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‘Not the biggest, just the best’ – How Jay-Z is looking to build football’s strongest team

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“We’re not trying to be the biggest agency in the world,” says Michael Yormark, fixing a stare. “We just want to be the best.” Yormark is the president of Roc Nation Sports International and is speaking to Goal from the company’s newly-opened office in the heart of London, a short walk from Great Portland Street tube station.

“It’s been a big year,” he reflects. “A busy period, for sure, but an exciting one.”

Yormark, American born and educated at Ohio University, heads up a team of 25 full-time employees – that number will expand significantly, he says, in the coming months – whose aim is simple; to make Roc Nation Sports the No.1 place for athlete representation across the world.

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The company, an offshoot of Jay-Z’s Roc Nation empire, may only have founded in 2013 but its growth, unsurprisingly, has been rapid. In America, they look after the interests of stars such as NFL stars Dez Bryant and Todd Gurley, as well as NBA ace Kyrie Irving. Boxer Maurice Hooker is also on board, part of a 90-strong stable of elite athletes.

That stable has been added to in recent years as Yormark and his team have sought to penetrate the world of football, representing players both on and off the pitch. Jerome Boateng, the Bayern Munich, and Germany defender became their first ‘soccer’ client in 2015, and he has been joined since by the likes of Kevin De Bruyne, Romelu Lukaku, Axel Witsel, Samuel Chukwueze, and Eric Bailly.

Earlier this month Reece James, the highly-rated Chelsea teenager, became the latest player to join the team. James’ sister Lauren, a forward with Manchester United in the WSL, has also been signed up, along with their father, Nigel, who runs a successful coaching academy in South London.

“We are very selective,” says Yormark, who joined Roc Nation in 2014 having previously been the president of NHL franchise the Florida Panthers. Prior to that he has worked with both the New York Yankees and the Tampa Bay Lightning, among others.

“We can’t have a roster of 150 footballers, that wouldn’t work for us,” he adds. “We are an aspirational brand, but sometimes less is more.”

How then, do he and his team go about selecting their clients?

“We want footballers that want to be part of something a little bit different,” he says. “Footballers that want to be a little bit disruptive, that care about their brand, about family, about making a difference in their community. And footballers that will stop at nothing to achieve greatness.”

With a smile, he adds: “And we also love footballers that have a great story. At Roc Nation, we are storytellers, and we think we are the best storytellers in the world.”

Jay-Z, of course, is the best example of that. His journey from the Marcy housing projects in Brooklyn to global stardom is, Yormark says, one of the most inspirational and motivational tales imaginable – the ultimate ‘rags to riches’ story.

One, Goal wonders, he can use when pitching to potential new recruits?

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“Absolutely,” he says. “There’s an old saying in the entertainment industry; every artist wants to be an athlete, and every athlete wants to be an artist. That’s so true.

“When you think about it, every athlete in the world today knows about Roc Nation, because they are listening to our music. Whether it’s Rihanna, Miguel, J.Cole, Shakira, Meek Mill, whoever, they know us.

“And especially when they listen to Jay, they’re listening to the lyrics that describe the journey that describes Roc Nation and our history. So whether it’s a Jerome Boateng, a Romelu Lukaku or a Kevin De Bruyne, they already know about us before they sit down with us.

“It gives us an advantage from a recruitment standpoint. Typically, you have to go into a meeting and educate the athlete, the family, on who your company is, who is pitching them. In our case, they already know us.”

Yormark tells a story of meeting with a young prospect – he doesn’t name him – and receiving a call from one of his artists.

“It was DJ Khaled,” he smiles. “And the potential client was like ‘hey, that’s my guy’, so we Facetimed. DJ Khaled is there telling this player about Roc Nation, selling the whole thing to him. He’s doing my job for me!

“When players sign for us, one of the first things they ask is ‘can I meet Jay-Z?’ There’s a huge crossover between the worlds of music and sports.”

Yormark’s enthusiasm is relentless. He talks of ‘The Roc Nation Way’ with passion and explains how he wakes at 4am every day ready to “attack the day”. He is, by his own admission, a gym addict, ready to “outwork anyone”.

Discussing his work, he describes Roc Nation Sports as “career management partners” and explains how, in his opinion, their approach differs from that of their rivals.

“This is not a money grab,” Yormark insists. “There are a lot of agencies that are focused only on the P&L (profit and loss) and the bottom line. That’s not us.

“We want to help our clients achieve all their goals and objectives, and it’s not just about what happens on the pitch. It’s about their life away from football, and it’s about planning for post-career too. The lifespan of any athlete is so short that every second counts. You have to leverage your success today, to help tomorrow.

“It’s about dreaming. That’s the story behind the company logo (a paper plane). Go dream, go be what you want to be. It’s not just about accumulating wealth, it’s about going on to be what you want to be.

“Lukaku wants to manage a club. We talk post-career aspirations with all our clients, and we tell them to dream. Whatever that dream is, tell us, and we will put the right pieces in place to help them get there. Let’s dream together.”

Yormark’s pitch is convincing, his passion clear. Authenticity, he says, is central to what his company, and its clients, are about.

“That underpins everything we do,” he says. “We want our clients to be outspoken. So we align them with brands that allow that, who fit with their personality and their values.

“Rom has been vocal about racism, for example, and all of his brand partners respect that and want to support him in that. We’ve seen in the US, when athletes stand up for a cause it can be very powerful.

“Athletes are so important these days. These people have unique platforms – they are popular, they have influence, and it is important that athletes use their platforms to encourage to inspire to educate and to speak out on issues that trouble them.

“Lukaku is doing that with racism. It’s a major problem in Italy, beyond disgusting. I have met with Serie A three times, and I tell them how disappointed we are. For that to be allowed to happen on a consistent basis, is unacceptable.

“But the fact that Rom is speaking out about it is important, because he has a unique platform, and people now know his story. “I think he’s using his platform in the right way. I hope more and more footballers and athletes do the same, utilize their platforms in positive ways to influence communities and societies.

“Like I say, at Roc Nation we are storytellers, the best storytellers in the world. And we don’t want any of our footballers to hold back from speaking their mind.”

One leaves with the impression that we’ll be hearing a lot more about the Roc Nation story in the coming months and years. Their footballing journey is just getting started.


Vanguard News

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