The Murky World of Soccer Agents, Debunking the Perception
I received some interesting feedback on my last article from family, friends, business associates and people who I had never met before. They can broadly be placed into two categories – the supportive and the questioning.
The supportive feedback does not need to be examined here as it is trite at this stage; I would not seek to subject the readers to an article written by myself praising myself. I am confident enough in what I do and how I do it to accept that there will be detractors as well as those who will encourage.
The people who questioned my last article did so on the basis that they were concerned I was revealing too many “trade secrets” and that the methods I have used to build up my company should not necessarily be divulged to the general public or any other aspiring Agents thus enabling them to become competition in due course. I do not subscribe to this way of thinking at all – I received help getting into this world (I have yet to see it be done without some kind of assistance whether it be personal, financial or professional) and if I can give something back to those who follow me on this path of the sport I love then I am more than happy to oblige.
One of the more prevalent words I have heard used to describe the world of soccer agency is “murky“. But what does this really mean in the context of my industry? To me, it has clear connotations of bungs (illegal payments), brown paper envelopes stuffed full of cash, muttered conversations in discreet locations and generally immoral and, perhaps, illegal behavior.
Allow me to address the underlying issues here. Undoubtedly, the field of athletic representation has been tainted by such actions; to suggest otherwise would be disingenuous at best and plain wrong at worst. Hardly a year goes by without a high-profile participant being shown to have acted improperly. The purpose of this article is not some kind of plaintive defense in favor of Agents. Rather, my aim is to clarify exactly what Agents do, why we do it and perhaps shed some light to a skeptical public. I also do not intend to set myself apart from my fellow Agents nor make disparaging remarks about them. We are all in this together.
To take a step back, I decided to draw on my experience at the Bar in England. Here, from the outside, is one of the world’s most respected professions, one predicated on honor, respect and fearlessly fighting for one’s clients’ rights. It is rare indeed to see a “murky” Barrister (lawyer) and yet I recall that not so long ago one Barrister was in the Court of Appeal on the Monday arguing a complex case in front of 3 Judges and on the Tuesday he had been remanded in custody at the Old Bailey on charges for possession and intent to supply of a substantial amount of a controlled narcotic. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to a prison term. This was considered to have been one of the largest scandals to have hit the Bar in hundreds of years. Murky? You decide.
On an even wider scale, one need only examine the goings-on at Watergate, BCCI and Enron to see that “murkiness” permeates all aspects of society. The simple fact is that where there is money there is greed. And there is a lot of money in soccer. Perhaps not so much in US soccer at present, but it is growing all the time.
I also believe that people do not enter into such arrangements actively seeking to do wrong. They are trying to do the best they can with what they have in front of them but the results do not always reflect this point.
Furthermore, I am a firm believer that Agents, good Agents, have a pivotal role to play in soccer. Soccer’s origins are as an amateur sport. However, as early as 1885 Blackburn Rovers FC had spent £615.00 on their entire squad’s wages after having registered as a professional club. Their top players were being paid £1.00 a week which was a huge amount for those days and caused an outcry. From 1919 to 1960 soccer players in England were forced to accept a maximum wage. It was not until the threat of strike that this harsh restriction was lifted. Since then, wages have soared exponentially and this is where the worth of a true Agent comes into play by ensuring that their client gets remunerated accordingly and, more importantly, protected as far as possible from the whims of the club. Players have forever been at the mercy at their clubs regardless of their profile, status or salary. If a club wants to keep hold of the player then it will do so; one need only look at the Manchester United FC/Cristiano Ronaldo/Real Madrid tug-of-war this summer for proof. Likewise, if a club wants to get rid of a player it will do so whether it is for budgetary or athletic reasons. And this was the basis of Sepp Blatter’s rather ill-chosen ‘slavery’ comments regarding modern soccer players. All of this provides a lot of uncertainty for the player who will look to his Agent to suggest creative clauses be inserted into the contract to provide as much protection and stability as possible.
One of the first things I tell my prospective clients is that unless they are as certain as they can be at that stage that I am the best man for the job of furthering their career then they should look elsewhere for representation. They get total commitment from me and I expect the same from them in return. I do not make vapid promises about massive salaries, vast endorsement deals and worldwide fame because the truth is that most players will not scale these heights. I believe that my job is to provide sensible advice predicated on experience of the current market trends. It is essentially a sales job – I am selling my skills, contacts, nous and expertise to the client whilst at the same time marketing him to suitable clubs and garnishing a percentage of his earnings from the contract I negotiate on his behalf. There’s nothing “murky” about that and it is almost exactly the same principle as recruitment agents use.
Soccer is, in actuality, a fiercely regulated industry both in terms of Agents and clubs. The problems, I feel, stem from such regulations not being applied, known, or simply being ignored. Every Agent, prior to receiving his License, is obligated to sign a Code of Conduct which sets out his duties; to study for and pass the exams which require a detailed knowledge of the law governing soccer and to obtain professional indemnity insurance. Now, it’s one thing to know the rules, to sign such a document, set up the insurance policy, and another thing altogether to adhere to their tenets. What I have seen happen more and more recently is that Agents are becoming more culpable for their actions and hence the degree of care required to act in accordance with the Regulations is higher…far more so. One need only check FIFA’s website to see instances of Agents being punished for doing things that only 2 years ago were considered acceptable; and this goes back to an earlier point that I don’t feel most Agents set out to act improperly but are simply caught out by a mistake and this can happen to anyone in any field of work. My advice to any aspiring Agents is to compare and contrast the English FA’s Football Agents Regulations pre-2007 to the 1st September 2007 version to see the differences. This is a further point to note – most of the applicants I get contacting me regarding possible internships or employment opportunities have little or no understanding of the framework governing soccer Agents. It’s the first thing I ask them and there is usually a pregnant pause before they admit to not having looked at them; this is how mistakes are made – not knowing the rules or, just as bad, not knowing where to look up the answer to a potential issue. Of course, soccer being in the limelight ensures that any mistakes that are made are highlighted and make an already bad press even worse.
I imagine that every Agent will have a different approach to getting the job done and it is important to note that what works for one client with one Agent and one particular club may not work under different circumstances. There are so many what I call “human elements” involved in constructing a deal that the degree of certainty changes all the time.
It is undoubtedly a highly competitive field but you show me something worth doing that is not so. What carries me through is my passion for the sport and a genuine belief that US soccer is inexorably on the rise. To be a part of that is something I relish every day.
To conclude, I would hope that the above has achieved my goals of shedding some light on the work of Agents (although I can only speak from my own experience) and why things are done as they are done. If I have been able to dispel even a small percentage of the perceived “murkiness” then I will be pleased.
Max Eppel is a soccer Players’ Agent Licensed by The FA (England). He owns and manages his own California-based company, Max Eppel Soccer Agency LLC. For more information please visit www.maxeppelsocceragency.com.