“Once you get in, it gets in your blood.”
Paul Smith has always loved sport – an industry that’s taken him on a ‘wild ride’ for more than three decades.
Paul moved from Wollongong in NSW to the nation’s capital in the mid-80s to study at the Canberra College of Advanced Education (CCAE), now the University of Canberra.
“It was such an important phase in my life,” he says.
“Being so close to the Australian Institute of Sport [AIS] was great, and at the time, I didn’t know sports management would become the industry that it is, but I could feel that it was growing and changing.”
After completing his course, Paul got his first gig at Tennis Canberra.
“I started there in 1987, and learned pretty quickly that there was more to it than sitting around watching sport,” he says.
After nine months, Paul turned from tennis to golf, moving to Sydney to work for the PGA of Australia.
“I was there for six years, starting out as the Education Director and then ending up as the Head of Marketing and Development,” he says.
The experience led to taking a leap, going out on his own and building a sports and entertainment agency from the ground up.
In 1994 Total Sport and Entertainment (TSE) was born.
“I didn’t know at the time what an agency did, I just knew that there was an opportunity in the market to provide services to corporate sponsors of sport, where we acted for the brands to help manage and activate sponsorship assets – that business is still going today,” Paul says.
This is despite the global challenges, which Paul says started to surface after the success of the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games.
“There was definitely a flattening in the market and then the 9/11 attacks occurred in 2001, which completely altered the landscape of sports and sports marketing, and had such a devastating effect on marketing, advertising and the media industry.”
Paul worked through another shift in the industry and launched another business in the process, after identifying research as a missing piece of the sports marketing equation.
“After 9/11, every single sponsorship dollar came under intense scrutiny and clients were questioning the value of sponsorship,” he says.
“In 2004, I launched Repucom, a sponsorship analytics firm, to provide meaningful, valuable, and actionable information to brands, sponsors, broadcasters and rights holders with a benchmark value of sponsorship, and how you can use that to proliferate the industry.”
Over the next 12 years, Paul took his Sydney-based business to the rest of the world – which included a move to New York in 2007 – to build a presence in North America, Asia and Europe.
As the founder and CEO, Paul led a global enterprise of 1,400 people, with 23 offices in 14 countries, and high profile clients such as FIFA, the English Premier League, NFL, and NBA.
“It was an incredible ride, and it’s something I’m very proud of ... but I wanted to come home,” Paul says.
In 2016, Paul and his investors made the decision to sell Repucom, in a deal worth more than 195 million US dollars, to research giant Nielsen Holdings.
“I took a year or two off, just to sort of reflect and reset, and then moved back to Australia,” Paul says.
He returned his focus to Total Sport and Entertainment, acquiring part ownership of men’s professional basketball team, The Sydney Kings.
TSE subsequently took full ownership of the National Basketball League (NBL) franchise in 2019, and in 2020, added the WNBL’s Sydney Flames to its ownership portfolio.
“I don’t know why but I seem to find myself on wild journeys, basketball is another,” Paul says.
“There have been occasions, where I’ve thought ‘What am I doing?’ ‘What am I thinking?’ ‘Why didn't I go and sit under a tree and relax for the rest of my life?’”
Instead, Paul is carving out a new ambition around sports rights and teams’ ownership.
“I want to develop something that can work in Australia in a uniquely Australian way, rather than transplanting the American experience and American business models here,” he says.
Behind the drive to build on his success in sports management lies his unashamed passion for the industry.
“When it comes to business, you’ve got to be clinical and tough decisions come with the territory,” he says.
“I know that my passion for the industry continues to drive me forward. And winning helps, so the ’22 NBL Championship validated all our efforts.”
A distinct reminder of his passion came with the very first game after taking on the Sydney Kings, when Paul thought the team would walk away with a win from their Adelaide opponents in the opening game of the season. Instead, they were blown off the court.
“I went back to the car with my two daughters, telling myself not to worry and that it was all fine, but when we got into the car, I couldn’t start it,” he says.
“I was shocked by what took place and realised that for me, team ownership wasn’t a simple business transaction – I genuinely cared.”
Paul’s sports administration career to date has earned him a place in the University of Canberra’s Sports Walk of Fame.
“To be joining 21 other inductees in the inaugural class of the UC Sports Walk of Fame only underscores the role UC has played in sport both in Australia and internationally,” he says.
As the University continues to build on its commitment to being a leader in sport education and research, Paul offers some sage advice for those keen to get into the industry.
“It’s a crazy business to be involved in, but it gets in your blood,” he says, recalling a big win for the Sydney Kings a few years ago.
“We had some young interns working for us, and they were there at the end of the night. I called them over and said ‘Just remember tonight – you get four or five of these in your life, but it's what makes you get out of bed in the morning and do the things you do, because you have moments like these, where it all comes together.’”
A reminder for Paul that he’s not quite ready to get off the wild ride he’s on. Not just yet.
Words by Emma Larouche, photo supplied.
Paul Smith is one of 22 alumni being inducted in the University of Canberra’s new Sports Walk of Fame, with plaques installed along the bridge between the Refectory and Sports Hall. Inductees include UC alumni who have contributed to sport and the industry as athletes, sports administrators, officials or coaches.