An interview with Tara Modlin, sports agent to Johnny Weir, Rachel Flatt and Jeremy Abbott. Hear how someone gets started in sports marketing, and how she works with her clients. 36 minutes.
Thanks to Fiona McQuarrie for transcribing these interview highlights:
On her most embarrassing skating moment: Oh my God, I have so many of them [laughs]. Can we come back to that one?
On her own skating career: Skating was about one of five after-school activities I did when I was little. I had art one day, drama another day, skating another day, gymnastics…I was on a synchro team the first year I did skating, and I got to do an exhibition with my team, and saw all the girls doing skating by themselves, and I was like, Mom, I need a dress, I need sparkles, I need music, get me lessons now! And it turned into one day a week from every day. I did freeskating until I was about 14, for about five years. And then I did ice dance up in Lake Placid.
On training with partner Dmitri Boundoukin in Lake Placid, and living there with her mother while her father was in New York: Well, I have the best parents in the world, and I was lucky because my brother is six years older than I am, and he was at university at the time. I loved where I was skating in Long Island, and then I went to Lake Placid and met Natalia Dubova who invited me to train with her, and it was like, oh wow, okay. So it just happened. We went there, we stayed, we trained for five hours a day plus ballet plus conditioning. My mom got a condo up there and my dad drove up every weekend. When I was in high school, I was totally dorky with straight As, so they trusted me to leave me alone in the house for a night. So my mom could go home for a night, or to go to my brother if he needed her. And I lived right next door to my coach so she could look out for me.
On her parents becoming Boundoukin’s legal guardians so he could compete in the US: They did what they thought was the best choice to help my dreams come true. And it does seem outrageous and crazy and over the top, but they wouldn’t have done it unless I wanted it. And for me, I could get to Nationals. And I loved being an ice dancer, I loved the costumes, and the music, and I loved dancing with a partner. So they did it.
On retiring from competitive skating: I made Nationals in 1995 and 1997. I had gotten into the University of Pennsylvania and I took the first year off to go to Nationals one more year, and then I decided to go to school after all.
On starting her career in sports marketing: I graduated from college in three years, because I didn’t want to be late after taking a year off [laughs]. When I graduated, I was offered a job as a buyer for Bloomingdales. My friends were so excited because they would get a discount, and my mother was ecstatic, and I was too because I was told that was a dream job. But, oh my goodness, the hours were absolutely ridiculous, and no graduating college student should be getting paid what I was getting paid. About two months into it, I found myself coming home every day saying, I want to jump off the Brooklyn Bridge. I always wanted to be in sports. I would go to New York Mets games, and think, oh, if I were in charge of marketing, when Player X is batting I would play this song, and so on. So a friend of a friend was working at a very boutique sports marketing firm, and they called me in for an interview during the summer. And the CEO, Michael Goldberg, offered me a job. And I cried when I got the offer because my salary was being cut in half [laughs] but I said yes. And it was two years later that I was producing my own show at Madison Square Garden.
On the Stars Stripes and Skates show in 2002: The first charity we partnered with was called 9/11 Families Give Back. That was a year after the attacks, and the families already had enough money, so [the proceeds from the show] were intended to go to victims of future terrorist attacks. But there were [none], so we changed it to something called the Heritage Foundation, and then for the last seven years we’ve been teaching kids three lessons. The first is not to forget 9/11, the historical part of it. The second part is the patriotic part, the patriotic feeling that we all felt during 9/11, and it’s important to have and to show ways in their community to express their patriotism. [And the third is] to teach kids how to be a hero in their community, how to assist in charitable efforts. And other lessons that we learned because of the attacks.
A fabulous woman named Jirina Ribbens came in to help [produce the show]. A friend of mine who I grew up skating with, her brother was a fireman who was missing [after 9/11], and I was like, what can I do, I’m just a college kid and half of my salary has been taken away. Maybe I’ll do a local skating show at an arena and raise some money. I started making some phone calls to various friends, staying at work in my cubicle until 11 at night, trying to get skaters involved. My boss said it was okay for me to use my little space there. And I knew he had the relationship with Madison Square Garden, so I asked him if there was any way to have the show there. And I think he looked at me like I was some dumb college kid, like, what, are you nuts, you stupid intern [laughs].
But I guess he saw me working, and he took me there, and before the end of the meeting, [it turned out that] everyone knew about the show, I guess because of the legwork I had been doing. And we walked out, and my boss said, in 40 years of pitching clients, I’ve never been pitched back before we were finished, I guess you’ve done a good job. And he helped me get a sponsor, a big law firm in New York, and the next thing I knew I was writing a cheque for Madison Square Garden. And I remember calling my brother and going, if I go to jail for some reason, because clearly this can’t be legal, please come and get me [laughs]. It was just so surreal. But once Jirina was on board, everything came together, Nancy Kerrigan, Timothy Goebel, Sasha Cohen, Surya Bonaly, Nicole Bobek. Nancy called me, I was in the locker room, and she said, Tara, they told me I was supposed to wear blue for the finale, but I have teal and navy, I don’t have anything in royal blue, is that OK? And I’ll never forget that for the rest of my life, because the only thing in my mind was, Nancy Kerrigan is skating in my show, she’s donating her time, and she’s asking me which colour she wears and is it OK? Like, she can wear purple with green polka dots and stand on her head, and I’ll be fine [laughs]. And eight years later it’s still going.
On founding Fireworks Sports Marketing in 2004: I think the passion and the youth shows through everything else. I love skating, and all my clients are people that I believe in and that I prove myself to. They’re all amazing people. I’m so lucky. They all have great families and I’m living a dream job. What happened was, we did Stars Stripes and Skates, and a couple of other charities wanted to hire me to be their event producer, and so I did a lot in the non-profit world. And then Oksana Baiul was the first skater that I managed, because I was co-producing a play with Frank D’Agostino, an ice skating musical, and that was a very good experience that I think everyone should go through because it teaches you a lot. Managing athletes is not like a nine to five job. It’s important that you recognize much more than the profit, the loss, the commission, the shows, that go into it, and she was a very good teacher.
On the responsibilities of a sports agent: Oh my God, we don’t have enough time [laughs]. The biggest job of a good agent, although others might disagree, is to be supportive, to be the number one fan. With Rachael [Flatt], for example, being at a Grand Prix or a Skate America to be there and to hear and to see what’s going on and to be part of the action, to controlling press, to making press, to getting endorsements, scheduling shows, organizing the calendar. I’m very lucky and I have a fabulous staff. [Where she is] depends on the timing of the event, the location, the geography, but you kind of make it, you know.
Two years ago Rachael was doing a Disson show and Johnny [Weir] was doing a show in Korea at the same time, and it was Rachael’s first Disson show and it was Johnny’s first Korea show. The Korea show was with Yu-na Kim and it was obviously a big opportunity because Yu-Na is the queen over there and there are numerous Disson shows per year. So it was important for me to be at both events. So I flew to South Dakota, I was with Rachael for the press day and the practice day, and I missed the actual show, which would have been the fun part for me, but the work part was done. So I flew to Los Angeles and waited there through the night, which was crazy, and then I flew to Korea. For one day. And then I flew back. You just make it happen.
On endorsements: We’re very proactive. We go out and look for various opportunities for the skaters, but definitely things come to us. But skating isn’t what it used to be, so a lot of it now is us being proactive.
On handling fan mail: There’s a giant box about three feet high with letters for Johnny. We get through it. We just make it happen. You read every piece of mail, no matter which athlete it’s for, and we send them a signed postcard.
On being the agent for young, lesser-known athletes: It’s harder for the up and comer. For an athlete that’s already established and getting media on their own, the calls come to us and we vet them, and handle the schedule and book them, and there you go. For the athletes we have to do press for, it could take 25 times longer, because you’re on the phone selling and selling them, and you hope that something comes through. And you have to make sure you have that passion. I don’t encourage anyone to become an agent unless they have that passion to be an agent for whatever their field is, and truly love and think about their clients all the time.
On Johnny Weir’s different activities: Everything goes through me. I did not arrange the show [Be Good Johnny Weir]. The producers and creators are also good friends and the most wonderful people in the world, creative and honest and hard working, and very respectable people. They had followed Johnny around for four years, and they made an amazing movie and a very well put together television show. Certainly I helped finalize the deals and put press together where I can for the network, and I’m very involved in the Season Two agreements, but it’s definitely the producers’ project, and I don’t know what we would do without them.
On appearing on the TV show: Oh, goodness, who doesn’t love a camera? [laughs].
On Weir not being invited to be in Stars on Ice: Everything worked out perfectly after the Olympics for me. Rachael and Jeremy [Abbott] are national champions, they deserve to be in Stars on Ice, they were invited, IMG is fabulous, we have a great relationship. Of course Johnny’s fans were so sad not to see him on the tour. America wants to see him skate. They love the red carpets and they love the TV series and they love that he’s writing a book, but they want to see him skate. So of course the fans were very very disappointed. And look, that was a decision that was made by Smuckers or IMG or whatever, and that’s a decision that I — I’ve produced shows for a decade now, and I can’t tell you how many skaters I have not invited. There’s certain examples, like in my first show a not-yet-Olympic-champion came up to me and said, why didn’t you invite me to be in your show, and I thought, I don’t know, because Nancy Kerrigan and Sasha Cohen and Timothy Goebel said yes, and Victor Petrenko? You know, it was like, they can invite who they want. On the flip side, Johnny has had so many opportunities in the last three months that never would have happened if he’d been on tour. He couldn’t have judged Miss USA. He couldn’t have been with Elton John three times, at the Waldorf or at his Oscar party. He couldn’t have met Lady Gaga three times. Everything happened for a reason, and I wake myself up and pinch myself every day, and say, is everything this great? Jeremy and Rachael, are they starring in the biggest US national tour? And is Johnny now walking red carpets alongside Sarah Jessica Parker?
The only part that I would say that was difficult was that when his fans and certain organizations were very vocal about their disappointment, which we were very appreciative of. It was a little challenging dealing with all the press, but we did it, you know. It was good.
On balancing being an agent and a coach and a choreographer: I’m never giving up choreography because — it may not be my favorite but it’s certainly one of the top things I like to do. I give up sleeping, I guess [laughs]. And also I’m a daughter and a sister and an aunt, all those things that are important.