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One-Zero conference to return despite Lance's controversial withdrawal from their debut

“We’re going again, we’re going bigger and we’ll do it better and let the public be the judges.”

DESPITE BEING LEFT with a PR disaster to deal with last year, sports conference One-Zero will make a return — but there’s definitely no invite in the mail for a certain high-profile former athlete.

The organisers were on the receiving end of public ire at their first event when disgraced cyclist Lance Armstrong cancelled his scheduled appearance less than 24 hours before the beginning of the conference.

Armstrong interviewed by Oprah Winfrey Lance Armstrong Source: DPA/PA Images

Billed as the biggest drawcard, Armstrong’s absence from the line-up — which featured over 30 other speakers — led to criticism being heaped on event organisers.

One-Zero’s founders were taken to task for not offering refunds for tickets — which cost between €100 and €700 — after the American’s sudden withdrawal.

When One-Zero co-founder Rob Hartnett starts talking about regrets from last year, the first two words out of his mouth are “Lance Armstrong”.

“I wouldn’t ask him again for this year. At 8pm on the night before (last year’s conference), yeah, I definitely thought I’ll never run this event again,” he tells Fora.

“I thought if anyone sees me trying to organise One-Zero for next year, just shoot me and put me out of my misery.

“But by 8am the following morning, when we realised there were people coming through the door that were there to learn about sport and not just to see a three-ring circus of Lance Armstrong, then we kind of thought we’ve actually landed on something here.”

Rob Hartnett Rob Hartnett Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

Unsalvageable

Armstrong was down for a 90-minute session on stage, an hour of which would have been an in-depth interview with sports journalist Ewan McKenna followed by a 30-minute question-and-answer session.

But those plans all fell through less than 24 hours before the event, and the situation was unsalvageable, Hartnett says.

“I remember the phone call came at 10am in the morning that said, ‘Look, can you get in here. We have a problem.’ It wasn’t quite Tom Hanks’s ‘Houston, we have a problem’, but it was up there,” he adds.

The company was refunded the appearance fee and costs incurred for flights to get Armstrong to Dublin.

However, refunds were never on the cards for attendees, Hartnett says, as Armstrong was only one of several speakers on the bill — which also included golfer Shane Lowry and former England rugby coach Clive Woodward.

“If you have bought a ticket to go and see Leinster or Ireland playing rugby and Johnny Sexton doesn’t pass a fitness test, nobody expects to get a refund.”

Shane Lowry Shane Lowry Source: Gary Carr/INPHO

Newstalk interview

It was speculated that a Newstalk radio interview in advance of the event between Off the Ball presenter Ger Gilroy and Armstrong may have spooked the cyclist and changed his mind about coming to Dublin.

Hartnett agrees the interview probably set off alarm bells in the minds of Armstrong’s legal team, which had one eye on the US federal investigation into the cyclist.

He says he doesn’t blame Newstalk or Gilroy for Armstrong’s no-show. However, he says accusations that they, as organisers, didn’t know what they were doing were a bit over the top.

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“I suppose the handling of the day itself, there were a couple of instances where (people said) did we know what we were doing and stuff like that. I think anyone that knows us, they know we aren’t cowboys.

“Both of us have good reputations in the sector and we’re not going to risk that. We’re going again, we’re going bigger and we’ll do it better and let the public be the judges.”

Ger Gilroy Ger Gilroy Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

Fallout

After announcing Armstrong would not be in attendance at 4pm the day before the event, One-Zero founders Hartnett and Richard Barrett did several media appearances to explain the situation — something they now admit could have been handled better.

“We did a couple of interviews straight off the bat and we got through it — we survived.

“Yes, interviews are always ones where you think, should you have done it? Should we have not? But that’s why it’s important we have a bit more structure this year and have a spokesperson.”

For this year’s event, Hartnett has assumed the spokesperson’s role — adding that “leadership and structure is going to be something big for us this year”.

Shane Lowry Source: Gary Carr/INPHO

Changes for 2017

As well as a shake-up in leadership, another big change, according to Hartnett, is that “the ‘Con’ is gone” from the event’s branding.

After initially calling the conference Sports and Tech, the event was rebranded to ‘One-Zero Con’. However, now that has been stripped back to just ‘One-Zero’.

The team running the show has also been shaken up, with the 2017 event to be held in Croke Park — instead of the RDS.

Hartnett says the organisers are trying to think about the bigger picture for One-Zero and want it to be “the third leg” in a trio of sports conferences held during October, alongside Leaders in London and Sportel in Monaco.

He adds that the event “washed its own face” last year and broke even. The aim this year is to get around 700 attendees, similar to last year’s number — most of whom Harnett thinks will return.

“When we look back on where we were this time last year compared to where we are now, it’s a different event entirely. We’re under no illusion it’s going to be easy.

“Our ambition is better aligned to our ability and that’s always important. And you can only get there from learning and taking a few knocks along the way.”

Written by Killian Woods and originally published on Fora, a new business publication for Irish startups and SMEs.

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