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We Speak To IRUPA & The PFAI About Life After Sport In Ireland Today

Aviva Stadium Opening Ceremony 14/5/2010 General view of the Tricolour, IRFU, FAI flags Mandatory Credit ©INPHO/Dan Sheridan

Venture capitalist and Angel investor Chris Sacca, who became a billionaire after investing in tech companies like Twitter, Uber and Instagram, is a big name in California’s famed tech hub Silicon Valley.

Located just south of the San Francisco Bay Area, the valley is home to some of the biggest tech companies in the world and it’s a place where start-up companies will inevitably go to in search of investment.

A prudential self-starter and a former exchange student at UCC in Cork, Sacca has made an awful lot of money off of intelligent, calculated investments in the valley and like most successful billionaires he has an insatiable drive and work ethic.

Sacca knows what it takes to be successful and he recognises potential in others. Earlier this year, the tech tycoon told HBO’s Bill Simmons a story of former Los Angeles Lakers shooting guard Kobe Bryant’s obsessive personality and his famed work ethic on Simmons’ podcast The Bill Simmons Podcast.

“Kobe sat down [with me] and said ‘look I’m really interested in start-up stuff, I’m really interested in investing and I’m really interested in being an entrepreneur.’

“So I said ‘look, I see a lot of celebrities as tourists who come through this industry and just think that they can cherry pick and tweet about some stuff and it’s going to work out.’

“So I said ‘if you’re serious about this, prove it to me.’

“So I said ‘I’m going to send you bunch of stuff that you should read, a bunch of TED talks and other videos that you should watch, and if you do you’re homework, I’ll talk to you about investing.’

“I didn’t think he was going to do it, I thought it was kind of a nice way to let him down. But sure enough, for the next few months, my phone never stops buzzing in the middle of the night and it’s Kobe; reading this article, checking out this tweet, following this guy, diving into this TED talk.

“I’m getting these texts at literally two or three in the morning and my wife was like ‘are you having an affair with Kobe Bryant?’

“He was just all hours. The guy was serious. He was bringing the same obsessive work ethic to learning about start-ups that he does to training, to rehab, to his 1000 made shots a day, to everything. I was fascinated by it.”

HOLLYWOOD, CA - JUNE 09: Former NBA player Kobe Bryant speaks onstage during American Film Institute’s 44th Life Achievement Award Gala Tribute to John Williams at Dolby Theatre on June 9, 2016 in Hollywood, California. 26148_004 (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images )
Former NBA player Kobe Bryant.


Sacca would help Bryant with the launch of his company ‘Kobe Inc.’ and help start what inevitably will be one of the great athlete-to-entrepreneur transitions.

But, what does this have to do with Ireland or Irish sport?

Bryant has made more money in his playing career than any Irish sportsman ever has, how is he remotely comparable to a League of Ireland player or professional rugby player?

Yes, the financial disparities between Bryant and Irish athletes is completely different, but Kobe’s attitude and work ethic towards business is similar to what we’ve seen from other Irish athletes.

British and Irish Lion Tony O’Reilly and Formula One driver Eddie Irvine are two of the most notable examples of former Irish sportspeople who have gone on to forge incredible careers in business, but they are the elite exceptions, what happens to the rest of the pack when they decide to retire and walk away?

Where do they go? What do they do? How do they leave a career they’ve known since they were teenagers and enter a new career in a world that is inherently different and foreign to the one that they’ve known the majority of their lives?

Generally, the choice isn’t theirs to make. Professional athletes live on a contract-to-contract basis and there’s only a certain amount of contracts a player is going to sign over the length of their career.

For instance, according to IRUPA (Irish Rugby Union Players’ Association), the average length of a professional rugby career in Ireland is seven to nine years.

Assuming a player enters an academy at 18 years old, that means, on average, a rugby player’s career will be over sometime between the age of 25 and 27.

“We all agree that rugby comes first, that’s what their job is, that’s what they’re paid to do, but you have to start preparing players for life after the game,” IRUPA Player Development Manager Dr. Deirdre Lyons told Pundit Arena.

“Financially, physically, mentally, they need to prepare, the problem is that if their career has ended early they need to have something behind them.

“We encourage young players to go out and do work experience, and it can even be as much as if you’re working in a bank, and you don’t like it, at least you can cross it off the list.

“That means you’re not having to make that choice a year after you retired and you have two kids and a mortgage and it’s much harder to say no to the wrong job.

“A player’s career tends to be around seven years. Obviously you’ve got you’re Brian O’Driscoll’s and Paul O’Connell’s who play for a lot longer but you’ve got a lot of players who have had much shorter careers as well.

“If you come out of an academy and you play for eight years, and you retire at 29, the likelihood is you’re going to be eight years behind any of your peers who finished college at 21.”

NEW PLYMOUTH, NEW ZEALAND - SEPTEMBER 11: Captain Brian O?Driscoll talks to Paul O?Connell of Ireland during the IRB 2011 Rugby World Cup Pool C match between Ireland and the USA on September 11, 2011 in New Plymouth, New Zealand. (Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

O’Driscoll and O’Connell are two fine examples of players who have reached the pinnacle of their sport during their careers as players, but they are also two men who are taking different paths in their post-playing careers.

O’Driscoll is a successful pundit for both BT Sport and Newstalk, but his firm, ODM & Promotions Ltd, which is run in conjunction with his wife Amy Huberman and his father Frank, recorded a €4.4 million profit last year.

The former Ireland and Leinster captain, like Kobe, was proactive in capitalising off his image as a player and set up ODM & Promotions Ltd in 2001 aged just 22.

The 37-year-old has made a seamless transition into retirement since walking away from professional rugby in 2014 and has since been able to transfer his time and effort from rugby into business with relative ease.

Meanwhile, O’Drsicoll’s former Ireland and Lions teammate Paul O’Connell has recently started his own post-playing career journey on a road that is much longer and rockier – professional coaching.

The former Lions captain joined Munster earlier this month as an adviser to the province’s rugby academy, and while his appointment marks the beginning of a new journey into coaching, it’s still a path of great uncertainty for the 108-test veteran.

The Limerick native has all the characteristics and attributes to become a successful coach in rugby, and his reputation will open doors that simply won’t be available to the majority of his former teammates, but luckily for rugby and its players in Ireland, the sport does not have the same dependency on players becoming coaches as seen in other sports.

LONDON, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 04: Ireland supporters are seen duirng the national anthem prior to the 2015 Rugby World Cup Pool D match between Ireland and Italy at the Olympic Stadium on October 4, 2015 in London, United Kingdom. (Photo by Paul Gilham/Getty Images)

According to Lyons, the majority of rugby players in Ireland come from a background where they are expected to attain degrees and that there is a common understanding that rugby is only a temporary career.

“It’s easier to think ‘oh yeah I’ll just do coaching because I’m obviously good at rugby’ so it’s a natural progression for some of the players, but what we try and do is give them access to other things.

“We are quite lucky in rugby that players tend to come from a higher socioeconomic background and they do tend to have parents that are professional.

“There is a culture there that players go and get a degree and I think it might even be as high as 70% of players will have undergraduate qualifications where with soccer it’s much lower.

“I suppose that’s a cultural or environmental thing so we don’t really have that same issue. But with the soccer and the jockey’s association, a lot of athletes are leaving school before they have their leaving cert done and then it’s much harder to re-engage with qualifications when you’re older.”

PFAI General Secretary Stephen McGuinness claims player education is still a huge problem in Ireland and that while the players’ association is doing everything they can to offer players different career prospects, a culture still exists where players are determined to make it over in England.

“The average League Of Ireland player earns €16,000-a-year over a 42-week season,” McGuinness told Pundit Arena.

“It’s quite low as an average but we do have some peaks. There’s some guys on €50,000, and then there’s also some guys on €5,000 or €6,000, and then there’s obviously the middle ground, but it’s why we have the youngest league in Europe.

“Our league has an average age of 23. It’s tricky from our point of view because for a lot of players it’s not until they reach their mid-twenties that they realise they’re not going over to England.

“That’s the problem, we’re trying to engage with them as early as possible to get on the education path as soon as they come out of school.

“For example, we have Sean Heaney (20) for Shamrock Rovers who has his leaving cert and has started his degree course. We’re trying to get them to keep tipping away at it so they don’t get to their mid-twenties and realise ‘Geez, I’m not going to England and I have no qualifications.’

“It’s proven that players who actually study and continue to educate themselves actually play better, because they don’t have that fear there that they’re going to wake up when they’re 25 or 26 and go ‘my god, what am I going to do? I’ve been earning 25 grand a year for the last couple of years and now I’ve met a girl, I want to get a mortgage and I’ve no skills.’

“There’s no excuses for our players because they finish most days at 12:30pm or 1pm and have the whole day to themselves.”

2016 SSE Airtricity League Launch, Aviva Stadium, Dublin 24/2/2016 Pictured from (L-R) Ryan Connolly (Galway United) Derek Wilkinson (Finn Harps) Ryan McBride (Derry City) Kurtis Byrne (Bohemians) Kieran Sadlier (Sligo Rovers) John Dunleavy (Cork City) Stephen O'Donnell (Dundalk) Ger O'Brien (St. Patrick's Athletic) Conor Kenna (Bray Wanderers) Conor Powell (Longford Town) Harry Cornally (Shamrock Rovers) and Graham Doyle (Wexford Youths) Mandatory Credit ©INPHO/Billy Stickland
Mandatory Credit ©INPHO/Billy Stickland


McGuinness claims that the PFAI have a great working relationship with sports retailers such as Lifestyle Sports and Elverys, as well as An Post in giving players jobs over the off-season, but that the players must also take some initiative for their own careers away from football.

The PFAI provides players with a €750 stipend to support their studies or courses but that it’s difficult for the majority of players to stick with college due to the amount of movement involved within Irish football.

“Over 90% of the players in the league are on one-year deals so they tend to move around quite a bit,” McGuinness added.

“Studying is difficult let’s say if you’re going to DCU or to Trinity or to UCD, and then suddenly you transfer the next year to Sligo Rovers or Cork.

“There’s so much movement within the league each year that we found online courses tend to be the best.”

Expectation, background, upbringing and values can all have an effect on a person’s ambition but so can dreams.

For some rugby players it may be that they don’t want the dream to end, and that they are still clinging on to the environment they know and trust, while for some football players it’s a dream that you might make the leap abroad and that the sacrifices you’ve made will be repaid ten-fold at a later time.

Dreams are good and players should be encouraged to chase them, but sooner or later the real world wakes you up and you just have to hope that you’re ready for it when it does.

Jack O’Toole, Pundit Arena

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Author: The PA Team

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