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Two paths to becoming an agent

Law school or grad school: What’s the best route? Jack Bechta

Print This June 30, 2009, 11:09 AM EST

Anyone looking to work in sports -- whether as an agent, a salary cap manager or a front office executive -- must first decide how they’re going to get there.

I’m going to tell you the two most important things you will need to have a career as an agent or in professional sports. But first, let me tell you how I got there.

The question I’m most frequently asked about my career is, “How did you become an agent?” The assumption is that I started with law school. I didn’t. Grad school? Nope. Did I major in sports management? Negative.

I simply called up the NFL Players Association, got a certification form, filled it out and sent it back with a check. Two weeks later, my certificate arrived and I was a certified NFL agent. Unfortunately, I didn’t know how to negotiate a contract or get clients, and there was no one to learn from.

I was, however, 23 years old, hungry, competitive, employed by an investment banking firm and heavily credentialed with all my investment licenses. I even had real estate and insurance licenses. I saw myself as a “one-stop shop” for all pro athletes’ professional needs. I also played football at a small but powerful football school, Texas A&I University (now Texas A&M-Kingsville), which produced a steady stream of NFL prospects, including the late Gene Upshaw.

For a young guy, I was making decent money, had a brand new car and owned three suits. At the very least, I looked the part. I called my agency the Horizon Sports Group and got some business cards and stationary to promote my venture.

My initial motivation in becoming an agent was to enhance my investment business. I got tired of reading about pro athletes going broke and getting scammed out of their hard-earned money. I set out with a goal of negotiating players’ contracts for free, thus saving them money, and giving them proper guidance on the financial side. That was my plan.

I remained close to the A&I football program. I asked a few seniors if I could represent them, and eventually a few said yes. The first three clients I had all got cut and never made it. The fourth, Mike Dyal, a tight end with the Raiders, not only made it but became a starter in his second year. That same year, he referred me to Derrick Gainer, a sixth-round running back who didn’t have an agent. It took me two years, but I finally had two real clients. Business was up and running.

I eventually started charging my clients because I didn’t want them to feel compelled to invest with me. I also weaned myself from the financial business and committed to becoming a full-time agent. I did it with little guidance or outside help. I just pulled out a machete and cut my way through the agent jungle and built my business into one of the largest independent boutique agencies in the industry.

I did it without law school, without grad school, without an internship and without working for another agent. I just went for it and leveraged my skill set and my training with E.F. Hutton, including the credentials I obtained while working there. Actually, my time in the investment business prepared me extremely well for the agent business.

So the question is: “What’s the best route to becoming an agent, a front office executive or a salary cap manager?” The truth is that you can get there several ways.

Law school

There’s no doubt that law school is a plus if you want to become an agent or land a job in sports. I scanned the bios of the top 10 agents and found that eight had attended law school. However, to my knowledge, only one has actually practiced law, and it was for a very brief time.

I also found several agents with clienteles larger than mine who never attended law school. In addition, there are many agents who work for agencies in which at least one other agent in the firm has a law degree.

When I’m asked by a prospective client if I’m a lawyer, I proudly say no. I tell him that I have an attorney on retainer and the Players Association has a team of lawyers in place to support us. Additionally, NFL contracts are pretty much standardized, and many of the GMs I deal with are not attorneys either. There’s very little in the way of actual contract writing with the exception of endorsement deals. Believe it or not, the skill set, language and terms in NFL contracts and negotiations are unique to our business. The same can be said for MLB, the NBA and the NHL.

I do think the advantage of going to law school or being an attorney is that you may develop a trained eye to catch small but important contract details that might not be in the best interests of your client.

Back in the early ‘90s, a Chargers first-round pick hired an attorney to do his deal. The attorney, who had never negotiated an NFL deal before, took the standard NFL contract and tried to rewrite it to his own specifications. Bobby Beathard, the GM at the time, didn’t even read it and told the attorney that they would never agree to anything but the standard NFL contract. The seasoned attorney held his ground through the start of camp and insisted on using his modified version of the contract. Bobby refused to budge, and eventually the standard contract was used.

There aren’t many law schools that have professors who have actually negotiated pro sports contracts. Those that do are the ones you may want to consider. Actually, several agents, both active and retired, are currently teaching at a handful of law schools around the country.

I strongly believe that every pro athlete should have a practicing transactional attorney in their corner to handle property sales and purchases, investment oversight, formulation of trust, wills and LLCs, prenuptials and other needs that high-income earners may have.

The irony of the attorney-agent is that agents who have gone to law school rarely provide these services. They usually farm them out for an additional fee to the client. I know of a few agents with fewer than six clients who currently practice law and provide these services. However, if their agency businesses grow, they won’t have time to continue.

If you want to become an agent, law school is not a must but will definitely help your cause and give you some credibility with players and their families. For me, I emphasize that my business degree and experience as a well-trained and seasoned investment advisor will be more of an asset to the long term financial well being of my clients. It works for me.

In part two, I’ll discuss another option to becoming a sports agent: grad school and sports management programs.

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