Women make gains in NFL agent business
Kristen Kuliga remembers exactly how she dressed at her first NFL Players Association agent meeting in 2001.
“I wore a pantsuit, my nerdy black glasses, my hair in a ponytail, and a turtleneck,” Kuliga said.
The meeting, held at the combine in Indianapolis, is often a rowdy affair, the one day a year that hundreds of agents who compete ruthlessly against one another are stuck in the same room together.
Kuliga had just become NFLPA certified and she wanted to blend in with the other agents at her first meeting.
|“I felt I was the only woman in the room of about 600 guys.”
Sixteen years later, Kuliga is much more comfortable in the male-dominated business. She recently merged her agency, K Sports & Entertainment, into Vanguard Sports Group, an NFL representation firm founded by Joby Branion, agent to Denver Broncos linebacker Von Miller.
And being a female NFL agent isn’t such an oddity anymore. At the last NFLPA agent meeting Kuliga attended, she noticed many more.
“I would say there were at least 30 to 50 women. … I tried counting, but it’s hard,” she said.
According to the NFLPA, of the 795 certified agents at the beginning of the year, 41 were women. That accounts for about 5 percent of the total agent base.
Despite the small percentage, there may be growing evidence that women are starting to hit their stride:
■ Of the 41 certified NFLPA agents who are women, 21 have a client in the league. The overall number of women is a nearly 50 percent increase from 2010, though there are no numbers on how many agents had a client in that year.
■ A female agent recently negotiated a five-year, $41.25 million extension for her client, Atlanta Falcon running back Devonta Freeman, making him the highest-paid player at the position at the time.
■ This summer, 33 women were among the 224 people who took the NFLPA’s agent test, the highest number since the test was first administered in 2001.
Another barometer of progress: More big agencies appear to be employing female playing-contract agents, either by hiring them or having existing employees take the agent exam.
Savannah Wall worked at Athletes First in roles including marketing and client services before becoming the agency’s first female NFLPA-certified agent in 2016. Wall, hired nine years ago, is director of client maintenance, supervising a team servicing the agency’s 150 NFL player and 70 coaching clients.
“She has worked with all of our clients and she thought one additional way she could add value to their lives is to become certified and help our contract negotiations, which is the only role she hasn’t played thus far,” said Brian Murphy, Athletes First president. “She earned her reputation and she earned her right to become a certified agent.”
Willis & Woy hired Ashley Millerick as an intern when she was in her second year of law school and hired her full time when she was in her third year, said Jordan Woy, who founded the representation firm 30 years ago.
In 2012, after she graduated, Millerick was certified as an NFLPA contract adviser.
PlayersRep, a firm with about 50 clients in the NFL, hired Nicole Lynn, an attorney who had just gotten her NFLPA certification, in 2015, said Ken Sarnoff, one of the partners in the firm.
“She had reached out to me through a mutual friend,” Sarnoff said. “I was very impressed with her résumé and credentials and her personality,” he said.
|Madison Howard with Eric Ebron (left) and Jadeveon Clowney.
Courtesy of: MADISON HOWARD
After becoming NFLPA-certified in 2013, she started working with them, jointly representing the clients of BC Sports with Cook and veteran agent Don Weatherell. They include Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton and No. 1 draft picks Myles Garrett and Jadeveon Clowney.
Howard said she thinks there are more women agents and more women working in the NFL now than there were several years ago. “But I think it’s an intimidating business for women to get into,” Howard said. “It’s just mostly men in football. It’s men, men, men.”
Cook said that Howard being a woman has not hurt her in representing players and that several of his clients have said they’d rather deal with Howard than with him. “They say, ‘I want to talk with ‘M,’” Cook said, using a nickname some of the players have given her.
Little fanfare accompanied most of these agency additions, but Roc Nation Sports’ hiring of Kim Miale in 2013 about a month after launching generated a lot of noise.
|Roc Nation Sports’ Kim Miale and Ronnie Stanley
The Globe story raised more than a few eyebrows among women in the sports industry. Roc Nation has staffed its sports division in many cases with young, relatively unknown agents and their gender or marital status has not been a story.
Before entering sports, Roc Nation, as a music and branding agency, placed women in positions of power. Hiring a young attorney who happened to be a woman was in line with the culture at Jay Z’s New York-based agency.
“We got into the space because Jay wanted to disrupt things and sort of buck trends in the industry, and I think part of that was to hire someone who wasn’t conventionally considered a sports agent,” Miale said.
Since 2013, Miale has represented or co-represented three players who were top-10 NFL picks: Rams running back Todd Gurley, No. 10 in 2015 and the AP’s Offensive Rookie of the Year; Ravens tackle Ronnie Stanley, No. 6 in 2016; and Jaguars running back Leonard Fournette, No. 4 this year.
That’s a coup for any agent in any sport, and gives Miale, along with partner Ari Nissim, a track record at the top of the draft, but Miale said that so far she had not seen much of a change as far as women representing top draft picks.
“It is the same typical names and that is just the way it is,” she said.
Kuliga, whose first NFL client was Doug Flutie in 2001, said players are becoming more accepting of female agents and “I’ve never had a problem with a general manager.” Other agents have been the main obstacle, she said.
Kelli Masters, an agent since 2005, agrees.
“It was amazing to me how many agents — when I first got into the business — just automatically assumed that because I was a woman, I wouldn’t be respected, I wouldn’t be taken seriously,” she said.
Masters was the first woman to represent a first-rounder, co-representing defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, the No. 3 pick in 2010, with agent Ben Dogra. (McCoy later left Masters and was represented by Dogra alone when he signed a seven-year extension reportedly worth $98 million in 2014.)
She notes that being an NFL agent is difficult whether you are male or female.
“The negatives are really about perception,” Masters said. “That football is a man’s world and women shouldn’t be involved in the business. That’s a perception.”
She said, “In reality, in politics, in business, in every other arena of life in our society, women do quite well. Football isn’t any different.”
Female agents’ joining established firms is a fairly recent trend. Most women have operated as sole practitioners.
Phyllis Freed is thought to be the first female NFL agent, representing Pro Bowl free safety Eugene Robinson starting about 1985 out of her company, Pro-Sports Agency in Canfield, Ohio. Freed, who also represented NBA players, died in 2004.
Jill McBride Baxter is now the longest-tenured female NFL agent. She has represented numerous kickers and punters since the early 1990s, including Marshall Koehn, a kicker recently released by the Minnesota Vikings, and free-agent punter Robert Malone.
She has also represented players at other positions, including former wide receiver Marlon Moore, who played for the Dolphins, 49ers and the Browns, and Stephen Spach, a tight end who played for six teams from 2005 to 2012.
Baxter hails from a football family. Her father is Ron McBride, who has coached at college programs including Utah and Weber State. Her husband is John Baxter, the special teams coach at Southern Cal.
In 1988, Baxter was in her third year of law school when she got a call from her dad, then Utah’s coach. “He said, ‘Gary is getting a contract with the Rams and can you find out what you need to do to do that?’” Baxter recalled. “Gary” is Gary Anderson, now Oregon State’s coach but who 30 years ago was an undrafted free agent center out of Utah who got on the practice squad with the Los Angeles Rams.
In those days, agents didn’t need to take a test to be certified by the NFL Players Association. They just had to pay a fee, and that’s what Baxter did.
Anderson was injured in minicamp, cutting short his career, but Baxter is still going 30 years later, representing players along with coaches, athletic directors and a UFC fighter, Kendall “Da Spyder” Grove. Baxter said that after building her contact list and her reputation over the years, she never recruits. “Clients just fall in my lap,” she said.
In all the years she’s been in business, Baxter has had only one client drafted: J.D. Folsom, a linebacker out of Weber State, who went to the Dolphins in the seventh round in 2009.
Christina Phillips, meanwhile, is a woman who has had a lot of success in getting players drafted. Clubs have selected 11 of her clients since she was certified by the NFLPA in 2005, including wide receiver Chad Jackson, a second-round pick of the Patriots in 2006.
Phillips formerly worked at the agency Domann & Pittman and now owns her own firm, Precision Sports Management. She has negotiated several multiyear, multimillion-dollar deals for veteran clients, including a five-year, $39.3 million deal with the Rams in 2013 for tight end Jared Cook, who is now with the Raiders.
Kristin Campbell, the agent who negotiated Falcons running back Devonta Freeman’s contract in August, was certified by the NFLPA in 2010. Campbell originally co-represented Freeman with Mitch Frankel and Tony Fleming of Impact Sports before the Falcons took him in the fourth round in 2014. But Freeman left Frankel and Fleming and re-signed with Campbell, all by herself, earlier this year.
|Kristin Campbell with Devonta Freeman.
After she secured his sole representation, Campbell began publicly advocating for an extension to pay him “like the elite back he is,” as she told reporters during Super Bowl week earlier this year.
In August, the Falcons agreed to a $41.25 million, five-year deal, which made him the highest-paid running back until the Steelers’ Le’Veon Bell signed a one-year, $12.1 million franchise tender last month.
Since Freeman signed his deal, Campbell said, she’s received congratulatory messages from people throughout the sports industry. “I’ve gotten both — men and women — saying, ‘This is unbelievable,’” Campbell said last week. “And it’s a little bit unbelievable for me from the standpoint of sometimes when you don’t look like the regular guys in the business, there’s a doubt. ‘Can she do this?’”
Campbell, for one, thinks it’s getting easier for female NFL agents to succeed. “I don’t think players see it as a stigma of ‘I have a woman representing me,’” she said. “I think players are just looking for, ‘Who will represent me the best?’”