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SBJ/19980525/This Week's Issue
Want to become an agent? It's not hard
Published May 25, 1998
Magic Johnson wants to be an agent. Rapper extraordinaire Sean "Puff Daddy" Combs says he wants in, and so does former Olympian Jackie Joyner-Kersee.
During these days of $100 million athlete contracts, it seems that just about everybody wants a piece of the action. Fill out an application with the various players associations, slap down about $500 and wait to be certified. The Major League Baseball Players Association doesn't charge an application fee, proving that the process isn't exactly taxing.
"It's absurd," said Lee Fentress, chairman of Virginia-based Advantage International Inc., one of the country's leading sports marketing companies. "As long as you're not a convicted felon, you're ready to go."
Fentress may be overstating his case, but his point is clear. Though agents must be certified by the various players associations, there isn't stiff regulation within the sports agency business.
So what really qualifies an agent as an agent?
"What it takes is someone who is reasonably smart and well-prepared and has a sense of all the salary and collective-bargaining issues," Fentress said.
A high-profile stable of clients doesn't hurt, either.
Companies like full-service agencies IMG, Advantage and ProServ Inc. are the big shops that dominate. Then there are the smaller specialty boutiques like David Falk's powerhouse F.A.M.E. agency, which virtually controls the top NBA players and was recently bought out by SFX Entertainment Inc.; Leigh Steinberg's Steinberg and Moorad agency, which represents some of the biggest names in the NFL; and Scott Boras, the baseball agent reviled by owners and management.
Those agents enjoy the luxury of reputation. Though competitive, they all get their share of high-priced talent, leaving the rest of the 2,000 or so other agents scratching and clawing for a select number of potential millionaires barely out of high school. In the NFL, for example, there are 760 registered agents, but 370 of those don't have any NFL clients.
"You've got some people that because of their performance have separated themselves from the pack," said Donald Jackson, a Birmingham, Ala., sports lawyer and agent representing about 45 clients. "So you've got to go out and compete head-to-head with the companies that have 1,000 employees. It's like being a solo practitioner against firms with hundreds of attorneys."
The intense competition breeds all sorts of creative ways used by some agents to sign players, including illegal cash payments, cars and other gifts.
"You've got runners floating around campuses and you've got people whose responsibilities are to hang around colleges and provide favors to players," Jackson said. "It's always money or clothes, and if you're in college and don't have a great deal, $100 is a lot of money."
For some agents, it's the only way to win business. For players, many of whom have been courted by coaches since grade school, the illegal early recruitment methods are simply a way to profit from the system.
"The agents are guilty, but so are the players," Jackson said. "The exchange of money between agents and players is frustrating. I don't mind losing a player to another agent based on qualifications, but I do mind losing a player if someone slides a player a couple thousand dollars. It's offensive and illegal and all the blame goes to the agent. But the players are also very sophisticated."
That's not to say that all recruiters are sleazy and all players are greedy. For many major college programs, there is a system in place to control agents' actions.
Typically, the coach serves as the gatekeeper, controlling all contact with agents to protect the player's eligibility and the program (and not necessarily in that order).
When a player completes his eligibility, or leaves school early, a select number of agents are invited to the school to make their pitch. Any agents who try to circumvent the process are shut out of the program.
"In basketball, generally most coaches will bring in four or five [agents]," Fentress said. "The only other alternative is to begin talking to players while they still have eligibility remaining, and that's a horrible way to do business. We often lose kids on that basis, but those are kids who don't appeal to us anyway. There are plenty of good players who want to do it in a correct way."
Well-established, full-service sports marketers like Advantage are able to afford to take the high road, but even some smaller, regional agents are content to attract clients by word of mouth in order to dodge the ever-competitive recruitment process.
"We don't go out and recruit," said Mark Bartelstein, a Chicago-based agent who represents 40 professional athletes. "We don't talk to people before they come out. We get players referred to us by coaches and clients. Usually there is a relationship with the coach."
The big money, though, lies in the top draft picks. Not being part of the recruiting process for them can prove very costly.
"What happens is that most of the top picks are underclassmen and since we don't have people recruiting, we don't know when kids are going to come out early," Bartelstein said. "I don't feel right about talking to people before they come out, but the problem is that we don't get those guys."