each lawyer spoke a different language, so I made a decision that I wanted to figure out what I’d been sold and what these people had done.”

Bex – “Life after sport was never a topic of conversation for me. The way I refer to my time in sport, is that actually it was a business without me realising. You were a point of a second, a number, a ranking to fit in with targets and world rankings. When you look at the individual needs of the athletes it was never something factored in.

“I think what needs to be done is to ensure these athletes are protected. It sounds like what UA92 is doing is going to make a huge difference.”

Yvonne – “There has been a lot of issues for Paralympic and Olympic athletes. They need to be taken care of as people – they’re human beings and that should never be lost as athletes transition. That shouldn’t start when you come to the end of your career.”

Two hugely interesting debates took place throughout our lunch. Huge thank you to all of our panellists and The Emirates Old Trafford for hosting our lunch, as well as Alex South for hosting our panels.