Wonderland Sports is a player representation agency managed by Antti Roiha and Ireneo Snel, graduates of the Master in Football Business, which aims to build a stable environment that makes life easier for athletes
The welfare of a professional football player is largely rooted in his environment, in how his life is structured around football so that he can perform to the maximum on the pitch. Probably, the first reason that leads an athlete to use the services of an agent responds to the need to obtain economic resources, but the athlete’s image and market value depend on many other aspects that a professional agent cannot neglect.
Wonderland Sports is one of those kinds of representation agencies, the business project of Finnish entrepreneur Antti Roiha, founded in 2014 with the aim of “making life easier for athletes based on a holistic management model and although our focus is on football, we are still open to work with any athlete”. Antti has had to invest a lot in his professional training to run his agency successfully and, like the footballers he represents, his apprenticeship has led him to accumulate experience in different parts of the world.
After completing his high school studies at one of the most important sports institutions in Finland, where he was able to combine education and sport, Antti began to build what is today his best letter of introduction: international business studies between Finland and the Netherlands, a year of work in Argentina and eight years in the world of finance before finding what he was really looking for, to enter fully into the sports industry. He landed in Barcelona to take a postgraduate course in sports psychology and, on the advice of Finnish professionals who had studied at Johan Cruyff Institute, he extended his ties with the city to take a Master in Sport Marketing and Sponsorship at Johan Cruyff Institute. To this degree he later added the Master in Football Business in partnership with FC Barcelona-Barça Innovation Hub.
It was there that he met Ireneo Snel, a graduate of the University of Applied Sciences in Amsterdam, with a degree in Sports, Management & Business, a minor in high-performance sport and a varied and enriching resume in the sports industry: Ireneo was a member of a Dutch athletics team then in preparation for the Rio Olympics; he worked at an international water polo academy and at another football academy in Barcelona, and also worked as a supervisor at the Emilio Sánchez Vicario international tennis academy before deciding to redirect his professional career to the football business.
The Johan Cruyff Institute’s Master in Football Business in partnership with FC Barcelona-Barça Innovation Hub ended up being the key piece for Wonderland Sports to gain momentum. Antti Roiha saw in Ireneo Snel the perfect traveling companion to boost his football representation company.
Wonderland Sports and Johan Cruyff Institute have recently signed a partnership agreement that will help them to build a network in the football business and will benefit all the players represented by the agency. Enthusiastic about meeting again at the Johan Cruyff Institute facilities and keen to explain to us their great project, Antti and Ireneo sat down in front of the cameras to reveal everything they offer in the world of football representation.
What is Wonderland Sports’ mission?
Antti: Wonderland Sports is something that has been in my head, or sort of as a vision, for a really long time already, probably in high school when I had the first thoughts of combining business and sport and it was established in 2014, immediately after quitting my day job, so to speak. But obviously starting a startup takes time. It has seen quite a big evolution or also gone through changes. It’s the famous ‘trial and error’ and trying different things and ways of working. And first of all, I started to work with individual athletes. So, the idea was always to represent athletes to help them in any way. Many times, it’s finding financial support because that’s what athletes need the most. But then the reality is also supporting in any other way, like making life easier for them. So, I’ve been working with golf and tennis players, also being involved in mental training of top Finnish tennis juniors, which was a really interesting project. Being able to do it with one of the most famous mental coaches in Finland was a huge experience for me. Later, I got into football. I actually joined another startup that time and one of their business areas was football representation services and I started to build that part in the company.
“Talking about representation, I always have believed in a more holistic approach; in the end, how you are doing in your life also is really important or correlates in how you do on the pitch” – Antti Roiha
Talking about representation, I always have believed in a more holistic approach. So instead of just finding a player, a club, I think it’s important to think of the person as a whole because, in the end, how you are doing in your life also is really important or correlates in how you do on the pitch.
How do you work with the athlete and his or her personal brand?
Ireneo: They already have a personal brand. Everyone has a personal brand. So, from that moment, we try to make them aware of what they are communicating, what they are saying, and how they are perceived by others. Because that’s something that’s important. Also, for clubs in Europe, for example, when they look at a South American player and they see a lot of bad things on the social media, that’s one reason to consider maybe another player, because they don’t know them yet. So, that’s something that they should be aware of, and that’s something that we want to work on. And it’s part of the ecosystem, of course, as well, because it’s part of the resources in the end.
What is your management model for athletes based on?
Antti: We are considering all aspects in an athlete’s life and we’ve divided it into three parts. So, we have sport, life and resources and every sector basically has then its own topics. And the idea is to bring into the consciousness of the athlete and all the persons around the athletes, coaches, parents, managers, whatever, how the person is doing and actually what are the different things that influence the person both on and off the pitch. So, solving problems comes from being conscious of what’s going on. So, when you show everything to the athlete and to his support persons, you can start to build from there and to really notice where I’m doing good, where I’m excelling and what are the areas of improvement. And from the areas of improvement, you can do action plans and then actually also develop. So that’s basically the ecosystem and how it works, when you should start thinking about it. I think it comes already at a quite young age, I would say.
“The majority doesn’t do their pension with sport, that’s for sure. So, they need to rebuild themselves and one way of doing it is education” – Antti Roiha
Do you also give a lot of importance to provide your athletes professional training?
Antti: Yes. First of all, to transition into after-career life, the majority doesn’t do their pension with sport, that’s for sure. So, they need to rebuild themselves. And one way of doing it is education. And during your active career, although you’re a professional, you have quite a lot of spare time, that’s for sure. So, studying in your spare time is not a bad idea. On one hand, you can fill in the empty time with something else than playing PlayStation or watching Netflix and doing something that stimulates and as Ian Neil said, it actually can help you on the pitch as well. And one very important point is that it takes also a little bit of the pressure away from the sport because you have sort of this other alternative if you don’t make it, or if you have an injury, for example, so you are more prepared. And there are very good examples of athletes that have done it very well, and then obviously very sad and bad examples as well. And I guess the NFL players are the most famous ones for whom the bankruptcy ratio is tremendously high.
So, anything that can help the athletes to prepare for after-career life although you would make a lot of money in your career, it’s still you need to do something and educate yourself and have like a content in your life after you stop your active career which is so intense, there’s so much and all the attention is on you. I think it’s very wise and very important.
What resources did the master’s degree give you that you could apply to Wonderland Sports?
Ireneo: In the Master in Football Business that we did together, we learned basically how the whole football industry works. And that’s where it’s super interesting because we work with the athlete. But since we are building the ecosystem around it, we are involved in all different kinds of aspects of the football industry as well. So, what we, for example, saw in the Master is how you engage with fans. This is also something that applies for players and that we can teach the players that we work with. So basically, to have the big general picture of how the football business works helps us a lot in helping our players to find the right opportunities in partnerships, but also in clubs to have the mindset really of how a club thinks. Also, with the finance part. Okay, what would they be able to afford and how does it affect the football club if they sign a player of ours, for example?
“In the Master in Football Business that we did together, we learned basically how the whole football industry works and that’s where it’s super interesting because we work with the athlete but we are building the ecosystem around it” – Ireneo Snel
How do you value the collaboration with Johan Cruyff Institute?
Antti: I’m super thrilled, excited and honored to be partnering up with Johan Cruyff Institute like that. Johan Cruyff, as a player, and with the Institute and its quality study programs and me, as a double alumnus, I’ve had very good experiences with that. So, very happy to start cooperating.
Ireneo: It’s difficult to be an entrepreneur, probably in every business, but definitely in the football business. At least in football players’ representation, there is a vicious circle. Either you have a really good talent and you can open doors for football clubs, or you have really good connections with football clubs and that’s how you can reach top talents. It’s a challenge because if you don’t have one of them, you don’t have income and you cannot invest either in growing or in covering your own expenses. One of the things we have learned at Johan Cruyff Institute is how to build that network and in the end that is what will help us make the next step. That is also why the partnership we have with Johan Cruyff Institute is so important; it will help us open these doors with the athletes and with the clubs due to the great network this institution has as well.