Return Game: the comeback of Sean Collins-McCarthy
Sean Collins-McCarthy was one of the ultimate Celtic Cubs of the noughties. He had connections and self belief but it wasn't enough to stop him going down in flames. Donal Lynch looks at the unlikely second act of a man who started with a trilogy and ended up with codology
'An entrepreneur and environmentalist, a sports and entertainment business pioneer and venture and equity investor and president", a "supporter of the arts and avid outdoorsman", a "protege of world famous tennis coach Nick Bollettieri", a man who has "mentored Executive MBA students at a top-tier university", a descendant of patriot hero Michael Collins (and, for good measure, several "famous Irish kings, princes, chieftains, and military leaders") and, to top it all off, a business leader who for his good works has won comparisons to Bob Geldof and Richard Branson.
In such dramatically glowing terms is Sean Collins-McCarthy described on the new website for his company Collins-McCarthy Global Initiatives, a firm that "drives and advances economic, political and religious freedom". It sounds like some kind of think-tank, and, reading through the reams of breathless, relentlessly self-aggrandising hyperbole, you almost begin to wonder why you've never heard of this young Dublin-born dynamo before. Until you remember you have.
And the clue, the reminder, is in the sole piece of independent press reproduced on the website. It's taken from the now defunct Ace magazine, a British tennis publication, and the headline reads, The Cup of Good Cheer. It tells of a huge tennis, fashion and music event called the Trilogy, to be held in Dublin in the winter of 2002. All the big female tennis stars will be in attendance, it says: Monica Seles, Anna Kournikova, The Williams sisters, Jennifer Capriati. There will be models (including supermodels Naomi Campbell, Tyra Banks and Jodie Kidd, who would eventually come), the piece says. There will be a contribution to the Chernobyl Children's Project. It might eventually outgrow Ireland, much like the Ryder Cup, Collins-McCarthy supposes. And the piece ends with the retrospectively ominous sentence: "It's another twist in an extraordinary story, but if The Trilogy can continue to attract this widespread media attention, Sean Collins-McCarthy will well deserve his own name being remembered through the Cup."
In fact, the Ace story might well have been the last piece of positive press that Collins-McCarthy generated. The Trilogy continued to attract massive media attention long after it sunk in a sea of unpaid debts - totalling some €3.6m - and its charismatic founder's name was so well remembered that he went to ground for a few years, refusing to answer journalists' calls. By the time the dust had settled on the whole thing, almost everyone involved, from Venus Williams right down to the guy who made the sandwiches, was left out of pocket. One of his creditors, Allan Gannon of Dublin-based Frontline Security, even hired a private detective to track down the elusive Collins-McCarthy. The young Dublin man, then just 22, had a surplus of self-belief, a welter of society connections - his then girlfriend was Lorraine Hewson, Bono's niece - and the uncanny ability to convince hard-nosed sports agents to bring their travelling circus to the nation's capital. But he ended up presiding over one of the most notable business collapses of our time.
Many local observers of the Trilogy debacle saw the tennis component of it as Collins-McCarthy's way of working out his own frustrated ambitions to become a professional player. His new website still describes him as "a former professional tennis player who received numerous sports scholarships around the world" and was "specially selected by the Head of Player Development, Recruitment and Sports Psychology for the Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy."
In fact, growing up, Collins-McCarthy was a middling club-level amateur player with more self-confidence than raw talent. His father Patrick McCarthy was a technician in RTE, and his sister a promising ballerina. In his teens, having failed to impress most of the coaches who dealt with him in Dublin, he was sent to train at the tennis academy in Florida run by Nick Bollettieri - who had in his time trained legends of the sport like Jim Courier, Andre Agassi and Monica Seles. The Academy is owned by International Management Group (IMG) which allows promising juniors to train for free. Despite the narrative on his website (which insists that he "consistently earned a place in the Elite Professional Touring Group with players such as Petr Korda, Nicolás Massú, Paul-Henri Mathieu" - all of whom were ranked in the world's top 20 at one time), Collins-McCarthy was in fact a paying guest at the academy, rather than a scholarship student.
By the time he returned to Ireland, he had an American-tinged accent and a selection of far-fetched anecdotes from his time at the academy. He had improved his game but not to the level where he ever represented county or country. He was trained at Riverview (now David Lloyd) tennis club in Clonskeagh by Ulli Nganga, a former top junior from England, and with Nganga's encouragement and his father's money behind him, Collins-McCarthy decided he would launch a career as a professional (a move described to me by one coach who dealt with him as "akin to a local league player trying out for Manchester United").
He travelled the globe and fought hard but unsurprisingly failed to win a set of tennis anywhere. Eventually he decided that rather than attempting to become a professional tennis player he would instead do the next best thing and become a promoter. In late 2001, Nganga and Collins-McCarthy met at a Dublin pub and discussed an idea to stage a huge tennis exhibition and fashion event in Dublin, bringing some of the top international players and models to town and hopefully securing the involvement of a big pop act. "It sounded like a fantastic idea," Nganga would ruefully remember, "and he just really believed in it. His enthusiasm for the whole thing was infectious." They set up a company called Proprietory Management, which had its HQ beside a run down bicycle shop in Booterstown.
The concept, everyone agreed, was brilliant and timely. Women's tennis had hugely increased in popularity in the late nineties and photogenic stars like Martina Hingis and The Williams sisters were dubbed "the spice girls" of the sport. They graced the covers of lads' mags, took acting roles in films and music videos and attended the MTV awards. By the time Anna Kournikova received the request to come to Dublin, a place she had never visited, she was the most Googled human being on the planet.
In order to secure the involvement of the tennis stars, Collins-McCarthy had to deal with a number of bodies, including the Women's Tennis Association (WTA), Tennis Ireland and IMG, which represented the players. In negotiations with the players' agents, he offered what then senior WTA official and fellow Irishman John Dolan called "unheard of" sums if the players would come to Dublin. The money would be partly put up by Collins-McCarthy's father and by Norman Hewson, the father of his then--girlfriend and the brother of Bono. One of the agents would later say that Collins-McCarthy's failure to negotiate the appearance fees was the one tiny clue which made him think that something might be up. When the Irishman secured the involvement of Jodie Kidd and Naomi Campbell for the fashion show leg of the event, however, it seemed like it was destined to be a sure-fire success.
However, if Collins-McCarthy had pulled off an enviable feat in attracting stars of that calibre to Dublin, he seemed bizarrely determined to keep his success under wraps. Even at a very late stage in the run up to the December 2002 exhibition, many hardcore tennis fans in Dublin had not heard that the event was taking place. Belatedly, advertisements were placed in the Irish Times but these were not enough to bring about a huge increase in flagging ticket sales; and to compound matters, the ticket prices - coming in at around 100 Euro per person - were unaffordable to many fans. Collins-McCarthy was also, for the most part, uncooperative with press requests and Nganga would later say that "Sean almost had a level of paranoia about people, including people in the media, finding out what we were doing, especially on the financial side of things."
When the players arrived at the RDS they were shocked at the sight that greeted them, a half-full stand and no advertising hoardings: "It seemed kind of weird to me that there was no sponsorship or anything in the arena," player-captain Zina Garrison would tell the Sunday Independent. The exhibition was also not shown on terrestrial television, which meant companies had little incentive to pay for advertising.
Collins-McCarthy also found it very difficult to secure a big name musical act for the event, particularly without the cooperation of the two main concert promoters in Ireland - MCD and Aiken.
For a long time it was rumoured that U2 would swoop in to save the day - particularly given Collins-McCarthy's connections - but when that failed to materialise the Trilogy changed to the rather less catchy duology.
Those fans that did attend got their money's worth, however, and when a grinning Bertie Ahern presented the winner's trophy to the triumphant American team, most casual observers still thought the event had been a success. Behind the scenes, however, the event had run wildly over budget. Mick Devine, who provided the chauffeur service for all the players, recalled Collins-McCarthy "demanding" that the players be provided with cars twenty four hours a day. "I pointed out to him that it would be normal, even at big tournaments, that the players would have a shuttle service, but this guy wanted cars for the hairstylists and make-up artists and everyone". Collins-McCarthy spared no expense in showing the visiting stars a good time, and was seen partying with them in city centre nightspots like Cafe En Seine.
The fashion show too suffered from a number of different problems. Like the tennis tournament it was well attended but it later emerged that many people had received complimentary tickets. The Chernobyl Children's charity received €6,000, which was considerably less than than the sum they understood they would be receiving.
Kournikova had in fact been alert to the risks earlier than most. Mick Devine recounted the story of her insisting on stopping at a cafe in Drumcondra on her way to Dublin airport: "She was talking in perfect English on her mobile phone. She said she wasn't going any further until she was satisfied that the money was being transferred into her account. We had to stop off in a cafe in Drumcondra while she spoke to her agent."
Collins-McCarthy, meanwhile, didn't seem overly fazed, telling reporters that he would consider the event a success if it broke even. In the end Proprietory Management ended up owing IMG some €976,000. Nganga was paid only €9,000 for his two years of work on the event. But it was the smaller companies, which had worked on the event which suffered the most. Cheques bounced, and Allan Gannon's Frontline Security was left unable to pay its workers for a week. At a creditors' meeting in January 2003, Gannon was furious to see Collins-McCarthy "arriving with a smirk on his face and leaving laughing at us." A complaint of reckless trading was later lodged with the Office of the Director of Corporate Enforcement, but Collins-McCarthy was found to have acted appropriately at all times. Judge Sean O'Leary said that Collins had acted "honestly" and he rejected an application by the liquidator Tom Kavanagh to have him restricted as a director under the Companies Act.
According to Collins-McCarthy, he "successfully defended the company's position during the legal proceedings with the Office of the Director of Corporate Enforcement, the Office of the Liquidator, and the High Court of Ireland by producing an overwhelming majority of evidence to substantiate and confirm the, 1.) significant time pressures, negative and sceptical media, high barriers and anti-competitive practices the company encountered, and 2.) professional foresight, and responsible and honest conduct of the Directors of the Company." He also claims that during negotiations with IMG about the close-on €1m he owed them that he "subsequently developed new business ventures with IMG and other global sports, entertainment, and media companies via a new investment vehicle." Several years ago, Collins-McCarthy was rumoured to be planning another high profile exhibition - to the huge incredulity of those in the tennis community - but nothing ever came of it.
In 2013, Collins-McCarthy told the Sunday Times that he was writing his autobiography and that two publishers had expressed an interest in it. He also said that he was launching a Michael Collins Foundation on St Patrick's day last year, and it was to incorporate an interactive museum in Dublin with satellite museums in America and Australia. Nothing has opened in Dublin yet
These days, Collins-McCarthy, now aged 34 and married, divides his time between Europe and the US, and his current company website boasts of working with "the US Department Of Defense" and leading negotiations for "the raising of hundreds of millions of dollars" as well as his support for humanitarian causes ("Chernobyl"). To many, he remains one of the ultimate Icarus figures of the boom, a man who bit off more than he could chew and whose big ideas refused to die, even as the money ran out and the press bayed for his head. He shrugged it off, moved on and has now assembled a document, full of sound and bluster, which seems to presage a comeback of sorts. "People laughed at him when it was all said and done", one tennis coach who dealt with Collins-McCarthy told me this week. "But you don't pull off something that huge without having something special about you. Tennis is a sport that has always welcomed a comeback kid and it wouldn't surprise me in the least to see him rise again."
Sunday Indo Life Magazine