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Volume 21 No. 2

Labor and Agents

Liz Mullen
Like many successful sports agents, Jimmy Johnston, president of Crown Sports Management, a boutique golf player representation firm, was himself an athlete. He competed for eight years professionally as a golfer, starting in the early 1990s.

Back then, Johnson recalls, there were good players on the tour who had beer guts. “The big joke was,” he said, “‘You are not really an athlete.’”

Mac Barnhardt, who was formerly Johnston’s agent, is now Johnston’s partner and the CEO of Crown Sports. He, too, remembers how different golf — and golfers — were in the 1990s, noting that the average PGA Tour player back then was about 5-foot-10.

Today, golf’s top prospects come from a different mold.

Crown Sports client and Walker Cup competitor Harris English stands 6 feet 4 inches.
“It used to be for the guys coming out, it was golf or nothing,” Barnhardt said. “Now, you are seeing athletes that could have played other sports. They have the size, the athletic ability; they have the power. You are starting to see people with options.”

Among the players who fit what Barnhardt calls this “new wave” of golfers is recently signed Crown Sports client Harris English, who turned pro after competing for the United States in the Walker Cup earlier this month. English, who is 6-foot-4, was a four-time All-American at Georgia, where he graduated in May. He was the third-youngest winner of the Georgia Amateur when he won that event at age 18, and earlier this summer, he become the third amateur golfer ever to win a Nationwide Tour event, winning the Nationwide Children’s Hospital Invitational.

English has signed an endorsement deal with Ping in which he will wear the Ping logo on his hat, use Ping equipment and carry a Ping golf bag, Johnston said. He did not disclose financial details.

Chance Cozby, Ping director of tournament player relations, said, in a statement, “Ping started working with Harris when he was 15 years old as we felt he was a special talent. So it has been both exciting and rewarding to watch him develop through his college and amateur career.”

English is not the only big, so to speak, signing for Crown. The agency signed English’s teammate at Georgia, Hudson Swafford, who also turned pro earlier this summer and won an eGolf Tour event. Like English, Swafford is 6-4. Crown Sports also represents 6-foot-3 Chris Kirk, another former Georgia golfer who turned pro in 2007 and won this year’s PGA Tour Viking Classic.

Based in Sea Island, Ga., the agency represents longtime pro Davis Love III among its 16 golfers, as well.
APSE PARTNERS BREAK UP: All Pro Sports and Entertainment founders and partners Lamont Smith and Peter Schaffer have parted ways after 23 years, with Schaffer starting a new agency, Authentic Athletix. Both All Pro and Authentic Athletix are based in Denver.

“I wish him well, and All Pro will go on and continue to flourish,” Smith said in a brief telephone interview last week. “We had a great run.” He declined to comment further.

Said Schaffer, “I wish All Pro Sports all the best of luck in the future and I enjoyed every moment of my association.” All Pro represented 60 to 70 players in the NFL. It was not clear last week which players would stay with All Pro and which would join Schaffer in his new venture.
SIGNINGS FOR ROSENHAUS, CAA SPORTS: Rosenhaus Sports, the NFL player rep firm owned by brothers and agents Drew and Jason Rosenhaus, signed New York Jets tight end Dustin Keller for representation on and off the field. He was formerly represented by Maximum Sports Management. … CAA Sports has signed Washington Redskins linebacker London Fletcher for representation on and off the field. He will be represented by a team of agents led by CAA Football co-head Ben Dogra. Fletcher was formerly represented by Drew Rosenhaus. CAA Sports also has signed first-year Vanderbilt football coach James Franklin. He will be represented by a team of agents led by coaches agent Trace Armstrong and was previously represented by NC Sports.

Liz Mullen can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @SBJLizMullen.

The National Basketball Players Association’s unfair labor practices charge against the NBA is moving forward with the National Labor Relations Board, just as a group of powerful NBA agents last week held a conference call, without union officials, to discuss the players’ strategy during the continuing lockout.

The union ultimately is hoping to receive an injunction in federal court to end the lockout.

Steve Wheeless, outside attorney to the NBPA, said the NLRB has completed its investigation of the union’s unfair labor practices charge, which alleges that NBA officials engaged in a “take-it-or-leave-it” position during labor talks rather than conducting back-and-forth bargaining. The NBPA filed the charge against the NBA in May.

The league has said the charge is without merit and has submitted evidence to the New York Region 2 of the NLRB, which is investigating the charge.

“The Region 2 has completed its investigation, and it’s my understanding they are close to concluding their internal deliberations and assessment of the case and that they will shortly forward their recommendation and analysis to the Division of Advice at the NLRB in Washington, D.C.,” Wheeless said. The Division of Advice advises the NLRB on both unusual and high-profile cases. The division could advise that a case be dismissed or that a complaint should be issued. That latter circumstance, in this case, could in turn result in the board seeking an injunction in federal court against the NBA, among other things.

The NBA declined to comment for this story.

Attempts to reach NBPA officials for comment were unsuccessful.

The NBA also filed an unfair labor practices claim, against the union, in August, alleging that the union has failed to bargain in good faith. Wheeless said last week that the NBA’s charge has not been formally delivered on the union by the NLRB and is moving on a separate track.

NBPA Executive Director Billy Hunter last week reiterated that the union does not plan on decertifying as a means of supporting its position against the NBA but instead plans to continue to pursue its NLRB charge. Decertifying as a union would allow the NBA players to file antitrust litigation against the NBA, an action they are prohibited from taking if they are constituted as a union. The decertification strategy was the course of action taken by NFL players earlier this year in their labor dispute with the NFL.

Hunter’s comments came as a group of agents held a conference call without Hunter or union officials to talk about options for players, including decertification. According to an ESPN report, Arn Tellem, Bill Duffy, Mark Bartelstein, Jeff Schwartz and Dan Fegan — who represent about one-third of all NBA players — were on the call.

One agent on the call told SportsBusiness Journal there were more than five agents on the call. This agent declined to detail the conversation, but he said that while the agents believe the union’s NLRB charge against the league has merit, the chance that the NLRB will seek an injunction to end the lockout is low. “No one has any faith in that,” said the agent, adding that he thinks the chance that the charge could end the lockout is 20 percent or less.

Wheeless did not handicap the NBPA’s chance of getting the NLRB to act, nor did he predict a timetable for action.

Eyebrows went up in NFL agent circles this summer when teams signed a record number of undrafted free agents in the frenzied week between the end of the league’s lockout and the beginning of training camp. The thought then was that rookies, not veteran players, could be the winners in the first year under the league’s new labor agreement, in terms of securing NFL jobs.

The story, as it has developed, is not that clear.

A total of 615 undrafted free agents, compared with an annual average of 450, were signed to NFL rosters at the start of training camp this year. As of kickoff weekend, however, only 61 of those players had made a team’s 53-man roster, according to the NFL. Last year, there were 57 undrafted rookies on rosters at the start of the regular season.

Among drafted rookies, 205 made the final cut this year, compared with 203 last year.

Also, the average age of players on NFL rosters has not shown a major shift toward teams hiring younger players. That average age this year is 26.4; last year, it was 26.5.

Still, agents in recent weeks have been talking about having good, veteran players available — players who played last year — who can’t get jobs.

The Jets’ Tannenbaum says it’s too soon to tell if more veterans are being replaced.
Drew Rosenhaus, who represents the most NFL players of any agent, sent out an email to general managers around the league Sept. 7 informing them that 39 of his clients, including 20 recently released veterans, were available to be signed. “Why wouldn’t I send out an email to the teams about the guys I represent that are free agents?” Rosenhaus asked, rhetorically, when asked about the email. Rosenhaus wouldn’t comment on the number of players he represents in the league, but it is believed to be between 150 and 200.

Rosenhaus said he would have to study what has happened on NFL rosters to make an assessment of whether there is a trend of veterans losing jobs to rookies.

New York Jets general manager Mike Tannenbaum agreed with that assessment. “It’s too soon to tell,” he said.

The Jets, for example, signed undrafted rookie Nick Bellore but also re-signed Santonio Holmes and Antonio Cromartie, among others. “We tried to move responsibly to win for today and develop for tomorrow,” Tannenbaum said.  

This year was different from any other year in recent history in the signing of NFL players because of the lockout, the timing of when it ended and the provisions of the old NFL collective-bargaining agreement. Under the expired agreement, NFL players last year, in the last year of the CBA, had to wait six years instead of four to become unrestricted free agents. That meant many players last year who would have been unrestricted were restricted and signed one-year tenders.

As a result, the number of unrestricted free agents on the market this year almost doubled. According to Mark Levin, director of agent and salary cap administration at the NFL Players Association, there were 465 unrestricted free agents this year, compared with 235 last year.

There was no salary cap in place last year. The cap this year went down from the 2009 salary cap of $127.9 million, coming in at $120.375 million, although there is a provision in the CBA that allows clubs to exceed that number by $3 million if they sign veteran players.

Another major factor was expansion of club rosters at the start of training camp from the normal 80 players to 90 players this year. Additionally, the timing of when certain classes of players could be signed was different, and arguably favored rookies. Clubs could sign undrafted players before they could sign unrestricted free agents, NFL agents said. Normally, clubs sign unrestricted free agents beginning in early March and don’t start signing players who were not drafted until late April and early May.

Rosenhaus said that as the season goes on, NFL clubs will sign veteran players either to replace injured players or, perhaps, to replace younger players who do not perform.

Samantha Stosur’s victory over Serena Williams last week in the U.S. Open Tennis Championships final is notable not only for the upset, but also for making her perhaps the first Grand Slam winner whose agent is a governing body for the sport.

Indeed, Stosur is the rare, if not the only, elite athlete who is represented by a governing body — in her case, Tennis Australia. The practice has its critics, who charge that the sports group could use its leverage over young players to muscle into their marketing relationships.

Stosur may be the only elite athlete represented by a governing body.
Tennis Australia owns and operates the Australian Open and funds development of the sport in that country.

“I have had a couple of occasions where we have been unable to sign a kid because the kid worried if they sign with another agency than Tennis Australia, they will lose their funding,” said John Tobias, co-head of tennis at Lagardère Unlimited.

But Paul Kilderry, a former pro player and coach who handles Stosur’s business affairs for Tennis Australia, described the agent role as a service no different than training or coaching. Stosur’s entire team, including training and coaching, is supplied by Tennis Australia. As an established player, she pays for the services.

“We give help to any Australian player who does not have representation,” said Kilderry, speaking after Stosur met with a handful of reporters last week in New York.

Tennis Australia began offering its agent services three or four years ago, Kilderry said. When it signed Stosur, she was ranked No. 70 in the world. Last week, after her U.S. Open win, she was No. 7.

Stacey Allaster, WTA Tour chief executive, voiced no concerns and praised Tennis Australia’s program. “Tennis Australia has a great sports system to help their athletes achieve world-class success,” she said. “This is a very interesting model that is working.”

Other than Stosur, the players represented by Tennis Australia are far down the pecking order, with perhaps the most notable being Casey Dellacqua, who reached No. 39 in the world rankings in 2008. She now is ranked 274th.

A rival agent said that because Australia is so isolated geographically, many players from that country have found it tough to find representation. As a result, this agent predicted the practice would remain only in Australia.

A U.S. Tennis Association spokesman said the subject, to the best of his knowledge, has never arisen at the USTA, which is Tennis Australia’s counterpart in America.

Stosur’s top sponsor, Lacoste, also backs the Australian Open.

While Tobias wondered if Tennis Australia could have basically sold Lacoste a package of Stosur and the event — “Are they leveraging Stosur to help their event?,” he asked — he said he believes the group’s intentions in securing its deals are pure.

For her part, Stosur seemed uninterested in the commercial trappings of her newfound fame, saying she found it stunning to see her face plastered around Melbourne during the Australian Open earlier this year. Speaking to reporters last week, she said her No. 1 goal was always to win a Grand Slam trophy, and she left the business side to Kilderry to worry about.

“This is what I have always played for,” she said, nodding to the U.S. Open trophy resting in front of her. “This is what I want.”