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Volume 21 No. 38

Labor and Agents

Jeff Austin with his family and top client Steph Curry
Photo: courtesy of denise austin

To listen to Jeff Austin, you kind of get the idea he’s sort of the Forrest Gump of sports. He’s just a guy, sitting on a bench, not necessarily eating chocolates but still finding himself in the midst of some of the greatest sports figures of the last five decades.

 

At the age of 12, Austin became buddies with Jimmy Connors. The two would go on to be doubles partners at UCLA at a time when the Bruins ruled the NCAA tennis world. Connors then became one of the greatest tennis players of all time, winning eight grand slam singles titles.

 

Austin’s younger sister, Tracy, was a tennis phenom herself, winning the U.S. Open twice before the age of 20 and being ranked No. 1 in the world in 1980 — the only person to break what would be an 11-year hold on the top spot by Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova.

 

His wife, the former Denise Katnich who he married in 1983, was a college gymnast who as Denise Austin would go on to develop a fitness empire that includes books, DVDs, exercise equipment and multiple TV shows.

And as an NBA agent, Austin got to know the son of one of his clients years ago, a kid named Stephen Curry. These days, as president of Octagon’s basketball division, Austin represents the two-time NBA most valuable player.

 

So how did he find himself in the middle of such athletic royalty?

 

“I don’t know,” Austin says, adding after a long pause, “I am just an honest, good guy, I guess. I don’t know.”

 

Denise Austin laughs, a long musical giggle, when she hears of her husband’s response. She’s not surprised. “He likes the backseat,” she says.

 

Austin and his family — (from left) daughter Katie, fitness pioneer wife Denise and daughter Kelly — at Game 2 of this month’s Warriors-Cavaliers NBA Finals.
Photo: courtesy of denise austin

The reason Jeff Austin is a success may be a mystery to him, but not to her. He’s honest, intelligent and has a knack for truly listening to people.

 

“He’s a very open person that you can just be with without any judgement,” Denise said. “Everyone in our family — we have a big family on both sides — and everyone asks his personal and professional advice for everything. He is everyone’s rock.”

 

In the world of athlete representation, not a lot of agents — or team executives, for that matter — have nice things to say about other agents. Not so for Austin.

 

“I like him immensely,” said David Falk, the pioneering NBA agent who by his own admission does not feel that way about many rival agents. “There are not a lot of agents I have a great deal of respect for. … He’s a classy guy. He’s an old-school guy. I think he’s very honest. I think he’s very humble. He does a great job for his clients.”

 

Humility, a quality lacking in society in general these days and in the sports industry in particular, is something that people repeatedly mention when talking about Austin.

 

“Jeff is a unique blend of confidence and humility,” Bob Myers, Golden State Warriors general manager and himself a former NBA agent, said about Austin in a text. “He is the same person in every situation.”

 

Who's On Board?

A select list of Jeff Austin's NBA clients

Dell Curry*
Stephen Curry
Kirk Hinrich*
Wesley Matthews
David West
Seth Curry
Luol Deng
Wesley Johnson
David Robinson*
Trae Young**

* Former client, now retired from the league
** With agent Omar Wilkes
Source: Octagon

Added Octagon President Phil de Picciotto: “Jeff is one of the most modest people one would ever meet.”

 

Austin grew up in Palos Verdes, Calif., an affluent suburb of Los Angeles, the second oldest of five children with a father who was a nuclear physicist and a mother who worked at a tennis club. It was a tennis-playing family. Four of the five kids — Jeff, his older sister Pam, younger brother John and Tracy — played professionally, and all of them won Grand Slam matches. John and Tracy even teamed to win the Wimbledon mixed doubles title in 1980, the first brother and sister to win a Grand Slam title together. Younger brother Doug didn’t go pro but was a solid Division I college player.

 

Jeff played tennis on the UCLA team that won the 1970 and ’71 NCAA championships and was Connors’ doubles partner. “We won the NCAA championship, and that was like 1970,” Austin recalled. “And right at the end of the season, a coach wanted … to switch the teams and put me with a different partner, and Jimmy refused. … I still remember him standing up for me at the time.”

 

Austin played professionally after college and advanced to the third round of Wimbledon in 1973, the year he reached a high of No. 52 in the world. But after about four years as a pro — “I got worse every year,” he says — he decided tennis was not his future. Austin invested the money he won during his playing career in Southern California real estate, sold a house at a profit and used the proceeds to go to law school at UCLA, graduating in 1980.

 

There are not a lot of agents I have a great deal of respect for. … He’s a classy guy. He’s an old-school guy. I think he’s very honest. I think he’s very humble. He does a great job for his clients.
David Falk
Longtime NBA agent, on rival agent Jeff Austin

He was working as a litigation attorney in the early ’80s when one day, while playing tennis with Tracy at a Los Angeles-area tennis club, he met Denise. There weren’t a lot of aerobics studios in those days, just rooms, and she was trying to rent one to get an aerobics class going. She happened to see Jeff and Tracy hitting balls on the club’s tennis courts.

 

“I thought, ‘Damn, she’s good,’” Denise remembers thinking of Tracy.

 

Jeff and Denise married about a year later and enjoyed life in Los Angeles, even double-dating with Connors and his wife. But Jeff decided he didn’t like being a litigation attorney and they moved to Washington, D.C., where he had received an offer to become a sports agent in 1983.

 

At the time, 35 years ago, there were not a lot of former athletes working as agents.

 

“He was known in the tennis community,” de Picciotto said. “He was a good player — he will probably tell you he wasn’t, but he was. He came out of the sports world and had a legal education and had very high integrity, which at the time was a perfect combination for success in the early years of our industry.”

 

Austin was first hired by ProServ, which had begun in the 1970s primarily as a tennis agency but had branched into other areas, particularly basketball with Falk. He was hired because he was Tracy’s brother and Connors’ best friend, Denise says. The plan was for him to be a tennis agent, but a few weeks after he started the firm broke up.

 

Jeff ended up going with Lee Fentress and some of the other partners to their new company called Advantage International, which later became Octagon.

 

A former pro player himself, Austin’s tennis roots run deep, including his sister Tracy being a two-time U.S. Open champion
Photo: Getty Images

Falk went with the other firm. That left Advantage in need of a basketball agent. So Austin, hired to be a tennis agent in the world he knew so well, became an NBA agent as well.

 

Even back then, the representation business was tough. Nice guys often finished last. But Austin studied the business and tried to figure out a way to succeed while maintaining his integrity.

 

“The one thing I learned early on is that it’s a business, but it is also a personal business,” he said. “To me that means finding people I want to work with, the people that I like and have high character. Those are the people I like to recruit.”

 

Clients over the years have included basketball hall of famer David Robinson and Dell Curry, father of current players Steph and Seth Curry, who are also both clients. Last year Austin negotiated the NBA’s first $200 million contract, Steph Curry’s five-year, $201 million deal with the Warriors.

 

“I always tell everybody at Octagon and on my staff, there are no shortcuts,” Austin said. “If you take the long view and put the client first you may forgo some short-term gains, but you are going to be better off and better served.”

 

One of the people who Austin hired at Octagon is Alex Saratsis, the agent to Milwaukee Bucks breakout star Giannis Antetokounmpo. Austin has given Saratsis valuable advice on how to manage the rising superstar, but he doesn’t give orders. “He’s been wonderful with me,” Saratsis said.

 

Saratsis was only working at Octagon a few months when his boss invited him and his then girlfriend to dinner at his home. Later, Saratsis was at the drugstore standing in line when he saw a promotion for exercise equipment with Denise Austin’s face plastered all over it.

 

“It was a real ‘Ah-ha!’ moment,” Saratsis said. Jeff and Denise had never mentioned her fame.

 

Like a lot of people, Saratsis said the Austin marriage works because Jeff and Denise are so different.

 

“She is always on the go,” he said. “And Jeff is more laid-back and is watching. He is like the yin to her yang. He is the calming presence in the chaotic Austin household.”

 

It’s only fitting that Jeff and Denise’s two daughters are very successful — and very different.

 

Kelly Austin was the No. 1-ranked female high school lacrosse player in the country in 2008. She played collegiately at Virginia and is now pursuing a career in the music industry. Like Denise, their other daughter, Katie, is pursuing a career as a fitness instructor but doing it in the social media age. “Get Fit With Katie” is her business and she has a mobile app, workout program and is in the process of launching a clothing line.

 

Jimmy Connors has been his best friend since the age of 12.
Photo: Getty Images

“My mom helps me with all on-camera and TV personality things, while my dad is the business side of it,” said Katie, who also played college lacrosse at Southern Cal. “He looks over my contracts, tells me the right thing to do in business situations, looks over my important emails and helps me know my worth. It’s funny because sometimes when I get emails from top companies, I’ll say, ‘My agent will call you,’ and it will be my dad.”

 

Jeff, 66, has been Denise’s agent and manager throughout her career and also is serving that role for Katie, although he’s considering bringing in someone who better understands social media and the digital space. Whether for his wife or daughters, Austin is comfortable in a supporting role.

 

“Growing up, I became, of course, Tracy’s brother,” he says. “And then I became Denise Austin’s husband. And my oldest daughter Kelly was the top lacrosse player in the country in high school — and I was Kelly’s father. I just bask in the reflected glory of the women in my life. It’s terrific.”

 

One thing Austin admits he is able to do is see potential greatness in others. He knew Steph Curry was different and was going to make it in the NBA when a lot of people doubted his ability. He knew his sister was going to be a great player when she was 10 years old. He knew Connors had something other players didn’t when he was 12. And he saw something in his wife the first day he met her.

 

“I tell my kids all the time, ‘You never know when an opportunity will come along,’” Austin says. “‘Make sure you are paying attention because they don’t come around again.’”

 

Of course, like Forrest Gump and his box of chocolates, there’s also luck involved. Asked if he’s been lucky, Austin doesn’t hesitate.

 

“Oh my God, I am so lucky.”

CAA Sports has signed Russian Olympic gold medal-winning hockey player Ilya Kovalchuk and is in discussions with 10 clubs about his return to the NHL next season, his agent said.

 

The Los Angeles Kings and New York Rangers are among the 10, said Kovalchuk’s agent, CAA Hockey co-head J.P. Barry, but he declined to provide any more information about the clubs in contention.

 

Kovalchuk, 35, has been out of the NHL for five years, playing for SKA Saint Petersburg in Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League since 2013. He retired from the NHL earlier that summer, leaving $77 million and 12 years on his 15-year, $100 million contract with the New Jersey Devils.

 

Kovalchuk was formerly represented by Russian hockey agent Yuri Nikolaev and his Winners Agency for his KHL career. He is friends with some of CAA Hockey’s Russian clients, including Penguins center Evgeni Malkin, Barry said.

 

Under NHL rules, players can un-retire.

  

“He would like to win the Stanley Cup and he’s serious about it,” Barry said.

 

Kovalchuk won gold as part of the Olympic Athletes from Russia team in Pyeongchang. He led the team in scoring with five goals and was named MVP by the hockey media.

 

Kovalchuk was the first Russian hockey player drafted No. 1 overall when he was taken by the Atlanta Thrashers in the 2001 NHL draft. He has homes in the New York area and Miami, but winning a Stanley Cup is his focus, Barry said. Despite being 35, he believes he can play at a high level for several more years, Barry said.

 

Ilya Kovalchuk has been playing in Russia full time since 2013.
Photo: Getty Images

“He wants to finish his career in this league,” he said. “You know he spent most of his career in the NHL and he won an Olympic gold and now he wants to win a Stanley Cup.”

 

Barry’s longtime partner, CAA Hockey co-head Pat Brisson, is representing Islanders center John Tavares, who was the No. 1 pick in 2009 and is expected to be the top unrestricted free agent this summer if he doesn’t re-sign with the Islanders. There is speculation in the hockey press that the Islanders recently brought in former Devils and Maple Leafs general manager Lou Lamoriello to re-sign Tavares.

 

CAA Hockey also is representing Avalanche goalie Jonathan Bernier, Blue Jackets defenseman Jack Johnson and Capitals defenseman Michal Kempny, who are expected to hit free agency July 1.

 

BDA SIGNS NBA PROSPECTS: BDA Sports has signed several prospects for the NBA draft, including Georgia Tech guard Josh Okogie, Villanova forward Omari Spellman and Texas A&M forward/center Robert Williams. Calvin Andrews is representing Okogie, Marlon Harrison is representing Spellman, and Kevin Bradbury is representing Williams.

 

REP 1 SIGNS SPROLES, FALES: Rep 1 Sports has signed Philadelphia Eagles running back and return specialist Darren Sproles and Miami Dolphins quarterback David Fales for representation on and off the field.

 

Agents Ryan Tollner and Chase Callahan are representing Sproles and negotiated his one-year deal with the Eagles. Tollner is representing Fales. Sproles was formerly represented by CAA Sports. Fales was formerly represented by Athletes First.

 

Fales was drafted by the Bears in the sixth round of the 2014 NFL draft.

 

“We believe David has real upside as a starting quarterback in the NFL,” said Tollner, who counts a number of quarterbacks, including the Steelers’ Ben Roethlisberger, Rams’ Jared Goff and Eagles’ Carson Wentz, among his clients. “He’s a smart, upstanding, team-first guy that can be an ideal backup, but he has the drive and potential to win a lot of games under center.”

 

Sproles has already broken a lot of records. “Darren is No. 1 in career all-purpose yards for active players, and eighth all-time in the NFL,” Tollner said. “He holds 12 NFL records, including most games with 200 total yards earned — 17 games. Another strong season will add to a unique case for the hall of fame.”

 

Nima Zarrabi, Rep 1 vice president of marketing, is heading up endorsement efforts for the players.

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

REP Worldwide has signed four companies as the first licensees for WNBA and U.S. women’s national soccer team players.

REP Worldwide was formed by the NFL Players Association’s business arm, NFL Players Inc., last November with the unions for the players, the Women’s National Basketball Players Association and the U.S. Women’s National Team Players Association, as founding partners. REP stands for Representing Every Player, and the NFLPA is the majority stakeholder, while the two players associations have equity stakes as well.

The first licensees are Strideline, Build-A-Head, Original Retro Brand and Ruffneck Scarves. Financial details were not disclosed, but Steven Scebelo, NFL Players Inc. vice president of licensing and business development, said all of the deals are at least three years in length. 

Strideline, a sock company, and Build-A-Head, which produces cutouts of people’s faces and likenesses, are partnering with both the basketball and soccer unions. Ruffneck Scarves, which produces scarves that soccer fans wear as a sign of support, is partnering with the soccer union only. Original Retro Brand, which produces T-shirts, long-sleeved shirts and hoodies, is partnering with the WNBA union only.

Among the licensees that REP Worldwide has signed are Ruffneck Scarves, such as for U.S. women’s soccer star Alex Morgan, and Strideline socks, like those featuring Kelsey Plum of the WNBA Las Vegas Aces (below).

All four licensed companies will produce specialized product featuring the intellectual property of the players, including their names, images, likenesses and numbers.

A strong selling point on behalf of the athletes was their involvement on social media platforms, Scebelo said.

“The women’s players — especially in both basketball and soccer — the players have very high engagement levels among their followers,” Scebelo said. “Their followers listen to what they have to say, they respond to what they have to say and we think it’s going to lead to product sales.”

Lindsay Kagawa Colas, Wasserman senior vice president who specializes in representing female athletes, said she appreciates the REP Worldwide effort and is excited about the first licensee deals.

“These first movers will be rewarded for their foresight in filling the void of WNBA player-branded merchandise,” Colas said. “We have heard fans asking for it for years.”

REP Worldwide was formed to help athletes who don’t have advanced group licensing and marketing departments. Last month, REP Worldwide announced it had added the U.S. Rugby Players Association, which represents men and women players on the U.S. Eagles and Sevens teams.