SBJ/June 20-26, 2011/Labor and Agents

NFL and NBA player agency Priority Sports steers clients through labor uncertainty

More than three months into the NFL lockout, NFL player agent Kenny Zuckerman is working as hard as ever — but it’s a different kind of work.

“I’ve had more parents [of NFL player clients] calling me the last six months, really the last three months, concerned about their kids,” Zuckerman said.
A dad of a recently drafted client called Zuckerman to ask whether his son should attend a player-run team practice for the club that drafted him when he has no NFL contract. “A top player on the team said, ‘I want him there, because we are changing defenses,’” said Zuckerman, a partner in Priority Sports & Entertainment. 

JENNIFER POTTHEISER / NBAE GETTY IMAGES
Agent Aaron Mintz (right), shown with Paul George at the 2010 NBA draft, said the agency is preparing NBA clients for the possibility of a lockout.
Other parents have called, worried that their sons — rookies through players with one or two years of NFL experience — have too much time on their hands. Zuckerman keeps in regular contact with these young players and their parents, as well as veteran NFL player clients, providing them with updates about the lockout.

While all NFL player agents have been affected by the lockout, just as all NBA player agents will be affected if the NBA locks out players when that sport’s labor deal expires at the end of this month, arguably no single company in the business of representing pro athletes will be more affected by a double lockout than Priority.

With offices in Chicago and Los Angeles, Priority represents about 100 NFL player clients and about 45 NBA clients. It also represents about 35 pro basketball players playing overseas. In the last three years, Priority agents have negotiated NFL and NBA player contracts with a total value of more than $1 billion.

There are other sizable, independently owned NFL player-only practices, such as Rosenhuas Sports, and other NBA-only player representation practices, such as BDA Sports. Major agencies, such as CAA Sports and Octagon, would be affected by lockouts in the two sports, as well, but they represent athlete clients in other sports in addition to the NFL and NBA.

Priority was founded by NBA and NFL agent Mark Bartelstein, who represented two-time NFL MVP Kurt Warner and currently represents NBA players Brad Miller and Mo Williams. Bartelstein said he and the seven other partners who own Priority have been preparing for lockouts in both sports for years.

In addition to Bartelstein, Priority is owned by NFL agents Rick Smith, Mike McCartney, Deryk Gilmore and Zuckerman, along with NBA agents Aaron Mintz, Brad Ames and Reggie Brown.

The potential for a lockout in both sports “has been on my mind, running the company, really, for the last three years,” Bartelstein said. “You could see the signs. When you run a business you always prepare for the worst. We have been preparing for it as a company, but more importantly, preparing our clients, so that they could be in a situation so that they could withstand a long lockout.”

Priority’s financials are private. Bartelstein said the company is profitable and does not have any debt.

Zuckerman noted that Priority has not laid off any of its 30 employees since the NFL lockout began. In fact, Priority recently hired three new employees to help the company continue to expand into new areas, such as social media.

As far as preparing its NBA and NFL player clients, that work has included talking to each player’s financial adviser as well as talking to the players directly.

Detroit Lions center Dominic Raiola, a Priority client, said, “I remember Priority contacting me about the possibility of a lockout, and I transferred that to my financial adviser. It was a couple of years ago.” Since the lockout started, Raiola said, he gets constant updates from his agent, Zuckerman. For example, Zuckerman texted him when the lockout was briefly lifted in late April and when it was put back in place days later.

NBA player agent Mintz noted that on the basketball side, the company has the experience of the 1998-99 NBA lockout and has used that knowledge to prepare for another one.

“This summer, we put together training programs for all of our players in Los Angeles and Chicago to get the work in since they will be locked out,” Mintz said.

Priority’s client list includes a number prospects for this week’s NBA draft, including Florida forward Chandler Parsons, Wisconsin forward Jon Leuer, Boston College guard Reggie Jackson and San Diego State forward Malcolm Thomas.

Last year, Zuckerman represented defensive tackle Tyson Alualu, who was the surprise of the first round of the NFL draft, going No. 10 overall to Jacksonville. In last year’s NBA draft, Mintz represented Paul George, a player who was taken at No. 10 by Indiana.

While Priority doesn’t have the flashiest client list in the business, the agency represents a number of solid NBA and NFL players who have long careers.

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