Saturday 20 July 2019

The sales pitch: Players are preparing for life beyond rugby

Kim Bielenberg on how the Irish rugby team took their talents off field to become big business players

Driving ambition: Brian O’Driscoll as an ambassador for Lexus. INPHO/BILLY STICKLAND
Driving ambition: Brian O’Driscoll as an ambassador for Lexus. INPHO/BILLY STICKLAND
Kim Bielenberg

Kim Bielenberg

All eyes will be on the Irish rugby team as they make their bid for Triple Crown glory at Twickenham today. But away from the crowds, off the pitch, players have been preparing for life beyond the game.

Several members of the squad are now heavily involved in business and hope that an eager entrepreneurial spirit will seal their fortunes long after they have hung up their boots.

George Best famously said in a less politically correct era: "I spent a lot of money on booze, birds and fast cars. The rest I just wasted."

This generation of Irish rugby players, by contrast, run their own companies, invest in hi-tech start-ups, do business degrees and Master's programmes, and pore over balance sheets and profit-and-loss accounts.

The bearded centre Gordon D'Arcy recently started a Pilates business to add to his investment in a pub; Jamie Heaslip is involved in a software company; Tommy Bowe, who will miss today's game due to injury, has his own range of shoes; and at least one member of the squad is believed to have spent the off-season doing an internship with a firm of stockbrokers.

They may earn six-figure sums – and in the case of Johnathan Sexton up to €700,000 – but rugby players are not in the same league as English Premier League footballers when it comes to earning power while they are playing (the soccer stars typically earn over €40,000 a week).

"If you are a top professional footballer you can easily earn enough in your career so that you do not have to work again," says former rugby international Jerry Flannery, who co-founded an internet publishing business before his retirement.

"It is not the same in rugby. The money is good, but you still have to plan for a career after retirement, and work out what job you will do.

"That is why the players are already building careers outside the game. A lot of them are smart, clued-in guys."

The career of professional rugby players can be very short, and they face the constant threat that the job will suddenly finish because of injury.

As he nears the end of his playing days at the age of 34, it is understandable that Gordon D'Arcy has his eye on the future. He is finishing a degree in economics at UCD, and is increasingly turning his attention to business interests outside the game.

Four years ago, he invested in the Exchequer Bar, a "gastropub" in the centre of Dublin, which has been known to serve a Six Nations sausage. He said earlier this month that he hoped to open a second bar.

At first glance, opening a Pilates studio with his wife Aoife may not seem like a natural fit for someone from the macho world of rugby. However, Pilates is increasingly seen by players as a way of strengthening their backs.

Of course, the greatest commercial strength for rugby players is their own image – and this has enabled some to turn into virtual walking billboards as brand ambassadors.

It is this treasure trove of endorsements that has helped to keep some of our big name rugby players in Ireland, and Brian O'Driscoll to accumulate profits of €3m in his company ODM Promotions.

O'Driscoll's business involvement goes beyond lucrative endorsements, however. He is believed to have invested heavily in Ultimate Rugby, the smartphone app he set up with the Irish software tycoon Ray Nolan. The app keeps fans updated with rugby news.

BOD is a director and 45pc shareholder of the company. Last year, it established itself as the most popular rugby app in the world.

The player is also a significant shareholder of the Ikon Talent Management Agency, which negotiates deals on behalf of other stars, including Jamie Heaslip and Cian Healy.

O'Driscoll said recently of his business interests: "There have been a couple of things I've been involved in launching that have been a bit more public, but I've always had other things tipping away in the background because at times you can be very busy, but other times you can have a lot of spare time."

Declan Kidney, the previous Irish coach, actively encouraged his players to pursue interests outside rugby.

"Players are under such pressure nowadays," Jerry Flannery told Weekend Review. "Declan thought it was good to have a business interest so that you could switch off. I have the family pub, which I run, and that was a great help when I was playing.

"I think it helps if you are doing something you are really interested in. A friend of mine had the idea of setting up, and that idea fascinated me.

"It is a good idea to plan ahead while you are playing, because inevitably you will miss the intensity of the game."

With a Master's in business, Jamie Heaslip has already made preparations and has invested in the software firm Kitman Labs. The sports science company based in the Media Cube in Dún Laoghaire uses computer programs to track the physical well-being of players during training and matches, and gauges when there is a threat of injury.

Heaslip is also a partner in Bear restaurant, an off-shoot of the Jo'burger chain, that concentrates on steaks. In recent weeks he has also turned up in newspaper articles promoting Range Rover.

Among those who are considered most likely to make it big in business are full-back Rob Kearney and his brother Dave, who are joint shareholders in the company Willville Promotions.

Rob is involved in a retail development on Dublin's Drury Street and is also shareholder in the recruitment firm Mason Alexander, which specialises in taxation and finance.

The man who blazed a trail in business for the rest of the team is Tommy Bowe, whose range of shoes is branded with a rugby theme.

At the end of their careers, players can find it hard to adjust. A recent survey by the Irish Rugby Union Players' Association (IRUPA) showed that half of all careers ended abruptly due to injury or failure to secure a contract.

In order to ensure that players are well prepared, IRUPA organises career development programmes, and players are advised to continue with their education and boost their qualifications. Through the Institute of Directors, the players' association recently set up a business mentoring scheme.

Maura Quinn, chief executive of the Institute of Directors, said: "We have 100 mentors who have volunteered. If, for example, a player is interested in working in property, he can get advice from someone in that business.

"One of our mentors is a former top model who now works in business. Her experience in some ways parallels that of a rugby player, because she had to pursue a new career."

Of all the current players, O'Driscoll probably has the greatest number of options for a future career.

Judging by some of his pithy words of wisdom, he could even have a future as a self-help guru.

Once asked about his England rival Martin Johnson, he famously replied: "Knowledge is knowing that a tomato is a fruit; wisdom is knowing not to put it in a fruit salad."



Company: Sabra Management
Accumulated profits: €60,000
Other interests: Partner in Bear restaurant and investor in software firm Kitman Labs 


Company: ODM Promotions
Net assets: €3.2 million
Other interests: Smartphone app (Ultimate Rugby), Ikon Talent Management agency and Brian O’Driscoll Rugby Academ 


Company: Willville promotions
Accumulated profits: €190,874
Other interests: Dave partner in recruitment firm Mason Alexander, property development 


Company: Partner with wife Aoife Cogan in Form School Pilates
Other interests: Investor in Exchequer Bar 


Company: Nellcon
Accumulated profits: €975,410
Other interests: Investments have included property 


Company: Tommy Bowe Sports
Accumulated profits: €292,000 (shoe range and clothing collection)  


AS Management Accumulated profits: €225,000

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