The following interview was conducted by Matt Tympanick. The subject of the interview is Gideon Cohen, Vice President-Sports Broadcasting at IF Management. In his role as Vice President-Sports Broadcasting, Mr. Cohen oversees all areas of IF’s Sports Division, including current and retired athletes, coaches and on-air sports personalities. From 2000-2003, Gideon served as IF’s Director of Broadcasting, managing the careers of sports and news media personalities, negotiating contracts with media outlets such as ESPN, Fox Sports Net, WFAN and MSG Network. Before returning to IF Management full time in 2005, Mr. Cohen served as the Head of On-Air Talent for College Sports Television from 2003-2005, where he consummated deals for more than one-hundred broadcasters, athletes and coaches, including: NY Mets/TBS baseball analyst Ron Darling, former North Carolina Men’s Basketball Coach Matt Doherty and countless others.
1. How did you get your start in sports management and player representation? If you remember, what was your first week like?
About a week before I graduated from Syracuse University in 2000, my father called me with a potential job lead. A long-time family friend of ours had randomly encountered a friend at a party who owned a company that represented sportscasters and was looking for an intern. I knew athletes had agents, but – despite spending four years at the top journalism school in the country – was not aware broadcasters had them too. The family friend turned out to be Steve Herz, President of IF Management and (fourteen years later!) the rest is history. At the time I accepted the internship at IF, I was still very much interested in pursuing my dream of working as a play-by-play voice (after all, the ink was still drying on my parents’ hefty check to Syracuse) – and I was planning on continuing to send out demo tapes while I interned at IF. But right off the bat, I became hooked on the business side of things. My first week at IF was eye opening. For a sports broadcasting fanatic/encyclopedia/nerd like myself, I had stumbled into a treasure trove. It might sound hokey, but talking about sports broadcasting – the salaries, the job openings, the talent evaluation, the demo tapes – was “catnip” for me. I was always in love with the who’s, what’s and where’s of sports broadcasting and I had found the perfect outlet. I wanted to be a sponge and soak up everything that was around me – and that passion undoubtedly led to Steve offering me a full-time position within several weeks of my internship.
2. Who was your first client and how did you convince him/her that you were the best set to represent their interests?
I started working with a young sportscaster in Cedar Rapids, Iowa named Chris Miller. Chris was recommended to our firm by ESPN Regional Producer (now ESPNU CP) John Vassallo, who was using Chris as a freelance college football sideline reporter. Chris and I immediately hit it off and connected – I think he liked the fact that we were both young, getting our careers started and that we could grow together. Chris was able to make a huge jump from Cedar Rapids to Cleveland and ultimately to where he currently works at Comcast Sportsnet in Washington, DC. He remains a client and a great friend. Within months, I also started representing two of my friends from college – Carter Blackburn and Adam Zucker – who are still clients and now both working at CBS Sports (Carter as a play-by-play voice; Adam as a studio host).
3. What are some of the biggest challenges you face day-to-day in the sports management industry?
We’ve always tried to be incredibly selective about who we take on as clients – we want to work with folks who we truly believe in both on and off the air and who we think will be partners with us for the long-term. We have been extremely successful thus far in sticking to our core principles and standards in terms of signing new clients. That said, it’s no secret that the sports television business is in a golden age right now with more networks, games – and thus more on-air jobs (and to take it a step further, more money!) than ever before. It’s certainly tempting to see all of these opportunities and fall into a trap of signing more clients because there is more demand. We need to remind ourselves constantly that we’ve built a reputation on doing just the opposite and that we need to keep our client base tailored to include only those who represent our values.
4. Tell me about your experiences Head of On-Air Talent for College Sports Television and how it differs from working at IF?
After three years of working for IF right out of school (2003), I was hit with a feeling that – at 24 years old – I needed to experience something new in my life. I always had an interest in production – and a start-up network called CSTV seemed like a a great place to cut my teeth. I was initially hired as a Production Assistant but when I walked in on my first day, I was directed to two large file cabinets filled with VHS tapes – hundreds of demos from talent across the country who aspired to work for us. Since I was the only one in the building (which isn’t saying much since there were only about 30 of us) with experience dealing with talent and agents, I was asked if I would organize the tapes and “pull” any I thought might be worth showing the execs. That led to me reaching out to agents, running the auditions (even operating the camera) myself, and eventually negotiating contracts (weird for me to be on the “other side” of things). I never actually became a PA – instead I was put in charge of securing and overseeing talent for all of our studio shows and more than 300 live events per year (everything from football to water polo…let me tell you, it’s a marketable skill to be able to “find” a good water polo analyst). When all was said and done, we had memorable talent on our air in those first couple of years like Michelle Beadle, Seth Davis, Greg Amsinger, Adam Zucker, Carter Blackburn, Aaron Taylor and Seth Greenberg – plus many others who have gone on to very successful careers.
CSTV was thrilling and really unlike any professional experience I’ve ever had. I dealt with every agent in the business – so I learned what worked and didn’t work which would help me (little did I know) later in my own agent career. More importantly though, I became educated in “how the sausage gets made” in the TV business, and along the way worked with some truly amazing, talented people who taught me more than I could ever really put into words.
5. What is the biggest difference between representing an athlete vs representing a sports broadcaster that people may not think of?
Obviously an entirely different set of relationships, people, contracts, salaries, etc…just inherently a completely different business. What I find the most stark though is that – when we work with former athletes who are making the transition to television – we really have a major hand in “teaching” the business to them. It’s completely new to them on a conceptual level. When a football player is a rookie, he doesn’t need anyone to explain to him what a “block” or “tackle” is. But a 15-year NFL veteran who is stepping into the booth for the first time most likely has no idea how to prepare, what do say, when to say it, what a director is, how to use their voice, etc. These are people who have been playing sports their whole life and now they are stepping into an entirely new profession. That’s obviously not the case when representing an athlete – the “measurables” are pretty clear. Working in broadcasting is a lot more like an office job, which most athletes have never experienced.
6. What skills do you consider to be essential for success as a sports agent?
The most under appreciated skill in life: listening. You have to just shut your mouth and listen sometimes…to clients, potential clients, executives, co-workers, your wife, your Mom…everyone really. You can’t think, visualize, appreciate or fully understand a situation if you’re so concerned with advancing your own agenda that you can’t be patient and first consider someone else’s. This business is all about sales – and the best salesmen are good listeners. Why? Because it’s a lot easier to SELL if you actually HEAR what the customer wants first!
7. Technology and social media have changed sports media; how has technology affected the field of sports management and player representation?
When I first walked into the IF offices (all the way back in the good old 00’s), we were editing tapes by pressing “play” and “record” on VHS machines (and in some cases 3/4 machines if anyone remembers those). Now, we do all of our editing on macs and can email demo links to executives, enabling them to watch within seconds. We are also able to review and access contracts, demos, and other essential materials immediately on our iPhones – making it seamless when we travel (which we do constantly) and/or can’t be in the office. We’re all over twitter and various social media to keep up with industry news and trends.
8. How do you decided on a strategy when entering contract negotiations?
It’s a combination of understanding who you’re negotiating with on both macro and micro levels – and what the client’s true value is to that respective network. We obviously have a job to do for our clients to get them the best deal we possibly can – but at the same time, we are realistic with our clients in terms of expectations and what the market holds. There’s a pretty big difference between making ridiculous demands and acting like a jerk vs. fighting for your clients in a smart, strategic way. You’re going to lose credibility pretty quickly with who you’re negotiating with if you act unreasonably, and I’m pretty sure your client doesn’t want to be represented by someone who behaves that way and has a bad reputation. Obviously it’s incumbent upon you as an agent to have all the information you possible can and do your research. I also like to lay out our position and just be brutally honest about what we are looking for – rather than playing games and wasting everyone’s time.
9. What is one piece of advice you’d give to someone deciding to start a career in sports management?
This is an ultra competitive business, so you need to stand out (and most likely be willing to work for little or no money at first!). There are tons of young people who are “smart, hard working, and love sports.” I hear that line about ten times a week. What I really want to know is, how can you help us? We are always shocked by the job candidates who interview at our offices and know nothing about our specific business. They couldn’t name three sportscasters – let alone clients of ours. That’s not exactly going to “wow” anyone, so I’d recommend doing a ton of homework before you interview/start a job and be as curious and inquisitive as you can be to learn.
I also would recommend starting your career at a place that will let you do as much as you can as quickly as possible. You need to learn every side of the business – it’s the details that will make or break your career in the long run.
10. Does your company offer internships for individuals looking to get a jump start in the industry?
Absolutely – as long as they arrive at their interview being able to name more than two sportscasters, we’ll be happy to talk further!