The following interview was conducted by Matthew Hochberg. The subject of the interview is Jim Tanner, a sports agent/attorney with Williams & Connolly LLP. According to HoopsHype.com, Mr. Tanner currently ranks as the 7th best NBA agent (based on the aggregate amount of his clients’ contracts). Over the years, he has received numerous awards and honors, including being ranked as one of “Washington’s Top Lawyers” for media and sports law by Washingtonian Magazine (December 2004, 2009, and 2011), selected as a recipient of the “Forty Under 40 Award” by Sports BusinessJournal (March 2006), identified by the National Law Journal’s elite list of “40 Under 40” (May 2005), selected by Sports Illustrated as one of the “101 Most Influential Minorities in Sports” (June 2004 and May 2003), and identified by Black Enterprise’s hot list of “America’s Most Powerful Players Under 40” (December 2005). (via http://www.wc.com/jtanner)
Matthew Hochberg: How did you originally get into the sports agent industry?
Jim Tanner: I went to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill for my undergraduate degree where I became friends with several future NBA and NFL players. I always followed sports as a fan and followed my friends’ careers in particular, but never planned to be an agent. When I went to law school, I joined the Entertainment and Sports Law Society because it seemed interesting, but again, I didn’t anticipate a career in sports. I graduated law school, moved to DC and chose a career in corporate and transactional law, which I practiced for 4 years. I loved the negotiations aspect of corporate law and thought corporate law was a great foundation, but I also couldn’t see myself doing that for the rest of my life. Just when I was thinking about what I wanted to do with my career, I got a call about Williams & Connolly looking for a corporate attorney to join their sports practice, which at the time represented Grant Hill and had just signed Tim Duncan. It was perfect because I was looking for a change and it seemed like an opportunity ideally-suited to my skill set and interests.
Matthew Hochberg: How did you handle your first contract negotiation?
Jim Tanner: My first contract negotiation was in 1997 when I first got to Williams & Connolly. We were working with Nikki McCray who had just been named the MVP of the ABL. At the time, both the WNBA and ABL were getting started, and they were competing for the top players. Because Nikki had just won the ABL championship and had been named MVP, we had a lot of leverage in our negotiations with the WNBA and the ABL. As a result, we were able to get a fantastic result for Nikki and were able to incorporate a number of very creative elements into her contract. That first experience taught me how important leverage is to a sports negotiation.
Matthew Hochberg: Jeremy Lin recently hired you as his agent; what is an athlete looking for when choosing an agent to represent them?
Jim Tanner: The first thing I’ll say is that Jeremy is a great guy and such an outstanding fit for our practice. He is not only a hard worker, but one of the most humble people I’ve ever met. He’s the perfect example of good things happening to good people. I think Jeremy chose to work with us because it was truly a great fit. Jeremy shares many of the same principles in his professional life that we do as a practice. I think when athletes choose representation, it’s largely about who they feel most comfortable with. Every athlete is different and considers different things to determine what makes them comfortable. I believe that our clients chose us because they were attracted to our professionalism, our results, the personal attention we give due to our smaller client roster and the amount of money we’re able to save them by charging by the hour as opposed to taking a percentage of their contracts.
Matthew Hochberg: Speaking of Lin, are both of you satisfied with his move to Houston? Would you have preferred him to stay with the Knicks?
Jim Tanner: We are very happy with Jeremy’s return to the Rockets. During free agency, the Rockets made a great presentation to Jeremy that really focused on basketball, his role on the team and their plans for the future. Jeremy also felt very comfortable with Kevin McHale. Beyond that, we also felt that the Rockets were well-positioned as a platform for the tremendous attention Jeremy receives from international fans. Needless to say, we’re very excited about the season and Jeremy’s future in Houston.
Matthew Hochberg: How do you plan on expanding “Linsanity” as a global brand?
Jim Tanner: Jeremy is already a global brand. I think he has to continue doing what he did to get to this point: Continue being an exciting player on the court and continue to be the humble, approachable everyman that he is off the court. I believe that “Linsanity” was such a phenomenon because everyone could see themselves in Jeremy. He’s not incredibly tall, he didn’t come from a basketball powerhouse college, he wasn’t expected to be a great NBA player and yet he overcame all expectations to catch the NBA by storm last year. As far as his marketing and endorsements are concerned, at this point, it’s about choosing the right opportunities, opportunities that are consistent with his brand and are authentic.
Matthew Hochberg: You also represent Ray Allen; how do you respond to those who say Allen “betrayed” the Boston Celtics organization and their fans by joining the Miami Heat?
Jim Tanner: Ray certainly didn’t betray anyone. He loved his time with the Celtics and made significant contributions to that franchise’s success. He was sad to leave the Boston community and their fans. Nevertheless, free agency is an opportunity to consider 29 other teams and to weigh any number of factors. Ray listened to and considered pitches from a number of teams that reached out to him, including Boston. At the end of day, he went through a thorough and deliberative process that resulted in the right decision for him and his family.
Matthew Hochberg: While representing such high-profiled clients such as Lin, Allen and Tim Duncan, among others, how do you find time to give each of them as much personal attention as needed?
Jim Tanner: As I mentioned before, we intentionally keep our practice small so that we are able to give each client the personal attention they deserve. That’s something that’s really important to us.
Matthew Hochberg: You represent NBA and WNBA players; what is the biggest difference when dealing with men and women basketball players?
Jim Tanner: As I said earlier, I’ve been representing WNBA clients since ’97. There is absolutely no difference in how hard they work or their dedication to their craft. I’m always amazed by how hard clients like Tamika Catchings and Alana Beard work to improve every year. I’ll never forget watching Idan Ravin put Alana and some NBA draft prospects through the same drills. She was killing them. Unfortunately, the biggest difference between the men and the women is the size of their contracts. The maximum WNBA contract is about 2% of the size of the average NBA contract. Obviously, that’s a big difference and hopefully one that will shrink as the WNBA continues to mature and to attract more fans.
Matthew Hochberg: What is your most memorable experience as a sports agent?
Jim Tanner: It’s hard to choose one experience. I’ve been fortunate enough to have so many memorable experiences as an agent and to meet and represent many fascinating clients. If I had to choose one experience, it would probably be my first trip to China with Shane Battier who had just begun endorsing PEAK. That trip was memorable because it showed me how global basketball had become since I first began representing players in ’97. The crowds were incredible and the fans were truly excited to interact with Shane. The other thing it demonstrated was the power of sports as a cultural bridge. You get a general sense of that as an observer of the Olympics, but you truly feel it when you’re actually on such a trip.
Matthew Hochberg: What are your future goals as a sports agent?
Jim Tanner: I would say as an agent to continue to build this practice and to continue to get the type of clients like John Henson and Jeremy Lin who we added to our practice this year.
Matthew Hochberg: What advice can you share with our readers who one day hope to become sports agents?
Jim Tanner: I would say, two things are really important. First, there’s absolutely no substitute for doing well in classes and getting the best grades you possibly can get. It has a ripple of effect that can dictate the opportunities that are presented to you. Also, don’t be shy about trying to expand your network at a very early age. Most people are willing to help and to give advice. Young people in college and graduate school should certainly reach out to those who are established professionals to learn from their experiences.
Matthew Hochberg: On behalf of SportsAgentBlog.com and all of our readers, I would like to thank Mr. Tanner for sharing his knowledge and personal experiences with us. You can check out his company’s website at http://www.wc.com/practice-profile-530.html.