Interview With The Agent: Marlon Sullivan
NFLPA Contract Advisor Marlon Sullivan may be the only football agent with a CrunchBase profile. Not only does Sullivan represent professional athletes, he also knows his technology and seems to have an entrepreneurial spirit. Recently, I caught up with Sullivan, who was once featured on this website for having his NFLPA Contract Advisor license suspended for six months after it was found that one of his employees gave money to a former college football player. Sullivan seems to have rebounded quite well since the suspension and is focused on being a positive influence on his football clients and developing his own business off the field. The following is the transcript of our recent discussion.
Darren Heitner: I want to start off by learning some information about your background. Where did you grow up? Where did you go to school? Where do you currently live?
Marlon Sullivan: I was born and raised in the great city of San Francisco and I’ve never left. I grew up in a neighborhood that had a sense of community compared to the neighborhoods right around the corner. The area was named “The Western Edition.” Four blocks from me were city projects where crime rose to its height in the 90’s. I’ve spoken in a numerous amount of settings to different people and I’ve always stated that the only difference between me and my other African American peers, is that I had a two parent household and the influence my father had over me. All young men need their fathers to be ACTIVE fathers and guide them to success. I’m a true believer that if I did not have my father I would not be where I’m at today.
My early years were absolutely awesome. The parenting I received in my young life shaped and molded me into the man I am today. I’m forever grateful to my mom Fatima Sullivan and father Marion Sullivan. My grades were average and I was a student athlete until high school ended. Once high school ended, my life changed for the better. I woke up one day and realized I had nothing going on. It was time to realize my talent. I applied to DeVry University as I was always great with computers. I learned visual basic and C++ at the age of 14. I launched my first basic website at the age of 14, which made DeVry University so appealing and only made sense. I applied for the business program with a concentration on business information systems. Let me tell you everything I learned at DeVry prepared me for my new venture SPANATIX. It was at DeVry University I came across a young woman who dated WR Sean Dawkins who in turn got me an internship with his agent, Angelo Wright.
I currently live in San Francisco. My office is in the heart of SOMA Downtown SF. I have two handsome boys Armani and Tristan Sullivan age 4 years old and 2 months old. My girlfriend and mother of both my children, Natalie Logan has been instrumental to my success since the day I met her. She has taken care of my boys including her son Aaron like no woman could. She is supportive and has made many sacrifices to ensure my career ascends and that I maximize my full potential. Natalie, I want to take this time to say “I Love You”.
What prompted you to want to become a football agent?
This is an interesting question as it starts back in my high school days. My old high school classmates who I run into on Facebook or around town always tell me, “Marlon you said you would become a sports agent and you made your dreams come true.” While in high school, I realized my talents on the field weren’t enough to go professional, but my talents off the field were. I would have debates every single day about football, who would win, who is the best players at certain positions, best coaches, systems and schemes, etc… I would find myself following the daily transactions, injury reports, news stories, collegiate prospects, on every team in football. Truthfully it only made sense to me to stay in sports, something I loved, and to have direct access with professional athletes, guys who look, talk, and share the same outlook on life, that I should become a sports agent. What’s not to like about being a sports agent? The income can be substantial (keyword: can be?), live a life on the road, deal with the sports media, build relationships with athletes who shape and make the leagues run, and be a part, while making a contribution, to the sport that I’ve loved since I was 3 years old.
When did you first become certified as an NFLPA Contract Advisor? Tell me a little bit about the process of becoming certified. Any fond/not-so-great memories of the NFLPA Contract Advisor examination?
I received my agent license in the summer of 2009 at the age of 24 (Youngest Certified Agent at the time). The ironic thing is this was the first year DeMaurice Smith took over as the head of the NFLPA. He did his induction speech, addressed the upcoming applicants and let me tell you, I was truly amazed. He’s able to grab your attention right from the beginning and maintain it throughout his speech. One thing Mr. Smith said that has stuck with me: “To the ones that become certified, hold your position in life as an agent as if it was holy. You are guiding the lives of young athletes not only related to football, but outside of it as well.” That stuck with me and ever since, and I have vowed to myself to ensure proper guidance and lead all my clients/friends in this thing we call life.
The process of becoming a sports agent differs by league/sport as you know, but it’s all very simple. For the NFL, per se, the current requirement is to have either a Graduate’s degree or sufficient negotiating experience. These requirements were changed in 2006 when the new Bargaining Agreement at the time was introduced. Again this was ironic, as in 2006 I graduated from DeVry University and had been interning with Angelo Wright for 6 months, I was ready to take the written exam and multiple question test to become licensed, but they changed the rules requiring a Graduate’s Degree. Not to let it deter me or give up, I hurried and applied for USF’s Sports Management (Which I heard was phenomenal) Graduate’s program. Upon graduation I applied for my agent license.
When I traveled to DC to take the examination, I had no worry what so ever. I knew every aspect of being a sports agent and every rule in the Collective Bargaining Agreement. My internship with Angelo Wright was very hands on and I was so prepared I did not need the 2 day seminar to refresh my memory. This is what I had dreamed of since high school. Angelo had entrusted me on multiple occasions to head the negotiating process with teams for our late round draft picks, un-drafted free agents and liaison on some of the bigger negotiations. I had been through three recruiting seasons, multiple presentations to players and parents, and the due diligence I did on my own part ensured I would pass. The greatest memories to me while preparing and taking the exam, was the amount of lawyers and other individuals taking the test who had NO experience in the industry were picking my brain on all the nuances and small things that a person could NEVER know because they have no practical experience in the industry. There are a ton of people out there who qualify to become an agent, but have no idea what the scope of job is and have no experience in the industry and want to become an agent because they think it’s an easy large paycheck.
Please describe your working relationship with agent Angelo Wright. Do the two of you co-represent any players? If so, how does the split on expenses and commissions work?
My current working relationship is pretty standard comparative to other agencies. Obviously I’m not an intern anymore. Angelo is the principle agent and we co-represent all players that I bring in or that we recruit together. We co-represent DE Jonathan Fanene (Bengals), DT Matt Toeaina (Bears), and WR Bakari Grant who is in the CFL. Angelo and I split all direct expenses on prospects/players that we are actively recruiting or co-representing. After all expenses are calculated and paid back, we split the commissions 50/50.
Who do you currently represent? Do you have a particular geographical focus when it comes to recruiting players?
As a firm “SportsWest Football” we have a numerous amount of NFL, UFL, and CFL clients. Some of the big names include Matt Toeaina, Jonathan Fanene, Pat Williams, and many more.
We are a national firm as we recruit collegiate prospects all over the country. Agencies such as ours do tend to recruit in their region for two reasons: (1) Recruiting Expenses; the cost of flying to games, meetings with parents, hotel, game tickets, rentals cars, and other expenses come into play. Simply, it’s cheaper and cost effective to primarily recruit in your area, but if you have a “IN” with a guy from Ohio State you do what you must to get there and actively try and sign the kid. (2) Notoriety; as a sports agent you tend to have a name/reputation in the area your agency is based. With the number of great football schools in our area (Cal, Stanford, San Jose State, etc.) it’s easy to recruit from whereas we will get a meeting based on reputation alone.
I am told that you also represent a boxer named Karim Mayfield. What do I need to know about Mayfield, and how did you come about representing him?
Karim Mayfield is an interesting story as he and I grew up in the same neighborhood. He is older than me by four years and I grew up looking up to him and other peers in the neighborhood. 6 months ago Karim came to me after parting ways with his current manager and asked for me to just help look over some promotional deals. Boxing is different, whereas most boxers have a manager/agent and sign with a promotional company to secure fights on their behalf. He knew I was a sports agent and just wanted my advice to look over the deals on the table and give advice on which one made sense for him. I had followed his career since he started boxing as we were friends and I had an opinion on what was needed to ascend his career and get to the next level. After speaking to all the promotional heads for each company, I made the recommendation to Karim to sign with Prize Fight Boxing. This was the less known smaller company out the bunch, but after speaking to them they had a clear sense of strategy and knew exactly what Karim was missing to get him to a world title shot. After the negotiations, Karim liked my business acumen approach and asked me to come on as a co-manager with his brother and friend Laron Mayfield. Laron and I are great friends and have been in business together for a long time so I happily accepted. In 6 months since we’ve been together, Karim Mayfield has fought Steve Forbes on ESPN 2 (First guy to defeat Forbes by way of TKO) and is scheduled to fight 2-time Olympian Patrick Lopez for the NABO 140 Jr. Welterweight title on the 1st of October at Fitzgerald’s Casino. I truly owe both Karim and Laron for giving me this shot, as representing a boxer has given me a new prospective on representing professional athletes. Boxing is different than Football as it’s not governed as heavily by a union. I’m able to use stricter negotiating tactics, solicit more endorsements/sponsorships, and build my overall sporting network. More importantly, I’ve been able to build a greater personal relationship with Karim as we are striving towards the goal of making him World Champion and a great human being.
I want all sports fans, boxing enthusiasts to be on the lookout for future World Champion Karim Mayfield. Some say his style is unorthodox; I call it unique. He has the punching power of a heavyweight but he weighs only 140 lbs. He’s exciting and he has what you call the “IT” factor. He’s handsome, has personality, caring, respectful and is truly a one of a kind athlete compared to his peers.
Pittsburgh and Syracuse were recently accepted to join the ACC. What are your thoughts about the recent shifting in conference alignment?
Two things come to mind when this topic is aroused. First, there is no governing body overseeing the re-alignments and controlling college football. When a team(s) is realigned for revenue purposes I see the benefits, but things that make college football great will be missed. The great rivalries that have been created, the college football traditions, and now there will be 2-3 great conferences and every other conference will be drastically below in terms of competition. Second, what about the other sports? Syracuse and Pittsburgh are the driving forces of the big east in Basketball and since the shifting, that conference will be dramatically affected. So when these decisions are being made, they need to think about the fans, traditions, rivalries and how this affects teams across all the sports.
I have also heard that you developed a new social networking platform for sports fans. You sound like quite the entrepreneur. Tell me some about this social networking site.
I was wondering when we were going to get to this question. Thanks for the compliment! Yes I have developed a social platform tailored for sports fans named SPANATIX (Sports + Fanatics). It was at the University of San Francisco where this idea was realized. My partner Ajit Sane and I were in a class taught by Professor Keir on Entrepreneurial Brand Management and the project was to create a company to pitch to potential VC’s (Investors). Most people create your standard sporting company: T-Shirts, Tournament, Sponsorship etc. but we wanted to do something innovative and different. This was when Twitter, Facebook and other social mediums were becoming widely popular in the mainstream with their growing user bases and valuations. Then it hit us; create a niche platform where the fanatical sports fans could give their opinion on their favorite teams/athletes or any popular sports topic currently trending. Most platforms are built for the league entities such as ESPN, CNNSI, Fox Sports, etc. but none is built for the SPORTS FAN. As a sports fan, who is my favorite team, who is my favorite athlete? What memorable moment made me fall in love with that the team? There are millions and millions of fans who share this passion for their interests in sports and want to talk about it. For me it was the first time I saw Marvin Harrison play Wide Receiver and I fell in love.
Our platform would still provide news, injuries, transactions, scores and things that these other platforms provide, but the key is how we provide it and why? If I’m a user and my favorite team is the San Francisco 49ers, we would provide the 49ers updates to that user. The user has access to all content, but it’s filtered and delivered based on user interest. Users can connect with other sports fans with similar or total opposite interest to have friendly banter and your normal sports trash talk. We consider our platform an extension of sports talk radio, but we allow ALL users to connect at the same time. More importantly, at the end of the day, at the end of all the trash talking, sports fans want to say who’s going to win and why?
This is where our signature application/feature was born. FanMeter is where we rank sports fans based on that very question. Users decide who’s going to win/lose based on their knowledge of the game (Injuries, Match-ups, Weather, History) and if correct they can brag and win points. If wrong, they lose points and credibility/rank as a sports fan. BTW, as an additional incentive users can also win prizes by trading in their accumulated points.
We are still in the BETA stage with 10,000 current users, and things are looking great. This platform was built by sports fans for sports fans as our mission is to change the way sports fans experience sports socially and online. Go to facebook.com/fanmeter, connect with your Facebook account and enjoy sports the way you like it.
What advice can you give to those who are interested in representing professional athletes?
To any and all aspiring sports agents, I recommend finding a mentor or acquiring an extensive internship with a well-known agent. The industry and business as it stands today is too difficult to start on your own. You need the hands-on experience, dealing with athletes, recruiting, dealing with teams/scouts/GM’s/ to ensure that becoming a sports agent is for you. The recruiting process alone is something a person should go through at least twice. Understanding the nuances of travel, cold calling, building relationships, analyzing talent (10k seniors only 200+ draft picks), and the cut throat competition. 90% of the players are represented by 15-20% of agents. Understand that this business is very costly and the cost to operate as a Self Employed agent is insanely high. Most agents are out the business after a couple of years or have other means to generate income because of this very reason. Remember you do NOT get paid, unless you have clients that are on the ACTIVE roster. If you fight through adversity, stay strong and do your job optimally then you have the qualities to succeed in this business. Remember, “chance favors the prepared mind”.