I love the free agency period because I get to do the business things I love best; negotiating, deal making, adding value, and fulfilling clients’ fiscal security. It’s not always a rewarding and fun time for the agent or the player as things don’t always go as planned. However, sometimes they go even better than planned.
As I thought, this free-agent period has been slightly more active than the previous two years but nowhere near the glory days of the previous CBA. Today’s team execs are looking more for shorter-term deals, trying to get younger as a team and are more conscientious to public scrutiny for printing a bad deal. Therefore, they are taking less risk with their owner’s money.
In my 27 years as an agent here are some of things I learned about free agency that hasn’t and most likely will never change:
The best deals get done the day before, and/or after free agency: In any negotiation, it’s good to have a deadline to give both sides a sense of urgency. It usually never makes sense to do the deal too early. The best deals happen for a player when fear of losing that player sets in for the organization.
Both sides constantly bluff each other: Although agents, GMs, and cap mangers have personally grown close over the years on a social level, we still look each other in the eye (or via text, email, phone) and bluff our *butts off. The team makes statements like “we are ready to move on if you don’t take this offer”, “If he can get that $$ with another team, we wish him luck”, or, “Well if he doesn’t want it to be us then we will find somebody who does”.
From the agent, “I have five teams interested in my client and the list is growing fast”, “If you don’t sign him back your division rival will and you will see him twice a year” and/or, “The offer is offensive and I don’t even want to show it to my client”. It’s a constant volley of recycled statements until somebody makes a serious move.
The side with the most conviction usually wins out. As does the side that is truly ready to walk away. The reality is, that when both sides get uncomfortable, meaning they go above and below their prospective contract goal, a deal is usually struck.
You better have plan B in stone: Both agents and teams have learned the hard way that over playing your hand and/or your bluff can cost you. For the player/agent, if the team calls your bluff and lets you test the market and you don’t already have a plan B (another team/deal) in place, the market dollars for your client can shrink quickly. Thus, accepting a deal below what the current team offered you.
In addition, teams may put out multiple offers at once to several players of the same position and pull the others once one is accepted. So a good agent will sense this and not count on any prospective offer.
On the team side, if they let one of their own premier players walk to free agency, their plan B player better be on a plane to their facility the first hour/day of free agency.
Some teams don’t like their plan B options available in the market place so they may be stuck paying more for their potential free agent. That’s a perfect situation that agents covet of course. When a team thinks they can fill a large void in the draft or in free agency and it doesn’t work out, that particular team just went backwards in talent level. Additionally, sometimes they have to overpay for a player they really didn’t even want but they realized they don’t want to take a risk and “hope” that a draft pick just works out and replaces their starter they just lost.
The pro personnel director is so valuable to a team because they can identify young upcoming talent that may have been just a role player or backup for another team.
Listen to the market, not your ego (or client sometimes): The free agent period can be a testy time for both sides. The salary cap manager is trying to appease his GM, head coach, position coach, fan base and owner. The agent is trying to make his clients fiscal dream come true while the media, the players union and his competitors watch with scrutiny.
Over the last three years the pendulum has swung in favor or the teams when it comes to knowing the market place and price tags for positions and players. There is actually a growing concern by the players union that teams are colluding and price fixing veteran salaries.
Most agents don’t really trust each other so the exchange of information is limited. Sometimes the free agent market can move so quickly it’s like an invisible game of musical chairs. Meaning there may be only four premium contracts available for a left tackle but there are ten free agents (and their agents) thinking they are going to get one of them. So agents really have to rely on experience and intuition and know when to pull the trigger on a deal.
For teams, a head coach, owner, and/or GM can get really emotional and defensive when an agent is making lofty demands. Coaches are competitive as are many GMs and they can just shut down a negotiation because they are in a bad mood and want to send a personal message to the agent.
For agents, some just can't let go of the value they projected for our players and if they didn’t get it we just keep trying to sell it. In the meantime, cap dollars are getting depleted and teams associate time spent on the market as a growing discount. Also, agents can easily paint themselves into a corner by promising their clients riches in free agency. So when it doesn’t materialize their ego gets in the way of trying to make it happen and just won’t listen to what the market is saying. Players will also keep reminding their agents what other players have received believing they should get the same or better. Some agents don’t have the courage to tell them the market is not valuing them as they thought and it’s time to do a deal before the market dollars shrink even further.
Who can you trust? For agents and team execs, it sometimes just comes down to who you trust the most. Even for players. If A GM tells me he has a deal at X dollars for my player I really have to trust that team and its execs that they will follow through. If I don’t trust them enough then I won't count on the deal as being a real option. The team side can say the reciprocal about the agent.
As free agency steadily unfolds, some things rarely change.
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