Marathon Man

British athletics has faith in Alan Pascoe. The man who brought home a silver medal for his part in the 4 x 400m relay at the 1972 Munich Olympics is returning to the track. But this time not as an athlete, but as a marketer.

Pascoe – who for a decade has been one of the most senior figures in UK sports marketing – has landed the task of rescuing athletics from obscurity. The sport’s governing body, the British Athletics Federation, along with sponsors Reebok, Bupa, Spar and Seiko are all backing Pascoe to pick up the baton with the new sports marketing agency he has set up, called Fast Track.

Last week Pascoe sold the remaining 40 per cent of his sports marketing company, Alan Pascoe International (API), to the advertising agency group Interpublic. The figure Pascoe sold out for remains undisclosed, but it leaves him a comfortable multimillionaire.

It’s a wealth that gives him the air of a Nineties’ Gatsby, as he reclines in the boardroom of API’s offices in Drury Lane, central London. Almost diffidently he says: “I could have retired to a beach on the money. But I still have some energy and I wanted to get back to working directly with clients at the marketing coalface. Far too many clients out there are spending good money on sponsorship and not getting a decent return on it.”

Fast Track will sell sponsorship and organise the running of British athletics this summer. To do this, Pascoe has taken the five-strong API athletics department with him. The search is now on for new office space in central London.

“The British Grand Prix meeting in August is currently unsponsored, so my first task will be to get a sponsor for that,” he says. “But the look of the sport will also have to change. There will be fewer meetings, so we can focus on them. There will be more head-on races to generate excitement. Sometimes at an athletics meeting there are up to six things going on at the same time. You can’t follow all that. There will be just one event at a time, and we will introduce pre-show entertainment for the fans.

“We will showcase our athletes more; the idea is to get them off the back pages and into other areas of the paper. Athletics is the premier Olympic sport in this country, and we should play on that. All of this is very achievable. I wouldn’t have taken it on if I thought it wasn’t.”

Our interview is curtailed because Pascoe has a doctor’s ap-pointment to investigate a bad knee. Surprisingly for an athlete, he has never had any injuries before and he hopes this one will not need surgery. He still plays lots of sport – tennis, running and skiing. But the past hectic year since Lowe Howard-Spink took a share in API has taken its toll on one of his favourite leisure pursuits – he has little time for gardening these days.

Observers say he lacks the business acumen of the likes of US counterpart Mark McCormack, who runs International Management Group. However, as Matthew Patten, chief executive officer of M&C Saatchi Sponsorship, points out: “Alan is always able to surround himself with good people who are willing to work for him.”

At API many point to former Whitbread marketing director Paul Vaughan, now head of API Consulting, and Matthew Wheeler, chief executive of API’s US arm, as two examples of the high flyers whom Pascoe leaves behind.

Interpublic, which acquired 60 per cent of API last May, will merge Pascoe’s former company with its other sports agency, Advantage.

The combined company, which has yet to be named, will be led by Advantage chairman Lee Fentress. Advantage founder Frank Craighill became president of the holding company for both sports agencies, Octagon, in February. Frank Lowe, Interpublic board director and a founder of Lowe Howard-Spink, was appointed chairman and chief executive of Octagon in January. These three senior appointments left little room for Pascoe.

Originally it had been Pascoe’s intention to remain within the new group. In an interview with Marketing Week last May he said: “I’m certainly very committed to it [the new group] and intend to remain part of it.”

But during what must have been an intensely political year his view has changed. He says he was offered a seat on the main board at Octagon but decided not to take it. Why?

Pascoe ponders this question but eventually says: “It was clear that the options for me changed over that period. I did not expect to have my equity realised, and I did have a few restless nights deciding whether to remain with the company.”

He adds: “I don’t think the way the jobs were handed out was an American carve up. The merger of API and Advantage is absolutely right. I believed it then, and I believe it now. The fit is right – API is strong in Europe and Advantage is strong in the US.

“We had also taken the company as far as it could go. We could not reinvest any more cash into it, and in terms of management we were as stretched as far as we possibly could be. There are others who are better suited to running an international conglomerate than me.”

Pascoe says that he expects to start up a new sponsorship consultancy before the end of this year. It will concentrate on working with a range of blue-chip clients, and will advise on sponsorships in sports, arts, and community projects. He has lost the right to use the API name, but still retains the Alan Pascoe Associates tag.

When the deal was announced, some in the industry reacted as if he had passed on to the great running track in the sky.

Barrie Gill, chairman of rival sports marketing CSS, says: “It’s rather sad. Alan has been a major player in this business for many years now. I wish him luck in his new venture, because it will be a tough task.”

M&C Saatchi’s Patten says Pascoe’s challenge is to bring good management to athletics, as well as modernising its appeal. “The UK has got to catch up with the rest of the world. That means fewer but more meaningful meetings, where prizes are at stake. But the sport can certainly be revived, the athletics audience has not gone away.”

Pascoe’s business career took off during his racing days. Back then athletics was a much more amateur affair, and even top athletes had to have day jobs. In 1971 he was teaching at the West London Institute, where he had studied for his degree in education, physical education, and geography.

He decided to try to raise 150 for travel expenses for an upcoming meeting at Crystal Palace. In two weeks he had managed to raise 2,800 through a sponsorship deal with Visionhire.

Apart from the Munich silver, he has won gold medals in the 400m hurdles at the Commonwealth Games and the European Championships. He eventually hung up his spikes in 1978.

In 1975 he had joined a sports marketing outfit, called MSW Promotions, which he bought out and renamed Alan Pascoe Associates in 1984. The group took advantage of the Eighties boom and began to grow through Europe and the US. In 1995, the company changed its name to API, reflecting its international reach – it has offices in 20 countries.

After 20 years in sports marketing, Pascoe begins again as a small business man looking for office space in London. However, these days his bank account is cause for satisfaction rather than concern.

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