Today in the podcast, we talk to the Director of Signature Sport, Jason Bakker.
Jason was a professional cricket player for Cricket Victoria and later became it’s PR & Media Manager and then General Manager of Marketing for over 6 years.
After this stint, Jason pivoted into starting and running his own business, Signature Sport, which is a complete professional sport service agency that specialises in commercial advisory, sponsorship, sports marketing, athlete management, and business events.
In this episode we cover:
- Jason’s journey into becoming a professional cricket player and starting his own business, Signature Sport.
- The qualities needed by someone to persevere and pursue a career in sport.
- How courage, self-belief, and enjoyment is important for athletes to set them apart.
- What it takes to make it in cycling today and the importance of strong physiology and resilience to succeed.
- The hurdles that cycling athletes go through to have a professional career.
- Signature Sport’s business model.
- The criteria Jason looks for in managing an athlete.
- The hopes of Jason for the future evolvement and development of men and women’s professional cycling.
This is Episode One. Welcome to the ‘All Torque’ podcast where each episode we interview an inspiring person to share their story with you. I'm your host Felicity Dales, managing director of Body Torque. Let me welcome today's guest, Jason Bakker.
I have here today Jason Bakker who is the director of Signature Sport, a complete professional sport service agency that specializes in commercial advisory, sponsorship, sports marketing, athlete management as well as business events.
Welcome, Jason. Hello. Your background as a professional cricket player for Cricket Victoria included playing in 11 first class matches and 20 interstate one-day matches over five and a half years. You then became Cricket Victoria's PR and media manager, being the first full-time public relations manager for them that spanned various media outlets including Channel 9, Fox Sports, ABC Radio and TV, The Age, Herald Sun, Geelong Addy, as well as visiting international media organisations. This then led you into becoming the general manager of Marketing for Cricket Victoria for over six years, and achieving the highest average attendance for four years, including the highest interstate crowd of over 29,000 at the 2007 final at the MCG in 30 years.
You then pivoted into starting and running your own business, Signature Sport, where you specialise in sponsorship, commercial advisory, sports marketing, athlete management and business events. Some of the athletes you manage include Cadel Evans, Caleb Ewing, Simon Clarke, Jack Haig, under 23 Lucas Hamilton, who won the Cycling Australia Cyclist of the Year for the under 23 category, and you also ride yourself. Tell us about your journey and how did cricket become your passion initially.
I've always loved sport. It's always been a huge part of my life. My family have been huge supports and been very involved in sport. My dad played 300 games of Aussie Rules football in Geelong. My sisters and mum were netballers. We have tennis, golf, every sport you can imagine, basketball has been part of our lives. There's a bit of a progression through the years I guess, Felicity, more than anything which probably mirrors your life.
You start off as a young kid playing sport and not worrying too much about what goes on between Monday to Friday. It's just all about sport on the weekends and that goes into your teenage and adolescent years. Then I suppose if there's a bit of ability there, and you can match that ability with some commitment and determination and discipline, which is not always easy, then you'd probably have the opportunity to play at a higher level, which I was lucky enough to be afforded in cricket.
I know I probably, I suppose from there I was supported by my father. He had his own family business and I worked in that, and probably fair to say there wasn't the money in sport in those days when I was playing, at that level, to what there is now. I still maintain that for the vast majority of people trying to eke out a living as a so-called professional sports person, it's very difficult, particularly for females, so those troubles still exist. I guess the majority, there's people that we watch on TV and we read about in papers, they're the select few that are paid handsomely, rewarded handsomely.
I made a decision. The one thing I could do, given I wasn't going to make enough money as a professional sports person, to retire to the golf course or the beaches, fishing, or whatever else, the best thing I thought I could do during my sporting career was to actually put myself through education, tertiary education. I was so keen to get out of school as a 17 year old. The thought of going to university back then was abhorrent to me so I just wanted to play sports. Probably a little bit short-sighted but also just so eager in that sense.
I decided that upon reflection I needed to go ahead in life, the penny had dropped that I needed something else behind me, so I went and studied. I put the money I was earning towards my university degree in between cricket training sessions and whatever else playing. Then some opportunities opened. I probably retired a little bit earlier than I needed to, but I saw some opportunities that may not have been there in a few years’ time, and from there I've worked in sport, I've worked for organisations. I've ridden the highs and lows and probably developed a bit of resilience that allowed me to start my own business, which is Signature Sport, a decade ago now.
Definitely. I think the two things that stand out to me there, when you mentioned your growth in history and transition, is determination and passion. You definitely need those in sport and in business. You've definitely got those in spades, to transition to where you are now, and do what you're doing.
Thank you, yeah well you certainly do. You got to love what you're doing. I think that's a simple thing that I'd always pass on to my kids is, aim for, whether it's sport or your professional life or where you live or whatever it is, aim for something that you love. Don't do it just for money purposes or those type of ... well not peripheral. It's important but in a sense superficial. Do it for the reasons that fulfill you, and satisfy you, and you get excited to get out of bed in the morning about. Not that as I said, I don't want to make it sound like it's all peaches and cream. There's been plenty a challenging day but that's what makes it all worthwhile.
I can honestly tell you I get out of bed every morning and I look forward to what the day's going to bring. It's a nice place to be in but, if I don't say so myself, I've worked damn hard to get to that place.
From being a professional athlete in cricket to transitioning to managing professional cyclists now, is there a common thing that you recognize in athletes, either in habits or attitude or other aspects from either sport that sets those athletes apart?
I'd say well there's definitely common themes. I think all elite sports people in my view, people that place their particular sports at the top level are courageous. That's one thing I don't think is talked about enough. We only often attribute it to some of the contact sports, whether it be Aussie Rules, or rugby or whatever, the various forms of rugby.
I think courage comes in so many forms in sport and that can be what the cyclists go through, either as a sprinter in the, let's say the last kilometre, and certainly the last 400, 600 metres but even the courage to get to the end. When you've ridden, say in the Milan-San Remo, they've ridden 294 kilometres to get to the end to sprint. The courage that takes. Their hearts must be beating out of their chest. The courage it takes to get through that to the end, and then go again in the mayhem of a sprint, if it is a sprint finish is amazing.
On the flip side, with the climbers, and obviously with Cadel and any rider that's a climber, the courage they exhibit to take on the race, what they must do, climbing and go again when people are attacking, go and go and go and dig deep.
Absolutely, it's not just the focus and the physicality of it isn't it?
Mental courage, the physical courage, the whole thing. That's cycling. Netballers, I look at what they do, the frenetic pace of netball. The twisting and turning, and what they put their bodies through, their joints, their ankles, their knees. The courage to train, and be disciplined, and it goes on and on.
You watch it in the winter Olympics. All the various sports at the moment, speaking from a current perspective. I think there's a level of courage for me that goes through. Everyone talks about commitment and discipline, and all these sorts of things, sacrifice. They're all important and almost a given.
But I think courage is one thing, and the other thing that I think is really key is the self-belief, and our little friend in our head above our shoulders, that tells us “You can't, you can't, you can't.”
That's right, yeah.
“You're not good enough, you're not good enough.” It's a major obstacle to overcome, and I think you could say that in business as well, in anything.
You sit at a table with someone sometimes, in a meeting, and you're thinking, “Geez, do I deserve to be here? Can I hold my own here?” Well of course you can.
For me there's a courage element, and then there's a self-belief element. I'd love to say there's an enjoyment, and love of what you do element. I think that's really important, and I think it's a little bit too simplistic to say it that way, because I know as a cricketer I loved the times that I played for Victoria, when I played overseas as a pro in England, the various English leagues and whatever else.
But I harp back to my old days at Grovedale in Geelong, and I don't think I enjoyed cricket any more than those days at Grovedale with my mates. As a cob I grew up, as a kid I grew up from a little boy into an adult at that club. They were wonderful times, and a wonderful club.
So, the enjoyment element, I think that's there, but I think it comes in different elements, different levels at different stages of your career. There's certainly, there's things that flow through all sports that I observe in elite athletes.
Also as we progress, when you're in a sport and you're training, and you're starting to get results and perhaps win, or get placings, there's also ... you have a higher expectation of yourself. Once you start achieving you get confidence, and you also want to excel, so you want to take it further. I think that gives you feedback as well on your aspirations, it helps you to keep consolidating and moving forward.
Yep, no doubt about that.
So in your view, what does it take to make it in cycling today? Obviously courage is a major factor of that.
Yep. What does it take to make it in cycling? It's a very good question. I think, as much as any sport I've witnessed ... I mean cycling is one ... Cadel has said to me a few times, he views cricket and cycling as almost opposites. So he says in cycling ... and this is ... I mean it's a point you could argue, and he's not holding firm to exactly the percentages he used. But he says in cycling it's 90% physical 10% tactic or skill, and he views cricketers the other way 10% physical 90% skill. I probably don't think it's as simple as that from both areas, but I understand certainly of the point he's making.
What I would say, is what it takes in cycling is, there's absolutely a physiology element you require, that no matter how hard you train or devote yourself, if you don't have that elite physiology, it's going to be hard isn't it? Let's take that out of the equation for the moment, just look at the people that have the physiology. I'm probably not an exercise science expert, so there's the physiology element, but beyond that the thing I see is resilience.
A young footballer gets drafted in Australia in the AFL and they're 17, 18 years of age and they might ... they can move from Melbourne to Geelong, they can go from Geelong to Western Australia, they can go from Adelaide to Brisbane. You can basically be drafted anywhere around the country. But the AFL clubs are so professionalist in terms of an organisation. They are so well run, they are so well resourced. The kids come into such a professional environment, but they generally always the first two years of their tenure at the club, they are billeted out by a family that are one of the clubs host families, that are carefully selected that provide a family environment for them. They get to see their families probably still 12, 15, 20 times a year.
Young cyclists achieve a contract to ride in the world tour, and they've got to go to the other side of the world. There's no host family. Quite often there's significant language barriers, although that is one area, one obstacle or barrier that has softened over this generation, in terms of the proliferation of the English-speaking language everywhere. Just the living circumstances of cyclists. You've got to be able to be self-sufficient, independent. You don't necessarily have to be that to succeed in footy, but if you're not that in cycling, you're not going to succeed.
There's some kids, recently Campbell Flakemore who went to BMC a couple of years ago, came out and openly wrote an article recently about his experience, and said it just wasn't for him. He had a go at it, and he had a crack, and he was courageous and brave enough, and honest enough to come out and say it just wasn't him. Rather than look for excuses, he just said, "That wasn't me." I applaud him for that.
I think as a cyclist, I think that's one thing that stands out to me. The other thing that you hear, you consider with cycling, say there's 180 riders in a race, 179 lose. So you lose a lot more than you win in cycling. You've got to deal with that.
To me, you get a lot of knocks in cycling. You get a lot of knocks in all sport, but in cycling if you haven't got that resilience, and that ability to everyday get up and do that training, follow that program, carry out what you have to do, you're not going to be able to match it with the other guys. You're not going to be able to compete on that stage, let alone succeed on that stage. It's day-in-day-out, and it's a huge commitment, and I take my hat off to the riders that are on the world tour, for what they do to be on the world tour.
Yeah, I agree. It's a massive, as you say, not only physiologically, but also psychologically, that's a massive component as well. So that's really interesting that you mention that, and also talk about resilience, because you do actually have to be massively resilient as you say. They're taken out of their comfort zone entirely, aren't they and they have to deal with that.
They do Felicity. I think Mitchelton-Scott and the Australian team are doing a very, very good job with the young guys in their squad. All young riders, whether they're Australian or not, generally Australian.
They have been known to send riders home for a little mid-year break, or they're on a break just to put them on a plane and get them home. That's a lot easier to do in Australia when you're playing AFL to jump on a plane for an hour’s flight, to go and visit your family. But to do it when you're in Europe and you're feeling a bit flat, and you might have a bug that's hanging around for three weeks that you got to push through, or you have a fever and you haven't got the network around you is not there.
It builds over time. I'm talking about probably those embryonic years of your career where you're getting your apartment, you're getting set up, you're getting used to the local culture, making friends not only within amongst your teammates and peers, but beyond that, which is important I think.
So there's all these things we probably take for granted in our daily lives here, that take a few years to get through over there, and it takes time. A lot don't get through that first few years, but those that do typically go on and generally can go and achieve some really successful things in their career.
But yes, there's so many layers to it. Not just the getting in the team, but also then sustaining that and the possible transfer to another team, as you say. So it's building those relationships, and you want to keep in touch. You need that network of people don't you, around you to support you.
You do. So look, we try to play our role in that, but there is an element of needing independence, and needing to be independent and self-sufficient but also you’re creating a network. It's easy for me to sit here saying that to a 19 or 20-year-old, “You got to go and make yourself a network there.” How I would've gone with it as at that age, but these kids are impressive kids.
Look, to an extent they have been groomed a little bit for it a bit more than the norm, in terms of most of them have spent time in the Mitchelton-Scott development, the under-23 team. They have travelled. One thing with cycling, most of the kids that get to that point have generally travelled extensively prior. So being away from home is not totally foreign to them. There is an element of familiarity to the travel and that being away from home.
It's once you're over there and you take the keys to your apartment, and you get the furniture, and you sit down for the first night and cook your own meal and you say, “Okay this is my new life.” It's a pretty big thing. You don't underestimate the resilience of these young people, male and female, to do that, be able to cope with that.
So with that mind, what do you look for in an athlete? What are some criteria for you to manage someone, and for it to be a successful relationship? Is there some key criteria that you look for in an athlete?
So one thing is, I run a pretty small team Felicity. I don't work on volume of clientele, in terms of athletes I manage, so I'm pretty select. The reason for that is not a status thing, or a premium brand, so to speak, thing. It's really resources. If you're going to manage people, if I get to a point with my business where I really don't form a relationship with an athlete, I need someone else to do that, it's not probably the business I want.
I'm not critical of those that have, you know, 100 athletes on their books or more, it's just a different model. My model's one where I can have the relationship that if I'm ever too busy to respond to an email or respond to a call, or not be able to catch up or whatever, then that's probably time for me to reflect on where I'm at.
But in terms of what I look for, it's almost a bit of a courting period in a way. I guess what you look for is to find a synergy between you and the athlete. Sometimes that's not there, sometimes it is, sometimes it's not, maybe it's just not the right fit. Synergy in values, your personality types, how the athlete sees the role of a manager. Are you simply a service supplier or is the athlete looking for you to be more than that?
For me, I'm looking for someone that respects me. I'm looking for a relationship of mutual respect. I'm looking for, to work with someone who really sees the value in what we can bring to their career, and their journey in sport, and life, and someone who wants us to play a really big role in that. You're looking for someone that ... I suppose, in a sense, I'm looking for somebody that's going to commit 100%, that actually not there just on natural ability and cruises through on that. I'm looking for someone who wants to take it as far as they can, and however far that may be, that's okay, as long as they get to that point where they give it their best. Because, I would like to think that we're going to give them our best.
The work that you put in, when you take on the responsibility of managing an athlete, it's a significant responsibility, so if you've got someone who's really not toeing the line, it's not that you just dump them, but I would find that extremely deflating if you had somebody who was just cruising through and not making the most of their abilities. You'd like to think you're doing your bit. That's their prerogative. Every individual's prerogative as to how much they want to put in, but I'm probably not looking for that type of athlete that's extremely, prodigiously talented, but pretty..
Yeah, doesn't want to put the effort in.
Not really. That's probably not the fit for me.
But there's a number of things. I hope that explains to some extent the mentality of how you go about it.
Yeah, I think you need someone with common values, and that wants to make a commitment. So to get the best result, you really want someone to be all-in, don't you?
I think so. That's what we look for, and at the end of the day, Felicity, it's a business, and the athlete has to have the ability to make money. It's like any business.
I'd like to win Tatts Lotto first division next week, so I don't have to charge commissions, and whatever else, and do it for the fun of being involved with some damn impressive young people's lives, and their careers. Because you get an enormous satisfaction, a return on your investment, in ways that you can never measure on a P&L statement. But equally, you don't want to be managing somebody who's has probably low prospects to earn a revenue let's say, because at the end of the day, you don't want to be ... someone's finding it hard to get through, might be earning, playing professional sport, but their earning the equivalent of an average Australian wage, you're not wanting to be taking a commission off that are you?
They're already struggling to get through life without having a manager.
So there's a bit of a conundrum there, because some athletes need the guidance of a manager, but they really can't afford for a manager to pay, to have a small commission and a manager. In a sense it'd be nice to be say, “Look I'd like to guide you and support you, but time is finite.” You only have so many hours in the day, and you have to be considerate of your business. So there's a bit of a ... it's an interesting balance there, it's an interesting discussion point, a topic that I grapple with from time to time.
Yeah, definitely I can see that. How would you see the future of professional cycling evolving and developing from here?
That's an interesting question. Certainly what I would say from my perspective, I'm still relatively ... I'm not a Johnny-come-lately, I've been around for a decade now or more, but I don't have a lifetime's history in the sport, so I could probably answer that better for cricket than cycling maybe, given that I watched cricket from Kerry Packer days, through to now.
But in terms of cycling, probably for me, the thing that has to happen, the most pressing thing in world cycling, and I'm going to just focus on the ... I'll give you my view on men's and women's. In terms of men's, and this applies to women's cycling as well, is the sustainability of the teams. So that is, for me, amongst many things, that's the most pressing thing. That every year there's talk of two or three teams going out of existence, not being able to continue on next year unless they find a sponsor. They're precariously positioned. That's an awful place for an athlete to be, isn't it? With that going on in the background.
We had that a bit last year with Simon Clarke and Cannondale-Drapac, and was quite widely reported about the issues there. Happily, everybody's at a position now where it's come out well, and they've got a terrific new title sponsor of EF. They're an education, a global education platform, online education, and looks like they're going to be a long-term investor. But the notion of surviving or not surviving, based on a sponsor staying or not staying with your team, is really unacceptable I would have thought. There has to be a way to make the teams more sustainable in future.
Then the commercial model's so complex in cycling. You've got so many different stakeholders that range from owners of events, such as the ASO, Tour de France and numerous other races, RCS Giro d'Italia and numerous other races. Various governments around the world. Visit Victoria, the Victorian Government, a bit closer to home in terms of Cadel and his Great Ocean Road Race. Then you've got obviously the sponsors and individuals that invest a lot in the sport.
The model in, you've obviously got the broadcast rights, sponsorship rights, you name it. It's a very, very complex sports to commercialize, because you don't sell tickets to a stadium, you don't have the confines of a stadium, you don't have the infrastructure of a stadium for signage, merchandise, catering etcetera. Most of that leaks ... a lot of the money of these types of areas that other sports profit from, leaks out of cycling. But cycling has got to make, in my mind, it's doing a good job in the obtaining revenue from the areas it's strong.
For me the biggest area is tourism, and how can pro cycling, more and more, benefit from that industry? I mean tourism's clearly got to be one of the biggest industries in the world. You've got oil and various technology, and tourism's probably up there in the top three I would have thought globally. Nearly every country generates significant income from tourism. So it's going to be interesting.
In terms of women's cycling, for me, it's how those wonderful professional athletes can make a living in the sport, and look, to be honest with you Felicity, probably what I just waffled on about, about the sustainability of professional men's cycling, that's the way, by getting that right is the way that in a similar way, you would apply that to women's cycling. Most of the men are earning a solid living, some are earning an extremely good living, some a lot more mediocre, but there's a bit of work to be done there, but there's so many layers to it.
I'm not exactly sure what the way forward, and I would have thought the first way forward, the first step in that is to try and find a way to underwrite the teams viability, so we have long term teams that we can connect with, fans can connect with and start identifying, be emotionally connected, engaged with and we go from there. That's the basis of most organisational sport across the world.
Yeah, and I think..
No, thanks for that. You've identified for me that really ... it's interesting because obviously I'm a cyclist myself, and I love cycling, and I participate and go to various events, and my business is in cycling. But with the future of cycling, there isn't that stable core like you've identified for the sustainability of the teams, as you say, there's so many variable factors that it's quite an unstable foundation really, compared to other sports as you say. Because they can sell, they've got ticket sales, and they have a stadium and whatever else, but there's just so many factors involved here that it isn't really a stable platform necessarily to work from, and for people to monetize.
That's the whole thing about sponsorship, and for the sport to develop everyone needs a return, don't they? It's interesting.
Yeah, no doubt. It's a unique sport, the way it's commercialized, and the business model. Clearly, at the moment it's really, it's fair to say it's only stacking up for a few stakeholders, not for everybody. It's the way cycling has been for a long time, teams come and go, and that's part of the history of cycling. Maybe there's some allure to that.
The one thing I could say to you Felicity, is that maybe cycling’s weakness, in terms of all the things I've mentioned before, maybe is its strength as well, is that there is opportunity there. It's a regulated sport, but there is ... in some of those highly regulated very, very mature sports that run on very tight business models, AFL, EPL etcetera, it's hard for new people, new players to get into the market, which probably reduces their ability to innovate, and their ability to get new products in, because it's tightly held, so it's very hard. Whereas cycling, cycling is a bit more open-arms, a little bit more random. The fan access is amazing. Everyone can have a stake in cycling, everyone can be a part of it.
How many people can get to go and have a hit in the nets with Steve Smith, or go and play golf with Adam Scott or whatever? But in cycling, you can go for rides with guys, you can see them out on the road, you can see the people ride, and ride with Cadel Evans. You can do things like that in cycling, so there's a wonderful access there that other sports don't have.
Absolutely. It's so engaging, and I think that's what makes it so lovable and enjoyable. People, it's rewarding. They actually get to engage with the top athletes, like you say, they're so accessible, even at Tour Down Under. It's quite gob smacking really when you think, that they're the pinnacle of their career, and we're able to chat with them. Whereas you can't get that with Grand Prix drivers or, like you say, the cricket, or soccer. You just don't have that access, so I agree with you, I think it's an amazing sport for that reason, apart from everything else.
Yeah, that's right.
So, with our listeners, if they'd like to get in touch with you, shall we direct them to your website? Is that how, if anyone would like to get in touch with you? I know you're a boutique business, so you might not want.
It depends what they want to get in touch with me for Felicity. So if it's for signed jerseys or photos of Cadel, or all that, then probably not. But all our details are on the website, and we're probably not, we don't have a huge public face. It's not the sort of business we are. We are, as you say, boutique business. We do our best, but we're not probably resourced. It's not like an AFL club where people would, you get a lot of charity requests, and requests for merchandise, and this and that, and whatever else. We're probably not resourced in that way, and not set up to be that. So I think any of those sort of requests, I'm always pretty keen to see them go through to the teams of people. That's where those sorts of things should go.
But anyway, our details www.signaturesport.com.au and hopefully we've got some exciting times ahead, and the growth of our business and our athletes, and seeing their careers grow and evolve is wonderful. From our relationships with some of our key clients, and obviously the Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race, and Towards Zero Race Melbourne, and the role those two events play on the cycling calendar now in Australia. It's very exciting to be a part of.
As you said at the start, you referred to me as a cyclist myself, which is very kind of you. Most people wouldn't call me that, they'd just call me a person on a bike, not necessarily a cyclist. But I do enjoy getting out since I've finished sport. It's really good for my health obviously, but it's below the shoulders, and it's extremely good for my mental health above the shoulders.
That's what I find about it. We just need everyone on the roads to be a little bit more considerate of one another, and just follow the rules a bit more and make it a bit safer, and everyone be a bit more careful and patient, and it'll be even better fun.
But anyway, that's something I'll leave it with.
Yeah, absolutely. Well I'd like to thank you for being part of our podcast today, and it's been fascinating, and I look forward to seeing how your athletes evolve and progress, and I wish them every success as I do you.
Thanks Felicity, it's been a pleasure.