Ricky Simms has become one of the power players in international athletics. His Pace Management company in London handles the careers of 70 athletes including Usain Bolt and Mo Farah, and if it was a country at the London 2012 Olympics it would have finished 15th in the world medals table with six gold, five silver and two bronze.
Not bad for a young man from Milford in County Donegal who admitted to being good at everything when he was competing but not world class in anything.
Sport for Business met up with Simms at the Annual Conference of the Irish International Business Network in London recently and he shared his thoughts with us as part of our Making Sport work for Business series of interviews with leaders from both camps.
“I got into management while I was still running. It was clear to me then that I was not going to race at the Olympics but there were so many opportunities in sport away from the track. You just needed to know where to look and be determined to stick at it.”
Simms started working with Ken McDonald through knowing Sonia O’Sullivan and when he died suddenly in 2001, took over the running of the Pace Management business that had been established in London.
“We are based in Teddington in London which has access to the facilities the athletes need but most importantly is adjacent to Heathrow Airport.”
“There is a lot of travelling involved in this game. There are times when I will go for a stretch of five or six weeks at a time hopping from one country to the next.”
“We manage athletes from all around the world. From Britain and Jamaica to the USA and Kenya. An athlete like Usain is a bit of a home bird. He wants to spend as much of his time in Jamaica as possible and I am there with him when he needs.”
“We are a team with a tight group of coaches and I kind of keep the whole thing together as much like his Brother as a manager. We get along well.”
There can be a clash between the athletic and the commercial demands on a legend like Bolt.
“My view is that you have to do the business on the track before you begin to look at how to capitalise off the track. Even with Usain after Beijing, he was everybody’s superstar athlete. Laid back, engaging, a winner who seemed to have it all. But there have been Gold medallists before and in order to become the Legend, it was important to do it all over again at London.”
“Of course he took on commercial partnerships, most notably with Puma and Visa, but one tight hamstring or one emerging younger talent and we could have been in a different place now. Its a very thin line between first and the rest in athletics. People remember the winners.”
“Now he is a two time individual sprint double gold medallist he is in a special place. He will never be forgotten now. If he was to do the same again in Rio, that would be another level again.”
“Thats the same with all our athletes. There is always a danger of doing it once then getting sucked into the fame game. Do it over a couple of cycles and you are much more secure.”
Pace runs athletics training camps in Africa where talented young runners can develop their skills.
“There is no carding system there, no high tech sports institutes. Most will come through individual channels and only hone their talent on the track when they are already developed as athletes. We try to help bring that forward.”
“Ireland has a great tradition in athletics but its a very competitive world. In some sports at the Olympics there will only be a handful of nations competing. Everybody sends runners though.”
“You had 230 nations competing on the track in London and it’s incredibly difficult to make a mark. In Jamaica, sprinting is the GAA, soccer and rugby all rolled into one. It’s the sport that everybody wants to be in and that draws all the talent towards competing at the highest level even before leaving the country. In Ireland there is a lot of competition for anyone who is physically talented.”
As far as Pace goes, Simms is already into the next Olympic Cycle.
“Our US athletes at middle distance have real potential and there is a great opportunity there. Usain and Mo have to do it all over again and there is always the search for new talent.”
“We manage 70 at the moment and I think in the future that number might come down. Focus on the highest quality without losing the ability to spot it at an early enough stage.”
TV dominates everything now and one iconic image can seal an athletes place in the public hearts and minds.
Simms created just that moment in London when Bolt and Farah swapped their trademark celebrations after both landing Gold.
“It so nearly didn’t happen.”
“Usain had won and been away for testing and the officials didn’t want to let him back into the stadium. Then when we got together there was a massive crush of photographers. These were the two heroes of the games, after all.”
“We had talked about the swap before and I asked the photographers to step back. They wouldn’t so I had to physically push like in a rugby scrum, shouting all the time this was going to be their shot of the games.”
So it proved as Mo Farah pulled back his bow and Usain did the Mobot, a celebration designed on Sky TV’s League of their Own show by presenter Clare Balding.
Finally we touched on Donegal’s win in this year’s All Ireland Final.
“It was fantastic and a great achievement for the players and Jim McGuinness. I would have loved to be there in September but it was not to be. I actually ‘watched’ the game on twitter on a German Autobahn.”
Ricky Simms has crossed over from sport to the business of sport. He is at the top of his game and intends to stay there for a while yet.