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EI helps sports stars in chase for new goals

Athletes are showing competitive streak in the world of business, writes Fearghal O’Connor


sarah lavin - Irish hurdler

sarah lavin - Irish hurdler

sarah lavin - Irish hurdler

With the lockdown giving high-profile Irish athletes pause for thought about their future careers, Enterprise Ireland is running a pilot scheme to turn sports stars into business people.

Sport to Start-Up is aimed at almost 4,000 full-time sports people facing major uncertainty in their sporting lives.

Run through the Local Enterprise Office (LEO) network, it's aim is to help sports people create their own businesses and to foster entrepreneurship within the sporting community, said Enterprise Ireland senior executive Declan Lee, who came up with the idea for the new programme.

The move from a high-level sporting career into a more standard way of making a living was sometimes a difficult period for people, Lee told the Sunday Independent.

"Unless you're in high-level football or potentially rugby, you are not going to have the money to sustain yourself for the rest of your life," he said.

"While training and competing at such a high level, it is often difficult for a lot of these people to do anything aside from focus on what's ahead of them in their own sport as opposed to plan for after that. But a lot of them have good business ideas and they have that kind of natural drive and determination to do something after their sporting career comes to an end.

"There are, of course, a million degrees and scholarships they can do but there was actually nothing practical out there specifically catering to their needs to help them transition.

"We ran the first programme - three days a week, three hours a day, for three weeks - over Zoom and had an excellent response," he said.

Sport Ireland has been "hugely supportive" of the project and was interested in getting more involved if it becomes a permanent programme, said Lee.

Those that took part included Pa Hoban (Dundalk FC), Gary O'Donovan (Olympic medallist), Brendan Harrison (Mayo footballer), Sarah Lavin (international hurdler), Marie Louise Reilly (Rugby 6 Nations winner) and Paddy Kirk (Bohemians left back).

"There was overwhelmingly positive feedback, with almost all planning to pursue their businesses in the next couple of months," said Lee. "They were all at different stages in their development. For example, Sarah Lavin had already started her own physio business. She wanted to brush up on some skills because she started the enterprise without really knowing how to start a business.

"Brendan Harrison, the Mayo footballer, again has a construction company but wanted to learn about sales and marketing. Marie Louise Reilly, who won a Six Nations with Ireland a few years back, did it to gain the confidence to start a business."

Other sports people were interested in gaining business knowledge because businesses often approach sports stars about becoming an investor or joining a board.

"They might not exactly know what a business should look like or how it should run and at least this gives them the grounding to ask the right questions: What's your business plan? Where are your sales coming from? Where's your marketing plan?"

The Sport to Start-Up programme costs €1,000, but is subsidised by Enterprise Ireland so it only costs athletes €100 each. It is a variation on the existing Start Your Own Business (SYOB) programme the LEOs already run, said Lee.

"While Sport to Start-Up is for elite athletes, anyone can do an SYOB as the costs are all similar, ie there is not preferential treatment for the sportspeople, this is simply a version of an existing programme more tailored to them," he said.

"The biggest feedback we got initially from them was that they were all extremely nervous. Getting involved with this was really, really well outside their comfort zone. And I mean, these are people who have won Olympic medals. But this was a completely new experience for them. But they all jumped into it."

Sunday Indo Business