For as long as I have worked in sport, I have encountered only a handful women sports agents.
So, when I came across cricket agent, Sophie McIlwain on LinkedIn, I had to reach out and encourage her to share her journey with gsport and hopefully inspire someone who aspires to follow the same career path.
McIlwain has been a cricket fan all her life. Growing up in Australia in the nineties, she, like everyone her age, chased the boundary line for autographs.
Years later, she is climbing the ladder as an international cricket agent and is determined to do it her way.
A sincere, kind and committed individual, McIlwain fights for her clients and has found great promise in being a supportive force in the lives of those she helps shape in the world of sport.
One of the stars that she represents is India’s Jaya Sharma, the first female recipient of the BCCI’s Cricketer of The Year Award, and McIlwain hopes to represent more cricketers in the future.
Some of her favourite women in sport include South Africa’s Shabnim Ismail and Australia’s Alyssa Healy.
In this honest and sincere account, McIlwain shares her hopes and dreams as she charts her way as a global cricket agent.
Sophie, what inspired the dream to become a cricket agent?
As a child I loved attending cricket games at the SCG or North Sydney Oval and as an adult I have been lucky to travel overseas to watch cricket for fun – despite the fact that none of my friends like cricket enough to ever join me.
In 2017 I started a Masters Degree (MBA) in Sports Management. The course predominantly featured rugby codes and Australian Football as case studies, but I wrote every essay on cricket. I didn’t know yet what aspect of cricket I wanted to work in but the idea of becoming an agent revealed itself over time.
I interviewed cricket stakeholders for my studies in Sports Management, read contracts, met players and talked about their concerns. The disparity of professional representation, even amongst the elite tier of cricketers, became very evident. I had friends who received no interest or advocacy from their agent until they received a ‘big break’ or starred in an epic game. Suddenly they became of interest to their agent or new agents. These were players who had worked hard, struggled and built their careers in spite of injury and being ignored but were now receiving offers of big contracts and, of course, that’s when agents circled too. I felt that this kind of agent work was more parasitic than supportive, and this propelled me in the direction of creating an agency that had a holistic focus to support, nurture and fight for the clients I would be representing. It wouldn’t matter whether they were superstars already, players seeking their breakthrough, or simply playing cricket to provide for their families.
When did you fall in love with cricket?
I know I was well into my love of cricket by Year Three in primary school so I must have been under seven years old. The teacher was making a poster for the classroom wall on ‘What I want to be when I grow up’ and although I had often said I wanted to be Prime Minister of Australia, I told the teacher my dream was to be a cricket commentator.
The teacher scolded me for this, saying, ‘You can only be a cricket commentator if you have played big cricket’. She wrote ‘prime minister’ and further justified this by saying, ‘Cricket commentator doesn’t fit into the box I have created for you’.
It was my mum’s best friend who first took me to a cricket match and I’m certain Steve Waugh was playing. If you were a kid in Sydney who attended any Mercantile Mutual or Sheffield Shield Match in the 1990’s then you would have Steve Waugh’s autograph. He was an iceman on the field but he was very generous to kids off the field. I remember him standing for hours outside the dressing room between the Members and the Ladies Stands at the SCG or braving the hot sun at the North Sydney Oval meeting kids during games.
My ‘aunty Lee’, as I called her, was from America and an avid baseball player and fan but fell in love with cricket on emigrating to Australia. She passed on her love for cricket to me, and one day sitting in the Doug Walters stand, we saw Michael Bevan hit a four from the last ball off Roger Harper’s bowling with number 11 Glenn McGrath at the other end. Well, that was the day cricket became a life-long passion for me.
My mum used to pack salami sandwiches on white bread along with salt & vinegar chips for my cricket lunch – having a ‘naughty treat’ coincided with the treat of a day out at the cricket. To this day I still bring a packet of salt & vinegar chips to matches at the SCG – cricket and chips are a superb and enduring partnership.
How did you empower yourself with knowledge to become a success in the industry?
I don’t know if I am a success but I’m working on it. I have completed industry specific education but I know that learning skills and gaining knowledge is a never ending process.
I received a phone call just this afternoon and it has definitely empowered me in a way. I was invited to join forces with a multi-sport agency. The caller was telling me of how exciting the agency was including their star agent recruit who could ‘sell anything to anyone’. He illustrated his point by saying this man could go to any bar and immediately walk out with a woman on his arm or ‘maybe two’ then he could walk back into that same bar ‘an hour later’ and walk out with ‘another one’. I politely declined the job offer. The conversation reinforced my resolve to bring my perspective, my values and my ethics to the responsibility of representing cricketers in their dreams. I am relatively new in this industry and I want to give my clients the respect of working with integrity and dedication – this is what fuels me towards success.
Tell us about some of the women you represent and the role you play in the changing the face of women in sport?
I would like to represent more female cricketers and I think this year holds interesting new opportunities including The Hundred in the UK and the Maharashtra T20 tournament (MCL T20). The MCL T20 is going to follow a reality TV format as they scout for the Indian talent that has been excluded from the official development channels and offer elite level coaching and support for talented Gully Cricket players (among others).
I don’t think being a female means I should only focus on women’s cricket and cricketers, but I definitely feel a great comradery with my client, Indian cricketer, Jaya Sharma. I think we motivate each other. Jaya Sharma was the first female recipient of the BCCI’s Cricketer of The Year Award and has shaped her post-playing career as a commentator, selector and coach with plenty of study and research. Jaya is enlightening me about Neuro Linguistic Programming (mind conditioning and habit forming) and with her experience and thoughtful perceptions, she has a lot to offer as a mentor.
As Vice President of Innovation for a start-up tech/ cricket app, Jaya is someone that grabs opportunities and is pragmatic in advancing her career and in paving the way for others. A few weeks ago, she Facetimed me whilst she was testing the technical aspects of the app. The developers of the app are taking local Gully Cricket and adding cameras, lights and technology in order to elevate local players. She was testing the specifications in a hot-wired Gully setup. I watched on my phone as Jaya hit the ball around nonchalantly whilst ‘owning’ the bowler and the arena completely. I could tell that all the men standing around were in awe of her as she simply flicked her wrists and the ball went to the places she wanted.
It is my resolve to assist Jaya Sharma in whatever her cricket goals are but working with her I am also inspired to dream. I think Jaya and other women have proven their strength and resilience and with their talents would be an asset in steering national teams and big franchise teams in the male or female domain.
Australian women’s sport is thriving. What/Who is the success behind this?
Having 87,000 people attend the MCG for the Women’s T20 World Cup in 2020 was fantastic. Let me be a huge Aussie cricket fan for a moment – that team is truly awesome, and they play the kind of exciting cricket that deserves such an audience.
But we know that just being deserving does not equal endorsements or profile. I think commercial interests, broadcasters and other stakeholders will (and have to) look at this roaring community support and be confident in investing more into women’s cricket and women’s sport in general.
How can we raise the profile of women’s sport to ensure real impact globally?
That’s a big question. I will answer it with my cricket agent’s hat on. Having women’s sport on prime time television and holding fixtures for women’s sporting events as the ‘main event’ – and not a ticket-gift-with-purchase or warm-up act for the men’s games – is both a solution and the ideal.
For all the noble mission statements in the world, we know that network executives, sponsors and international corporations are really concerned with profits. We know that cricket boards are in competition with football, with tennis, with soccer etc. for market share of both active and passive participants. I think cricket boards (and CA have been at the forefront) need to think Well, we have made money from men for years, from people of certain backgrounds, and of certain socio-economic statuses and there is only a finite number of Aussie team shirts we can sell in a men’s size M-L… So how do we grow cricket as a more inclusive sport and market a different kind of product? How do we increase our market share?
One answer is to have more women turn up to your venues so make the grounds safe and appealing. Encourage more young girls to take up cricket as a sport. Ensure rural areas have access to high quality equipment and coaching and can attend big games. Look to engage with and encourage participants from non-traditional cricket backgrounds and work with boards from emerging cricket nations in strengthening their impact. I think if national sporting bodies look to cultivate women’s participation then this will create a change in the way sport and sports products are consumed commercially and there will be a stampede in the demand for women’s sport.
How do you handle the challenge of being a woman in a male dominated environment?
My friend, Sheldon ‘Salute’ Cottrell, told me that the most important thing a cricketer looks for in an agent is that they are ‘a fighter’, and so I asked him ‘am I a fighter?’. He replied, ‘You’re a killer!’.
I do work hard and I do fight for my clients. I am not fazed by the rare occasion when someone I have been dealing with professionally has tried to patronize me or manipulate negotiations because I am female. I have dealt with the odd ‘oh darling/dear/honey aren’t we friends… why do you want to negotiate so hard on this?’. My response is always that I am an advocate for my clients’ best interests. It is not about me nor a matter of ‘friendship’. In any negotiation I am working with the responsibility of the dreams and livelihoods of my clients and I take this role very seriously. The last thing that will get in my way is my gender.
I don’t feel being female is a challenge in a professional environment that is heavily populated by men. I am working to my own strengths and looking to achieve for my own clients. Anyone I deal with who lacks respect or feels I am less able because of my gender, might as well be bowling 6 full tosses to Nicholas Pooran in the final over of a T20.
Over the next few years, I think the ratio of men to women in this industry will change. Perhaps one of the biggest hurdles for women in embarking on a career in the business of sport is the attitude of my Year Three teacher, that one cannot be part of the sports world without achieving on the field first or that a job in the sporting arena is not a viable career option for a female. When I wake up in the morning, I am excited to spend the whole day talking about cricket and I’m thankful now it pays to do so. Just from a reading of the interviews in gsport alone, we can see how working in sport has brought lots of women great success and satisfaction and the thirst to achieve more.
My client, Jaya Sharma, gave a TED X talk (available on YouTube) about how she pursued her dream to play international cricket in spite of the societal expectations of a woman’s life path. I want to mention her success but also her diversion from the status-quo (she explains it much better than me in her talk). I would encourage anyone to follow her on LinkedIn as she is a shining example of perseverance and is also a great mentor. Her story is different to mine and she is definitely someone who could give a strong answer to the question you pose here.
In the course of my MBA studies, I met many interesting people who wanted to make a positive impact in the sports industry. Cigdam Huseyn Turkan is a colleague who made a profound impression on me because of her single minded drive and her noble ambitions. She is a young female of a Turkish Cypriot background who has been very active in various English Premier League Club programs but is currently the Education Manager + Race Equality Lead at Crystal Palace. I hope one day I don’t need to introduce her with any qualification as to her gender or background. She will simply be the notable leader of a diverse cohort of talented individuals.
Are there other women sports agents you are close to and who support you on this journey?
I have been fortunate to meet generous people in this industry, female and male, who are passionate about what they do. I think one of the best things about sport is the way it unites people. I know in the 1960’s, my father backpacked around the world with a soccer ball in his bag ready to play a game with anyone. When you travel the world for cricket you meet happily cricket-crazed people and I have made some great friendships because of that. I have to mention two people who have helped my career so much at this point.
They aren’t women, and they aren’t agents, but their unwavering support and friendship mean a lot to me.
I met Guyanese graphic designer and talented website builder, Navin Talawant, through the Caribbean Premier League when he offered to help me build websites for the players I represent because he thought the site I was working on ‘could be better’. He hasn’t stopped helping me and my websites ‘be better’ ever since.
I met my friend, producer, videographer & designer, Keron Toussaint from Trinidad, because I wanted action stills for the promotion of a player I was representing in the Canadian GT20 league. I think we bonded over a terrible umpiring decision and he has been an excellent sounding board and motivator to me since that day.
I am grateful to all the people who have given me their time and their advice. Having mentors has been crucial to me but they don’t all come from this industry. I have a friend who owns a candle retail business. Apart from having the best smelling candles around, she has weathered just about every business storm including enduring the absolute sales decimation of COVID lockdown closures. I bounce ideas off her and she gives me straight talking advice. If we are talking of a business ‘sisterhood’ then she is my ‘big sis’.
There are professional cricketers who have encouraged me and assisted me in learning and networking within this industry. A long-time friend who has played in almost every franchise tournament in the world, asked me recently if he could give me some ‘constructive criticism’. It was a big help and I hope I hadn’t shown too much bravado before then delaying his valuable advice.
I realise that it is important to reach out and to ask questions and I wished I had asked for the advice of my champion friend earlier. I will pay-it-forward to others one day if I can because experience brings invaluable insights. I was given another pearl of a story from a senior fast bowler whom I represent. He told me that one of the world’s top T20 bowlers asked him in the nets to demonstrate some of the tricks of his own signature action. He said the request raised his already high opinion of the bowler because, ‘not being too proud and asking the question, then putting in the work, that’s what makes him the best’…
I couldn’t agree more. Success comes from learning from and responding to feedback, but it also comes from surrounding oneself with great people. Not everything is a battlefield and I have seen firsthand how there are people willing to share their hard-earned knowledge.
What has been your biggest highlight to date as a cricket agent?
Arguing with Roland Butcher… I joke, I joke! Talking about the Aussie top order for the Aus v India with LEGEND Roland Butcher.
One of the first conversations I had with client and former England international cricketer, Roland Butcher, was who should open for Australia in the recently concluded Border-Gavaskar Trophy. I had strong opinions about it and I am not shy about giving them, but he was kind enough to listen and then give his predictions. He was right but India’s tenacity in the final two tests made history anyway.
It is a joy to be able to listen to someone such as Roland Butcher who has so much knowledge and experience. He teaches me things about cricket that I didn’t even know I didn’t know. For example, I have been enthralled by his explanation of the training bats he designed and produced to improve consistency against certain types of bowling. He is someone who is both learned and innovative and chatting with him feeds my cricket appetite.
I know Roland Butcher is a mentor to many young cricketers, especially in the Caribbean, and being his agent provides access to his wisdom as a perk.
Who are your favourite global women in sport and why?
There are many sporting women across the world who have amazing talent, extreme athletic prowess, strength and resilience, and who deserve acclaim, promotion and every loud + proud celebration on the world stage. I watch in awe of cricket players such as Alyssa Healy, Stafanie Taylor, Sophie Devine and Shabnim Ismail.
Also deserving of recognition are those who shepherd the next generation of young women in cricket. I have only met Leeds-based, Clare Sanderson, virtually, through some of my social media work for clients, but she is someone who has all the qualities of an admirable role model. Clare is a British woman who supports the Windies with fervor, but she is also a community organiser and energetic facilitator. Clare coaches a weekend cricket program called the Heera-Ranis (Diamond Queens) Street Project for girls 8-15yrs, many of South-Asian backgrounds, in Yorkshire. From what I have seen, Clare promotes cricket as an enjoyable and healthy pastime for kids and encourages them to have fun but to gain a proud sense of achievement via their participation and self-expression.
I follow @theunlikelycricketmum on Instagram. Rachel Devine is a mum who is energetic in supporting her daughter’s passion for cricket. If you ask about ‘global women in sport’ – well, the mums (and yes, of course, dads but we are talking about women for a minute) who learn how to roll their arm over so they can bowl at their child in the nets or the backyard, who work hard to afford the cost of cricket equipment and encourage their kids in their cricketing dreams, well, they are pretty crucial stakeholders in cricket. My own mother is a nightmare to watch cricket with. Every time a batsman gets out for a low score (even an English batsman during the Ashes), she despairs, ‘Oh what about his/her mum?’. And when a batsman gets a century she exclaims, ‘Oh how lovely for his/her mum’. She might be onto something though – there are a lot of loving supporters behind the scenes in global sport who make a critical impact.
What is the one thing you know about yourself now that you wish you knew when you got into the industry?
I didn’t need to invest in that expensive Valentino suit! I do most of my work at home behind the computer and on the phone. I get calls and messages from cricket clubs and clients at 4am. I organize visas on the phone to the US embassy in Pakistan whilst in my pajamas at midnight. If the ill-advised pink Valentino is a parable for a greater truth, it is that hard work trumps being completely polished and that your time is your most valuable investment.
What is your advice to rising sports agents?
I often get asked this question on LinkedIn and I am happy to respond. Before I gained my agent accreditation I created ‘road-blocks’ of self-doubt. I was procrastinating by enrolling in every sports business course that ever existed. I enjoy being a student, I want to continue learning and re-evaluating and ensuring I am the best advocate for my clients BUT I should have ‘jumped in’ earlier to the business of being an agent. Building my business every day gives me a great sense of purpose and teaches me a lot too.
I am transparent with my clients and I collaborate with them in order to gain the best outcome. I work from the perspective that honesty and action are better than promises and excuses – and it sure solves a problem more quickly.
Jaya Sharma gave me a great line once, ‘Don’t waste your nicety on slimy people’, and if someone is trying to underpay or undervalue me or one of my clients her tip encourages even greater resolve. Instead of concerning myself about whether someone will ‘like me’, I think of my goals.
How can someone reach you if they are keen to work with you?
I use LinkedIn and Instagram to communicate news about my clients and my business. Social media has been a very effective device for me in growing my business and connecting with people. For all the criticism that is levelled at social media I think it really can be utilized to promote and propel an athlete’s career and to engage with peers and fans. For a start-up business such as my own, social media offers visibility and means that good content can be seen and heard without needing the budget or the resources of a multi-national company.
I love talking cricket (ask anyone, even those who don’t love talking it back) and am happy to make a LinkedIn or Instagram acquaintance with your readers. I am @sophieclairemagent on the ‘gram and I can be found easily on LinkedIn.
What is your greatest ambition?
Ambition for me is a fluid and ever evolving concept. I guess I have a lot of dreams and some are immediate and maybe I don’t even know some of them yet. But this is the very question I ask each client when they come on board so I should attempt to give you a proper response.
I have to say I really love what I do. Quite simply – I want to be able to keep on doing it! That means I need to work hard for my clients, make more connections, earn the trust and respect of coaches and franchise stakeholders, and continue learning and adapting. If I am still doing this in 20 years – then this ambition has well and truly been achieved.
Playing even a small part in assisting in the aspirations of my clients is a responsibility and an honour. I am lucky to have the opportunity to work with some truly gifted cricketers and I work with a mission to match their drive and talent to accomplishment and success. I want to see clients such as 20 year old Haryana U-23 player, Nehal Pajni, grow within Indian cricket and achieve his dream of representing his country. I ask for nothing more than a bit of ‘cosmic justice’ on Jaya Sharma’s behalf – she is strong, smart and would make an excellent coach of an elite team. I would like to see her coaching a men’s IPL franchise. She would be an asset and it is about time we saw women coaching top men’s teams because we see it in the reverse. I have clients who work hard to support their families and I think about that every day – they give me a daily ambition.
Photo 1 Caption: Our #WCW is rising international cricket agent, Sophie McIlwain, from Australia, who believes in fighting for her clients, and wants to play a bigger role in promoting sportswomen. Image: Supplied
Photo 2 Caption: At the Opening game of the 2019 World Cup, Nottingham UK. West Indies beat Pakistan comprehensively, McIlwain is pictured am standing with Jamaican Jonkonnu dancers. Image: Supplied
Photo 3 Caption: Throwback! McIlwain is pictured with Australian cricket legend, Steve Waugh, at the North Sydney Oval.
Photo 4 Caption: Australian sports agent McIlwain enjoys a well-earned a glass of champagne, at the graduation ceremony for her MBA in Sports Management, 2019. Image: Supplied
Photo 5 Caption: Claiming not to be much of a cricketer, our #WCW is photographed assisting a young friend, in South Australia last Christmas day. Image: Supplied
Photo 6 Caption: McIlwain in a snap at the iconic Sydney Cricket Ground on a sunny day. Image: Supplied