In our latest ‘Sport Industry Insider Meets…’ Sir Keith Mills discusses his storied career in sports governance. Such is Sir Keith’s body of work, we’ve decided that two parts are required . In Part I, Sir Keith talks sitting on Tottenham’s board, winning and hosting the London 2012 Olympics and launching the Invictus Games with Prince Harry.
I went from Tottenham’s terraces to the board room.
One of my earliest sporting memories is going to White Hart Lane with my uncle. Those days it was quite intimidating because everyone was standing and as a 12-year-old I wasn’t that large. Having never been to an actual live sporting event let alone a football match, the noise and the passion of the fans really hit me and from that moment onwards I was a Spurs fan. Fortunately, as it was the early 1960s, Tottenham were also probably the best team in the country. Many years later I became a club director and it was something I was immensely proud of. I’ll never forget my first game as a director, walking to White Hart Lane in my suit and then sitting in the directors’ box next to the chairman watching the match. Pretty amazing.
The new Tottenham Hotspur Stadium is magnificent, one of the world’s best.
I had 10 years as a director at Spurs and of course the biggest achievement was the early stage planning of the new stadium. We looked at lots of options including perhaps taking over Wembley or the Olympic Stadium, plus exploring other sites in London. The Olympic Stadium would have been a massive compromise given the location and while building our own brand new stadium has, and will, put a lot of pressure on the club’s finances, it was the right decision. The fans are rightly over the moon. I went to the first match at the new Tottenham Hotspur Stadium and that was quite emotional; to know that I played some part in building one of the world’s greatest stadiums is a source of great pride.
When we launched London’s Olympic bid, only 48% of people wanted the Games.
Given how well London 2012 was eventually received by the public, people are usually surprised by this figure. That was part of the bid process, part of my job as chief executive of that process, to convince the people of London and the UK to get behind us. That figure became 80% by the end of the bid process but there is often still skepticism – that it will be over-budget, or delivered late, or a disaster.
I think the moment I knew we were on to something good was when the Olympic torch first came to British soil. [Four-time Olympic gold medalist] Ben Ainslie, a good friend of mine, was the first to carry the torch, from Land’s End to Plymouth. We went through tiny little villages and towns, and the crowds that day just built and built. Men, women and children of all ages; the atmosphere was unbelievable. When we got to Plymouth there were 55,000 people and from that moment onwards I knew we really had the country behind us. It was a brilliant day.
People were nervous on the day the Olympic host city was announced.
But myself and Seb Coe [Olympic bid ambassador and current IAAF chairman] had such belief that we would win. We were actually quite chilled. The announcement was in Singapore back in 2005 and I was sitting in Tony Blair’s vacated hotel suite with a bunch of my team – the likes of Steve Redgrave, Jonathan Edwards and Dennis Lewis. It had been a two-year bid process so you can imagine the emotions. Knowing the best part of a billion people around the world were watching and knowing the impact of that decision.
We assembled a fantastic team of people and it was a great achievement, especially considering we were up against an amazing line-up in Paris, New York, Moscow and Madrid. I asked a number of the IOC members afterwards why they thought we won, and they told us that generally they thought we wanted it more than anyone else. Literally that we tried harder. We had a real vision for a games around inspiring the next generation and I think that came across. All the cities had very credible bids, great venues, but when you’re bidding for something like the Olympic Games you’ve got to win IOC hearts and minds. Fortunately we managed to do that.
I’m proud of the London 2012 legacy.
Winning, planning and hosting the Olympics was an extraordinary 10-year journey. All of those who were part of it have stayed very close because it was a unique experience to share. We’re all very proud of how it turned out. Legacy was of course always firmly on our minds and I think as well as a great physical legacy in east London, we also left a legacy of changed perceptions of disabled athletes with the Paralympics, and a substantial economic legacy of billions of pounds.
It was incredibly successful and I honestly think that while London is rightly praised, it is achievable in any host city if they go about it the right way. For that to happen you need a special relationship between the organisers and the government (both city, and local). In Rio and Athens, for example, I don’t think that relationship was there and many arguments happened. In London, we didn’t have any of that. The Local Organising Committee (LOCOG) and the Olympic Delivery Authority (ODA) were housed in the same building. We were always on the same page and it shows if you execute things properly they can be phenomenally successful.
My knighthood came as a huge surprise.
I remember around the time of the London 2012 bid I had a call from some chap at Downing Street asking for me to send a list of people in my team that should be considered for a national honour. I had 110 people in my team and told him I wanted them all but eventually we decided on around 15. I put those people forward and gave their addresses – obviously I didn’t put my own name down! I didn’t think anything more of it and shortly after I got a letter from Downing Street saying that the Prime Minister and the Queen wanted to award me a knighthood if I was happy to accept it. I had my day at Buckingham Palace with my family and it was of course very memorable.
Then after the Olympic Games, I had another letter from Downing Street, this time asking whether I’d be prepared to accept a Knight Grand Cross. They only give out one or two per year and I actually just read that the Duchess of Cambridge is to be made a Dame Grand Cross this year. I received my second knighthood at Windsor Castle from the Queen, which was amazing. Of course it is very nice to be recognised – particularly when it is for something that was for the benefit of the country rather than benefiting yourself. Honestly, I don’t really use the title – though admittedly it can sometimes be quite helpful to get a table at a restaurant!
When Prince Harry called me for coffee, I knew he had a big idea.
That was the start of another exciting sporting chapter in my life: The Invictus Games. I went to see him at Kensington Palace and he described to me how he had closely followed the recovery of some wounded soldiers he’d returned home from Afghanistan with. Some of them competed in a small event in Colorado called the Warrior Games and it had a massive impact on Prince Harry. He wanted to do something similar on a bigger scale, which is where I came in.
He asked me if I thought it was doable and if I did, would I be prepared to help him. I remember I was going on holiday the next day. Needless to say I spent almost my entire holiday on the telephone, rounding up some of my London 2012 friends with the not always appealing opening line of: “There’s no money in it but would you help me put together a multi-sport competition in the Olympic Park?” We had no money, no brand and no supporters. But then nine months later we had the Invictus Games.
The margins for success in sport and business are often so small.
When we were organising Invictus, I remember saying to Prince Harry, “You need to have a cup of tea with [then-Mayor of London] Boris Johnson. Tell him your vision and ask him if he can provide all the Olympic venues for free. He’ll say yes and then he’ll probably ask you for a favour.” That was the deal breaker really – if we’d had to pay for the venues, the Invictus Games, wouldn’t have happened. Now we’ve had events in London, the US, Canada, Australia, and next year we will be in The Hague in Holland. It was a turning point.
When I put together the Nectar customer loyalty program in the UK, the key decision was whether we could persuade Sainsbury’s to be one of our anchor partners. If they said no, we wouldn’t have launched. But they signed a £500m pound contract and Nectar is still here. Generally there are one or two factors or moments that become the catalyst for success. If you haven’t got those things in place, generally speaking it is not going to work.
The Princes are genuine sports fans.
They both recognise its power to reach people. Harry is more of a rugby fan and William more a football man but their love of sport really is across the board. Working on Invictus with Harry was a brilliant experience. He’s a terrific guy and we now have the Invictus Games Foundation which I still chair. I also chair the Royal Foundation so I work with the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and the Duke and Duchess of Sussex; all four of them are great to work with. They’re really trying hard to use their position to improve the world. It’s a privilege for me to work alongside them trying to make things happen.
Sport has taken me all over the world, but London 2012 is still the highlight.
I’m a big sailing fan and was in Bermuda for the last America’s Cup when, for the first time in a long time, we had a really great British team led by Ben Ainslie – a team that I put together. That was great to be a part of. I remember also going to the Super Bowl in Pasadena about 25 years ago for the Dallas Cowboys against the Buffalo Bills – that was a real spectacle. Last year I went to Augusta for The Masters. That first Invictus Games – actually every Invictus Games. The way in which these wounded guys compete and perform is truly breathtaking. I’ve been really privileged to go to some spectacular events but the opening ceremony at the Olympic Games in London still holds such a special place. To be central to something that three-and-a-half billion people are watching is pretty amazing; it is a moment I will never forget.