Industry Insider returns once again and we’ve got a really special edition for you! We sat down with Oliver Gage, Director of Football at the Canadian Premier League!
Tell us about yourself, what is your current role and what roles have you done previously?
Hi, my name is Oliver Gage and I’m currently the Director of Football at the Canadian Premier League. My previous roles in football have included being the first-team analyst at Sheffield Wednesday, the University of Virginia and Houston Dynamo in MLS. During my time in Houston, I transitioned into technical recruitment and became more active in playing methodology which ultimately led to my role at the Canadian Premier League.
What do you do in your current role?
My role is multi-faceted, and as you can imagine with a league only three-years-old, there are a lot of opportunities, challenges and situations which arise almost daily. That, in itself, is perhaps one of the best parts of the job. To provide a basic overview, I work with our clubs and ownership groups on infrastructure, technology and player recruitment, in addition to sales and training compensation too. I also lead the football department in providing opposition analysis when we play external opponents in cup competitions and we also regularly produce post-game benchmark reporting for our clubs. We try to implement the best practice for our players and clubs to ensure the league continues to develop on an upwards trajectory at every level.
“Normal” isn’t a thing in sport so what does an “average” week look like for you?
To build on my previous outline, one thing I would add is the early mornings and late nights on calls in different time zones to help our clubs build networks around the world and add to our player recruitment. We also aid ownership groups with any coaching changes they may want to make and building relationships with other owners to gain invaluable insight into how things might be done differently elsewhere. There is a lot of good work which goes on behind the scenes at clubs and leagues alike, and we’re proud of the foundations we’ve put in place for the Canadian Premier League to grow.
How did you end up where you are right now? When did you know you wanted to work in sport?
I’m the son of former professional player Kevin Gage, but ironically, he has had nothing at all to do with my professional journey. I’ve always wanted to work in football, although I was probably more passionate about the technical and analytical side of the game than I was about being a professional player myself. I came to the USA to play on a scholarship and when I returned home, I contacted an old friend who worked at Sheffield Wednesday in the academy for some advice. A few days later he called me and told me the first team needed an intern. Previous experience wasn’t an issue, they just wanted someone who ‘knew the game’ and wouldn’t be uncomfortable around the players. I was incredibly lucky with the timing of it all.
From there, I really just threw everything I had into being the best analyst I could be. I would spend hours reading blogs and watching videos – I’m almost 100% self-taught. My wife and I made the decision to return to the USA, so I applied for a role at the University of Virginia – the university is one of the biggest teams at that level in the country. Claudio Reyna, John Harkes and some other incredible players began their career there – Daryl Dike did very well last year at Barnsley. We won the National Championships during my time there and eventually Houston approached me to come and work with them, and before long, I was contacted by the Canadian Premier League to be a part of an exciting, forward thinking project: the creation of a whole new league.
What is your number one focus when it comes to your work?
Infrastructure, planning and clear decision-making processes. Every good club is built on solid foundations and I’m a firm believer that you should be ‘maxed out’ behind the scenes before the solution to a problem is to buy a new player. Having clear structures to evaluate performances, long-term trends and make decisions on player recruitment and sales will inevitably help you when the pressure dial is turned up and you are playing games week in, week out.
Can you tell us about a time you failed and what you learned from it?
I think the thing I regret the most is the progress I could have made with my Spanish and I should have applied greater dedication outside of working hours. I started briefly at Houston when we were provided a few lessons by the club, but when those stopped, I told myself I would continue on my own and did so for a while. I then sometimes made excuses like: ‘I’m too busy’, and I never got back into it and really regret it now. I’ve started again recently, but I’m behind where I should be.
The takeaway is that you never know when you’re going to need something and you have to stay disciplined, proactive and be continuously looking to develop yourself both professionally and personally. What if tomorrow I need to meet with a Spanish-speaking player or club? Being able to effectively communicate is my responsibility and it’s important to be constantly improving your skillset. It’s always been drilled into me that you must do the hard work early to reap the rewards later.
What are you excited about in your industry at the moment?
Football is slowly starting to becoming more forward thinking in the sense there has been a gradual shift away from hiring former players at more senior levels on the technical side of things in the game. Of course, there are some brilliant and very smart ex-players occupying these roles, but not having that playing career background shouldn’t count against you when I think in the past it has been something decision makers have been influenced by.
A friend of mine – Lucy Rushton – was named as general manager of DC United. Lucy has really bucked the trend in terms of gender and not being a former player, and it’s just incredible to see and a real step forward. She’s brilliant at what she does and fully deserves it. Lucy is just an example of that fact we’re starting to see a shift in thinking at the ownership level with regards to the suitability of candidates for these roles.
If you could change one thing about your Industry, what would you change?
Football is great and so rewarding, but if I had to apply this question to myself, I would probably reconsider the work-life balance which can exist in the industry. I think the pandemic has helped a lot of people to ask themselves some hard questions about their career and where it fits into their life overall. There is really no off switch when it comes to football as it is not only a fast-moving industry, but one which plays such a huge role in people’s lives. Late-night calls and weekends are standard practice for most in sport, and if you try to draw a hard line and your phone is switched off at the weekend, then that’s going to be your problem and nobody else’s. Reconsidering that culture may not only improve people’s personal lives, but contribute positively to the work output, too.
Sport is a hectic industry, what do you do to switch off?
I don’t have much of a life away from football as I’d perhaps like to have, but I truly believe that is how things are when something is an absolute passion of yours. That said, in my down time I’m usually watching Sheffield United on a Saturday morning, or spending time with my young son and wife.
What is the one piece of advice you would give to someone wanting to work in the sports industry?
Be humble, especially in the field of analysis and analytics. A lot of people come in – and I was a bit guilty of this myself in the early days – and act like anything that isn’t supported by what they know or think must be wrong. It’s really important to listen to people who have been in the game for a long time as there’s so much to learn from them, as well those coming into things with a fresh, innovative outlook – try to make it go both ways, often a lot of coaches are more open to learning about your world than you would think.
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