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Kevin Roberts, by the people who knew him

SportBusiness announced the sad news yesterday that our founder and group editorial director Kevin Roberts passed away suddenly on Wednesday. Since we made the announcement, we have been overwhelmed with kind messages from those who knew and worked with him. Here we share some of their memories of one of the industry’s true characters.

Richard Gillis, owner, Unofficial Partner; editor, SportBusiness, 2000-2004

“Don’t take it too seriously.”

That was an early piece of Roberts advice and I quickly got what he meant. He understood the game being played, the levers being pulled. He revelled in the humdrum, often deeply silly reality that lurks just below the grand sounding ‘business of sport’.

He’d catch my eye as the serious-faced young PR man pitched Afghanistan as sport tourism’s next big destination. He kept a straight face as the expensive branding consultant told him she wanted the tone of voice of the magazine to be ‘more Jamie Oliver’.

We once ran a headline plugging Gary Stevens’ new insurance business, the one he’d started after Vinnie Jones had put him into row J of the old White Hart Lane. It should’ve read “Gary Stevens talks about the pain of a career ending injury”. The printers had other plans, so we got: “Gary Stevens talks about the pain of a reer ending”. Kev loved it.

His ideas for stories were always the best, the most creative, the ones you actually wanted to read. He knew that, but gave ours airtime anyway, gently offering advice as to how to make them better.

Yes, Kevin was charming and witty, and the very best company, full of mischief and gossip. But charm alone is a cheap trick and we’ve all known people who coldly trade on it for personal or career gain, and who see conversation as a competition to be won.

There was far more to Kevin than that, and that’s why we loved him. He was kind; a warm, generous and vulnerable friend, who took the time to listen, often surprising you by casually recalling small details of previous conversations you’d assumed had got lost in the noise of the bar.

When I first met Kevin, I was a teacher who wanted to be a journalist and he gave me a first foot in the door. Ironic, really, as he was the best teacher I ever had.

Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott speaking with Kevin at the SportBusiness Summit in Miami. (Melina Pardo).

Patrick Nally, founder and CEO, West Nally; president, International Federation of Poker

Kevin. What can’t you say about our Kevin?!

He often forgot where he was meant to be, turned up for the wrong appointments and left his bags in the most extraordinary places! Always in a muddle about his invoicing, he couldn’t spell, and let’s not talk about his expenses! He loved his Crystal Palace and his wine. His creative talent was legendary, and he was absolutely brilliant at fronting conferences.

He was also the warmest guy you could ever meet and always had a smile on his face, always a good word and always supportive. Kevin was the most human, natural and kind person and wherever we were, be it in Monaco, Miami, Istanbul, Singapore, Lausanne, or Beijing he would ensure it was a memorable and amusing occasion. I will never forget the bond of friendship we shared when attending the Patrick Baumann memorial together.

I cried when I heard the news and yes, I will miss him terribly.

We had great plans for books together.

Matt Cutler, head of communications, Two Circles; editor, SportBusiness International, 2010-2015

I will remember Kevin Roberts as a man who always picked up when you rang, saw the light in every situation, and could light up a room with his razor-sharp wit and pertinent questions. He had a huge impact on the sports industry, but just as importantly, the people around him. Including me.

My favourite story about Kevin is from 2009, when SportBusiness editor at the time Mim Sherlock organised his 50th birthday celebration, inviting London-based colleagues and friends from both the industry and ‘normal life’. That was a lot of people; Kevin’s network was huge and his kindness, thoughtfulness and the simple fact he was a great guy to spend time with meant he had a lot of friends.

Though a master of many arts, diary management wasn’t one for Kevin Roberts. In true form he turned up late and left within minutes – something else had come up. Something that had to take priority over everyone he knew being in a pub – and trust me, he loved the pub – to celebrate his milestone moment. To this day I’m not sure what it was. Not sure Mim ever found out either.

But we didn’t care. That was classic Kevin Roberts, and we knew there would be many more chances to raise a toast with him. It’s profoundly sad there will be no more chances, and I already miss him greatly.

Michael Payne, former head of marketing International Olympic Committee; chairman and CEO Payne Sports Media Strategies

Kevin Roberts – a visionary pioneer, perhaps the first journalist to recognize the true future potential of the sports marketing business. As founding editor of SportBusiness International, the first media publication to focus on the industry, Kevin inspired many others to follow his lead and opened the way for the mainstream media to report on the business of sport.

Kevin had an unrivalled knowledge across the whole industry – built up over the years by befriending all of the industry’s leaders. Few journalists established the level of trust that Kevin inspired – because he was fair, fun and insightful.

Jon Tibbs OBE, chairman and founder, JTA

Kevin was the king of moderating; the doyen of getting blood out of a stone on stage. But he met his match in reclusive Turkmenistan where he asked a straight forward question about hosting events to a Turkmen Government Minister on a panel. The translated response was: “The minister cannot talk to you.” Undeterred, and quick as a flash, Kevin said: “Not to worry; if I were the minister, I probably wouldn’t want to talk to me either!”.

What a man! What a void Kevin leaves in our lives.

Simon Thomas, formerly chief commercial officer, Fifa; global head of Sport, Fox International; CEO, Team Marketing

The affection we all felt for Kevin will be covered well by others, so I’ll focus on the leading role he played in making the sports business what it is today.

Through his vision and ability, he created the go-to resource for news, commentary, and intel. But his impact extended beyond that.

Through his words, he wielded wide influence. Through his presence, he commanded great respect. Through his knowledge, he demonstrated great insights and authority. He not only chronicled the development of a fledging industry, he helped create and shape it as it grew. And in doing so he lifted it to a higher level of professionalism and sophistication.

We all owe him an enormous debt of gratitude. It is a legacy to be proud of. He was much appreciated, and will be sorely missed.

 

Gary Double, vice president corporate communications, IMG

Kevin had that rare gift of genuinely treating everyone with equal charm and respect, be that government minister or aspiring intern.

An equally talented orator and writer, he teased me that I was responsible for the highlight of his career – a commissioned feature about IMG’s Sport 24 inflight channel for Aircraft Interiors International – he was that versatile! “It’s all downhill from here,” he joked – at least I think he was joking!

His outstanding professionalism was matched by his loyal and special friendship, something I will greatly miss – if not the backdrop of his Crystal Palace shirt hanging on the wall behind him on our regular Zoom calls. A huge, far too early loss for the sports business world.

Frank Leenders, director general, Fiba Media and Marketing Services

Kevin is the “face” known to many different generations in sports marketing – including myself since I started in the very early 90’s. It seems that he has always been there!

The overwhelming reactions of respect and friendship on social media shows that he managed to truly connect with all these different generations and gain trust across different sports, stakeholders, hierarchy levels and across very different perspectives and interests.

He also had a great ability to deliver results and “get things done” – even in challenging environments and different cultures. I will never forget our close co-operation in 2018 for the World Basketball Summit in Xi’an, where we had to start explaining matters from scratch and with simultaneous translation. At the end of this very challenging journey, he moderated an amazing two-day programme and the entire Chinese team respected and loved him for it.

Nigel Rushman, owner, Rushmans, and an early owner of SportBusiness International

I first met Kevin in a pub in Ashford in Kent 35 years ago. I can’t think of a more appropriate place to meet him.

He would be far too modest and unassuming to realise what a great impact he had on me, or on our business Rushmans or the wider sports business.

When I met Kevin, he was a young reporter on a local freesheet newspaper in Folkestone in Kent. He was of course, even then, freelancing on the side. That was an opportunity for both of us, and from then until very recently we have often worked together in some capacity or other.

Kevin worked for Rushmans when it was a PR company 25 years ago, and played a big role in the rapid growth from local clients to working on the accounts of international movers and shakers. When Rushmans moved into sport, Kevin came along with us and was a major part of the journey.

SportBusiness International was a folded piece of A3 paper when Rushmans took it over. Kevin was the natural choice to be the founding editor. I am proud to have made that appointment and to have called Kevin a friend. He stayed on the SportBusiness journey as we all know and helped build it to where it is today, with consummate skill, panache and wit.

Everyone was always pleased to see Kevin. None more than me.

We will all have innumerable memories and stories to tell of our great friend and colleague. For me personally, my family and all at Rushmans, we feel the loss deeply and send condolences for Vanessa, Alex and Izzy.

Tony Simpson, partner, Savannah Group

Earlier this week, I promised Kevin I would revisit an article I wrote to reflect on what a strange and challenging year 2020 has been. I did not expect to be writing about Kevin himself.

He was a man generous of his time and hugely patient. The term ‘gentleman’ is often overused, but in Kevin’s case it is wholly warranted. He had a dry, self-depreciating manner and a sharp wit; after a long day of Zoom and client calls, I looked forward to my scheduled calls with Kevin where, more often than not, I would comment on the Crystal Palace memorabilia in his office, then after 40 mins of general banter, we’d realise we had five minutes left to deal with the task in hand.

But make no mistake, he had a deep and unparalleled knowledge into our sector, gained over many years at the very sharp end of his craft. He will be missed terribly by so many people, myself included.

Tim Crow, founder and CEO, Crow Business Services; former CEO, Synergy Global  

Kevin and I shared many pages and stages and panels and pods, but when I think of him, it will always be for the stuff that happened afterwards. Because that’s what really matters on days like these. The long lunches, the late nights, the world put to rights, the one for the road, the bets on Halifax Town v Dover Athletic matches (yeah, he was a Palace nut, but he had a thing for Dover, too). Kevin’s was a life well lived. He made mine, and everybody’s more fun. I will miss him desperately.

Janine Mostyn, founder and director, Huckleberry Sport

I can’t find the words to do Kevin justice, and this sums up the very reason why I had so much admiration for him, my lack of words…

I’d often call Kev to say “I’ve got an idea for an article” we’d arrange a video call and after some great footy banter, as if by magic the most amazing draft article would appear in my inbox (he knew all too well I was better at talking than writing) to which I’d reply with “cheers Kev, that’s exactly what I meant to say”.

It was effortless to Kev. Thank God I had the chance to speak to him this week and tell him how awesome he was. Kev was the kindest soul, generous with his time, so much fun and so highly respected within the industry, I’m going to miss him A LOT.

LaLiga

Kevin is a huge loss to an industry in which he was held in the highest regard both professionally and personally. Whether discussing the pressing issues at SportBusiness Summits or chatting as fans over a beer, our interactions with Kevin have been insightful, memorable and most of all, enjoyable. He had a love for sport that is reflected in his writing and we are grateful for the pioneering role he took in developing sports industry journalism. As the sharpest dresser on the circuit, he also set the benchmark for sports industry fashion. Kevin has been a dear colleague for many at LaLiga and he will be missed tremendously by all those who knew him.

Nic Couchman, head of sport, Charles Russell Speechlys

The sports business has lost one of its best, most perceptive observers and commentators. He has made a lasting imprint on a dynamic industry he was fascinated by for so many years. Kevin was a truly thoughtful, engaging and decent man. A constant and wise voice in an inconstant world. Always a pleasure to deal with. I will miss our chats and he will be very much missed by many.

Michael Flynn, CEO Powa Index

Such a shock; such great memories of Kevin.

I first met him back in ’97 when he interviewed me about the Carling Premiership. Over 20 years later at a SportBusiness event in Miami, he was possibly the only person who could have persuaded me to stand in to replace a keynote speaker who had pulled out, with him interviewing me instead.

He was excellent at his job. You felt completely at ease and he knew exactly where to steer the questioning, as he knew the industry so well. My meetings with Kevin, when he remembered the right day, were usually in a London Tapas bar, and were never, ever rushed.

He really was one of those special people, who was always a ray of sunshine when you were in his company. May his memory be a blessing to all that knew him.

Ben Speight, former chief executive, SportBusiness Group

Kevin was a man of many words – knowledgeable, eloquent, whether in print or on stage or in the pub. I am a bit lost for words given the shock but for me, this picture, as they, says a thousand.

Kevin interviewing Gianni Infantino at Globe Soccer in 2018.

It is a gift to be either a great written journalist, great speaker and great presenter. They all involve words but are entirely different skills and to have all of them is pretty special and Kevin had them. Stage work, particularly, is not for everyone but here Kevin is interviewing one of the most powerful individuals in sport, at ease in his armchair. No doubt lulling the interviewee with some soft conversation before asking a trickier question, but of course with a smile on his face. This, no doubt, having mentioned Crystal Palace.

“An industry stalwart”; “the whole industry will miss him”; “wonderful character”; “a true gent”; “one of the genuine good guys”: Words sent to me yesterday.

For now, the only words from me: Thank you, KRob.

Ben Cronin, Europe editor, SportBusiness  

“Classic KRob.” That was our catchphrase in the office for something funny or flamboyant Kevin had written in a column or shared in the bar, normally after hours at an industry conference.

He was from the old school of journalism, believing confidences were won over lunch or a beer in the pub, which meant he always urged us to meet a source in person or get them on the phone rather than hide behind an email. The approach clearly worked, as he had a contacts book the envy of just about anyone working in the industry.

He was generous with it, too. I remember asking if he had the phone number for World Athletics vice president and Olympic pole vaulter Sergei Bubka, to which he replied that he not only knew Sergei, but had once spent a weekend at his dacha somewhere in Ukraine.

He also told us about the time he met Sepp Blatter at Fifa’s offices in Switzerland and how at the end of the interview, the former Fifa president asked him if he had any children and whether they liked football. Half expecting Blatter to offer him a shirt or football signed by a player, Kevin told him that his son Alex was a fan. He said he knew Blatter had lost the plot when he opened the top drawer of his desk, brought out a huge photo of himself and dutifully signed this instead.

KRob brought the same twinkle to his performances moderating at conferences as he did to his storytelling. Those of us who felt more nervous about the task were in awe of his ability to have fun on stage and not take things too seriously, which instantly made his interviewees more relaxed and voluble.

Above all else, though, we’ll remember Kevin’s fairness and decency to every member of the team at SportBusiness. Rest in peace, KRob, you will be missed.

Matthew Glendinning, editor, SportBusiness Sponsorship

I first met Kevin as an aspiring journalist in 1996 at the old SportBusiness International office near Waterloo. He was the very image of a sports magazine editor – smooth, likeable, engaged. But now I come to think of it, this was a job he pretty much invented. There was no such thing as a career in sports business journalism back then.

Having worked with Kevin off and on for the next 25 years, I saw him in action in many different situations, at home and abroad. The most memorable moments usually fit the ‘thinking on his feet’ category. Kevin was a great pitchman, naturally persuasive, and a great conference host, even when thrown in with minimal preparation.

When he came to the phone for an interview with former IOC president Jacques Rogge – an interview that had, let’s say, escaped his diary – he segued into the conversation by asking arguably the most powerful man in sports whether he played the guitar.

So I thank Kevin, among other things, for the opportunity way back in ‘96 and know he will be remembered with respect and affection by the many, many people he met along the way.

Frank Dunne, editor, SportBusiness Media, 2001-2003 and 2011-2015  

I’ve been putting off writing this all day. Partly because I have been too emotional and partly because I was on a deadline. Kevin would have approved of that part.

I have known Kev since about 2003. Unlike his other colleagues at SportBusiness, I lived abroad for all that time. I would see him when I went to the office and at events. Spending time with Kevin, or KRob, as he was known by us all in-house, was one of the things I looked forward to about those visits.

I would go to him for advice. When I started having to moderate panels, a source of terror for me, he was a calming influence. Just be yourself and you’ll be OK, he said.

That was one of the things about the guy. Nothing fake. No side. No agenda. Told it how he saw it.

There were things I envied about Kevin. His easy access to the movers and shakers. His getting the balance right – respect and curiosity but no deference to them. His ability to churn out first-person copy of such assurance on so many subjects.

Last week I was chatting to him about how 2021 might shape up. I can’t believe it will happen without him.

Thoughts with his family.

Rest in peace, KRob.

Heather Bowler, executive director, communications & digital services, International Tennis Federation

Kevin left us too soon to talk about legacy but the sad news of his passing has not only rekindled memories from many places and of great projects that we worked on, it also reminded me about the importance of nurturing relationships and conversation.

Each of those projects began with a friendly conversation over the phone, coffee, lunch or idle chat at an industry event that spawned an idea. Today, I’m going to take a leaf out of Kevin’s book, create space in my diary crammed with virtual meetings and make some calls, have those conversations and see where they lead. Kevin, we’ll miss your spontaneity, creativity and humour. Rest in peace.

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