The following article is a guest contribution from Natalie Mikolich. Natalie is the Founder of NPM | PR, where she focuses as a sports publicist.
As one of the first female agents breaking ground in athlete representation over 27-years-ago, Micky Lawler has served as the head of Octagon’s worldwide Tennis Division since 1988. Now the Managing Director for both Octagon Tennis & Global Initiatives, Micky’s fluency in five languages and previous experience living all over the world while serving as the press officer for the ATP helped shape her into becoming a driving force in sports business and instrumental for the global growth of the game of tennis. Prior to this, Micky received her education at the American College in Paris followed by the Interpretation School in Brussels before beginning her career as a graduate teaching and research assistant at the University of Delaware. After going back to Europe in 1985 and becoming a language teacher in Paris, it was by chance one day on her way to a teaching lesson that she saw an ad on the bus in the International Herald Tribune for a job as a press officer with the ATP which she applied for and got. Two years later, Micky made the transition to the athlete representation with Advantage International (Octagon’s predecessor) and since then has played a tremendous role in shaping the WTA into the incredible platform it is today while overseeing all aspects of Octagon’s Tennis Division including plyer representation, event management and international business initiatives across Octagon’s sport and entertainment platforms. Serving as a Board Member for the WTA, Micky has been named a “Game Changer” among women in sports business by Sports Business Journal and has also won the Warsaw-Thurston Award for achieving the highest level of professional success in advancing opportunities for women in the business of sport.
What is your education and background in?
I was born in Holland where my dad worked for Philips electronics. We spent our lives moving around. We moved to Bogota when I was one-year-old, and then spent seven years in Argentina before Bolivia, and then East Africa. I went to school at the American College in Paris for two years and then transferred to the Interpretation School in Brussels. I came to the U.S. to be certified in simultaneous interpretation because in those days in Europe one could only interpret into English if it was British English. Once in the U.S., I was offered a graduate teaching and research assistant position at the University of Delaware where I spent four years. I went back to Europe in 1985. European labor laws were such that what was thought to be beneficial to women was actually detrimental. Long paid maternity leaves, for example, would actually keep women from qualifying for senior positions because the economics made no sense. In the U.S., the opposite was true. In the Linguistics graduate program at Delaware, it was an advantage to be female. There were very few women and actually very few Americans. I was lucky to have had the opportunity to study and work in the US. Great lessons were learned and even the tough transition when I went back to Europe after graduate school was positive, even if it was difficult.
How did you get started in the sports industry?
After I struggled to transition from the land of opportunity in the US to a much more traditional and male dominant work-force in Europe, I found a job in Paris as a language teacher. I was on my way to one of my lessons and I saw an ad in the International Herald Tribune for a job as a press officer for the ATP (which was then the Men’s International Professional Tennis Council). I always loved tennis, played tennis and thought “this is destiny!” I applied for the position, got the job and traveled 48 weeks out of the year for two years, all over the world. It was amazing. I then joined Advantage International, which is now Octagon, and in 1990 the International Tennis Council (at the time the ATP and the ITF were members of the council) was dissolved and replaced by the ATP as the governing body of men’s professional tennis in 1990.
In the late 80s, there were three main management groups – IMG, ProServ and Advantage International. At the time, I interviewed with all three managements companies and decided to go with Advantage International. All three offered great opportunities, but I felt Advantage International was the best one for me and that was almost 27-years-ago.
Having been on the tour day in, and day out for many consecutive weeks all over the world, it really helped understand every aspect of the business of professional tennis. I was lucky enough to work with numerous exceptional people on both the athlete and the tournament side. The impact these events and athletes have on a country, a city and a community is so far-reaching and positive, that it all boils down to so much more than the on-court performance by the players. If you take an event like Miami on Key Biscayne and you consider the number of hotel rooms, meals, general consumption; and, overall revenue it brings to the city, it is fantastic – not to mention the community outreach for which the event is responsible.
Who was the first client you represented at Octagon? Who were some of the others?
Alberto Mancini was my first client at Octagon. He believed in us to do the job and I will forever be grateful for him and his parents (and his coach). We will always have a relationship and strong bond even though we don’t talk all the time; when we do, it’s like we’ve never been apart.
We also represented other Argentinians stars such as Gabriel Markus and Federico Browne; and, top players from Holland Paul Haarhuis, Jacco Elting,Wimbledon Champion Richard Krajicek, Sjeng Schalken, Raemon Sluiter…and, let’s not forget my luckiest days of working on events with Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe. I went on tour with them through South America. That was a definite career highlight. These guys were and continue to be my heroes!
Do you remember the first deal you signed for a client, if so which athlete was it for and what brand?
Yes, it was for Alberto Mancini when he was 19-years-old and he had just won Monte Carlo and Rome. He was the tennis player everyone wanted – from a management perspective and for endorsements. The way that was all handled by Alberto himself and by his family was first class. He was extremely loyal and sensitive to those who had been there for him from the start. Lotto had started with him when he was young and promising; and, they stepped up when he was being pursued by all the big brands. Still, at the end of the day, for Alberto relationships were much more important than anything else.
What was is like being one of the first female agents?
Right now, CNN has a series airing called The Sixties which shows women who greatly influenced global change and the way women are perceived. It took these brave women to pave the way for us. Whether you are male or female, you shouldn’t be afraid to pursue your vision and explore new value propositions. Being a woman in a mostly male industry was a challenge but, more importantly, it was a huge opportunity.
When Octagon began representing women in 1983, only the top five to ten were able to make a decent living as professionals. By bringing women’s tennis to parts of the world where there was no tennis or only men’s tennis, we made a difference. We helped to grow women’s tennis and played an important role in shaping the WTA to the incredible platform it is today. That was phenomenal and I have to say that Octagon’s President, Phil de Picciotto, gets a lot of credit. He is a visionary and took a lot of leaps of faith that benefited the sport as a whole.
What does it take to be a good sports agent these days?
The word “agent” stands for a person who facilitates a bilateral transaction. A good “agent” does a LOT more. As a very good agent (or “manager” which I prefer), one needs an endless amount of empathy and sensitivity for the athlete and the investment he/she has made from a very early age. Besides being a great negotiator and identifying valuable opportunities, a good manager needs a detailed understanding of the entire business landscape. How is company X positioned and how will that company X position the athlete? Where is the biggest value that the athlete brings to company X and how can we maximize that value for the athlete? Does the culture of company X fit in with the athlete? Will there be support for the athlete throughout the various phases of life? The athletes are human beings first and foremost. This is something that must never be forgotten. They are always a loss away from disappointment and a win away from happiness. You would rather see them win all the time but that is not realistic. So, make those losses count for positive life lessons.
In your current position for Octagon, can you tell us more about some of the things you oversee and what a “typical” week of work is like for you?
The best part of my job is that it is very diverse. In overseeing the division, our number one criteria is that our managers REALLY care about our clients and I think we have a phenomenal team of people who do truly take their job to heart. We work on playing schedules, travel logistics, contract negotiation, tax returns, finding coaches, procuring wild cards, getting equipment and making sure everything off the court is perfect and organized. We also work with numerous tour events on both the ATP and the WTA. That work is entirely different and equally important.
In your opinion, how has the athlete representation industry changed since you started at Octagon?
When I first started there were three big management companies. Today these same companies have undergone lots of change – change in structure, ownership, business missions, etc. Representing athletes has always been about major commitments – both personal and financial. Over the years, however, the world has changed in terms of major influencers like social media, tough competition for manufacturers and other investors in the sport, there have been major shifts in markets, there is more prize money, more professionalism, etc. Every industry has evolved and perhaps the biggest difference today is that such evolution is taking place at a faster and faster pace.
What direction do you see the athlete representation industry going the next 5-10 years?
The sports industry has converged with the entertainment industry. The athlete has to take the position of CEO of his or her business. In our industry, we have to work on the strength of the individual athlete as part of his/her team/ tour/sport and understand that the way that team/tour/sport is run is very important to the individual athlete. His/her performance is going to position him/her within the sport but it will go way beyond that and this is a huge opportunity for all athletes. We, as managers, have to look after the whole and understand the continuously changing value proposition. We have to be visionaries and supporters at the same time. Now that sports is entertainment and competes with lots of other forms of entertainment, the job is extremely wide in scope. The athlete performs and to become truly relevant he/she has a much bigger job to do in order to stay connected to the fans. Sports are the greatest reality show on earth, BUT sports compete with lots of other reality shows.
What advice do you have for those who want to break into the sports industry?
I would say to really get to know the business, get your foot in the door – whether it is on the tournament side, tour side, management side, sponsorship side or TV side – start somewhere in the family. By paying close attention, working hard, doing what you say you are going to do and building a solid base of knowledge, great work ethic and being creative, you will succeed. Understand value wherever it applies.
The difference between starting now and back in the dark ages is that today the opportunities for young people are enormous. You have to be young to wrap your arms around new media and the digital world. Without that knowledge, there is no amount of experience that can help you keep a competitive edge. So, a perfect sports executive is really two people – you need someone who is 15-years-old and totally in control of social media, and someone who is 40-years-old and professionally experienced.
What about females who want to work in sports, what advice do you have?
I don’t think gender is something that should count in 2014. As a human, the real advice is “never promise what you can’t deliver” and “under promise, over deliver.” Just work hard; learn from the athletes. You can learn so much from the athletes – focus, determination, hard work, discipline, vulnerability, humility, confidence. The only thing I will say from one female to another: we must be kind to one and other. We have not always been good at that.