Sports Agents: Myths & Tactics

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In my last article, Closing Time for Agents, I wrote about how this time of the year is crucial to agents who are trying to land new players for the 2009 draft.

In this column, I want to address some specific tactics, mythical and factual, used by agents to convince players they have unique abilities that are unmatched in the industry.

MYTHS

An agent can get a player drafted, can get him drafted higher or can get the player to whatever team he wants.

Each team and the league collectively spend about $80 to $100 million a year on scouting and scouting-related expenses. NFL teams’ decision-makers don’t let agents dictate whom they should draft, or when they should be drafted, even if they’re Eli Manning and CAA. A general manager will rely on the information of his scouting director and area scouts, his coaches’ input, the owner’s wishes and his own gut instincts.

Many agents attempt to convince draftees that they have a magic formula for getting a player drafted higher than expected. They may try to sell a player on the notion that they’re better connected with NFL brass than their competition, which might lead to a higher draft slot. Not true.

The bottom line: An agent, regardless of his experience, clientele and reputation, cannot get a player drafted higher.

The best thing an agent can do to help a player raise his draft stock is provide him with the tools he needs to prepare for an all-star game, the NFL Combine and his pro day (a pro day is when scouts come to a player’s school to work him out). These tools consist of high-priced trainers, supplements, a nutritionist, equipment and comfortable living arrangements. They’re available to any agent with the resources to pay for them.

Hiring a large agency or a high-profile agent is a guarantee that a player will get a bigger contract, more endorsements and better treatment.

Simply not true. Bigger does not always mean better. I represented Packers OT Earl Dotson, who played at Texas A&M-Kingsville, in 1993. The player chosen one spot before Earl was safety John Lynch of Stanford, who was represented by “super agent” Leigh Steinberg, but I believe Earl received a better deal than John. There are countless examples like this year in and year out. Independent agents simply have to work harder but can put more time into a deal than their competition at a large firm.

Consider what these players have in common: Brett Favre (Bus Cook), Tom Brady (Don Yee), Brian Urlacher (Bryce Karger), Donovan McNabb (Fletcher Smith), Randy Moss (Tim DiPiero), Antonio Gates (Andre Colona), Al Harris (Jack Bechta) and Jared Allen (Ken Harris). They are all represented by small to mid-size agents. “Small to mid-size” usually means an independent agent with 5 to 30 players.

These players are among the NFL’s top endorsers and the highest paid at their respective positions, as well as some of the highest profile athletes in the game. Most of their agents grew their businesses and prospered as a result of having a player like Brett Farve, who was not a first round pick, as a client. Donald Yee had a nice practice going, but hitting on Tom Brady, a sixth-round pick, definitely made it easier for him to garner more high-profile clients. He’s done an excellent job for Tom as well.

The bottom line is: Players make agents, agents don’t make players.

In some cases, a big firm or agency might be beneficial to a player by getting him involved with endorsements or sponsors by tying the relationship to one of their major clients.

SIGNING TACTICS:

We can train you better than anyone else: This is where a firm might have an exclusive relation with a high profile-trainer and convince the player that their trainer is the best at what they do. Today, just about every agent has access to every trainer. However, there are a handful of agents and agencies that buy up the training slots at all the premier training centers.

The marketing guarantee: This is where the agent or agency will advance a player a certain sum of money, usually between $25,000 and $250,000, against future marketing dollars earned by the player. For example, if an agent advances a player $100,000, the agent will keep the first $100,000 in marketing dollars. The NFLPA frowns on this activity, but it still happens with few disclosures. Essentially, it is simply an inducement to sign.

The credit line: An agent will offer credit lines to draftees immediately upon signing. I’ve heard of lines being as high as $500,000. On average, they’re probably closer to $100,000-$200,000 for a potentially high draft pick.

The most I have personally loaned a player was about $25,000. Being an ex-financial consultant, I actually despise the fact that agents enable players to get into debt before the draft — and seven months before they receive their first check. By doing this, we are telling a player it’s OK to have debt and borrow money. So the agent community is guilty of encouraging players to spend money they haven’t earned yet.

The new car or SUV: Several agents have built their clientele by having a car, usually a tricked-out black Escalade, ready for them the same day they sign the standard representation agreement. It’s tough for a 22-year-old kid to say no to that. This practice is not as prevalent as it once was because too many agents have been burned co-signing for vehicles and weren’t paid back. The player may have totaled the car without insurance or changed agents and kept the vehicle.

As a matter of fact, I got a call after the 1998 draft from an offensive lineman named Melvin Thomas, a graduate of the University of Colorado who was upset after saying he had been misled by his agent. Melvin was angry that he had been drafted in the seventh round by the Eagles because he thought he would be a first- or second-round pick.

Unfortunately, Melvin had a defective knee, which red flagged him with all NFL teams. His agent at the time was Tank Black, who later went to jail for some shady dealings that I will write about later. Anyway, Melvin informed me he got a car from Tank, and the loan was in Tank’s name. Melvin was upset with Tank because he told Tank that his knee was bothering him and he wanted someone to look at it. He said Tank didn’t do much to help him. He also told me that Tank had called him before the draft to assure him that he would go in the first or second round. None of that happened, and Melvin spent one season with the Eagles trying to rehab his knee.

About a month after the draft, Tank called me and asked if I could help get his SUV back or encourage Melvin to pay for it. Needless to say, I told Tank that he was on his own, and Melvin told him to “go #*&%@ himself.” Melvin’s career never got off the ground, but he did ride into the sunset in a free SUV, courtesy of Mr. Black.

I want make a point that agents at big, medium and small firms can all do an excellent job for their clients. It’s really the agents’ intelligence, style, knowledge and experience that matter most. Also, not all agents use inducements to sign clients. Within the industry, we all know who the guilty parties are — and we know who the ethical ones are, too.

The NFLPA has incorporated a lot of language into their “Code of Conduct,” but it has little teeth to enforce the policy because it requires a player to blow the whistle, and none of them wants to.

<p> The majority of states also have legislation, but once again they don’t allocate any resources to enforce the laws. So the tactics continue, and draftees continue to make bad decisions.

On a personal note, I want to state that the purpose of these columns is not to be self-serving but to give the general public and readers of The National Football Post an honest and detailed look behind the scenes of the agent business.

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