Sports Agent Interview:
with Matthew Vuckovich
Jim Kuzmich is a 41-year-old sports and entertainment attorney and former vice president and general counsel for GAAMES. Jim’s experience in sports law includes contracts, negotiations, intellectual property, licensing, endorsements and dispute resolution. He was the primary the liaison for GAAMES with equipment manufacturers, sports card manufacturers, the media, the MLBPA and athletes. Jim was a key and instrumental factor in the preparation and negotiation of salary arbitration cases for Kirk Saarloos and Mike Koplove. Currently, Jim is in private law practice and continues to represent several major league baseball players as well as top prospects. He is also a certified agent with the Major League Baseball Players Association and calls Tempe, Arizona his home.
Matthew Vuckovich: How did you get started in this industry?
Jim Kuzmich: When I went to law school, I was determined NOT to be a litigator or ever see the inside of a courtroom. It was during law school that I decided I wanted to be in sports and entertainment. I had a strong desire to be a sports agent. While in law school, I became involved with Sports Management Worldwide, Inc. (formerly Sports-Management.com). While working closely with Dr. Lynn Lashbrook (founder of SMWW and former NFL agent), I learned a lot about the athlete representation business. I also served as a legal intern for the Texas Rangers AAA affiliate, Oklahoma RedHawks during my final two years of law school.
Matthew Vuckovich: Did you attend law school or grad school? If so, which law school or grad school?
Jim Kuzmich: Law school. Although, a JD is NOT required to be an athlete agent. In fact, some very good athlete agents I know are NOT attorneys. However, it is good to have the services of an attorney available to an agent. I attended the University of Oklahoma-College of Law (http://www.law.ou.edu/).
Matthew Vuckovich: Who was your first client (year, sport), and how did you recruit him?
Jim Kuzmich: While still in law school, I recruited and subsequently represented Randy Ruiz, a baseball player from Bellevue University in Nebraska. He was a non-drafted free agent sign with the Reds in 1999. I worked with him for about a year before he left me for another agent. However, we have recently re-established contact and are on great terms.
Matthew Vuckovich: How did you handle your first contract negotiation?
Jim Kuzmich: My first “contract” negotiation was not as an agent but as an attorney with a large law firm in Portland, Oregon. I negotiated a license for the use of Anna Kournikova’s likeness on various consumer goods for a client out of Las Vegas. Even though it was the first time I had negotiated such an agreement with any famous individual (or their agent), I approached it with confidence as if I had done it for years, utilized the knowledge I had about the areas of law that were affected, and spent several hours researching similar deals to educate myself on what was acceptable or not acceptable in the industry. I ultimately negotiated several similar licenses for the client with famous individuals such as Nelly, Celine Dion, Enrique Iglesia, and the estate of Marilyn Monroe.
Matthew Vuckovich: What is the most important aspect of being a sports agent?
Jim Kuzmich: In MY opinion, the most important aspect is being a trusted advisor. However, the client does not always see it that way. Many clients THINK that the most important aspect is “what MY agent can do or get for ME”. Eventually, successful sports figures grow out of that frame of mind, but it is definitely a prevalent frame of mind among young professional athletes.
Matthew Vuckovich: At what age do you feel an agent hits his prime/glory years? Why?
Jim Kuzmich: I don’t think there is a specific age. Each person is different depending on each individual’s goals, objectives and ideas of success. Some individuals get an early start and peak at earlier ages. I didn’t really get legitimate in the business until I was almost 40. However, I feel that I still have my best days to come.
Matthew Vuckovich: What is your opinion of “larger” agencies with less attention to their clients compared to “smaller” agencies who counsel more with their clients?
Jim Kuzmich: Your question presumes that “larger” agencies give less attention to their clients and “smaller” agencies give more attention to their clients. While I have never worked for a large agency, I can tell you that the business of athlete representation is about relationships. (I know it’s a cliché, but it is true.) I know agents in so-called “large” agencies that do a terrific job for their clients. Likewise, there are agents in smaller agencies that are not serving the best interests of their clients. I believe that the attention paid to a client is a direct result of an agent’s ability to manage their time, their business and their client base, regardless of whether that agent is in a large agency or a small agency. Additionally, an agent who works with a client who is not achieving their “expected potential” should not sacrifice that clients needs for those of a more successful athlete, yet agents do engage in this practice regularly. The relationship with the client goes beyond the boundaries of an agency and should be valued by the agent as the most important aspect of the engagement. Knowing what, and educating the client, on the client needs, wants, and what is in the client’s best interest is the agent’s duty and an agent in a large firm can do just as good as an agent in a small firm if that agent is a good manager of his/her business. Sure, some of the larger agencies have access to some resources that smaller agencies do not, but the question is whether the client needs or even wants those resources available to him/her. In the case of the smaller agency, it is up to the agent to seek out those resources if it is within the scope of the agent’s engagement and the desire of the client.
Another item of note is that an agent doesn’t have to be in an “agency” at all to be effective. The agency business was born out of attorneys who represented players as a part of their law practice. An athlete is served by their individual representative, not an “agency”. Agencies have grown out of individual representatives who have banded together for a presumably greater good for the client. However, many times you still have territorial practices among agents within an agency. These types of practices prove that the agency is not the effective representative for the athlete, but rather the individual agent is.
Matthew Vuckovich: Where do you see the athlete representation industry going in 10 years?
Jim Kuzmich: I think as younger individuals are educated in the business and get into it, the business can flourish and be a respected and valued profession. Unfortunately, the harsh reality is that, as in any business that performs services for clients with large earning potential, there will be agents who prey on the unsuspecting and inexperienced professional athlete and extort and use the athlete to the agent’s advantage. And those agents will hold back the industry from being well respected.
Matthew Vuckovich: Take our readers through a typical day in your life.
Jim Kuzmich: Typical??? There is no “typical” day! Each day brings new challenges and first time situations. For the most part, however, each day involves talking with clients about individual needs, dealing with endorsers, equipment manufacturers, the MLBPA and ball clubs on a variety of issues related to different clients and managing a business. Don’t be fooled – working as an agent is running a business just like any other business and there are the normal routine business activities that go along with that such as going to the bank, making sure office supplies are plentiful, paying bills, and looking for new opportunities to market and better yourself professionally.
Matthew Vuckovich: What advice do you have for people looking to break into the industry?
Jim Kuzmich: Be persistent! Very few individuals in the business were willing to share their insight with me when I was trying to learn about the business. However, if you stay focused and keep searching for those individuals who are willing to help educate you, you will find them. And when you do, LISTEN to them and stay in touch! Be willing to work hard and in some cases, for less than what you think you are worth. There is plenty of competition trying to “get into the business” and if you want to “get in”, you have to remain committed, be persistent and don’t get discouraged. Finally, don’t sell yourself short. Individuals who are so thirsty to get an opportunity in the business will sometimes sell their value to an agency short and agree to do things for less than fair compensation. Frequently, this is done with the promise that the person will receive some bigger benefit later. Don’t be fooled. Some agents in the business treat their own employees and workers with the little ethical value as they do other agents. Be aware of who you are working with and be sure to protect your own upside. Take it from personal experience…it’s hard to trust anyone in this business…even your own employer!
Matthew Vuckovich: Does your agency provide internships for people looking to break into the industry?
Jim Kuzmich: My former agency did. However, I no longer work under an agency, but rather in my own sports law practice. My clients are served as well, if not better than they were when I was with an agency. At this time I do not offer any specific internship, but may do so in the future.
Matthew Vuckovich: If you could do one thing to renovate the Sports Agent industry, what would it be and how would you go about accomplishing that goal?
Jim Kuzmich: Self-regulation. Much like attorneys, I believe the sports agent business should self regulate and agents should hold themselves and their peers to a higher ethical standard. In team sports, the respective players’ unions are in the best position to govern the agents. However, it is my experience that they are unwilling to take on the challenge and they turn a blind eye to the unethical behavior of the agents. Some unions do a better job than others, but for the most part, they are all lacking in taking action to clean up the business. Individual sport athlete agents are obviously not regulated by a union so that is not possible in that sector of the industry. That is why I believe self regulation would be largely beneficial to the whole business. To accomplish that, it would take a concerted effort on the part of all agents who have the same beliefs as I. It would also involve some level of participation from state legislatures in recognizing a body of professionals who choose to self regulate and assist in enforcing such regulation.
Matthew Vuckovich: What are some of the things an agent can offer his/her clients besides the negotiation of contracts, getting endorsements, and others along those lines?
Jim Kuzmich: General life advice (assuming the client wants it). Post career development and assistance. Friendship, mentorship and accountability. Being a true confidant to the client.
Matthew Vuckovich: What type of monthly recruiting budget is allowed, and what is covered in it (phone, car, hotels, meals, airfare)?
Jim Kuzmich: In baseball agency, a monthly budget is hard to project as it is all dependent on how a player develops through the minors. While the agency I formerly worked with had projections, they didn’t have a specific budget. They looked at the individual needs of the clients at times and assessed whether expenditures justified the end result. Additionally, in baseball, you can never know if the client will make it to the major leagues (for the most part, a baseball agent doesn’t get paid until the player has played approximately 3 years at the major league level) and if so, whether they will still be your client! I was given a cell phone expense of $150 per month. I was also given wide latitude to spend money on client entertainment (meals, seasonal gifts, etc.) with the expectation that I manage that spending appropriately. With respect to travel, I am always a sucker for good deals. Regardless of how much money I may be making, I am always looking for the most reasonable (emphasis on reasonable) prices available at the time.
Matthew Vuckovich: Does your firm have specific contracts in place with different glove, bat and shoe suppliers?
Jim Kuzmich: I deal with all of the major equipment manufacturers of professional baseball equipment and some minor suppliers. I have relationships with certain team dealers who I purchase equipment for those players that do not have equipment deals in place. At times, some of the major manufacturers are gracious enough to provide me with additional equipment for players who are less fortunate and are still developing.
Matthew Vuckovich: When a player is in the minor leagues do you supply them with bats, gloves, etc., and how much is spent per player per month/season?
Jim Kuzmich: My goal is to get an equipment endorsement for each and every one of my clients. However, that is not always the case when players are developing or coming off injuries. As many readers may know, several baseball clubs do NOT provide their minor league players with cleats, mitts, bats, batting gloves or performance wear (among other things). The clubs that do, usually do not provide very good equipment (with the exception of the Yankees who have an exclusive deal with Adidas to provide all of their minor league players with cleats, batting gloves and performance wear). Several years ago, some bright baseball agent (heavy sarcasm) thought it would be a great recruiting tactic to supply minor league players with equipment in an effort to entice them to sign with him. (Who that agent was, I don’t know, but I’d sure like to have a serious talk with him!) This tactic has forever changed the agent industry and it has created an expectation in EVERY player that signs with an agent to have that agent “supplement” his developmental playing career by providing him equipment throughout the minor leagues or until he is “worthy” of receiving an equipment endorsement. As such, I comply with the industry standard and do supply players with the “necessary” equipment to compete professionally. As a general rule, you can expect to pay approximately $500 per player per year for equipment. (As a side note, Article IV, Section 3(B)(2) of the MLBPA Regulations Governing Player Agents specifically states that “Providing or causing to be provided money or any other thing of value to any professional or amateur player…the purpose of which is to induce or encourage such player to utilize or maintain the Player Agent’s services” can result in disciplinary action. In some cases suspension or revocation of certification is appropriate. Despite this specific language in the MLBPA’s regulations, probably every MLBPA certified agent supplies equipment (something of value) to at least one of their clients under the threat of losing their client to another agent or agency who will provide equipment if they don’t. The MLBPA is fully aware of this practice yet they choose to do nothing to enforce this regulation!
Matthew Vuckovich: What types of endorsement deals do players in the lower levels of the minor leagues usually receive? Do you contact card companies, or do they contact you?
Jim Kuzmich: Players drafted in the upper few rounds of the Amateur Player Draft can be beneficiaries of baseball card signature deals, equipment endorsement deals and in some rare cases, memorabilia deals. If a minor league player is not fortunate enough to be a “high” draft pick, once they are listed as an organization’s “Baseball America Top 10 Prospect”, they can also be the beneficiary of similar deals. I have both approached card companies and have been approached by card companies for signature deals.
Matthew Vuckovich: What are the normal salary ranges in the baseball agency world and what types of positions are there available for first year people?
Jim Kuzmich: Salaries vary from hourly wages for an assistant type position to six figure salaries for player agents. Generally, there are also performance bonuses tied to endorsement revenue generated and successful salary negotiations. It is difficult to say exactly into what range a “first year” person may fall. Much depends on prior work experience (i.e., a former player, scout, or equipment representative), education (i.e., marketing degree, JD, communications degree), and skill level. Another factor is the particular employer’s needs and financial ability to pay.
Matthew Vuckovich: On behalf of SportsAgentBlog.com and all of our readers, I would like to thank Jim Kuzmich for sharing his knowledge and experiences with us today. Till next time, be safe and act ethically in the business that you love.