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'A lot of athletes wouldn't know the value of deals': How Anthony Joshua has built a commercial empire

Champion’s hands-on approach to business has turned his company into a ‘monster’.

Anthony Joshua v Dominic Breazeale Press Conference - Hilton Syon Park Source: Steven Paston

ANTHONY JOSHUA ISN’T just a world heavyweight boxing champion.

He also chairs his own business meetings, has a hands-on role with product development for his blue-chip sponsors, and understands the nuances of complex business deals.

That’s according to Freddie Cunningham, the managing director of AJ Boxing and Commercial, a company set up to maximise Joshua’s earnings away from sport.

Cunningham may only be in his late 20s, but he has a wealth of experience in handling the commercial interests of big-name athletes.

He started his career at The Sports Partnership, a company set up by 2009 Formula 1 world champion Jenson Button to help sportspeople with their sponsorship deals, business contracts, PR, and general media obligations.

There, Cunningham was thrashing out sponsorship deals for Wasps out-half Danny Cipriani, Stoke City full-back Glen Johnson, Los Angeles Lakers small forward Luol Deng, and former Formula 1 racer David Coulthard.

These athletes, Cunningham explained, were established stars. In 2012, the company took a new turn when it looked at Olympic hopeful Anthony Joshua.

“Just as the Olympic Games in London were starting, my boss walked in and said we were going to have a look at Joshua,” Cunningham said.

Joshua bested former Olympic champion Roberto Cammarelle in the gold medal match and had his pick of companies wanting to work with him, including IMG, one of the world’s largest talent management agencies. Still, the competition didn’t deter The Sports Partnership from pursuing him.

London Olympic Games - Day 16 Source: PA Archive/PA Images

“I remember thinking this guy has got the X Factor — he’s got ‘it,’” Cunningham said. “The way he spoke… people were just drawn to him.

The Sports Partnership pitched a long-term strategy to AJ, which was different to what other companies were doing.

“AJ says the reason he went with that company was because he believed what we could do in sports, he saw that we were headed up by a Formula 1 driver, and he thought that link with F1 could be quite useful,” Cunningham said.

Recalling that first meeting with Joshua, Cunningham said: “He came into the office, he was in crutches because he had a post-Olympic operation on his toe, and I remember thinking… ‘He’s a bit crocked isn’t he?!’”

“But he’s a big guy, so engaging, so on it. Me and him just got on really well.

“He walks in, sits down, and basically chaired the meeting. I thought, ‘Wow, this guy is on us!’ As an agency, that’s great. This guy is going to be great to work with, but there’s only one option – you have to deliver for him.”

2017 Christmas Package Source: Nick Potts

Cunningham explained that Joshua’s patience is one of his best traits in business.

After he won a gold medal at the 2012 Olympics, he did not rush into a promotional contract. Instead, he spent 12 months seeking advice, traveling the world, and holding meetings.

“He’s a really smart guy,” Cunningham said. “He knows what he’s doing. That’s why he spent a year not signing with a promoter. And he got a lot of interesting deals. Golden Boy Promotions made an offer.”

Before Joshua signed terms with Matchroom Sports boxing promoter Eddie Hearn, he sought advice from regular guys down in the gym, from lawyers, and from people within the sport — fighters, coaches, and managers. “He took everything into account,” Cunningham said.

Although many big names were working with The Sports Partnership, Joshua was the major athlete Cunningham had witnessed join the firm — and he was handling Joshua’s commercial contracts himself.

However, within 18 months, The Sports Partnership was sold and everything changed.

When The Sports Partnership was sold in 2015, Cunningham felt like he lacked job security. He didn’t know what responsibilities he would have once the transaction was complete.

Cunningham was also concerned about Joshua, as he was at such an exciting and crucial part of his career.

That year, Joshua bullied American journeyman Kevin Johnson with mean-spirited punches, he pole-axed Gary Cornish with his trademark right hook for the Commonwealth title, and was set to challenge Dillian Whyte for the British heavyweight belt at the 02 Arena in London — his most significant challenge in his career at that point.

“It was all a bit strange,” Cunningham said. “We’d been sold. Agents didn’t know what was going on. Employees didn’t know what was going on. And Anthony didn’t know what was going on.

“But we had a really good relationship and got on as friends. I sat down with him and said, ‘Look mate, I’m not entirely sure whats going on in this transaction. I’m not sure about the new company and I’m not sure about my position. But you’re at a critical point in your career and you need to make sure you’re with the right company.’

“I knew I could sort myself out, but athletes don’t get the chance to re-do their careers. These years had to be right. He had to look at his options.”

Boxing - Principality Stadium Cunningham, left, with Joshua and Hearn. Source: Nick Potts

Cunningham was on holiday in France when Joshua called him, saying: “What do you think about just doing it ourselves?”

While Cunningham had the experience, he wondered whether he was too young to set off on his own.

“He said he was young too, just learning his trade in boxing, and there’s no guarantees with either of us,” Cunningham said. “He then said he trusted me, that he only wanted someone to manage his affairs who he could trust.”

And the deal to form AJ Boxing and Commercial could not have come at a better time.

Joshua had just befriended Grime artist Stormzy, who rapped Joshua to the ring ahead of his anticipated showdown with Whyte. Joshua out-muscled and out-gunned Whyte in a highlight-reel knockout win — setting up a route to challenge for the IBF heavyweight championship the following year.

Joshua’s stardom in sports was just about to reach another level. And, with that, came more lucrative business opportunities for Cunningham to explore.

The corporate structure of AJ Boxing and Commercial is transparent, according to Cunningham. Joshua is the CEO of the business and Cunningham is Joshua’s “right hand man” — also known as the managing director.

Below Cunningham, there are four other guys in the office, including a social media team and staff handling contracts and operations. Then there are external accountants and lawyers.

Anthony Joshua Media Session - English Institute of Sport Source: Tim Goode

Because of Joshua’s rise in boxing — he is now the unified WBA, IBF, and IBO world heavyweight champion — AJ Boxing and Commercial has “turned into a monster,” according to Cunningham.

“We got going before the Dillian fight but over the last two years, because of what he has achieved in the ring and who he is outside the ring, things have grown,” he said.

He said blue-chip companies like Under Armour and Jaguar Land Rover enjoy working with Joshua because of the transparency.

“There aren’t 10 different layers to speak to Anthony. You speak to me. I speak to Anthony. The deal is done.

“There are no other agents trying to make or take fees. I’m Anthony’s company and I aim to make him as much money as possible. Companies enjoy working with that.”

The day-to-day management of AJ Boxing and Commercial is run largely by Cunningham and his team, though Joshua has a direct involvement.

Cunningham manages Joshua’s 12 commercial partnerships, and also looks at other “income avenues.”

He said: “Income could come from anywhere. There’s programmes that we’re doing. Book deals. And PR events.”

Cunningham also works closely with Joshua’s other teams.

For instance, the Matchroom promotional team organises Joshua’s next fight, hosts the event, and arranges Joshua’s income from sport.

Meanwhile, Rob McCracken heads up Joshua’s training team and ensures the heavyweight is punch-perfect whenever he steps inside a ring.

“We work closely with the Matchroom guys with regards to the next fight,” Cunningham said. “We make sure we keep in contact with the training team. If he’s in camp we ask how training is going and ensure we’re bringing the right sparring in. Making sure everyone’s communicating.

“Then we stay in contact with Anthony. How he’s feeling. We find out what he wants to happen and then make sure that happens. Photoshoots, events. We spend a lot of time with each other.

“He has had red carpet events, doesn’t do them that often, but he could get doorstepped by journalists. So one of us goes and makes sure he’s happy and that it all goes well. It’s also good for him as he’s got a mate to go with him and have a night out.”

2017 Christmas Package Source: Nick Potts

Joshua is unlike other athletes when it comes to his business affairs, according to Cunningham.

This is because he has a hands-on role with products that his blue-chip commercial partners are developing. He considers the long-term impact of various deals, understands the benefits of sponsorship activation and content capture, and can correctly estimate how much money each commercial partnership can generate each year.

Cunningham said Joshua will look at products like an Audemars Piguet watch or a Jaguar car and think about how it can be developed. He is “very hands on” with his clothing line and will “look at every t-shirt to make sure he’s happy with the design.”

Joshua also has a talent management company, where he looks after fellow Olympians like Lawrence Okolie and Joshua Buatsi.

As a mentor to upcoming boxers, Joshua’s advice is invaluable.

“I see Big Josh quite a lot,” light heavyweight prospect Buatsi told iFL TV. “The main thing about the relationship — there’s always time. Time to talk, ask for advice, and get advice. He’s been there before and done it.”

Okolie, meanwhile, told ESPN that he chose to sign with Joshua because of the strength of his commercial knowledge — a testament to AJ Boxing and Commercial and, of course, Cunningham himself.

“I chose AJ and his team to manage me because he’s come from the same Olympic background and he has done really well since,” Okolie said. “They will know how to move around in the pro ranks commercially and have learned how to manage an Olympic medallist.”

As for Joshua’s own commercial deals, Cunningham says he “considers the long-term.”

“I can lay out a deal for him and say, ‘It has this much social media, activation, territory rights, above the line, below the line.’ He’ll then give me a figure of what he thinks [he'll make] and it will be very close to what the commercial value of that deal actually is.”

Joshua, an unbeaten unified heavyweight world champion, is clearly a unique sportsman. But how rare is it to find a fighter who is business savvy?

“A lot of athletes would not know [the value of deals],” Cunningham said. “Joshua is impressive that way.”

– Alan Dawson, Business Insider

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