‘Why we’re backing Britain’s top female athletes’

Richard Thompson, chairman and founder of M&C Saatchi Merlin, offers his views on why women can be the sporting role models of the future. As someone who has worked in all aspects of the entertainment industry, managing household-name talent, he is in a strong position to provide an insight into the world of sports promotion.

The recent signing of Katarina Johnson-Thompson, Perri Shakes-Drayton and Jodie Williams to our athlete management division at M&C Saatchi Merlin, feeds into our belief that women sometimes make better role models.

From a commercial perspective, all three operate well and have a broad appeal because they are fantastic in front of the camera. Katarina, Perri and Jodie are probably the hottest female competitors in British athletics right now, with the exception of sprinter Dina Asha-Smith.

Having the largest group of female athletes gives us the leverage within the business to work with them to develop their brand, monitor their progress and expand their commercial appeal. The business rewards we may get out of managing and representing a lot of women are clear, but I think it’s something we as a creative talent management agency should just do. I’ve never fully understood why women’s sport is sometimes marginalised. Half of the population are women, so for me it’s a no brainer.

Through my position as Chairman of Surrey County Cricket Club, I have pioneered everything that I can to promote the women’s game. Indeed, I employed Ebony Rainford-Brent as our first director of women’s cricket in 2014.

Women currently outnumber the men at M&C Saatchi Merlin, with a 70:30 ratio in favour of women working at the agency. Our most senior director, Katie Lydon, is my number two and, overall, there are fewer egos in the office.

From a business and sport perspective, I actively want to work with female athletes such as Katarina, Perri and Jodie. It was definitely a motivating factor when we approached them. We also thought we should be looking for more current athletes to sign as well as strengthening ties with former ones, for example Denise Lewis, who has taught us a lot about athletics over the years.

All three athletes are currently experiencing an upward curve, they have not peaked yet, and so we wanted to help take them to the next level. In some ways, to learn from the mistakes of other athletes who have reached the highest stage and have not known quite what to do to capitalise on their position.
We are in a place at the agency to say: “We think you’re great, we think you’re going to get on the podium, we think you’re going to win gold, let’s plan for that now and think about how you can monetise it when you get there.”

We operate and maintain a very close relationship with a lot of sponsoring companies, putting a lot of athletes in front of the brands that no one else can. It’s about making sure an athlete can convert all of their hard work into income.

The latest drug allegations surrounding the sport haven’t hindered our involvement with the athletes from a business perspective. It’s all about choosing the right individuals to work with.

I really feel for cyclist Chris Froome, who has worked so hard only have urine thrown in his face and all because of one individual, Lance Armstrong, tainting the sport for generations.

People don’t understand where athletes get their competitive advantage from, but I think they just work harder. There’s bigger investment going into the sport than ever before and athletes seem to want it more now. I have no suspicions or nerves when talking to brands because British Athletics have built a strong reputation for being extremely diligent when it comes to drug use.

The forthcoming World Athletics Championships in Beijing will be a huge contest across the board for all of the athletes, who will be looking for their hard work to pay off. It’s great that there is a terrestrial broadcaster in the BBC maintaining coverage of the Championships; it’s going to be wall-to-wall.

I think Great Britain have a strong chance of medal success and given that we are a year away from the Rio Olympics, these are two massive years for athletics. If these athletes do well, they can do really well financially.


Richard Thompson was talking to Megan Joyce for The Mixed Zone

Megan Joyce 2Megan Joyce is an English Literature graduate from Queen’s University, Belfast, with an MA in Sports Journalism from St. Mary’s University, Twickenham. She covered all sports for a variety of media organisations while in Belfast, and currently blogs for BT Sport Rugby and writes for The Rugby Football League. Megan is reporting on Chelsea Ladies football team this season. Megan’s latest articles.

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