Q&A: James Rogers-Oben on Diversity, Leadership, and Creating Opportunities

26 Nov 2020

By: Sport Industry Group

The Sport Industry NextGen Diversity and Inclusion Working Group - formed following the murder of George Floyd - believes that a diverse and inclusive sport industry is better for business and better for society. The group currently is working on a number of initiatives covering research, direct action, and awareness.

To help maintain and increase awareness of the issues surrounding diversity and inclusion in sport, the group is also producing a series of editorial features. The next in this series is an interview with James Rodgers-Oben of Pro:Direct Sport.

Tell us a little about yourself and your journey?

My journey has been one that’s been influenced by my love for sport and in particular football, underscored by a keen passion for business.

Born in Sierra Leone, I came to the UK aged five as a refugee and found my sense of identity on the pitch. I grew up playing in both professional and semi-professional academy setups, and my passion for entrepreneurship gave me an outlet away from the game. It was during college that an insatiable curiosity about everything brand related came; from sponsorship and activations to understanding the metrics of a successful campaign.

This fueled my passion to gain contacts within the industry and, having been somewhat successful when it came to networking, I thought I'd put to use my ability to do so and create a format that allowed me to orchestrate the narrative, add value, and build my credibility within the scene.

So the Influencer’s Influence podcast was born; capturing the stories of the people who power the most innovative brands, organisations and activations in sport. This acted as the catalyst, and validation required to understand where my skill set could contribute to the sports marketing world.

You are doing some great brand-related work with Pro:Direct, tell us about how you carved out that space and where you saw the opportunity?

This opportunity was really an amalgamation of my podcast and relationship-building years prior. The show gave me a platform to display my insight and personality (I hope!) which coupled with a longstanding friendship with Pro:Direct - cultivated in the five years prior - placed me in the position where the amazing Amelia Lake (the Marketing and Events Coordinator) could approach me and enquire if I was interested.

Following a screen test, to see if I could replicate the same energy on video as voice, I was offered the opportunity to speak on their up and coming football and performance gear. So I'd say network, then be sure to work hard to maintain those relationships, put yourself out there and when the chance comes, take action with boldness.

You’ve had some great names come and talk to you on your insightful podcast including Joe Foster (Founder of Reebok) and Stephen Moon (CEO of Science in Sport). Where did the podcast idea come from and what’s the key to getting great guests to come on-board?

Although I’d love to sit here and say it was all due to my irresistible charm and infectious personality, that’d be a flat out lie!

The truth is, the best guests on the podcast came from a mix of luck and tenacity. Once I set my sights on a potential individual, it’s truly about being fearless in approaching, messaging or emailing them with a compelling enough backstory for them to understand who I am, what I do and where I see them adding value. It’s genuinely a numbers game, and I’m not ashamed to say that I’ve sent three or four messages with no reply. Usually it’s the latter messages being the thing that convinces people to take part, whether it be their schedules freeing up or simply from being worn down by my incessant dad jokes in their inboxes…

When you look up the ladder within the Sport Industry is there anyone that inspires or that you can relate to? And if they came onto your podcast what would you ask them?

Ian Wright.

Being an Arsenal Fan, Wrighty is a genuine role model, and affectionately recognised as every Londoner’s favourite uncle. I’m particularly intrigued by his transition from playing and into the media world, how he makes it look so effortless and his mentoring of some of the country's most promising attacking players.

I'd ask him about his comic book origin story, where it all began, and what he had to develop within himself to unleash all his sporting and media powers

Also Eni Aluko - the retired Juventus and Chelsea footballer.

She's someone I’ve admired from afar mainly because of her ability to transcend more than being a prolific goalscorer and ascending to the top of her industry. Her graduation into an entrepreneur of a lifestyle travel brand, lawyer, pundit and author is one I find fascinating. The synergy of her cross-discipline approach to life and managing to wear so many different hats so expertly and gracefully is something I really aspire to.

I'd ask her, if she had a time machine, what moment in her past - on or off the field - would she want to revisit and why?

There has been a lot of conversation recently around the lack of Black leaders in sport and in football particularly. As a young, successful Black man, how does that diversity at a senior level reflect your day-to-day reality?

The best way for me to articulate it is the contrast between a mentor and a model.

A mentor can be remote, and differ in profession, and background, yet still have the ability to provide immense wisdom and guidance for you to help achieve your desired outcomes. However, this has its limits and regardless of how well a mentor conveys a message and ideology, without a replicable blueprint and schematic to follow, and having similar obstacles to overcome, it's a much more arduous task for them to help you map out a path to career success.

Diversity is essential at senior levels within the industry, to allow the next generation of sports marketing professionals and enthusiasts to have a model to follow, ensuring they understand which turns to take, pitfalls to avoid and also to simply believe that what they set out to achieve, is in fact possible. As I interview my guests for the podcast and the more senior their roles become, the less diversity you see amongst these individuals, and quickly begin to see the disparity.

There’s a desperate need to challenge the rhetoric of being more than just the talent in the sports marketing world. This is something I’m cognizant of and actively trying to highlight myself. Yes, you can be completely capable of presenting, interviewing, and hosting, but it's also essential the minority talent is championed in other more senior roles too, whether that be managers, Vice Presidents, or even CEOs.

For me, I’m now making a concerted effort to be involved in projects that display more than just involvement in front of the camera, and focus more on work which provides a more holistic showcasing of my management, sponsorship and operational understanding. I’m messaged daily by young people interested in working within the industry and I want them to see that It’s totally possible to be multi-faceted, transcend more than just one genre and highlight that there are a list of possibilities in the sports marketing world that are available to people who look and sound just like them.

And what would your advice be to those aspiring sports marketers who reach out to you ?

It’s imperative to find your niche within the industry, to establish your voice as one that's unique, authentic and valuable. Then once you’ve settled on that, through a process of self awareness and auditing of your skills, it’s vital you reverse engineer the process.

Starting with your end goal or desired outcome as the North Star, you work back and figure out the steps, people and output that’s required to get you to the vision you have for your career. Authenticity seems to be my favourite word, but it’s paramount to stay true to who you are and your story, as this will make the necessary hard work and perseverance required tolerable. Inevitably, there will be bumps in the road, so to maintain the stamina required, under the guise of someone or something you’re not, is in my opinion both improbable and unhealthy.

Finally, as strange as it may sound, people don’t know what you’re capable of until you show them. Although rudimentary, without you highlighting a particular side to your personality, abilities or vision, the rest of the world are slow and even reluctant to believe you are truly capable of it. So be bold in sharing your journey, documenting your process and building brand in a medium you feel most comfortable with. Whether it be the written word, voice, or even video; it’s by creating content that people remember you. Consistent, well executed content is the pillar any reputation is built on.

And at the other end of that spectrum any thoughts, comments or advice for leaders within the sport industry that are reading this?

I understand the impact the conversations about race and inclusivity have had, and are continuing to have, which is welcomed. I’d implore leaders to follow that up with truly actionable steps, creating something tangible off the back of all this positive momentum and being deliberate in having something that leaves a legacy for future leaders in their position to take stock of. Focus on championing diverse talent beyond just at the forefront of campaigns, but making a conscious effort that those qualified and competent enough get opportunities at C-suite level in order to have complimentary and varying voices at the ideation, planning and operational level, which I’m sure will allow for a more holistic overview of the cultural landscape.

Also a special mention to Stephen Moon, CEO of Science In Sport, who reached out respectfully and shared his willingness to understand more, work on ideas and then implement within his organisation almost immediately.

And what’s next for James Rogers-Oben?

In alignment with all the aforementioned, I’m working on plans to create my own brand agency; from ideation, implementation, securing talent, pitching to sponsors and sourcing distribution channels. There are two series I’m currently working to bring to life - one which is particularly promising; a gym-based series with Bleacher Report, COVID permitting!

Alongside that I want to continue developing, networking and progressing in the industry, so I’m currently completing a management course in the evenings with Birkbeck University.

Previous features in this series:

Recommended Reading - Black History Month

What's In A Name? Why 'BAME' Can Be Problematic