Usually the one promoting her clients, for the first edition of our She Speaks series, we turned the microphone on Emma Wade to hear about her experiences in athlete and talent management.
Having worked at Lord’s Cricket Ground from age 16, Emma always knew she wanted a career in sport.
Her experience in different sectors including data and sponsorship analysis, media management, marketing and events has provided Emma with an excellent understanding of the sports industry as a whole.
Now, the Briton is the founder of bespoke M, a talent management company that looks after the careers of World, Olympic, Commonwealth and national champions including WorldTour pros Elinor Barker and Lizzie Deignan.
I enjoy working with sports people and media personalities – it’s incredibly motivating and enabling them to get on with their day job is fulfilling. On the flipside I also enjoy working with brands (and agencies) and enabling them to get the best out of talent. I enjoy working with great people and being able to run my own agency now is incredibly rewarding.
Changes in the industry over the years
With bespoke M managing predominately female professional cyclists, it’s interesting to hear how Emma has seen the athlete management landscape change over the years.
From 2020, the UCI WorldTour will implement a minimum wage for all female pros, something which has been a long time coming and hard fought for.
I think the biggest change in women’s cycling is that it is becoming more professional.
When I started out, the only way a female cyclist could earn any money was through sponsorship, whereas now most women road cyclists earn a wage from their teams.
It’s been a challenging few years pushing for women’s cycling to be taken as seriously as men’s – especially on the road.
We’re not there yet but are seeing more professional team set ups, more TV coverage and sponsorship coming in to the sport.
In turn we are also seeing more and more women encouraged to ride their bike which can only be a good thing!
Women’s cyclists’ contracts are definitely more professional now than they were a few years ago and are gradually starting to look more like the men’s standard contracts – with the soon to be added minimum wage, insurance policies, maternity clauses (not in men’s!).
Plus the fact that the team owning the cyclists commercial rights off the bike isn’t a given and has to be part of the contract (or a separate contract) and that other ongoing partnerships have to be acknowledged.
As such, athlete management isn’t just about managing sponsorships but also about negotiating team contracts and professional careers.
Lizzie's Deignan's maternity leave
There’s no doubt Emma’s company, in which she also works with PR and sponsorship expert Nicky Witchell, has contributed to the increased professionalism of the sport. In 2018, bespoke M brokered a world first maternity leave deal for 2015 road world champion Lizzie Deignan.
When Lizzie announced her pregnancy, she was at the beginning of her final year of a long term contract with the very successful Boels Dolmans road cycling team. She had achieved numerous lifetime ambitions with the team – both individually and as a team, but when we spoke to Trek and heard their exciting plans to set up a women’s team and they basically offered to build a new team around her on her return in 2019, how could she say no?
They had utter belief in her as an athlete, irrelevant to her being pregnant.
This was hugely empowering to Lizzie who didn’t know how people were going to take her news of taking a year off the bike at almost the peak of her career to become a mum – and then her intention to come back.
It backed up her belief that she could return to be the best in the world. She became a worldwide ambassador for Trek Bicycles before the team was even formed so it wasn’t a maternity leave as such but more that Trek understood that Lizzie had a value aside from being a rider – that she was also an incredible role model who had a story to tell and commercially was a valuable marketing tool to the brand.
We’ve seen teams retain or renew contracts for athletes who are injured, but a maternity leave contract is something we haven’t seen before in women’s cycling. However, Emma believes it should become the norm for teams to support women who want to start a family but aren’t ready to hang up the bike.
Absolutely, part of our work in wanting to build in maternity rights to contracts with cycling teams is to show teams and brands that cyclists can still be valuable aside from winning bike races – whether that be for marketing purposes, coaching and mentoring, taking part in sponsor appearances while others are racing or learning how to be a mechanic – they are still part of the team. It can also offer riders other opportunities to further themselves outside of riding a bike.
Preparing athletes for retirement
Of course, we know that a career on the sporting field has a natural expiry date, so what role does bespoke M play in preparing athletes for life after their elite sports career comes to an end?
It’s a part of my job that I relish because it is so important.
It can be very hard when someone’s athletic career comes to an end.
They go from a very set routine, day in, day out for many years with very clear goals and success or failure (how many of us get a medal at the end of a successful day or year’s work?) to an enormous amount of freedom that they often don’t know what to do with. Plus, more often than not the decision to retire is not their own as their body gives up on them.
Professional sport is a line of work where, for many, you really do have to put all of your eggs in one basket because if you don’t you will never know how good you could have been. For many people that means when they stop training professionally, they don’t have a clue what to do next.
I like thinking about it for them in the background – gradually seeding an idea or testing out suggestions – whether that be taking part in some media, coaching or public appearances. Or even working with sponsors to see if there are opportunities for work placements as part of the partnerships.
Alongside the athlete’s I work with I also manage presenters and media personalities so am hopefully well placed to guide those who want a career in the media after their sporting career.
I’ve worked with a number of clients through retirement and it’s fantastic when you see them move on to their next career successfully.
Athlete management sounds like an exciting job to us at She Sports, so we asked Emma to elaborate on the highs and lows of her work.
It’s challenging when athletes aren’t performing on the sporting field – it’s hard enough for them that they might not have achieved what they have been working towards without me then having to deliver the news that unfortunately their sponsor isn’t going to renew. It’s brutal.
Highlights would have to be being there and behind the scenes to witness client’s sporting success.
With such a personal management style I inevitably see the highs and lows that an athlete can go through and it’s incredible to then see them go on to achieve and hopefully I have been a very tiny part of that. It is also incredibly rewarding when we successfully match a sponsor and an athlete and you see that partnership come to fruition with both sides proud of the work that comes from it.
And finally, what piece of advice would Emma give women looking for a career in athlete management?
Athlete management is incredibly niche so rather than necessarily limiting yourself to only wanting to work in management, I would suggest gathering as much experience as possible in the networks around management such as within governing bodies or teams; at sports marketing or PR agencies; or sports production and events. It will all give you an invaluableinsight in to the industry.