Interview: First Off The Bike - Part 1

By Shawn Smith,

Published on May 31, 2016   —   10 min read

Photo by Austin Distel / Unsplash


Who the hell is Shawn Smith? He works for a large Aussie telecommunications company. He doesn't have a background in triathlon. On the weekend you might find him racing criterium in Melbourne's West.

So, why on earth is FOTB talking to Shawn Smith? Good question!

What you may not know is that Shawn currently manages two of Australia's top professional Australian male triathletes, Tim Van Berkel and Aaron Royle. In this two-part interview FOTB gives you the inside scoop on sports management as we hear Shawn's unique perspective on what makes a good manager, dealing with sponsors, how to maximise social media impact and why it's always good to think twice before you tweet.

FOTB: Welcome Shawn! Thanks for spending some time with us.
Shawn: My pleasure!

FOTB: Managing triathletes isn't your full-time gig, so what do you do in real life to pay the bills and how does that balance with managing Aaron and Tim?
Shawn: I have a full-time job working in the telecommunications/IT/technology space. It has its own challenges and obviously, that can complicate things a little when it comes to also managing athletes. For instance, it makes it hard to talk to Berks and Aaron during the day. As far as balancing things goes, for me, the number one thing is that whatever pays the bills, whatever is my full-time gig that should take precedence and it always does.

FOTB: So, do the boys get enough of your attention?
Shawn: Of course! It's about utilising my time very appropriately when required. Which is why, when I'm approached by other people to consider taking on other athletes to manage, I politely say, No!? For Tim and Aaron, this is their income that I am influencing and if I'm not 100% on board with it, they will suffer. And I couldn't live with myself if that was the case.

FOTB: What qualifies you to be a sports manager?
Shawn: Absolutely nothing! I don't have a degree in sports management, I didn't sit around with a bunch of athlete management teams or be involved in them. I guess I'm taking a very different approach to management. Probably the biggest difference is that I'm able to take the financial motivator out of the equation for me as it's not about the money. My approach is that it's more of a relationship with Aaron that's still embryonic, but with Berks that's been over a very, very long course of time.

And when I say I have no qualification to manage, that's not quite true. I think I bring something valuable to the table more of a business-structured head around things. A key part of management is removing the complexities or removing the heartache that these guys go through when negotiating their own contracts.

As a manager I'm blessed. I mean Tim and Aaron are very, very good at what they do. I've got the sub-2 hour guy, best in the country, top 10 in the world. I've got the best 8-hour racer, best in the country and top 10 in the world. They're really good at getting the best out of their bodies and their minds. They know how to prepare themselves. So when it comes to the sponsorship negotiation stuff this becomes a secondary or tertiary thing for them. And they only go through the cycle once a year or every second year with sponsors. So for them it's a real challenge they have to gear up and work out how to do this and get involved with the sponsor again. It's quite taxing on them, especially when it?s normally at the end of their calendar year, which is their downtime and they're trying to plan for other things. That's where a good manager comes in.

FOTB: You can be the bad guy who does the tough negotiating?
Shawn: Like any manager I sit in-between, and yes, I'm able to be the bad guy who pushes quite hard to get a result for the athlete, whereas the athletes would generally feel uncomfortable trying to sit there and negotiate their own contracts. I think for Tim and Aaron it gives them confidence because I bring some level-headedness around the contractual stuff the legal complications they could possibly have. There's also what I call the posturing of the deal at some point in time you need to get to a level playing field and I do this day in and day out in my full-time job. So, if there's a deal to be had, I'm confident that we'll get an outcome that's palatable for both sides. I'm quite accustomed to having tough conversations with people too. Whether I'm talking to a start-up or a business that turns over several million dollars, it's not just sitting around drinking tea and eating scones. I'm not afraid to take the hard-ass approach when required. I prefer not to play hardball, but sometimes you have to.

FOTB: You said you're not in it for the money, so what do you get out of it?
Shawn: I'm heavily invested in this because I have an emotional connection to the two guys. I'm sure many other athlete managers have the same thing they're kind of like your two kids! But, I have to say, if you had a stable of 20-30 athletes and there were 5 or 6 people running the business, I don't think you could have an emotional investment in all of them. And therefore, in my opinion, I don't think you could ever get the right result.

FOTB: That's a big call! I can hear managers out there sharpening their knives! Isn't the danger that you get too emotionally involved? Doesn't that make you less professional and objective?
Shawn: If you take the emotional connection out of the equation, the real danger is it just becomes a by-product or a transaction. I guess I find it hard to see how with a big group of athletes, they wouldn't simply become assets there for the manager's well-being, their own material gain. Don't get me wrong, I know the services that managers bring to the table looking after those areas that the athlete just doesn't understand or have the time or the expertise to deal with. I want to be clear that this is just my opinion, based on my own experience and what I've seen in the sport and I'm not saying having a stable of athletes is the wrong thing to do.

But, when it comes to something like contract negotiation, I think that personal connection is important. It gives the athletes more comfort when they know that you're not just batting for yourself it's not all about money for you.

FOTB: How do sponsors respond to dealing with you?
Shawn: Taking money out of the equation changes the relationship with the sponsors too. I've always been super-transparent with all the sponsors about what motivates me and I think that reduces some of the challenges that they face.

For example, sponsors have said that many managers don't allow the athlete to talk directly to the sponsor. That bamboozles me! Why do that? Ultimately we're talking about a product that the sponsors are purchasing or an asset that they're paying for. I hate talking about it like this but that's what the athletes end up looking like on a Profit and Loss Statement it's a Marketing budget line and there's probably a sub-line in there for Athlete Sponsorship. So the sponsors have to manage that accordingly.

From a management point of view, I need to turn a line of figures into a real person. The representatives managing the sponsorships have got to be able to touch and feel and see where their money is going and so I want to make sure that both my guys have long-standing relationships with their sponsors. They know their sponsors and the sponsors know them at a personal level. That way Berks and Aaron are not just a line on a balance sheet- they're flesh and blood people who are integral parts of the sponsors teams. Rather than cut them out of that relationship with the sponsor, I want to draw my athletes into it.

FOTB: Let me play Devil's Advocate for a moment? You've got the luxury of not having to have your management work pay your bills, so that changes the whole dynamic?
Shawn: I get it and let's be honest people have to survive financially, but I think the hardest part would be the contract negotiation and the posturing of those contracts. It's difficult to find that even position where both entities agree.

FOTB: Does the personal connection allow you to go in harder in a negotiation?
Shawn: Absolutely! And on top of that, walking away from deals that aren't in the best interest of the athlete is actually easier because I'm not thinking about what's in it for me. It's important to realise that i'?s not just about dollars it's about making sure there's always a value proposition around the deal. Both Tim and Aaron have some contracts which don't have a dollar value attached, but they believe, and I also believe, that they get some really good exposure and some great product that they like. It would be nice if there were dollars attached, but ultimately the value part is the most important is this deal providing value for both sides. And the athletes definitely need to be comfortable with what they're promoting so it should never just about the money. There's got to be some integrity there.

FOTB: Speaking of value on both sides, how do you quantify what the sponsor gets out of the deal- how do they work out what the bottom-line is? I mean it's a pretty nebulous thing isn't it?
Shawn: I know we talked about the Profit and Loss statement, but I actually don't think that most sponsors have an ROI attached to any of this. I do think that sponsors would see sponsorship as a return because they become front of mind, there's an affiliation to the brand photos on the podium, crossing the line on a bike, in marketing terms they call it mental availability. The sponsors are buying the rights to be there with the athlete in the consumers' minds, if and when it occurs. They don't buy it to know that that individual will always be on the podium, because that is just an impossibility in this sport. There's not a winner and loser every week there's just first, second, third and then everybody else.

If you asked me, do I know to the dollar what each athlete is worth? Probably not, but I definitely have a view of what an apparel company is willing to pay. I know what kind of support a bike manufacturer will give. But I don't have an overview of the whole sport to be able to make comparisons with all the other athletes.

FOTB: As far as ROI goes, you're working on your own project related to that?
Shawn: It's not really about ROI but it's certainly about comparing athletes. In baseball and basketball they have a rating system for an athlete based on the wealth of statistics available. Triathlon doesn't have one. I'm trying to build one. I'm doing this for my own purpose because I want to know how my athletes perform against two major metrics performance as an athlete, and there's a whole bunch of metrics that sit under that and also from a social media perspective. Mash those together and we generate a number. I would then want to rate Tim and Aaron against others.

The idea originally came about because a marketing executive believed he knew more about my athlete than I did. It annoyed me because it wasn't true, but I had to go back to him with hard evidence to refute what he said because it was inaccurate. And then I argued that he was actually worth more than what we were currently asking and here's why. You can't argue these things on the basis that you're a nice guy or your athlete is a nice guy you actually have to be able to put some rationale behind it. And funnily enough, we're back at the negotiating table having a discussion with the sponsor.

FOTB: When it comes to the business/management side of things, what advice would you give to other athletes?
Shawn: The first thing is that you need to run your own brand as if it is a business. If you're not, you're selling yourself short.

Secondly, if you have contracts that are stipulating product only you're also selling yourself short and putting pressure on the guys who are in the mid-tier level or just starting, because they're going to be pushed down to product-only too. I know this sounds like I'm contradicting myself, but in the context of Berks and Aaron's sponsorships, product only is a very small part.

The harsh reality is, if you're not confident in pushing harder, bad luck! Grow some balls and just do it or get yourself a manager. Of course, and I say this tongue in cheek, personally I'm happy if you stay on product-only because that allows me to make sure Berks and Aaron get paid! Seriously though, you're not doing yourself or the sport any favours learn to push harder.

The third thing is related to the first when you're running your brand as a business, really operate it like a business understand your profit and loss, see where you need to invest more time with sponsors, keep asking "What more can I do?" and become an ambassador for your own brand, but also for your sponsor. Because sponsors don't want to have a one or two year contract and then say "You're out of here."

Ensure that you have a business plan that clearly sets out what you want to do. Sit down with your sponsors and talk it through. Sure, it's an athlete plan, but ultimately it's also a business plan. Think about where you see yourself in three years time. How are you going to get there? What events are you aiming for? What are you going to be doing? Ask what you can get involved in that helps your sponsors. Really structure it. The reality is that 99% of the athletes I've come across would never even dream of doing that. Just doing this will set you apart from the pack.

When it comes to sponsors, my view is you've got to give something back. It's not a one-way street where the athlete constantly has his or her hand out for money or product.

I think way back to 2008 when Berks won IM WA at Busselton I was doing photography at that stage and we chatted after the race. I said to Berks, "You should give this photo, fully framed, to your very important sponsors. If you want to sign it, sign it." And he sent it, I think to Scody at the time. And it's still there in their office today.

As I said to Berks, that stuff is really important. It cost him a couple of hundred dollars, but that money has gone a long way. It's the little things that mean a lot to your sponsor. It's not just about the money, they're often fans. So, do the basics. Stay in touch. Send out an email once a month about what you've been doing. And get your head around social media!

FOTB: That's a good spot to finish for now. Thanks for your honesty and your insights, Shawn!

Stay tuned for Part II of our no-holds barred interview with Shawn Smith as he goes into the nitty gritty of building your brand, maximising your impact on social media and planning for the year ahead.

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