SBJ/August 30 - September 5, 2004/One On One

One-on-One with Tom Reich, chairman and founder, Reich, Katz & Landis

Tom Reich is chairman and founder of the sports agency Reich, Katz & Landis. A member of the

Tom Reich got his start representing baseball players in Pittsburgh.
American Bar Association, Reich represents numerous professionals, including Joe Morgan, Sammy Sosa and Chris Chelios. Highly respected by Major League Baseball and the NHL, he has worked with those leagues to help craft settlements of the collective-bargaining agreements. Named among the “12 Agents of Influence” and the “Top 25 Power Brokers” by Baseball America and ranked as one of the “100 Most Powerful People in Sports” by Sporting News, Reich is a frequent participant in discussions affecting the sports business. He spoke recently with SportsBusiness Journal New York bureau chief Jerry Kavanagh.

Shakespeare wrote: “Let every eye negotiate for itself and trust no agent.” He wasn’t referring to sports agents, was he?
Shakespeare also wrote, “Let’s kill all the lawyers.” And in a lot of respects, he was probably right. I often feel that way. But the truth of the matter is that after over 30 years, I have to believe that we’re doing something right and that there is a necessity for us.

You’ve been a sports agent since 1970. How did you get into the business?

Reich: I was living in Pittsburgh. I come from Pittsburgh — and proud of it. I was a young lawyer and a huge sports fan, and I got to know a variety of professional athletes. One of them was Dock Ellis. He was my first client. Dock was reality TV before they knew such a thing.

You told Ellis that you would do his contract for free, right?
At the time I took him, he was making $13,000, so it wasn’t a question of money. Back then, the players didn’t have any rights to speak of. The de rigueur line that you would get from general managers back then was, “If you don’t like this, let’s see how your guy likes cutting his grass all summer.” That was a line that was used on me more than once. That was the mentality back then.

In the book “Lords of the Realm”…
That was a great job! For a guy [author John Helyar] coming from the outside, he did a great job.

Helyar wrote that your early client base was predominantly black and Hispanic baseball players [Joe Morgan, Dave Parker, John Candelaria, Manny Sanguillen]. He quotes Chuck Berry, a former associate of yours: “[Reich] relished the idea he was the defender of the poor minorities. He became the Black Knight, in a sense.”
That’s a little melodramatic. But the racism factor back then was awful for the players. There were a lot of incidents in Pittsburgh and other places that were not melodramatic. They were real. The Hispanic players were starting to become a factor back then. Of course, now the infusion of numbers and talent is extraordinary. But there were a lot of issues back then. I was a fiery guy and I didn’t take any bull---- from anywhere. Racism in 1970 was a lot worse than it is in 2004. There have been vast improvements in our society and even more in sports. But it still has a long way to go. But back then, it was ugly. If you were able to transport all of us back there, it would shock the living crap out of younger people.

Helyar also wrote in “Lords of the Realm” that “Like Jerry Kapstein, [Reich] was perfectly positioned for the dawn of free agency. … By the eighties he was baseball’s biggest agent.”
Kapstein liked the use of free agency as a fundamental strategy. That’s his business, just like it’s [Scott] Boras’ business now. When you represent players, you have to take into consideration a lot more than money in terms of fit, in terms of the quality of the organization and, in a lot of cases, the quality of the opportunity for the player. Money’s a huge factor because the guys aren’t around very long in professional sports. This is not like being a great diva, where you can go diva-ing along for about 30, 40 years. Not in this business. So, yes, I represented a lot of players. I still represent a lot of players.

Has the business changed over the years?
The business has changed dramatically, and free agency isn’t entirely free. First of all, most of free agency is what I call involuntary free agency. Most free agents are involuntary because they haven’t been offered a contract. There are not many businesses where the one side, the entrepreneurial side, controls both the supply and the demand. Not even OPEC gets to do that.

The fact that you have been at this for more than 30 years says a lot about the players’ trust in you. Is anything more important than trust?
I’m afraid that that’s become a little ambiguous at this point. It’s easy for somebody who’s been doing something for a long time to sit here and pontificate that, yes, it’s trust and that’s why I’m still here. But the truth of the matter is that this is a largely unregulated business. It’s more like the wild, wild West now than it is a profession. One of the biggest problems we have in this profession is that there are hundreds and hundreds of bounty hunters. They get paid for delivering the signatures of players. They get paid only for that. This is a business that’s largely unregulated and largely out of control.

What needs to be done to regulate the business?
The union has a lot of problems in dealing with the juggernaut that is Major League Baseball. Everybody likes to say, “Oh, this union dominates the game of baseball.” I don’t think so. This thing is dominated big time by the major league owners and the commissioner. And so the union has its hands full and then some. Regulation is one of the things that’s clearly slipped away.

You said that “The salary cap … will be accepted about the time the 13 original states restore the monarchy.” Were you referring to a salary cap in baseball?
Yes. That has to be taken in context of when I said it and why I said it. It was during the labor negotiations one of these times. I wouldn’t say that like that now. Let’s say this: I would say that the system that’s in place now is not a system that I think is too long for this world. The system that’s in place now is not even fair. I think we’ll see significant changes in the system.

How do you assess the health of the sports business?
Well, our economy and our world are not healthy. Our world is upside down, and it’s not going to change anytime soon. I think the state of sports, given the world we live in, given the context, is pretty damn good. Football is doing very well. Baseball is definitely on the move, on the up side again. Basketball has got issues, but it’s still very viable. Hockey’s got a world of trouble right now. But unlike a lot of doomsayers about hockey, and there are plenty, I think hockey will make a comeback.

Is the NHL labor issue going to be resolved?
Let’s put it this way: There’s nothing on the screen that we’re looking at right now that would suggest something’s going to be worked out. But these people who are running the union and are running the sport are very tough guys, and very smart guys. The combo of smart and tough that you have on both sides gets you a lot of rhetoric, as labor deals always do, but I believe that at some point before the sport is irreparably damaged something will get worked out. The market correction is already taking place in hockey.

The other thing is, regardless of what system is put in place, the competition is going to be fabulous, like we just saw in the playoffs. What you’re seeing in baseball now — you’re seeing a lot of competition — you’re going to see that in hockey. I’m still optimistic that hockey is going to make a significant comeback in the next two or three years.

Who’s the shrewdest or most creative business man in sports?

Tagliabue handled a February appearance on Capitol Hill well, Reich says.
Reich: [Paul] Tagliabue. Man, I watched him at those indecency hearings, after [the] Janet Jackson [incident]. He’s got it all. He’s something special. I’ll tell you who else is of that ilk: David Stern. He doesn’t have as good a product, but boy, has he done a job! A job and a half!

Smartest player in the game?
The guy who is the most celebrated for that is Derek Jeter, and for good reason. His fame is not just because he is a skilled player. It’s because he’s that combination of intelligence and guts and instinct, and he’s all about winning. But truth be told, there are quite a few. Every team has a lot of astute players these days.

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