Your transition from sportsman to businessman happened fairly quickly. Did you always have a vision for your life after rugby?

The transition period is without a doubt one of the most challenging things that most, if not all, professional athletes have to deal with. Having had a satisfyingly long career, I managed to start thinking quite a bit about life after rugby in my last few years of playing the game. I went “back to school” and did a Business Unit Manager course through the Toulouse Business School (with some brilliant assistance from Provale, the French rugby players union) and in so doing, I learnt some basic skills about business that could help me with this next phase. Like with most things in life, setting goals is fairly important for me and I would like to try to make as big a success of life after rugby. I wouldn’t be able to tell you exactly what that vision is yet though, or how to measure it.

How did you know that it was now time to hang up your boots? Was it a matter of listening to your body or did you always have a retirement age in mind?

Former Springbok hero Bryan Habana has co-founded new creative digital sports marketing agency, Retroactive, with partners Mike Sharman and Ben Karpinski. He talks about converting his knowledge of brands and professional sport to the exciting digital marketing space.

I definitely didn’t have a retirement age at which I wanted to stop playing. I think we all want to play the game we love (and get paid well to do it) as long as possible, and I would have loved to continue playing until I am 65 years old but there were a number of circumstances that led me to the decision. Firstly, my body and the struggle to get through an injury-plagued final season that didn’t see me play a single game of rugby (through injury and non-selection). Coming to the realisation that rugby has to end at some point and that “real life” has to happen also made me understand that the sooner I made the switch the more time I would have to adjust to it.

Sportsmen and women have had similar post-career challenges for as long as elite sports have existed. Why does it always seem like a surprise when one retires and “real life” hits them hard?

I think it’s only once the bubble of professional sports pops and you get into the real world that you actually start to realise the challenges that come with it. The financial impact is probably the biggest cause of where struggles begin. All of a sudden you go from earning a huge amount of money and having a lifestyle that generally correlated to that income, and if you haven’t got a paid-off house or invested wisely with a passive income stream being generated, you have to start to dip into your savings to make ends meet.

You also go from doing something you love to something you’re potentially not very good at, and get paid a tenth of what you had been earning.

How does a player go from being an athlete to being a brand?

That’s a pretty difficult question to answer. I think that as your career progresses and you try to become the best in your respective discipline, the opportunities arise to work with some big corporates and brands and it’s about using those opportunities to develop your own skills (eloquence, marketability, working with people, professionalism in engagement).

Who in your opinion found as greater success in business as they did on the field?

Michael Sharman, Bryan Habana, Ben Karpinski Bryan Habana, Michael Sharman, Ben Karpinski

From the amateur era, guys like Francois Pienaar, Joel Stransky, Kobus Wiese and Toks van der Linde spring to mind and more recently John Smit, Bakkies Botha, Fourie du Preez, Bob Skinstadt and Adriaan Strauss.

Playing sport at elite level means that you’ve been playing from a very young age and you have put in thousands of hours of blood and sweat, the sport has to basically become your life. How do you not lose yourself in that identity?

For me, I tried as best as I could throughout my career to understand that rugby was just a part of my life and not my life. I was also fortunate to have great support structures around me that not only kept me grounded but also helped me in other areas such as managing my finances and creating long-term associations with brands like Adidas and Land Rover.

One of the biggest challenges that athletes face in the transition is the prospect of not having transferable skills that function in the corporate field. What does a 20-year sports career translate into on a CV?

Unfortunately, from an education, business or work experience perspective, a 20-year sports career doesn’t translate into much on the black and white of a CV. But there are numerous qualities especially from a rugby perspective that aid the motivation of character traits that one can put forward. Skills like communication, being able to function in a team, coping under pressure to deliver, motivated, driven, dedicated, disciplined, hard-working are just some of the things that playing sport at the highest level can most certainly allow an athlete to motivate being able to function in the corporate field.

What gap does Retroactive fill in the market and why are there so few companies like it?

Having been on the front lines of sport and living in those moments that people talk about, I just feel more could be done with engagement and connection between brand and consumer. While formulating Retroactive, Mike Sharman, our third partner in the business, Ben Karpinski and I met up and spoke about creating authenticity in the sporting space. Creating emotional connections between brands and fans, and how we can make a real run at this. Sure there has been great work done at times in this field, but seldom do I feel fans/consumers are being made the primary focus and this is what we strive for with our agency.

Sport is a very real thing and contains raw emotion. You get fans around the world who live and die by the happenings of their favourite teams and players. So all you have to do is play in that space. Of course, it isn’t the easiest space as fans can be fickle, and sport is naturally unpredictable. But you aren’t starting out dry so to speak in the engagement area, the hooks are all already there, you just need to take it from there.

What, in your view, are the most common mistakes that athletes make when they move from the change room to the boardroom and how can Retroactive help in those particular instances?

Post playing days, guys will be pulled in a variety of directions with many people offering them all sorts of things. But a couple of bad decisions here could result in losing money through poor investments, or simply tarnishing of your name (brand). Combining my expertise with that of my agency partners, we are looking to create strategies for players in the marketplace just like one would do for brands. Aligning them with brands looking to thrive in the sporting space is an ideal situation and one that the agency wants to become known for.

How does Retroactive utilise technology in order to gauge what the fans/audience want in relation to their client?

Like anyone in the digital space, we do what we can to stay on the forefront of trends and online behaviours. Designing content to best suit a medium is vital, and comprehensive reporting is something we pride ourselves on with our clients. The greater the knowledge of audiences that we can gain, the more effective our ideas/campaigns can be.

What kind of experience can an athlete expect to receive from Retroactive as your client?

First and foremost a broader understanding of sport, and where they fit in at the various stages of their careers. Us sportsmen do live in bubbles at times, and this isn’t always a good thing. We are looking to empower people within sport as much as represent them marketing wise. We will never admit to knowing everything that happens in our chosen field, but by partnering with athletes in the marketing/brand space we can certainly create strategies that can translate to meaningful success.

How has social media impacted on the dynamics between athletes, fans and sponsors?

Having always been dedicated to running and monitoring my own social media platforms, this is something I have been able to learn a great deal about. It’s brought us all closer together. This has come with its negative aspects, but ultimately it has also provided opportunity and exposure like never before. Sponsors can literally live in the fan space now, and players can engage with fans at just about any moment. It’s exciting, provided it is done right.

What pitfalls do traditional sports sponsorships fall into that lead to a disengaged audience and underutilised athlete brands?

A lack of authenticity is a big one for me. Just ticking boxes, or just trying to strap general ideas of certain campaigns often struggles to draw audiences in. Thanks to our smartphones, people are more connected than ever, so this means the expectations are higher with just about everything they see. Sport is entertainment at the end of the day, and just like TV shows and movies are always striving for new and fresh ideas, the same has to apply in sports sponsorship and marketing.