Ever since I first thought about entering this industry, one thing I have been told time and time again by those within and outside of the athlete representation business is that sports agents never sleep. It’s not that they are working 24/7, it is that they are so worried that their best clients will be poached by a rival agent, that it keeps them up all night. Fortunately, I have not had many clients leave me in my limited time as an athlete advocate, but even in the span that I have been representing athletes, I am aware of at least one specific instance where a rival agent knew that a client had signed a representation agreement with me, knew that the client was not actively looking for new representation, and the agent still decided to recruit that client to become one of his own. Only I know that this particular client ended up leaving me just so that he could “milk” the other agent to pay for all of his equipment needs and that the player always had (and still has) intentions of coming back to me once it makes sense for the both of us. But it is true – this is a very dirty business full of client stealing. Why is it the “Wild Wild West”, though? For some reason we take it for granted. It boggles my mind.
Understandably, it is not worth it to sue another agent if he steals your Minor League client who is not showing up on any Top Prospect Lists. It is probably not worth it to even go after someone who steals a good D-League client of yours. But what about someone who comes in and takes a big baseball client right before he becomes eligible for arbitration? Then is it worth it? Do you even have a leg to stand on?
Fortunately, yes, you do have a claim against another person who steals your client. The action is based on an economic tort called “interference with contractual relations.” If you have a legal contract with your client and the rival agent is the cause of your client breaking your contract, you may have a claim. Your client need not even sign with the rival agent who caused the split. You need to prove that the agent caused the interference, and it helps to show that the agent had a bad motive and interests adverse to yours (easy to show if he is a rival). But it is not enough if you aim to show that the rival agent signed the player after your client broke your contract.
When I told my friend William Glover that I was planning on writing this post, he offered some of his own writing on the subject. Included in that writing is the following,
Of course, the right to make a living or to conduct one’s business is subject to the rights of others, and legitimate competition between businesses in seeking to gain customers would not give rise to this tort. This tort can be difficult to prove because of the right of competition. Generally, it is necessary to prove that the defendant intentionally persuaded another to breach a contract with the plaintiff.
This is a very competitive business, but I believe that there is a clear line between competition and intentionally persuading another to breach a contract. I can go up to a player, pitch him on my services, and then find out that he is already represented. I did not intentionally persuade the player to breach his contract in that situation, and if the player leaves his agent and signs with me thereafter, no harm and no foul. However, if I go up to that same player, knowing he has an agent, and I run down a list of 10 reasons why that player should fire his agent and hire me, am I guilty of intentionally persuading that player to breach his contract? I would think so! (and I may have a defamation claim as well)
So this one agent that I see quite often who likes to interrupt my conversations with families to mention that he likes to steal other peoples clients is not guilty of anything when he says things like that. However, those statements add to his culpability when you hear that he actually is successful in grabbing players from other agencies. Those kind of tactics are bound to get you in trouble. Do not mistakenly believe that just because you don’t hear about many interference with contractual relations lawsuits that there are no rules in this business. Most of the time, they are just not worth litigating. But again, sometimes they are. Such was the case with Aroldis Chapman, and while we will never know if Hendricks Sports Management was guilty of interference (the case was settled), Edwin Mejia thought that he had a strong enough case and that it was monetarily worth it to file an action in court.