Each July, hundreds of hopeful NFL player agents flock to the NFLPA Headquarters in Washington, DC, to sit for the NFL Agent Certification Exam. For those who pass, they have taken the first step to becoming a “certified contract advisor.” The next steps, however, are the most difficult part of one of the most competitive job titles in the industry.
Hollywood has painted a portrait of talent and sports agents lineage that yells, “This is how the American dream should look.” In its eyes, “the best” is defined by those who woo A-list celebrities and professional athletes into accruing millions of dollars. Fictional agents, like Ari Gold from Entourage and Jason Antolotti from Ballers, are poster childs of that propaganda – that every agent should live a life full of Richard Mille watches and luxury vehicles. If that isn’t achieved, then your career as an NFL player agent is labeled a disaster.
There’s a hierarchy in this line of business and it’s been around since the first agent. But not everyone can be like CAA Sports’ Tom Condon, who conducted Detroit Lions QB Matthew Stafford’s $135 million contract of which nearly 50-percent of that was a signing bonus. Other hotshots have mustered up three-year, $84 million contracts, like Priority Sports and Entertainment’s Mike McCartney, who did that for Minnesota Vikings QB Kirk Cousins.
Each NFL player agent approaches his or her career differently – whether it’s based on a moral code or a rite of passage. However, there’s a governing body that regulates the who, what, where, when, why and how of an NFL player agent – the NFLPA. The NFLPA has been under siege since its most updated version of the CBA went into effect in 2011, which freezes financial discrimination among rookies and draft positions. And that’s only the beginning.
As a result of the unfavorable conditions, DeMaurice Smith, head of the NFLPA, doesn’t retain a lot of respect from those in the representation industry. In fact, 82 percent of a survey of NFL player agents, ranked Smith’s job performance from poor to fair. Despite the haste, the NFLPA’s existence is essential to curb unethical behavior by NFL player agents. It also gives smaller agencies and their start-up agents a chance to compete with the alphas, who represent 75-percent of NFL players.
Numbers aside, being an effective NFL player agent is even more of a subjective science. Additionally, NFL players are getting “more greedy” about who represents them, grading prospects on qualities such as trust and honesty.
Interested in a career as a NFL player agent? Consider the following questions before taking the leap:
Do you have emotional intelligence?
People may not be mind readers, but as an ambassador to your client, you must have some degree of knowledge in your client’s wants and needs without mumbling a single word to him.
Although you’re trying to serve your client, you also need an internal watchdog for your own welfare. Essentially, you are associated with a value and if your reputation doesn’t align with your client’s personality, then he’ll seek representation elsewhere. You must also commit to a high standard of professionalism or else you risk not only your image, but your client’s.
Take Joel Segal of Lagardere, for example, who was asked a question about one of his clients, who, according to some sources, didn’t demonstrate leadership as a starting college quarterback. Segal refused to retailiate and, instead, he maintained his composure, defending his client the right way: “…I was blown away by his passion for football, his intensity, his love for his teammates, and his humility.”
Are you willing to provide excellent customer service?
You could recite the entire Jerry Maguire film as an answer to this. At the beginning of the film, Dicky Fox had the truest of words to say to Maguire: “The key to this business is personal relationships.”
How do you develop a personal relationship in a business? You enhance the customer’s experience by offering the highest quality goods and services. As an NFL player agent, you want your client to have access to high-end training facilities during the NFL Combine, as well as electing him to extracurriculars, like community service. Tommy Sims of VaynerSports illustrates this concept perfectly by saying, “I can dive a little deeper…with value-added service on and off the field – helping clients work the locker room and understand politics.”
Where does your moral compass point?
If you’re not morally sound, then your client will suffer at the hands of your malpractice. Agent Josh Luchs learned this the hard way. Long story short, he bribed college players with money, concert tickets and urine tests for the purpose of baiting them as clients.
The relationship between Ricky Williams and Master P is another lesson in ethics as an NFL player agent. After leaving agent Andrew Brandt, ex-Texas Longhorns RB Ricky Williams settled for a career path that led to his demise by introducing rapper Master P of No Limit Sports as his new agent. Due to Master P’s negligence and poor negotiation tactics, misfortune struck Williams, who was promised a $68 million contract in 1999.
Moral of the story is that, as an NFL player agent, transparency is a cornerstone trait. It encourages trust, which leads to a healthier and more meaningful relationship between you and your client.
Are you collaborative?
Similar to the old adage, “Happy wife, happy life,” the same rings true for you and your client. The agent-client partnership isn’t a one-way street, so be prepared for a second marriage, or a first if you’re not already wed. Together, you and your client will undergo a series of decisions, which need to be made as a result of teamwork, unless the client specifies otherwise. If you’re a closed-door-policy type of agent, then you’re basically shunning your client in the direction of other agents.
What’s your psychological threshold?
To some extent, being an NFL player agent is a mind game, so mastering the M.O. of mind over matter is crucial to your survival in the industry. Agents need to be mentally ready to take heat in every form of the word. In due time, you’ll eat, sleep and breathe the least-of-liked R-word in the English language – rejection. Other mental challenges an NFL player agent faces happens on the front-lines of adversity and diversity. Developing a thick skin is imperative in this cut-throat industry.
A noteworthy trend among certified NFL agents is the growing number of minority agents, like Eritrean David Mulugheta. Mulugheta is a phenomenal agent and is very personable as a businessman, which is why he represents some of the NFL’s finest in Earl Thomas, Deshaun Watson and 2018 rookie Derwin James. Moreso, since the inception of the NFLPA exam in 2001, females have experienced and enjoyed a higher count in participation as test takers. Paving the way for female NFL agents of the 21st century include Kelli Masters, Molly Fletcher, Kim Miale, Kristen Kuliga and Kristin Campbell, who rewarded Atlanta Falcons RB Devonta Freeman with a five-year, $41.25 million contract.
The “F.A.T.E.” Variable
Flexibility: Who are you willing to be for your client?
Like a pillowcase stuffed with Halloween candy, variety is the spice of life.
NFL player agents need to be open-minded towards their client’s requests. Most of the time, the player is separated from his family and friends to focus on football, so it’s your responsibility to fill that void for him. It’s time consuming, but possessing a “pliable personality” is a building block in establishing credibility with your client.
Like David Mulugheta, who reportedly acted as a best man at a number of his clients’ weddings, Neil Schwartz of Schwartz & Feinsod was handpicked by his client, Terrell Davis, to present him with a gold jacket at the Hall of Fame Ceremony in 2017.
Availability: How much time are you willing to sacrifice for your client?
You might’ve allocated time and time again to sleepovers at a university library, but the cold hard fact is, that’s just the end of the beginning. Clients have an insatiable appetite for support, so it’s important that you treat your partnership as a 24/7 call center.
Many agents wouldn’t be able to count on their fingers and toes the number of times they were awaken in the dead of night to advise their clients. Other times, agents are circus acts, juggling their phones and scrambling between live in-person games to show support for their clients.
Time: Over time, what can you accomplish for your client? How much time will your client need to be where he wants to be, needs to be?
As an independent young man, the leading cause of getting an agent is reduced to dollars. Team contracts aren’t the only stream of revenue anymore. Players are also intrigued by the monetary advantages of sponsorships, which, in some cases, like Dak Prescott, end up being more than his rookie deal.
Over the course of a partnership, your client’s wants and needs will swing. At the start, your client will harvest his surroundings during his peak years in the NFL. Depending on which circumstances affect your client afterwards – whether it’s a career-ending injury or just a matter of disinterest or longevity – his agenda will change and you need to be ready to support him with the resources that you have on standby.
Elasticity: How far are you willing to stretch yourself out for the sake of your client’s happiness, success?
Spontaneity in the NFL is too routine to ignore. With that said, improvising is a trait that every effective NFL player agent should own. This is especially true during the NFL Draft and contract negotiation phases. As a traveling salesman, you’ll warm up to unscheduled trips and unwanted publicity that’s generated by your client. The outcome of your response to all of that will boil down to your on-the-spot creativity. In terms of elasticity, expectations are an NFL player agent’s worst enemy – neither every client is the same nor should every client be treated the same.
How you answer to all these questions will ultimately seal your fate as an NFL player agent, as well as your client’s fate within the league.
Because the percentage of individuals that actually pass the NFLPA exam is decreasing, certified NFL player agents will forever remain an exclusive club that’s bounded by its boundless personalities. While fame and fortune are the driving forces, they’re not the only benchmarks in judging who’s the caviar and who’s the chopped liver among the NFL player agent community.