Saturday 17 March 2018

Putting our athletes on the commercial podium

Derry McVeigh plays a key role for many in the Ireland camp, writes Marie Crowe

For athletes, this is as big as it gets. For these few weeks, they don't just get to compete against the best in the world but they also have commercial opportunities that -- like the Games -- only come around once every four years.

And while Team Ireland don't have any blue-chip athletes with the global appeal of Usain Bolt or Michael Phelps, there is a domestic market our stars can target.

Derry McVeigh is co-owner of Silverhatch Sports, a company which represents a lot of the Irish athletes currently in London. The likes of Paul Hession, Deirdre Ryan, Melanie Nocher and Rob and Marian Heffernan are all under the Silverhatch umbrella.

Along with Hugh Cafferky, McVeigh set up the company in 2008, originally looking after triathletes, taking care of all avenues of their sponsorship from bikes to clothing to travel and accommodation partners before widening the net somewhat to other sports and athletes.

McVeigh's background is in cycling. The Dubliner raced internationally and was part of the Emerald team. From this he was exposed to the competitive and commercial side of sport and gained experience in both.

An Olympic cycle for an athlete in terms of commercial preparation is similar to their race preparation cycle. If an athlete is young and needs media training and exposure, it can take four years to prepare for an Olympics but for those with more experience it's usually two years.

Paul Hession signed up with Silverhatch in 2010, and although he'd been an Olympian two years earlier and had a high profile, Silverhatch decided to rebrand the Galwayman to make him more attractive to sponsors.

His back catalogue of pictures primarily showed him wearing his running gear, there was nothing that separated him from other athletes. So developing his image was the first step in the process.

Pictures were taken of the athlete in a tuxedo with his singlet protruding and they formed a big part of the presentation that was put to companies. He had a corporate appeal and offered more than just a name. McVeigh regularly refers to Hession's 'content' when talking about him. By this he means what the 200m runner can offer companies, for example his knowledge of training, diet, motivation, dealing with pressure and a host of other angles that corporations can tap into.

"The feedback we get is that companies can't comprehend the content that athletes have. They have found it very effective to use some of that content as part of their campaigns," explains McVeigh.

A website was then set up, with a blog, videos, and links to Hession's social media accounts like Facebook and Twitter.

McVeigh met with the Olympic Council of Ireland to see what brands had aligned themselves with the London Games. Having this information was vital as there were only a limited amount of brands that Hession could be associated with at the Games. Big-name companies like Electric Ireland, Proctor and Gamble, Coca-Cola and Cadbury are all either official partners or official supporters so McVeigh made presentations to several on Hession's behalf.

"Cadbury were the first to get on board with Paul, so once we knew we were dealing with them we didn't want to go anywhere else, we wanted to get that over the line. We couldn't risk any other companies coming on board that would conflict with their brand. We couldn't be associated with any other food brands. It was six months before that got over the line, there was a lot of over and back to get it done."

Although some people think that athletes live a Hollywood lifestyle, travelling to exotic locations to race for two minutes. That opinion couldn't be further from the truth.

According to McVeigh, an appearance fee for an athlete more often than not just pays the electricity bill. Hession's Cadbury sponsorship was used for him and his coach John Coghlan to travel to South Africa and America to prepare for the Games, it wasn't for luxuries.

Since joining Silverhatch Sports, three-time Olympian Rob Heffernan and his wife Marian have captured the interest of the nation. The husband and wife pair are both competing in London -- Rob in the walk and Marian in the

4x400m relay -- and have been branded as one entity. They have joint Twitter and Facebook accounts, their website is and McVeigh presented them to potential sponsors as a package.

"Rob is an incredible athlete and his experience and his content knowledge is unbelievable and he's a great personality. But I thought the story is Rob and Marian, it's unique and a cross-section of society can tap into it and relate to the struggle of juggling training, life and kids. And a husband and wife going to the Olympics is very interesting. By the time they joined up with us, a lot of the big companies were a closed shop but Electric Ireland have used them for media days, Kinetica came on board for nutrition and Mizuno came on board as Marian's kit sponsor," explains McVeigh.

With regard to commercial appeal, qualifying for the Olympics is vital. "It's the be all and the end all," he says. Image combined with success is a winning formula for companies, however they don't make decisions lightly when signing up to sponsor an athlete.

"Sponsors will spend a while looking at an athlete before committing. They will investigate what brands they've associated with in the past. They'll monitor them for a period of time to see how they conduct themselves on Facebook, Twitter and other social media platforms to make sure they are happy with them. It's a thorough process."

McVeigh encourages his athletes to use social media; it provides a direct link to the public and can lead to increased traffic on the athlete's website. They regularly tweet how they're feeling before or after a race and this helps them connect with their followers.

McVeigh has put plans in place for any athletes who podium at these Olympics so that everything is set up for them. He will gauge what their commercial value is and try to maintain that for the future. He has high hopes for his athletes but when it comes to revealing their goals for London, he won't give anything away.

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