Agent games exposed

The furor raised by the cover story in Sports Illustrated – a firsthand account by Josh Luchs (an agent I don't remember dealing with in 9 years negotiating contracts for the Packers) of paying college players – starts to uncover the facts about representing NFL players.

How to become an NFL agent

There are few barriers to entry to becoming a certified football agent. Some financial investment is required yet little in the way of professional experience.

The application fee to the NFL Players Association is $1650, followed by an annual fee of $1200 for nine or fewer clients and $1700 for ten or more clients. Also, agents are now required to maintain mandatory liability insurance, which costs from $1750 upwards depending on the agent's revenues the prior year.

Prospective agents must have a graduate degree and pass an exam to become certified, with basic questions on negotiating player contracts, the Cap and NFL economics. On average, 70% of the applicants pass, although this year it was just over 60%, with under 160 of the 255 that took the exam passing and becoming certified.

The stark numbers

With the new crop passing the exam, there are now 825 agents certified with the NFL Players Association. Almost half of these agents have no clients and 20% of all NFL agents represent 70% of all NFL players. With groups like CAA and Rosenhaus Sports representing over 100 players each, it is easy to see how the numbers are skewed.

How does an inexperienced agent or someone working for that agent get the attention of a top college football player? Without a natural point of entry, cash is a common way to get an agent on the radar; beyond that he has to sell himself and/or continue making payments to the player and/or family members. With so many agents and so few players at the top, college players can hold their hands out to be filled with cash. Many do.

As a team negotiator, I could usually infer when an agent was owed a lot of money. I would rarely ask them directly, but saw signs when agents wanted to do a quick and early contract, when they complained about the “herd” – friends, family members, girlfriends, wives, others – in the ear of the client, and when they expressed exasperation about how much time and money they had invested in the client.

Having been an agent several years prior to switching sides to join the Packers – when Ricky Williams left me to join the new agency of Master P – I understood the appeal. The thrill of the chase and the rush from recruiting a top player or negotiating a big deal can be addictive. The lows, however, are quite low and sometimes – as Luchs described – part of a vicious cycle of trying to curry favor in any way possible.

All agents that I talk with have the same view of the present state of the agent industry: it is slimy and only getting worse. I ask why they stay in it and I usually hear about it being worth it to have some quality clients, the rush of it, etc.

Role of union leadership

Former Executive Director Gene Upshaw had little to do with agents, aside from his own agent Tom Condon (CAA), and his staff was forever pointing out that it was the collective agent, the union, that was responsible for the riches of NFL players more than the individual agents. New Executive Director DeMaurice Smith has communicated with a select group of agents through conference calls, but little information is shared other than advising them to counsel their players to save their earnings towards a potential lockout.

Although Smith has earlier said that he would discipline agents that run afoul with NCAA schools, he would rather not deal with the problem. His focus, like Upshaw’s before him, is on the players: if doing something good for them (like lowering agent fees) hurts the agents, so be it.

Rookie wage scale will not stop problem

Finally, some have suggested that a rookie wage scale will go a long way to stopping the problem, with the lesser payout to rookies changing the environment. Well, uh, no.

Neither the NFLPA lowering the maximum fees charged by agents from 5% to 4% to 3% nor the increase in annual dues paid to the union by agents has slowed the rush of agents to college campuses, and neither will a wage scale. The lure of the industry is seductive to young men fueled by adrenaline, sometimes good funding and the rush of being around the game.

So you still want to be an agent?

To those who ask about the best way to become an agent, I say: “Be college roommates with a first-round draft pick.”

I advise them to pursue something else first – law, business, etc. – before transitioning into the agent business. And perhaps the NFLPA the union will elevate barriers to entry such as a requirement for some experience in business, law or sports management.

Josh Luchs and Sports Illustrated shined the light on a dark business.

Follow me on Twitter at adbrandt.

Want to work in the NFL? Click here to register for the NFP’s “Chalk Talk” seminar in Chicago on October 22nd.

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