SBJ/Feb. 24-March 2, 2014/Labor and Agents

In men’s tennis, boutique firms break service of big agencies

As the overall money at stake in the top echelon of men’s tennis has gotten bigger, a striking reverse trend has followed: The agencies that represent the elite players are getting smaller.

Only three of the top-10 ranked male players on the ATP World Tour are fully represented by a traditional large agency (and only one of the top four). The four semifinalists at the most recent Grand Slam event, the Australian Open, were all represented by smaller boutiques.

Compare that to a decade ago, when eight of the top 10 in the ATP at this time of the year were represented by a big agency — and one of those two outsiders, Roger Federer, was merely between stints at that time with IMG.

“The business has gotten so big they want the personal attention,” said Tony Godsick, a former IMG agent whose firm, Team8, represents top-10 players Federer and Juan Martin Del Potro — the same number (two) of top-10 players his former employer represents. “The boutiques are the wave of the future.”

Federer, for example, now earns more than $70 million a year, from endorsements, appearance fees and prize money. While his peers are not in that neighborhood, the tens of millions of dollars they do earn would have been unimaginable in men’s tennis just a decade ago.

Wawrinka is among the top-ranked men represented by boutique firms.
Photo by: GETTY IMAGES
The game may be on decline in the United States, but it is booming in places like Asia and the Middle East, where events think little of forking over seven-figure fees to stars just to show up. With that much at stake, the top male players are choosing to shed the large firms where agents frequently have many player-clients to serve.

“The industry has a plethora of choices now of competent individuals who aren’t with the big agencies,” said Lawrence Frankopan, another former IMG agent whose firm, StarWing Sports, represents Australian Open champion Stanislas Wawrinka. “They are able to compete equally if not better than the established firms.”

That is debated by the large firms, which for years have sold themselves as offering a full range of services, a global network of contacts and access to premium training.

John Tobias, head of tennis at Lagardère Unlimited, disputes that there is a trend, saying it is largely a function of agents breaking off from longtime industry stalwart IMG.

“[Rafael] Nadal and Federer are really unique cases,” he said, of two former IMG clients no longer with the firm. “Once you get to that iconic level, you are such a worldwide figure, the real meaningful impact of having the agency connections doesn’t come into play quite as much.”

Fernando Soler, who manages IMG Tennis, said the agency does continue to represent top players.

“It certainly is not a problem for IMG,” Soler said about building a strong client base, a group that presently includes world No. 2 Novak Djokovic. “The reality is we have been representing top-10 players since day one and we still do.”

Regardless the reason for the change, the concept of the mega agency for top players could be losing some of its luster. For the elite who have become mega-global brands, mining the world for deals is usually not a problem; turning them down is. The larger tennis agencies also can notoriously have conflicts through owning tournaments that seek to keep prize money down, while also representing players who want bigger purses.

Notably, the trend in player representation is not seen with the world’s top 10 women players, where the major firms still represent the majority of players. Six of the seven top-ranked women are represented by a large agency, and that’s actually up slightly from this time of year a decade ago, when it was five of the top seven. Whereas small firms represented the four semifinalists on the men’s side, the reverse was true on the women’s side at the Australian Open, with the four represented by Octagon, IMG, and Lagardère (two of the players).

It’s not as clear why the trend has not migrated to the women’s side, though the money in the game is not as large overall as on the men’s side. Li Na and Maria Sharapova are global brands and have stayed at IMG with their agent, Max Eisenbud, who in the last year signed a contract extension with IMG. Given the closeness that develops between star athletes and agents in tennis, that likely weds them to IMG for years to come.

CHANGING AGENT LANDSCAPE

Few of today’s top 10 men’s players are represented by large, traditional agencies. That’s a change from 10 years ago, when among the top 10 seeds for the season-opening Grand Slam, the Australian Open, eight of the top 10 players were repped by such firms. A similar shift has not been seen among the game’s top female players, though.

MEN’S PLAYERS
2014
WORLD RANKING PLAYER AGENT/AGENCY
1 Rafael Nadal Carlos Costa
2 Novak Djokovic IMG
3 Stanislas Wawrinka StarWing Sports
4 Juan Martin Del Potro Team8
5 David Ferrer IMG
6 Andy Murray 77*
7 Tomas Berdych Ivan Ljubicic
8 Roger Federer Team8
9 Richard Gasquet Lagardère Unlimited
10 Jo-Wilfried Tsonga L&S Sports Management
2004
SEED PLAYER AGENCY
1 Andy Roddick SFX
2 Roger Federer No agent
3 Juan Carlos Ferrero IMG
4 Andre Agassi SFX
5 Guillermo Coria IMG
6 Rainer Schuettler Global Sports
7 Carlos Moya IMG
8 David Nalbandian IMG
9 Sebastien Grosjean Octagon
10 Mark Philippoussis IMG
WOMEN’S PLAYERS
2014
WORLD RANKING PLAYER AGENT/AGENCY
1 Serena Williams William Morris
2 Victoria Azarenka Lagardère Unlimited
3 Li Na IMG
4 Agnieszka Radwanska Lagardère Unlimited
5 Maria Sharapova IMG
6 Petra Kvitova M Sport
7 Sara Errani IMG
8 Jelena Jankovic No agent
9 Angelique Kerber Baumgarten Sports & More
10 Simona Halep Virginia Ruzici
2004
SEED PLAYER AGENCY
1 Justine Henin-Hardenne Octagon
2 Kim Clijsters No agent
3 Venus Williams IMG^
4 Amelie Mauresmo Octagon
5 Lindsay Davenport IMG
6 Anastasia Myskina International Sports Advisors
7 Elena Dementieva Octagon
8 Ai Sugiyama Belly Button Inc.
9 Chanda Rubin Octagon
10 Nadia Petrova Octagon

* 77 is Murray’s agency, but Lagardère handles his commercial deals.
^ IMG represented Williams for non-tennis deals, while family lawyer Keven Davis represented her for tennis-related deals.
Note: Rankings as of Feb 10.
Sources: WTA, ATP, SportsBusiness Journal reporting and archives

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