“I knew we could do great work and be of service to footballers across Europe. And in less than 24 months, we’ve built an incredible business,” the executive tells Boardroom.
How did some of the top European soccer players in the world end up being represented by Roc Nation, an American-based firm founded by Jay-Z and most widely known for its outsized influence in the hip hop music space?
With superstars like Manchester City’s Kevin De Bruyne, Chelsea’s Romelu Lukaku, Aston Villa’s Tyrone Mings, and Borussia Dortmund’s Axel Witsel in the family, Roc Nation Sports boasts a truly formidable roster of international footballers.
And according to Michael Yormark, the president of Roc Nation Sports International and the co-CEO of Roc Nation Unified, the company’s consulting and commercial division, it all happened quickly.
Roc went into the sports business in 2013, with then-New York Yankees superstar Robinson Cano becoming client No. 1. It quickly brought in the likes of US-based athletes like world champion boxer Miguel Cotto and New York Giants Pro Bowler Victor Cruz into the fold as well.
Then, a little over six years ago, Bayern Munich and German national team defender Jerome Boateng reached out to Roc Nation, asking if he’d represent him in hopes of building his brand in America.
“To be quite frank with you, football was never on our radar screen as it relates to Roc Nation,” Yormark told Boardroom in a wide-ranging interview this week. “We weren’t even thinking about it.”
But as Yormark met with and learned more about Boateng, an interesting opportunity revealed itself before them. Boateng joined Roc Nation in 2015, and over the next few years, the company started looking at other football agencies and how they were representing athletes.
“Or better, how they weren’t representing athletes,” Yormark said. “A lot of the agencies and agents are just motivated by getting the biggest transfer. How can I move my player from X team to Y team, and what’s in it for me? Most agencies in many respects are a bit selfish. That’s just not part of our thinking.”
Back in 2017, Yormark and Romelu Lukaku were introduced to each other by a mutual friend. While playing for Manchester United, Yormark flew to England to visit the Belgian striker at his home, commencing a four-hour meeting that marked the beginning of a friendship.
“What shocked me during that meeting was that he probably knew more about Roc Nation and my chairman Jay-Z than I do,” he said. “We had just this magical first meeting where we didn’t really even talk about, ‘hey do you wanna come to Roc Nation?’ We learned about each other.”
They kept in touch for about six months before Lukaku called Yormark with the news that he wanted to join the agency. He visited Roc Nation’s New York City office in early 2018, bringing his mother, Adolphine, who’s notably involved in all his important conversations and decisions.
By the time they left the office, they not only agreed to join Roc Nation Sports, but also to help the firm grow its football business. And in September 2019, Roc Nation took the huge step of opening its first international office in London, with Yormark moving across the Atlantic Ocean from South Florida to run the operation full-time.
Being thousands of miles from friends and family was and continues to be a major life change for the 53-year-old executive. Though there’s obviously no language barrier, there are numerous cultural differences between American and the UK.
“But I saw the big picture. I saw the opportunity,” Yormark said. “And I knew we could do great work and be of service to footballers across Europe, represent them differently, and bring our guiding principles from Roc Nation domestically and really make an impact. And I was the natural choice to take our Roc Nation brand across the pond and to start that. Even during the pandemic, it’s been an incredible journey so far. And in less than 24 months, we’ve built an incredible business.”
For Yormark, this was a challenge he wanted to embrace and attack: Could an international office for Roc Nation be successful? Could it compete with the existing agencies but offer something different? Could it be home to the biggest footballers in the world?
Fortunately, he had already faced an even bigger obstacle before, he said: Figuring out how to market hockey to Floridians as CEO of the NHL’s Panthers.
“I’m never afraid of a challenge, and there’s probably never been a bigger challenge in my career than selling hockey in South Florida,” he said, noting that the experience taught him how to be creative, overcome adversity and do things differently.
Yormark knew that in order to succeed abroad, he couldn’t just dip his toes in. Not only did he have to move to London, but he resolved to hire a 100% European-native staff of 25 in London who really understood the football business and the continent’s culture. Today, Roc Nation Sports has additional boots on the ground in Italy (and a growing presence in South Africa as well).
But none of Roc Nation Sports International’s success, Yormark said, would’ve been possible without Lukaku.
“He inspired and motivated me personally to take this step, to open our office in London, to start an agency that can make a difference in the lives of footballers from around the world. If not for his encouragement, I’m not sure I would’ve done it,” he said.
In recruiting footballers to join Roc Nation, Yormark makes sure they have interests beyond sports. That the men and women are well-rounded, want to build their brand, give back to the community and make a difference in the lives of others. And as a boutique agency, Roc Nation has to stay small and selective to treat every client like they’re the most important at the company, Yormark said.
“The lifespan of a professional athlete is very short, so you have to take advantage of the moment and leverage the success in the moment to lay the foundation for the future. We talk to Rom and Axel and Kevin about that every day, and they’ve bought into that.”
And all that headway has even gotten Jay-Z more and more interested in the Beautiful Game.
With three Roc Nation clients in Lukaku, De Bruyne and Witsel all representing Belgium, the ubiquitous rapper and entrepreneur rooted for the national team during this summer’s European championships, and closely followed Lukaku’s Serie A-winning season for Milan and De Bruyne’s Premier League title run with Man City.
“He’s met a lot of our key footballers and has tried to mentor them and follows them,” Yormark said. “So I would say he’s quite knowledgeable.”
Jay and Lukaku have grown especially close over the years, and has helped him and other football clients with advice and mentorship. Lukaku was recently in New York on vacation and the two spent plenty of time together.
“Just talking about life and different choices that Rom was going to have to make in the near future,” Yormark said. “He likes to discuss those things with Jay to get his perspective. They go back and forth quite a bit. The mentoring that Jay has provided Rom has been very, very helpful to him.”
Yormark, Jay-Z, and De Bruyne were on a call during the pandemic, talking a lot about KDB’s goals and objectives in investing. Jay was mentoring Kevin on how he might want to think about investing.
“We’re here to assist you and work with you,” Yormark recalls Jay saying. Since then, De Bruyne made an investment that the Roc Nation team first brought to the table. His midfielder and his team vetted the opportunity and decided to move forward.
“ So the impact of Jay and our other owners on our athletes is quite significant,” Yormark said. “And it’s just another value add that they get when they join our family.”
And amid so much success in Europe, that family has quickly expanded even further internationally.
Through Roc Nation Unified, the company has provided consulting services to Italian soccer icons AC Milan, South Africa’s Sundown Football Club and Sharks Rugby Club, and the United Rugby Championship, an annual international tournament.
“Rugby has been an under-marketed sport for so many years. It’s way behind other sports leagues,” Yormark said. “But I see the upside as being absolutely tremendous.”
When Yormark first arrived in London in November 2019, the Rugby World Cup was taking place in Japan. While watching the final with Roc Nation’s Juan Perez, South Africa beat England in the final. They listened to an inspiring speech by South Africa captain Siya Kolisi, the club’s first Black captain in its 127-year history.
“I was so moved by that speech that I said, ‘I gotta sign this guy,'” Yormark said.
Two weeks later, he was in Cape Town with Kolisi and his wife, Rachel. Kolisi has subsequently joined with Roc Nation, with English star Maro Itoje and South African legend Cheslin Kolbe following soon after. In roughly 24 months, including the pandemic, Roc Nation Sports International has 40 athlete clients and four significant consulting clients in soccer, rugby, and cricket, along with ambitions to get into tennis, golf, and Formula 1 in the future.
Because there will always be another challenge.
“If we can do all of that during a pandemic, imagine what we can do over the next 12 months, 24 months, couple of years,” Yormark said. “I just want to see how far we can take this, how far we can build this business, and most importantly, build it the right way and impact lives. I think the sky is the limit for us.”