Just follow the money

If there’s one point that should be patently obvious reading these columns on the Business of Football, it’s this: follow the money. Whenever there’s a question about why something happens in sports, as in business, the answer usually revolves around the bottom line. It’s simplistic and crass and, yes, also true. Indeed, my favorite line from press conferences after athletes sign their new contracts is when they say, “It’s not about the money.” Translation: “It’s all about the money.”

The latest example involves someone I know well as a friend and a person who, like all of us, has his strengths and weaknesses, his attractions and insecurities. One year ago, on June 20, he was told, “We’ve moved on” by the team for which he was the signature player for more than a decade. Since then, the divorce from the Packers and a one-year marriage with the Jets ensued, from which there was a mutual separation. Now the Minnesota Vikings, the team he wanted to play for a year ago, are in the picture, wanting him to play quarterback while their erstwhile starter competitors – Tarvaris Jackson and Sage Rosenfels — twist in the upper Midwest wind.

The dalliance and dancing between the Vikings and Favre has been going on for weeks, with the media and fans in fatigue mode by now. However, the issues presented as the reasons for the holdup have all been secondary.

The issue has been painted as medical. Brett has had surgery and can play. Not an issue.

The issue has been painted as whether Brett wants to play. Of course he does (there’s only so much grass to cut and deer to shoot). He wanted to play every year he contemplated retirement, he wanted to play in retirement and he wants to play now. Not an issue.

The issue has been painted as whether he wants to “get back” at the Packers. Of course he does. The Packers “moved on” without him when he wanted his seat back at the table and felt he deserved it. Not an issue.

The issue has been painted as whether the Vikings – or anyone else – want him to play. They did last year and they do now. Not an issue.

All of these issues have been widely reported but are secondary. As said here before, the only issue that matters is the level of courtship by the Vikings – and how to measure this “woo factor.” You guessed it. Follow the money.

In this case, it’s how the money is structured and who takes the risk.

Favre is a free agent for the first time in his career. In the contract I negotiated with him in 2001, he was due to make $13 million in 2009, the ninth year of a 10-year, $101-million deal. That contract was terminated when the Jets waived Brett from the reserve/retired list a few weeks ago, making him a player without a contract. Thus, a negotiation with the Vikings has and continues to be an (the) issue.

The Vikings are one of the best salary-cap-managed teams in the NFL, with reams of cap room rolled over from previous years. Cap room is not an issue, meaning they can offer Favre millions of dollars of LTBE (likely to be earned) bonuses that count against the cap but do not become real cash unless and until they are earned. These bonuses can come from a list that includes, but is not limited to:

Playing Time Percentage

Completion Percentage

<p>Touchdowns

Yardage

Wins

Playoff Wins

Super Bowl Win

Team Improvements

Top 10/5 in Conference/NFL

All of these, of course, depend on performance. What Brett and his agent, Bus Cook, want would be to limit the amount of the contract allotted to these performance clauses and to maximize the amount of contract in the form of guaranteed earnings no matter what the level of performance. This, of course, is what every agent wants out of every contract.

In this case, the “guarantee” issue is not as prevalent. Once Favre steps on the field for his first practice, he is virtually “guaranteed” to make whatever the salary amount is for 2009. The Vikings are not going to cut him, and if he were to have a season-ending injury for the first time in his career, he will obviously be paid his full amount while injured. So the issue is more about what number goes into salary and roster bonus and what numbers go into performance incentives.

Contracts are all about risk allotment and leverage. The Vikings may want to have Favre take the risk of earning these monies, giving him the possibility of earning far more than the $13M he would have made in pure salary under the old contract. Cook may be trying to get that $13M paid to Brett simply by him showing up and worrying about incentives from there. Therein lies the rub.

The reason the smoke signals have been so mixed and intermittent on this Favre-Vikings courtship appears to have been there all along, just beneath the surface of all the stories about things that were not at issue – wanting to play, the shoulder, the Vikings’ interest, etc. Just follow the money.

A blind eye

Thirteen years ago Tuesday, I delivered my earliest draft-pick contract ever, first rounder Jermane Mayberry. The deal is still paying dividends in an unusual way.

After the Eagles drafted Jermane, an offensive lineman, my phones wouldn’t stop ringing with calls from the familiar 215 Philly area code. I assumed they were from reporters, but when I listened to the messages later, I realized a lot of Eagles fans had my direct line.

The messages had a tough, humorous but passionate tone that I was accustomed to hearing while growing up in the South Philly-Delaware County area. Most of them went like this: “Yo, Bechta! Be sure to get Mayberry in camp on time or don’t bother coming home.” Or, “Hey, brother, your boy better not suck and he better not hold out.” And these were from my good friends and family. That’s Philly for you.

The messages were reminders of how brutally harsh Philly fans can be. I know because I was one of them. My family had season tickets at the Vet for 20 years. I used to go to practices at Widener College, and my dad once went 17 years without missing a home game. I attended many hapless games in freezing weather and was even used as a mule to sneak in beers wrapped in hoagie paper (two 12 ouncers stacked).

I also grew up listening to the mother of all sports talk radio stations, WIP, which can be a buzz-saw to any Philly athlete. They simply take no prisoners and won’t let up. I wanted to make sure to insulate Jermane any way I could from becoming a target of the Philly media.

When Jermane attended his first Eagles mini-camp a week or so after the draft, I decided to go with him. He came from a small south Texas town and school, so I knew Philly could be quite the culture shock. In fact, I knew it all too well because I went from Philly to the same south Texas school. I wanted Jermane to have a stress-less transition into his new city.

One of my goals attending the camp was to assure the front office and the media that we would do our part to get a deal done as soon as possible. Quietly, I didn’t know Jermane well enough to know if he could handle the Philly heat if negotiations drifted toward a holdout. Of course, I didn’t want the Eagles to know that — or the media.

On my way to meet with Eagles GM Joe Banner, I had the station on my rental car tuned to WIP. Sure enough, the Philly faithful started in, wondering why the team had drafted an O-lineman from a small school in the first round. That was a pretty typical question. Then, one of the hosts (I can’t remember which one) mentioned that Jermane was legally blind in his left eye. Well, that opened the flood gates. Next thing you knew, callers were saying he’d be wearing a patch during games and look like a pirate. Another comment was that he was “blind in one eye and can’t see out of the other.” It got pretty ruthless and the guy hadn’t practiced a snap yet. I decided to call into the show and give some background and information about why the Eagles were comfortable drafting him as high as they did and why the fans should be excited. It worked for the time being — they actually let up on Jermane and had me on several more times over the next few weeks.

When I got to Vet, where the Eagles used to maintain their offices, it brought back a lot of memories, confirming that the Eagles were part of my DNA. But I had to put that all aside because I was there working for my client.

I met with Joe for an hour or so, and we both were anxious to get the contract done sooner or later. Then I asked to meet with owner Jeffrey Lurie, and from there an unusual series of events unfolded. When I met with him, I asked him why he bought the Eagles. He said he had tried buying the Patriots, but (Robert) Kraft beat him to it. He also said, “Owning a pro franchise could help make a difference in a community,” something he and his wife Christina were committed to doing. He then spent considerable time telling me about the Eagles’ Youth Partnership, a charity formed specifically to aid the Philadelphia community.

<p>I then did something I thought was in Jermane’s best interest: I told Jeffrey that my client would like to be a part of his foundation in some way.

Jeffrey introduced me to the executive director, Sarah Helfman, and the next thing I knew, Jermane, Joe Banner, Sarah, Jeffrey and I were in a room brainstorming about how we could make a difference in the Philadelphia area.

Jermane said he would like to do something that would help underprivileged kids get proactive eye care. His problem wasn’t caught until it was too late, he said, but if he’d had an exam at a much younger age, it could have been identified and most likely corrected. As the discussion progressed, I began to realize that the synergy in the room would also help move negotiations forward and create a bond between owner and player, something that happens only occasionally.

Over the next few weeks, Joe and I went back and forth on a few proposals and counter-proposals, while Sarah and I were simultaneously coming up with some unique ideas on how Jermane and the Eagles’ Youth Partnership could work together. We came up a method of creating an early screening process for elementary-aged children to get comprehensive eye exams, glasses or surgical procedures by transforming a bus into a mobile eye office.

Thus, we created the concept of the Eagle Eye Mobile. The converted bus would roll up to an inner city school where children would be tested and even fitted with glasses on the spot. In addition, Jermane or another player would be there to let the kids know it’s cool to wear glasses. Now, we just had to fund it.

In early June, I made a proposal to Joe that had an unusual component. It said that if the Eagles accepted my proposal, Jermane would donate, over the course of his five-year contract, $100,000 to fund the Eye Mobile project. So on or about June 15, Joe accepted my proposal, which was higher than the slot might have commanded, and Jermane was just the second first rounder to sign and get under contract. The charitable component to the Luries’ foundation definitely helped get the deal done early. However, for Jermane, it was more than a window-dressing tactic because he gave much of his free time during and after the season to be an active part of the program.

Actually, Jermane’s rookie year was pretty rough as he struggled at tackle. No one knew it, but he was suffering from bronchitis, which eventually led to pneumonia. He lost 20 pounds that year and caught some heat from the media. However, his commitment to the Eagle Eye Mobile not only helped soften the blow from the fans, it also gave him a true sense of purpose and a bit of salvation, which help to relieve some of the pressure and stress of an underperforming first-round pick.

Jermane eventually earned his way to the Pro Bowl and enjoyed an exceptional career.

The Eagle Eye Mobile evolved into a legacy flagship program (eagleseyehealth.org) of the Eagles’ Youth Partnership. Even after Jermane left the Eagles in free agency to play for the Saints, Jeffrey, Sarah and Joe decided to keep his picture on the bus. To date, the program has given over 25,000 comprehensive eye exams. Of those, 75 percent have resulted in diagnoses of corrective action such as being provided with two pairs of free glasses. Another 3,000 to 4,000 children were provided some type of surgery or serious medical attention — some even sight-saving.

The fact is that one in four children suffers from vision problems that can lead to serious learning disabilities or other disadvantages.

Jermane has obviously made a huge difference in the lives of many children who went on to learn without the struggles related to vision problems. For me, this is the negotiation I’m
most proud of because of the small role I played in the creation of this program.

The $anchez deal

The Jets’ deal with Mark Sanchez that was struck on Wednesday was only a matter of time. After the Brett Favre experiment of 2008 and the bold move toward the future to trade up for the rights to Sanchez in April’s draft, this was a contract we knew was coming sooner rather than later. As my colleague Michael Lombardi suggested, the Jets were ready to make a preemptive strike to remove any doubt about Sanchez’s presence at the first snap of the first practice of training camp in six weeks. Like Matthew Stafford with the Lions, there are rumblings that the teams are preparing these players to start leading their teams right away. Ya think?

Sanchez’s numbers are predictably striking but no more conspicuous than expected. Last year, Matt Ryan received over $34M of guaranteed money from the Falcons at the third slot in the draft on a six-year deal. Sanchez has $28M in guaranteed money at the fifth slot, although he took a shorter five-year deal, allowing him – at least in theory – to hit the open market a year earlier in his career. As for the increase from last year’s fifth, Glenn Dorsey of the Chiefs, to Sanchez, that will be off the charts but a nonstarter issue as the position requires a different view in the market. Recent quarterbacks in the top five of the draft – Ryan, Stafford and now Sanchez – are carving an entirely different marketplace, one elevated even from the top rookie contracts that have become fodder for so much debate about their enormity.

And what of the total value of the Sanchez contract? This is where the media spin is a bit removed from the reality of the NFL. Stafford’s numbers in the $70M range, Sanchez’s numbers in the $60M range, but those are just numbers on a page. Yes, if they become the reincarnations of Tom Brady and Peyton Manning, they can realistically think about those values.

However, the chance of these contracts reaching their endpoint is minimal. The players will either be underperformers whose contracts will be renegotiated downward (Alex Smith) or released (Ryan Leaf), or they will live up to or exceed expectations and have these contracts torn up and replaced by larger top-of-market veteran contracts (Aaron Rodgers, Ben Roethlisberger, and Eli Manning and Philip Rivers to come). Thus, the overall amount of the contract, while catchy for headlines, is of little relevance.

As to the inevitable debate about the magnitude of these top-of-draft rookie contracts, stemming the tide was not going to happen with Stafford and was not going to happen with Sanchez. The position they play, the circumstances under which they were drafted, the public relations aspect of their situations and the uncertainty regarding the future of the Salary Cap and the rookie pool system created the perfect storm for these two quarterbacks to continue the trend of oversized deals at the top of the draft.

Interestingly, the “quarterback premium” argument will be used against agents at the top now that the quarterback market has settled. St. Louis, Kansas City and Seattle picking in between Stafford and Sanchez (and Cincinnati right behind the Jets) will all be making the argument that there is indeed a significant premium paid to quarterbacks at the top of the draft, making the market for Jason Smith, Tyson Jackson, Aaron Curry and Andre Smith still yet to be defined. The agents, of course, will try to define the market through the two blockbuster deals already done, turning against the “quarterback premium” market that all agents representing quarterbacks have argued over the years.

More on Sanchez and a look at the MLB draft and its functioning in Monday Money Matters.

Wednesday Whys

Why would Brett Favre’s family book hotel rooms in Green Bay for the Vikings game on Nov. 1?

It looks like the Favre clan – and there are many of them – have booked rooms at the Midway Motor Lodge a block from Lambeau Field. The Midway was my home during my first six months living in Green Bay (the room to my left was that of Ray Rhodes; to the right was Donald Driver). Having lived in Titletown for nine years, I know how hard it is for people to get a hotel room at the Midway or anywhere near the stadium on game weekends, especially the weekend of the Vikings game. With Favre not in possession of any residences there – unlike this writer – the family had to find lodging. The moment the schedule comes out, hotel lines are buzzing with people far and wide booking their dates. Wedding dates are put on hold until that schedule is released.

It’s surprising that rooms were still available, although their name probably helped. A sign that Brett will be playing for the Vikings? Well, he won’t be playing for the Packers.

Why was Michael Vick given a new deadline for a bankruptcy plan?

Because the first one didn’t work. Vick presented an earlier plan that made many – including the presiding judge — think that he still doesn’t “get it,” complete with assorted living expenses for the herd of people in his life in some role or another. With that plan disapproved, Vick now has until July 2 to present another, one that has some teeth to it.

With everything else going on around Vick, there is a true cautionary tale at work here. This is someone who signed – at the time – the largest contract in the history of the National Football League. Now he’s figuring out – for the second time – a bankruptcy plan to deal with liabilities exceeding $20M.

Fame and money in professional sports are quite fleeting; the income from sports simply allows for a head start on the rest of life. Vick had a major head start financially and has allowed himself to not only lose that head start but fall way back in the race. Financial security will be hard for him, even with the massive amounts he has made.

And now my pet peeve Why of the Week.

Why, when interviewing someone, do some media people say or ask, “Some say that you…” or “It is said that you….”?

It always astounds me that the person being interviewed never answers, “Are you one of those who say that?” Tell us what you think; not what you heard.

Tuesday Thoughts

Brett Favre may come back and play for the Minnesota Vikings. Ya think? He has a chance to make around $10M, do something he has done his whole life, do it for a team that wants him (and wanted him last year), and mini-camps and OTAs are ending. And he has just spent five months with his family at home. The fact he may play should not be a surprise to anyone. There’s only so much grass to cut in Hattiesburg, Miss.

It was about a year ago – June 20 — when Brett had the poignant conversation with Mike McCarthy, whose three historic words were, “We’ve moved on.” The soap opera that followed was simply the aftermath of those words. With the rival Vikings now in the picture again, the drama lingers.

Of course, Brett is a lucky one, having a suitor that wants him. Former Pro Bowl players like Derrick Brooks, Deuce McAllister, Warrick Dunn and Marvin Harrison would also like to un-retire and are waiting for someone to make that happen.

Monday Money Matters

First, as a former very unsuccessful professional tennis player, I have to pay homage to Roger Federer. Federer is brilliant in all phases of the game and has an elegance and grace that few in any sport possess. Like one of my heroes, Arthur Ashe, Federer exudes the highest classification of cool by his unassuming and modest excellence. Now, having conquered Paris and the French Open, he takes his place at the head table of greatest tennis players of all time. With he and Rafa Nadal ruling the sport, we are right smack in the sport’s golden age. There are few athletes in any sport who truly make one stop and stare – Tiger and Kobe, two other winners Sunday, are among a handful of others. As Carly Simon sings, “These are the good old days.”

On to Monday Money Matters….

A new era has begun in diplomatic relations between NFL players past and present.

D-Day

I write this post from France, where I just visited Normandy and the D-Day invasion sites, in addition to the American cemetery located above Omaha Beach.

The experience was humbling, informative and emotional to say the least. The enormity of the invasion operation, the bravery of the soldiers and, most of all, the number of lives that were lost that day is somewhat hard to comprehend, even when you’re staring it in the face.

Wednesday Whys

Why did the Cowboys waive Greg Ellis instead of trading him? No choice there. Once it was known to the football world that there was little to no chance Ellis would remain on the Cowboys’ roster, the trade market for his services dried up. The Cowboys replaced Ellis with Anthony Spencer a year ago. The argument from the Cowboys – or any team trying to trade a player whom they will eventually release – is that a team will have to trade for the player rather than compete for him with other teams upon his release. That argument, however, was not good enough for any team to give up anything – even a conditional seventh rounder in future years – for Ellis.

Ellis was picked eighth overall in the 1998 draft (the same draft in which Randy Moss went to the Vikings with the 20th selection). Ellis is a class act and made the Pro Bowl just one year ago after coming back from a torn Achilles tendon, a rare achievement for an older player.

Why is Broncos receiver Brandon Marshall not being suspended by the NFL for his latest incident with alleged domestic violence? The NFL looked into Marshall’s case and decided the only punishment necessary was a stern letter from Commissioner Roger Goodell advising him to watch himself, as there will be no similar benefit of the doubt should this kind of incident happen again.

Interestingly, Marshall avoided discipline as a repeat offender. He was suspended for the opening game of the 2008 season after an incident involving a former girlfriend (this incident involved his fianc

Tuesday Thoughts

Aaron Kampman, normally a go-to guy for the media and teammates at the Packers, has gone silent in his pivotal career crossroads as the team moves to a 3-4 defense, requiring a position change.

This is unlike Aaron and reason to sense that things are not all radiant between the Packers and one of their most indispensable players. Aaron is as solid a person as there is in the league. He’s a leader on and off the field and a presence in the locker room that many look up to (including the other Aaron, Rodgers).

When we re-signed Kampman three years ago, many felt we had overpaid by falling in line with a then-market contract given to Kyle Vanden Bosch of the Titans. It turned out to be a bargain as Kampman has been one of the top defensive ends in the league, with 37 sacks in the three years since his signing, playing both the run and the pass with great efficiency and, as stated above, being a true leader on the team.

As anyone in football knows, defensive linemen can be a squirrelly group. We all know the diva issues with wide receivers – the NBA players of the NFL – but there are some equally challenging issues with defensive linemen, usually involving motivation and weight. When Aaron got to Green Bay, we had a few issues with players in that position group. Once he arrived, however, even as a fifth-round rookie, the character level of that group shot up and has been at a high level since.

When it became time for Aaron to potentially become a free agent, the mood at Lambeau was tense. In nine years of negotiating player contracts for the Packers, there were few players who caused more concern for the staff, coaches, management and fans about re-signing. I heard from fans (I was pumping gas one night and someone shouted, “Sign Kampman!” at me) and people at all levels of the organization imploring me to do whatever we could to not lose Aaron to another team (we had already matched one offer sheet for Aaron in his Restricted Free Agent year, that from the Minnesota Vikings).