Love him or loathe him, Sonny Bill Williams has changed the way sportsmen do business. Steve Kilgallon explains.
It will please some people to learn that when Sonny Bill Williams walked out on a $2 million, five-year contract in Sydney, flew to France in secret and decided to play for a team owned by a multimillionaire, he found himself at his lowest ebb.
Back in Australia, he was being taunted as Money Bill, or if you were particularly clever, $onny Bill, the man who had swapped loyalty for lucre.
"It wasn't about money," says Williams now. "Although everyone said it was . . . I felt like I was being abused by the authorities, and had to make a stand for myself."
So he borrowed $750,000 from his friend, Anthony Mundine, to buy his way out of his contractual obligations in Australia and redirect his career on his own terms. "And at that point," says Williams. "I had nothing to lose. I had no money, I was in debt. It was the lowest of the lows."
Five years later, Williams is an All Blacks world champion, boxing professionally, making a return to his first sport, rugby league, which is expected to add millions to the game's bottom line. He has reached this career zenith, it could be argued, by taking a ground-breaking approach in which he refuses to be a forelock-tugging serf to sport's powerbrokers.
Emboldened by his experience in French rugby union, Williams now signs only short-term contracts - and negotiates fiercely, not least for the freedom to box. The pleas of commentators such as the Herald on Sunday's Gregor Paul that it was "critical the pants are wrestled off Sonny Bill . . . so the New Zealand Rugby Union can start wearing them again" have gone unheeded by a man who lives by the mantra that "you are necessary only as long as you are wanted".
Williams' new approach to the business of sport appears to be influencing others. When he demanded "flexibility" from the NZRU, other players followed his lead; when he made it clear that rugby league authorities could not dictate his off-season activities, others wanted dispensation to earn big bucks in Japanese rugby during their downtime. Deep inside, says Williams, he remains the shy Samoan boy in the corner of the dressing room. "You have to force yourself not to be, because you hate to admit it, but the world is sometimes not a nice place." So how did this man rewrite all the rules of the sports business?
REWRITING THE RULES
You might redirect the question to Williams' manager, Khoder Nasser, the Sydney-raised son of Lebanese Muslims, once described by the Sydney Daily Telegraph's Rebecca Wilson as a man with "no basic values" who had turned footballers into mercenaries.
Nasser fell into sports management by chance - after befriending a young Mundine, then a brilliant if outspoken star for the St George rugby league club, he was anointed Mundine's manager despite a CV that stretched to stints in a cafe and a chemist. Nasser says he's simply fortunate, a sports fanatic living the dream. "I get to be in an intimate position to watch it all unravel," he says. "Dead serious, I am extremely lucky. I find myself in an extremely privileged position."
Yet he is a fearsome and unusual negotiator. Nasser works alone, acts only for a handful of clients. Doesn't own a computer. Prefers a handshake to contracts, even with his own clients. Says he isn't interested in sponsors, fringe benefits and other fripperies, but "works out a number" and concentrates on it. He explains his approach by saying: "Everyone can search for a better and better deal. Where does it end? You look at the contract, you think ‘I am getting screwed here, I gotta push a bit more here'. I think ‘I am happy, he's happy', that's it."
Nasser thinks most sports organisations are greedy, have a "siege mentality" and want to "cheat" the regular athlete of what he's worth. He says agents would be redundant if the authorities were honest. "But in the world of business, people sometimes think it is better to rob the other person." At this, he essays a manic grin - while this is his first interview in more than two years, Nasser enjoys being provocative.
Nasser sees his small roster - he represents only Williams and the Waikato-born Wallabies rugby player Quade Cooper, and until a split last year over a failed United States boxing promotion, Mundine - as quality, arguing agents with multiple clients collude with administrators.
And it also suits him because he says his approach works only because he represents exceptional athletes. Otherwise, "they walk all over you. Khoder gonna walk in and say ‘this guy is worth $100,000?' and they say ‘well f--- you, he can have $50,000 or you can f--- off'. You can't do shit, you got nothing. I am absolutely powerless [without talent]."
Williams dumped his first manager, Gavin Orr, "after finding out a few things" and because he was uncomfortable with being touted around different clubs. He knew Nasser socially from hanging out at Boxa, a Sydney cafe Nasser co-owns with Mundine and asked him to take over his affairs. Critics chart this as the point Williams began to rebel; he went on to infamously walk out on the Bulldogs league club and flee to France over a contract dispute.
"People go on about him [Nasser] being money-hungry, but he's doing all right for himself, he honestly doesn't need me," says Williams. "He may rub a lot of people up the wrong way, but he's always straight to the point: yes or no. Other managers like to bargain and use clubs. We say yes or no. We can do it, or we can't. That's what I love. I don't want to f--- people around. Khoder is going to be a man about it. If someone rings, and they will if I am playing well, he will say we can either do it or we can't. Go ask the NZRU, we have always been straight up with them."
Holy trinity: Khoder Nasser in "Lebanese Robert de Niro'' mode, Sonny Bill as the main attraction and Sky TV chief executive John Fellet, who has agreed each boxing bout with Nasser on the strength of a handshake.
So I did ask the NZRU chief executive, Steve Tew, how he found negotiating with Nasser. "Everyone in here found Khoder very straight up, which was refreshing," Tew says unhesitatingly. "Obviously, he has a different way of doing things. He has a very clear view of what he wants for his clients and he puts it on the table. We had very efficient negotiations, no mucking around. He's very easy to deal with - he tells you what he wants."
Yes, says SkyTV chief executive John Fellet, who has agreed every broadcast deal with Nasser (whose fighters are unique in having had every one of their bouts on pay-per-view television) on a handshake. "It suits me fine, and it suits him fine. He has always kept every commitment."
Tew claims Williams wasn't the only beneficiary of the NZRU's "flexibility" which he says is forced on the union by the "structural disadvantage" of having less money than everyone else. "You know," he says, "we let the captain of the All Blacks fly a high-performance glider, which is not without risk either."
But, says one sports official who enjoyed less successful dealings with Nasser, of course he'd say all that: "Tew has to say he is a genius, but he is the most annoying bugger to deal with. Being difficult does not equal genius."
Yes, he's awkward. Williams' official return to league this season was delayed for five weeks because Nasser refused to sign up to the National Rugby League's mandatory agent accreditation scheme. The eventual compromise was a public claim that Williams had done his own deal. Nasser hates the NRL, calls them "a bunch of antiquated people who have no foresight". Later, just in case I'd missed the antipathy, he rings to offer further, tart criticism, culminating in the suggestion one senior employee is there only as a social experiment to keep him off the streets.
The hatred stems from the NRL's unwillingness to be as "flexible" as Tew and company. Nasser has a dream. That he could sign Williams to a league club, who would offer time off to play for the All
Blacks and box when he wished. Why not? "I'd like to ask them, does any player make as much money as they were willing to give to the CEO of the NRL?" That a banker, David Smith, got that job at a $1.2m salary, riles him. "Look at the wonderful state the world is in because of bankers."
Nasser, who studied economics at Wollongong University, hates bankers. Nasser and his clients invest in property, and only property, but none of them have a mortgage. This is inspired by the Muslim faith that he was born with and Williams and Mundine adopted, but he's quick to point out that it was once a Christian tenet too. "This interest and mortgage bullshit has only become a modern phenomenon," says Nasser. "I believe in the cash currency, not living in the future. You live with what you have now."
He proffers an example: a sportsman early in his career who signs a five-year, $2m deal. His manager suggests the sportsman borrow $2m to buy property. But really, that $2m income is but $1.2m after tax and living expenses. And usually the player is under pressure to financially support family. He struggles even to meet interest payments, so when the five years is up he's left with nothing.
This sounds less like allegory than a precise description of Williams' situation when he ran from the Bulldogs. "Don't live in the future," Nasser counsels. "Careers are quick and can end at any time. Sonny can cross the road and it's all finished. And if he's got a $1m loan with the bank, do you think they are going to do me a favour?
"The worst things a manager can do for a sportsman is get him into debt and into a false sense of security. Without that, you know exactly what you've got, and what you are worth."
When he arrived in France, Williams was almost immediately injured. Compartment syndrome, in which bone grows into muscle, is a deeply painful lower leg injury which predominantly strikes Polynesian athletes. Williams found he could run for just 20 minutes. So he began taking painkillers just to train. He doubted he would ever succeed at rugby. But the anonymity of life in southern France gave him a new perspective. Having lived only in Sydney and Auckland and gone further afield only to Britain on a rugby league tour, he realised that the world extended beyond sport.
"I had to grow up," he says. "I had to fight some pretty tough demons." He says he found religion, found peace, found form, and found he was wanted. He could have stayed in France beyond his two years, and been well-paid for it. "I could have had a pretty good life out there," he says. But this renaissance had given him the confidence to ignore any false sense of security, to take another punt, a huge salary cut, and come home to New Zealand.
"It was a massive risk - but what if I accomplish something? It's massive rewards as well. And things rolled from there. You still have your ups and downs. But I was a lot mentally stronger."
During the depression, however, he agreed to return to rugby league in 2013 with the Sydney Roosters on a handshake deal, seeing it as an escape route if rugby failed.
When it didn't, he refused to back out. "A lot of people won't believe that," says Williams, "because of the way I left the Bulldogs. But there, I felt like I had a deal, and they [reneged]."
The Bulldogs, he says, also shaped him. "But not in the sense people think. That it's about money. It's quite the opposite." But he says, somewhat sorrowfully, he has long since given up on trying to influence public opinion; Nasser, in contrast, is rather gleeful about his ongoing feud with sections of the Sydney media. "Have you ever seen a crew more vilified than ours?" he chirps.
Combine the experience of good (France) and the bad (Sydney), and Williams believes it made him strong enough to keep choosing challenge over comfort - and to tell people what he's worth.
"What I think about," he says, "is what is, A, going to get the best out of me; B, where I am going to be happy; and C, pretty much back to A, I know I've got to perform.
"So if you put yourself into situations where you have to perform it is risky - you can sit back and bank on what you did last year, or you can take the risk and do something.
"It keeps me hungry. I've just got so many things I want to achieve.
"They might be dreams in the long run, but I wouldn't ever think I would be sitting here right now having accomplished some of the things I have done," says Williams.
Does he influence others? "Aw," says Williams, momentarily discomfited, "I just push as far as I can, to test my limits. But I haven't gone out to try and be a trendsetter, although people will try and make it out as though I have."
'THE LEBANESE DE NIRO'
Nasser is spruiking now. He's awkward, but he's also a charmer. Convivial. He wants this story to be about the boxing.
Williams fights the veteran South African Francois Botha in Brisbane this Friday, his sixth pro fight, roughly Nasser's 50th show.
On fight nights, the famously scruffy Nasser - usually wearing sandals, sportsgear, a backpack, untrimmed beard - will shuffle around with a sheath of complimentaries, hiding beneath the brim of his baseball cap.
"The Lebanese Robert De Niro," quips Sky TV's Fellet. Invited to watch a fight night close up, the Sydney Morning Herald's Greg Baum concluded it was a shambles, albeit a shambles that worked. Nasser liked the story.
Boxing began as fun for Williams, but now shapes as a possible long-term career. He denies any long-term plan. Nasser has one, but won't say what it is.
"I would never want my son to be a boxer but if he was I wouldn't mind him being represented by Khoder," concludes Fellet.
"He seems genuinely interested in the long-term career. Some of the things he does may seem schizophrenic - from rugby to league to boxing - but they have a masterplan."
- © Fairfax NZ News
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