Michael Yormark initially sounds like an American sports agent coming out of central casting, as he starts his day at 3.30am as usual, “greatness is a process that requires dedication,” the head of Roc Nation Sports smoothly reviews how. It represents a list of famous athletes including Romelu Lukaku, Kevin De Bruyne and Siya Kolisi. Urbanite Yormark, 55, who runs the London office of the company founded by Jay-Z, has always followed the mantra “I have to be great every day”.
Perhaps that’s what needs to be said every day for a pep talk with Lukaku, when he negotiates with new Chelsea owner Todd Boehly to facilitate the hapless player’s return to Internazionale, or when South Africa signs rugby’s first black captain shortly after the country’s triumph. . world championship. But Yormark is at his most interesting when discussing his new obsession with rugby, which he believes is a “sleeping giant,” or when he reflects on his struggles as an ambitious agent in New York in the late 1980s.
“When I got out of graduate school, I thought people would be lining up to hire Michael Yormark,” he says. “I remember sending out 365 resumes and not getting a single interview. I started working in retail at Sam’s – Samson Clothing Store in Livingston, New Jersey.”
When asked if he’s a good salesman, Yormark shakes his head. “I love fashion, so I was really good. But it was very humbling to be back in my old city. It lasted a year, but it lit a bigger fire inside me. I told myself that I would be super-super-successful the first chance I got. Well, my mother’s dear friend, who is a minority owner of the New York Yankees, called me out of the blue.”
The position with the Yankees was filled, but as a friendly gesture to Yormark’s mother, who is raising three children as a single parent, he was invited for a late interview. Yormark succeeded and landed a job with the Yankees, where he was managed by “the previous 12 months.” I said to myself, “I’m never going back there. So I have to be great every day. Every day I have to be better than the day before.” Even today, that very humiliating year drags me.”
Yormark worked in baseball and ice hockey, where his ability to sell and manage the winter sport in Florida caught Jay-Z’s attention. He was persuaded to join the company in 2014 and is currently president and co-CEO of Roc Nation Sports International with his twin brother Brett, based in New York. He has shifted the organization’s focus from the US to a global perspective, reflected in his personal foray into football and rugby since opening the London office in 2019.
In 2015, Yormark explains: “Jérôme Boateng approached us, but I didn’t know much about professional football. I didn’t even know who he was until I did my homework and realized he was a key player for Bayern. We took it upon ourselves to help him build his brand in America and I met with agency heads and club owners to understand how footballers are represented.
“Historically, agents have only been like, ‘How do I move a player from team X to team Y?’ They are interested in transfer fee and contract commission. But they do not focus on a comprehensive approach to the athlete. How can we help them use their successes to really plan for the future? Many athletes in Europe told me that after 10 years no one discussed with them what they thought. But we mentor them and help them plan for the future.”
Yormark is particularly close to Lukaku, who endured a difficult last season in which he fell out of favor following his massive move to Chelsea. “There wasn’t a day when Roma and I didn’t communicate. This has been a very complicated and challenging year for Rome, and will ultimately be a great year for personal growth. But it’s very hard and you need a great support team that cheers you up – but also tells you, ‘It’s going to be okay. At the right time, we will find the right solution.”
Did Chelsea mishandle the situation? “When you invest as much money as Chelsea did, you have to let that player play to his strengths. Asking Roma or any other striker in the world to come to your club and play differently and then maybe not communicate effectively with the player makes it very difficult. I’ve been around coaches my entire career, and a good coach is someone who understands how to manage different personalities and maximize their performance. I don’t think this happened last year.”
Yormark helped Lukaku return to Inter. “I’ve spent a lot of time with Todd Boehly and he’s an incredible businessman and a really good person who tries to be sensitive to everyone. Todd has been very successful with the LA Dodgers and he is making the right investments. So he will be a fantastic owner and will have a lot of success with Chelsea.”
De Bruyne is another key customer and needs less support. “My relationship with Kevin is very strong. We don’t talk every day, but we text at least once a week. Kevin is very focused and one of the best players in the world. He got married at a young age and has a wonderful family with his wife. Rome is at a different point in his life for Kevin, so our relationship is different.
While going to watch De Bruyne play for Manchester City in November 2019, Yormark decided to sign the rugby player who now means so much to him. “I didn’t know anything about rugby,” says Yormark, “but one morning I walked into my gym and people were gathered around the big TV screen. I said, ‘What are you watching? The World Cup? Which World Cup? Oh, the Rugby World Cup. Wow! Wow!’ That’s why I started watching by accident.”
“On the morning of the final, England v South Africa in Japan, I’m in a sprinter van with one of my cars. [Roc Nation] the owners drive to watch Kevin play. We watched the game and at the end I see this incredible individual lifting the Webb Ellis trophy. Siya Kolisi talks about the significance of this victory for the racially divided country. It speaks of what we can achieve when we work together. I looked at my owner and said, “We’ve got to sign this guy.” Two weeks later, Siya was sitting right here in this office. We had a six hour meeting and the rest is history. It was a life-changing relationship for me and a wonderful relationship for the company.”
His friendship with the Springbok captain adds to his current obsession, which sees him actively involved as a consultant in the new United Rugby Championship. “Ever since I got into rugby a few years ago, I’ve always said it’s a sleeping giant. My passion for rugby stems from Siya because he really trained me in the sport. The first rugby match I went to live was against Siya in January 2020. The physicality of the sport and the passion of the fans made me instantly fall in love with rugby.
“A couple of weekends ago I went to two games – the Premier League final and then England against the Barbarians. A lot could be improved in terms of atmosphere. You see the fireworks when the players come out, but more fans have to be involved. The experience around the match is how you attract casual fans.
“We saw a different final in Cape Town that weekend against URC. There were better fan engagement initiatives to get people excited and you see more diversity in South Africa. You go to rugby here and you don’t see diversity. The main demographic is middle-aged white males. This needs to be changed. We have to think outside the box in rugby.”
Yormark is most interested in club and county rugby, as the embryonic URC includes teams from South Africa, Ireland, Wales, Scotland and Italy. But the international game still dominates. “To me, it’s dysfunctional,” he says of the structure of rugby and the constant war between clubs and their unions. “The fact that the clubs are perceived as a system that feeds the national teams? Coming from America, I can’t understand it at all. Clubs are king in America. What worries me about rugby in particular is that you are asking club fans to support you as season ticket holders and corporations to be sponsors. However, for large parts of the year, your best players are not there. So there should be better scheduling between club games and international matches. As a fan, I want to root for a team and know that the best players are there.”
Yormark emphasizes that Roc Nation is “helping URC develop their brand and helping them with content commercially as well as digitally.”
The humble Pro 14, previously without a single South African team, seems bemused that the league is barely covered in England. “The league has made incredible progress this year. Perhaps it tarnished URC’s desire to cover the league where it came from. But the quality of the game in URC is different. The teams are different.”
The destruction of an American sports agent by an obscure rugby tournament may not be unexpected, but Yormark is confident that the URC will soon compete with the English Premier League. “Of course it can be. Listen, greatness is a process. Let’s not forget that this year is one of the URC. Their momentum going into the second year is absolutely incredible. As such, the URC has the potential to become the Premier League of rugby. will it take time? Yes. But there is no doubt that they will get there in the end.”