In the second part of Sport Industry Insider Meets… Sir Keith Mills, he discusses his America’s Cup dream and how he is trying to change lives through sport with the Sported charity. 

Part I – focusing on the 2012 London Olympics and the Invictus Games – can be read here

The America’s Cup is my sporting Everest.

I first got involved in professional yacht racing when, as an amateur, I did the Clipper Round the World Yacht Race in 1998. It was a crewed race, so we had a professional skipper, 10 amateur crew and eight boats – racing around the world, which we won. Alex Thompson was a very young skipper of our team and I took Alex under my wing after the race and set up Alex Thomson Racing with him, which we still have today, sponsored by Hugo Boss. Alex is probably the world’s leading ocean racer now and competes in major events like the Vendee Globe and all of the major ocean races.

On that trip around the world I took a couple of books with me, and one was a book written about the life of a guy called Sir Thomas Lipton, of Lipton’s Tea. He set out to try and win the America’s Cup. It is the oldest sporting trophy in the world; it started in 1851 and since 1851 we’ve been trying to win it. It’s an amazing story. Lipton spent 30 years and massive amounts of money trying to lead a British team to victory in the America’s Cup and he actually competed himself on a number of occasions. But he ultimately came up short and we still haven’t bloody won the thing.

When I came back from that trip, I started taking a big interest in the America’s Cup and watched, in 2003, a pretty pathetic event down in New Zealand where we didn’t do very well at all. We didn’t compete in the 2007 event, but I spent a lot of time in Valencia at the 2007 event and off the back of that put together a team with Ben Ainslie, Ian Percy and Andrew Simpson, who has sadly since died. We put together three of our greatest Olympic sailors and I’ve been attached to the America’s Cup ever since really. Ben is now working with a new sponsor called INEOS and the next America’s Cup is in March 2021. I genuinely think based on the foundations that we put down that he has an exceptional chance. He’s very well-funded and has some great talent. This might just be the year that we finally win the America’s Cup after 70 odd years.

Ben Ainslie is right up there with the world’s best athletes.

I think he falls in the category of the likes of a Roger Federer or Michael Schumacher – great sportsmen who have an extraordinary single-minded dedication to win. They don’t take any prisoners and are consummate competitors. Beyond Ben, Clive Woodward made a huge impression on me. Clive was obviously England manager when they won the 2003 Rugby World Cup and if you listen to him speak, he has an extraordinary ability to galvanize a team. As a manager in sport, he is amazing. Those two individuals I know well and, despite their profile, both are very modest.

Sports governance is about passion before anything else.

If you don’t love sport, or at least enjoy it, I think you will be found out quite quickly. You don’t need necessarily to be an Olympian or an elite sportsman yourself. Still, I’ve come across successful people who don’t have that passion. I remember my first event with Ken Livingstone, who was then the Mayor of London, about two weeks after I started as the CEO of the London 2012 bid. We went to talk to a large group of journalists who had come to London for a conference and the first words Ken spoke were “I hate sport”. That went down really well with a bunch of sports journalists! But I have to say Ken was still passionate about the city because he saw the potentially transformative impact it could have on his city.  

It’s also important that you are not involved in sports governance for the money. Very few people make large amounts of money in sport. If you’re really looking for a career for financial gain, there are many other careers you could pursue rather than sport. Clearly there are a few people in sport who make substantial amounts of money but they are few and far between. It’s all about the love of sport.

I came close to becoming Premier League chairman.

We had quite a long of conversation several years ago about me chairing the Premier League but eventually agreed amicably that it wasn’t really going to be for me. They eventually made Richard Scudamore, who was then CEO, executive chairman. Looking back, I’m pleased I didn’t do that.

The 2018 World Cup bid was a total stitch up.

I was involved for the last round of the bidding with FIFA and it was frankly a disgrace. I started off as a board member of the World Cup bid team and then a number of us stepped down; it became pretty obvious towards the end that it was heading to Russia and we probably should have withdrawn. But all these things are good experiences. My advice to anyone when these opportunities arise is to give it a go. When I got involved in the Olympic bid, I knew absolutely nothing about the Olympic Games. In fact when I went home and told my wife that I had been asked to run London’s bid for the 2012 games she couldn’t stop laughing. But that went pretty well!

Sport can help tackle London’s knife crime problem.  

When we were bidding for the Olympics, we put some basic community sports program into the boroughs in East London around the Olympic Park. These were quite troubled boroughs, whose young people had difficult lives. We spent less than £100,000 on some coaches, kit and facilities for grassroots sport. I was astonished to learn a year or so later that street crime had dropped about 25% simply because we got young people off the streets and into sport. That experience persuaded Seb Coe and I to build the bid and the Olympic Games themselves around the premise of inspiring a generation through sport.

I set up a charity called Sported 10 years ago that helps 3,250 community sports clubs all across the UK, and another called International Inspiration that does the same sort of thing across 20 countries around the world. You see the way in which sport can engage young people, particularly disadvantaged young people, and transform their lives.

It’s something that I’m passionate about, and I spend as much time as I can persuading as many people as possible – in government and out of government – that we should invest more money in community sport. In the UK, and London in particular, there has been a lot of press coverage about knife crime and violent crime at the moment. I have no doubt that engaging young people in sport – getting them off the streets and into a boxing ring or on to a judo mat or playing a game of football – is a much better way to turn their lives round than locking them up in prison.

Middle East sport has grown tremendously in recent years.

My movements in the region are generally event driven, so when things are happening in the Middle East I often get asked to come and provide advice or assistance. There are some great international competitions there, from golf to tennis. And of course, in 2022 the World Cup will come to Qatar. The Middle East certainly has some unique challenges, not least the weather, which has obviously proved a challenge for the World Cup. I know one of the issues that many rights holders have in bringing events to the Middle East is whether they’re going to get the level of spectator support necessary, and whether they are going to get enough volunteers locally to make it work. But generally I think sport is improving dramatically in the region and I think in the last 10-15 years, the sporting landscape has changed beyond recognition. It’s now a really viable proposition for lots of major sporting events.