• Andy Marston

Networking with Ben Mercer, Author and Head of Content at LAPS

For the latest edition of the Sports Pundit Networking Series , I caught up with Ben Mercer, an author who turned his life on the fringes of professional rugby into an Amazon Best Seller. He now aims to help other athletes tell their story, starting with GB's 4x100m team that won Olympic gold at Athens 2004.

When did your journey (in the sports industry) start? And how did you get to your current role?

Growing up all I wanted to do was play sports and read books (with a bit of PlayStation thrown in). I got into academy rugby at 15 and ended up playing professionally for a variety of teams until the age of 30, finishing up with 4 years at Stade Rouennais in France.

Writing online has been the main way I've developed my career since rugby. The prime mover was my first book Fringes, a self-published memoir detailing my rugby experiences which became an Amazon bestseller and was nominated for William Hill Sports Book of the Year 2020. I've recently published a second book in collaboration with the GB 4x100m team that won Olympic gold at Athens 2004 called Our Race. I've set up my own publishing imprint to collaborate with other athletes who want to do the same.

I also work part-time for a startup that helps athletes navigate the transition into 'real' work and do freelance writing and consulting for businesses mostly based in and around sport/health. These roles have largely come about through creating content, whether that's the books or writing blog posts in various places.

Who inspired this journey? And who continues to inspire you today?

No one really inspired this journey. I have medical parents and was never interested in making the commitment to one discipline like they did, preferring to forge my own path and have a variety of experiences.

The people that inspire me now are people that make what they want to make, whether that's an amazing sporting career, a beautiful book or a varied and interesting portfolio of projects. I had sporting heroes like Brian O'Driscoll, Cesc Fabregas and the great Toulouse rugby team while my creative heroes range from the obvious in Kanye West, Michael Lewis and Zadie Smith to people experimenting with new ways of working like Craig Mod and Jack Butcher. The best sporting environments learn from all sorts of unlikely places and I try to do the same.

Besides Sports Pundit, where do you look for insight?

I didn't pay much attention to it while I was playing rugby but Twitter has been an amazing source of ideas and the start of many journeys down the rabbit hole. You often stumble across something that leads to a newsletter or a podcast that gives you so many other branches to follow. It can also, of course, be a massive waste of time!

The individual that sets the trend in the sports industry is LeBron James. Athletes and organisations are perhaps even more mimetic than everyone else and a lot trickles down from James and what he decides to do. You can see how he's kept ownership of his career direction, built a personal media machine, become an investor rather than an endorser and built a life for himself outside the basketball court. You see how other athletes are trying to emulate him and how teams and organisations are having to change in order to accommodate these new expectations. I also believe that you don't need James's status or scale to do the same thing - you could be a 'local LeBron'!

What trend in the industry most excites you for the future of sports? And why?

I'm interested in how the new fandom will impact athlete ownership and empowerment. There's a big opportunity for athletes to take advantage of the tools and opportunities in the creator economy. There are so many ways to tell your story and to build real, lasting and valuable relationships with fans and they're only going to grow, especially if teams are on board too.

The changing nature of fandom is both a gift and a curse. You can see how a couple of sports and individuals are profiting from these changes and while I'm not a fan of these individuals, if other sports don't learn from the likes of Mayweather, McGregor, the Pauls and more broadly from Formula 1, they're going to get left behind in an increasingly competitive marketplace, particularly if women's sport gets anywhere near where its potential.

Who is an example of someone that is well positioned to take advantage of this trend?

Storytellers, particularly those good with digital content with a bias towards compression - if you can tell a story in short-form, for TikTok in particular, then you're in a good position. Take Sydney McLaughlin for example. She won Olympic gold and gave a pretty dull interview to major broadcasters, knowing that she's best served emoting on her social channels. When she left college athletics she immediately garnered a $1.5 million contract with New Balance due to the work she'd put in. A storytelling owner or investor is also extremely powerful and I'll be interested to see how Ryan Reynolds's Wrexham project goes after a very strong start. I believe greater integration from all stakeholders will be the way to succeed and anyone that facilitates this will be in a strong position.

If you want to check out Ben's latest book Our Race: The Untold Story of an All-time Sporting Shock, you can view it here.