Forging a place at the front of the scrum for sport’s top talents

The transfer of Ireland out-half Johnny Sexton to Racing Metro has acquainted Irish fans of the oval ball with a fact of life: A new breed of owner now holds sway in French rugby and they will allow little to get in their way.

Two businessmen, Jacky Lorenzetti and Mourad Boudjellal, are behind a revolution in the French domestic game which has resulted in a tripling in player salaries to around €10,000 a month. Lorenzetti, a real estate tycoon, has been the owner of Racing Metro since 2006. He pushed Racing Metro into the top flight Top 14 league in 2009.

The deal with Sexton — set for April — while generous to the Dubliner, will hardly stretch the owner, who is said to have netted hundreds of millions when he sold 93% of his company, Foncia, to Banque Populaire at the top of the market in 2007. Foncia is vast, managing over a million properties in four countries.

According to media reports, Lorenzetti was still playing hardball with Sexton and his agents, Platinum, suggesting that he was also looking at the English star Jonny Wilkinson. But the Briton, although a World Cup winner, is 34 and most seem to accept Platinum has this deal in the bag.

Lorenzetti will press ahead with his plans to transform venerable Racing, founded in 1885, into a Heineken Cup powerhouse. A new 32,000-seat all-rugby stadium is planned for La Defense, west of central Paris.

Boudjellal, the other major owner, is younger and arguably more colourful than Lorenzetti.

Whereas Lorenzetti was trained at the prestigious Lausanne School for chefs, Boudjellal grew up the son of Algerian immigrants in the red-light district of Toulon, the city whose rugby club he now controls.

Now 52, Boudjellal made his fortune in comic books through his company, Soleil Productions. He was a pioneer in the use of ethnic women in comics.

Boudjellal has pumped around €35m into Toulon and has brought over a brace of heavy-hitters from Southern hemisphere rugby, including George Gregan and Tana Umaga, along with Wilkinson. Assuming Sexton gets to bank his €1.5m, or the guts thereof, he should give thanks to the Algerian, among others.

The Sexton deal, when signed, sealed, and delivered, will represent a coup for the player’s agent Platinum and its founder, Fintan Drury, but the former RTÉ chairman, by all accounts, takes a practical view of such matters.

Platinum has been around since 1991, originally known as Drury Sports Management.

Drury came to sports agency after a group of Irish soccer internationals approached him in the run-up to the 1990 World Cup to assist in putting together a deal for the players.

Platinum has branched out into other areas since then, building close ties with the Gaelic Players’ Association, acting as agent to top golfers and rugby players, helping to organise lucrative sponsorship and events such as the Ryder Cup and the Muhammad Ali visit in 2009. However, representing professional footballers has remained at the heart of the business.

Platinum represents close to 80 players, around 30 of them Irish in the top three English leagues, as well as players in Scotland and Belgium.

The firm employs ex-pros and would be expected to engage in a degree of hand-holding of its sometimes bewildered, but wealthy young charges.

In strict financial terms, rugby is small potatoes. The average wage of a Championship soccer player — never mind a Premiership one — is greater than what Sexton will command.

The small domestic professional rugby market is swarming with agents and players are constantly on the move. Irish captain Jamie Heaslip left Platinum after it had negotiated the biggest domestic contract. Platinum holds on to its commission, an estimated 5%.

The relationship with a player extends beyond salary to include sponsorships and endorsements, but the domestic Irish rugby scene is not huge in this regard, and Brian O’Driscoll has snaffled the lion’s share — perhaps 50% of the total sum available in recent years.

The sports sponsorship market in Ireland has exceeded €100m a year, but the collapse in spending on sports goods has caused sportswear company Puma to retrench drastically.

If the kids are not buying the kit, why sponsor the teams?

Recessions come and go, but sport will remain big business.

Among all the thousands of agents, there are few who stand out. The daddy of them all was the late Mark McCormack, the man who hooked golfer Arnold Palmer in 1960 and went on to launch IMG, a sports conglomerate which represented vast numbers of celebrities, but avoided soccer.

In Dublin, top firms such as Platinum, BSMG (John Baker), Ikon (O’Donoghue/Brian O’Driscoll), and Top Marque, tend to focus on niche areas, building their reputation through word of mouth.

Some sportsman, such as Rory McIlroy, have opted for boutique operations such as that run by Conor Ridge, an ex-Platinum executive, in preference to a large outfit. McIlroy left the large Chubby Chandler stable to join Ridge, where Graeme McDowell is based. Ridge is believed to have attracted serious investment from north of the border.

At the end of the day, what the sportspeople seek are access to negotiation skills in an otherwise unequal relationship with large owners, access to sound advice, and that great intangible, friendship.

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