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Volume 20 No. 46

Labor and Agents

Wasserman Media Group is in talks to acquire prominent football agent David Dunn’s agency, Athletes First.

While there was no official agreement to buy the firm last week, any deal would make Wasserman Media Group a major player in the NFL representation business. The company already has a significant presence representing NBA and MLB players, as well as soccer, action sports and Olympic athletes and golfers, but its only NFL player is Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck.

Newport Beach, Calif.-based Athletes First has a long history with NFL talent and represents more than 100 NFL players, including Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, Indianapolis Colts wide receiver Reggie Wayne and Denver Broncos wide receiver Wes Welker.

If the deal gets done, Wasserman Media Group would have one of the largest NFL player practices, rivaling CAA Sports, Rosenhaus Sports and Sportstars, each of which represents 100 or more players.

Dunn did not return a phone call seeking comment, while a Wasserman Media Group spokeswoman declined to comment.

Sources familiar with the situation said that if a deal were completed, it would not be until at least 2014. A person familiar with Wasserman Media Group said the company performs intense due diligence on all acquisitions, and it’s unclear whether that process has even started yet.

Typically, in player agency acquisitions, both the players and agents join the agency that buys the firm. It is not clear what would happen if there is a deal with Wasserman Media Group, but Athletes First employs about a dozen agents.

A deal would not come as a surprise, as Wasserman Media Group had engaged in acquisition talks with Athletes First as far back as October 2009. It is not clear, however, why those previous discussions did not result in a transaction.

For Athletes First, the talks come during a turbulent year. In March, Patriots owner Robert Kraft and Dunn engaged in a rare public disagreement over New England’s negotiations with the free agent Welker. In July, Athletes First client Aaron Hernandez was arrested and charged with murder, and another of the firm’s clients, Dolphins offensive Richie Incognito, is at the center of workplace harassment allegations.

But the firm is also known for its representation of NFL quarterbacks. In addition to Rodgers, Athletes First represents the Arizona Cardinals’ Carson Palmer, the Philadelphia Eagles’ Nick Foles, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ Mike Glennon and the Jacksonville Jaguars’ Chad Henne.

Liz Mullen
“Collective bargaining, in the end, not just in sports, but in any field where there is collective bargaining, is only about one thing and that’s power,” Michael Weiner said.

The year was 2011 and Weiner, the MLB Players Association executive director, was explaining in a speech at the annual Sports Lawyers Association convention why baseball was the only one of the four major team sports that did not have a labor battle on the horizon.

Weiner died on Nov. 21 at the age of 51 of brain cancer. He has been lauded in the industry and in the media for his leadership of the MLBPA and his stellar personality.

Michael Weiner, who died Nov. 21, gave players the credit for the MLBPA’s strength, but observers praised him for his leadership and the recent labor peace in baseball.
In an industry full of big egos, Weiner seemed to be without one. In the days following his death, Weiner has been praised as a patient, tolerant, funny and humble man.

A graduate of Harvard Law School, he worked at the MLBPA for 26 years, first as a staff counsel and later as general counsel, before being named as executive director in 2009.

Like former MLBPA Executive Director Don Fehr and former MLBPA Chief Operating Officer Gene Orza, Weiner was a razor-sharp attorney, but when it came to dealing with other people, he had a softer side.

“He suffers fools much more gladly than I do,” Orza said of Weiner in an interview with SportsBusiness Journal in July.

Some have credited Weiner’s ability to get along with people as a reason baseball has been able to maintain labor peace for 19 years.

But back in 2011, Weiner himself said he was asked all the time why baseball did not have the labor problems the other sports were experiencing. “Does it have something to do with personalities?” Weiner said. “Does it have something to do with lines of communication? Negotiating style? My answer is, ‘I don’t think it does.’”

“It’s not about intelligence or creativity,” Weiner said. “It’s about power.”

In 2011 and 2012, owners locked out players in the NFL, NBA and NHL. The owners sought, and received, concessions from the players associations.

But the baseball club owners did not seek similar rollbacks. The reason, Weiner said, was, “They don’t think they can get there without a fight that would so damage the industry and so damage the game, that it is not worth it.”

The MLBPA has long been seen as the strongest union in sports, but Weiner said, on that day and until he died, that its strength didn’t come from him, or his predecessor Fehr or MLBPA founder Marvin Miller.

The union is strong, Weiner said, because the players are involved, educated and committed to sticking together.
“Today’s players understand that the obligation that they have is not just to the union members right now, just to the guys in their clubhouse or the clubhouses around the two leagues,” Weiner said. “The players understand they have an obligation to the guys who will come after them.”

Weiner is the second sports union leader to die young of cancer in the last five years.

Gene Upshaw died on Aug. 20, 2008, from pancreatic cancer at the age of 63 after leading the NFLPA for 25 years. Upshaw’s death came as a shock to the industry, and friends say even he didn’t know he had a terminal illness until he went to the hospital four days before his death.

Weiner’s illness was no secret. After the MLBPA announced in August 2012 that he was being treated for an inoperable brain tumor, Weiner spoke about it and wrote about it publicly.

He wrote in Sports Illustrated that he was dealing with his illness by, among other things, keeping a sense of humor, living his life and helping others, even when he was hurting.

In July, he appeared at the MLB All-Star Game in a wheelchair, his right side paralyzed, and took questions on MLB’s Biogenesis investigation. “Any questions about anything other than Biogenesis or brain cancer?” he deadpanned at the end of the press conference.

I have known Weiner for at least a dozen years. More than a decade ago, when he was a staff lawyer at MLBPA, I asked him how old he was because I wanted to nominate him for SportsBusiness Journal’s Forty Under 40 award. He thanked me, but said he had just turned 40. (Weiner would have been 52 on Dec. 21.)

Weiner always returned my phone calls or emails, even if to say he couldn’t comment on the story I was writing. He was incredibly generous with his time and patiently answered my not always brilliant questions about labor law and the baseball free agent market, among other things.

He continued to respond to my emails even after he was paralyzed on the right side this summer and into the early fall. He couldn’t use his right hand, and the responses were short notes. The last time I spoke to Weiner on the phone was over the summer. I asked him if there was anything I could do for him. Weiner said, “I want you to help other people.”

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

In a move that would seemingly mark the end of the SFX Sports brand name in North America, SFX Baseball is changing its name to Relativity Baseball after being acquired by movie and television studio Relativity Media more than a year ago.

Relativity Media launched its Relativity Sports division in July 2012 by acquiring SFX Baseball and Maximum Sports Management, an NFL representation practice owned by veteran NFL agents Eugene Parker and Roosevelt Barnes. In February, it acquired the basketball representation practice owned by prominent agent Dan Fegan.

The football and basketball talent representation divisions took the Relativity name right away, but the baseball division, which represents 70 MLB players, including 12 All-Stars, kept the name it had when it was part of the former SFX Sports.

“I think we kept the name with the idea in mind that we were very much known by that, we were branded with that and our clients were comfortable with that,” said MLB agent and Relativity Baseball CEO Mark Pieper. “But our clients are seeing the benefits of this relationship and integrating into the many different platforms of the different facets of what Relativity does. … It just simply makes sense.”

Relativity Baseball employs 13 MLB Players Association-certified contract agents, making for one of the largest baseball representation practices in the business. Clients include two-time American League MVP Miguel Cabrera, Detroit Tigers pitcher Justin Verlander and Arizona Diamondbacks first baseman Paul Goldschmidt.

The baseball practice, which operates out of the Chicago area, was originally founded as Speakers of Sport by former MLB agents Jim Bronner and Bob Gilhooley, who have retired from the agent business. Speakers of Sport was one of many agencies rolled up from 1998 to 2000 to form the former SFX Sports, a division of the former SFX Entertainment. The sports group’s parts slowly broke off into independent agencies or were acquired after SFX Entertainment was bought by Clear Channel Communications in 2000. SFX Baseball was thought to be the last agency still using the SFX Sports name in North America.

There still is an agency that was once part of the old SFX Sports that retains the SFX moniker in Australia. Sydney-based SFX Sports manages about 200 players in the Australian Rugby League.