Kirsten Simmons is a certified National Basketball Players Association Agent. Simmons received her Bachelor’s degree in Sports Management from the University of South Carolina-Columbia and currently works at Thread Sports Management in Toronto, Canada.
D’Bria Bradshaw: What made you pursue a career as a sports agent? Why Basketball?
Kirsten Simmons: Growing up in Canada, sports have always been an important part of my life. Our family was heavily involved in sports. All of us played competitive soccer and hockey, and I went on to compete in cheer, leading to opportunities in the United States. The experiences of competing, being coached by people who bring out your best, and understanding individual and collective accountability were essential parts of my character development. As I reflect on my past sports experiences, there is no doubt that my coaches and teammates were instrumental in providing me with important life lessons.
I attended the University of South Carolina and graduated with a degree in Sport and Entertainment Management. The experience of attending a major Division 1 sports program in the Southeastern Conference allowed me to witness the value of the sports industry from a North American and global market perspective as our men’s basketball team made it to the Final Four for the first time in school history. I also gained valuable insight from some of the top professors in the industry.
Canadian basketball history was made when three Canadians from my hometown of Toronto were selected in the first round of the NBA Draft. The unprecedented success for those players, made me further recognize that Canadian basketball was becoming quite prominent and on the rise. The previous stereotype that Canada was only a country that produced hockey players was no longer applicable.
The notion of entering the basketball world became more viable and realistic for a young Canadian woman as I interned at a basketball agency in Dallas; being able to work directly for an agent, see their everyday lifestyle, hustle, goals, ups and downs, I knew at that moment this is what I wanted to do. When I began doing research for classes on sports agents, I felt my calling and knew that I was up for the challenge.
My final internship was with an agent, Bernie Lee, based out of Toronto, who provided me with direction and guidance that supported and enabled me to become more confident. Bernie’s mentorship helped me to forge ahead in my chosen career path. Through my internship, I gained valuable real-world insights and experience. It allowed me to view the sport through the lens of an agent. I learned that I love being able to scout talent, build relationships with people and to foster my own and other’s growth within the industry. For me, all the elements that I just noted above are so inherent when becoming a sports agent and are factors that make me cherish what I am doing.
As I reflect on why I chose basketball, it was where I drew the greatest passion and could connect my prior sports experiences. Growing up in Toronto, which is known as one of the most multicultural cities in the world, I was able to experience the effects of the Vince Carter era. No longer was hockey the only sport of choice in Toronto. Witnessing how basketball brought a nation together and my time at South Carolina all had a strong influence on me to pursue a career in basketball.
The sport of basketball is global. No matter where you are in the world, or your economic class, you can participate in this sport. Basketball has created leagues and academies all over the world to help build infrastructure in various countries. The magic of the ball can lead you to anywhere in the world and is filled with opportunity.
The choice of becoming certified in the sport was much easier because of my passion and the rise of basketball’s popularity in Canada.
As an agent I wanted to become certified in a league that ultimately wants the best for their players. Through effective leadership and governance, the NBA shows they care for their players and fans. The league and union are collaborative and always mindful of their players, understand their player’s challenges, fight for them and are respectful that talent makes the business. The league, alongside the players association, has endless programs, resources and guidance that support their players during and after their playing careers are done and allows them the platform to speak up about what they believe in.
DB: What are the biggest hurdles you’ve faced in your career?
KS: The challenges I have faced are similar to what most people would find starting out in this industry. One challenge is the notion of instantaneous financial gain. The majority of entry-level jobs are unpaid internships. Sports agencies rarely hire entry-level positions as agents, unless they are bringing a client to the table. Most of the larger agencies often hire entry-level positions in athlete marketing, client service, PR, social media coordinators, assistants to agents, etc. While they provide good variety, positions with larger agencies are difficult to acquire, as they are usually the result of previous work done through their own internship programs.
Many other entry roles are only commission based. In a sense, it means they are a continuation of your internship.
Another monetary challenge is the up-front investment required to become an agent. Considerations must be given to financial backing and finding other sources of income starting out. Between travel, hotels, yearly certification dues, training etc., it is critical that you evaluate when the timing is right to get certified. This timeline will be different for everyone.
As a Canadian, it has been difficult finding US work sponsorships. It is already challenging to acquire work sponsorship within agencies, but it is rare to find them as a certified agent. Relationship building through my internships has enabled me to make credible connections within the industry that led to a full-time job. I have also realized with the expansion of sports to a global level there are many new opportunities. As a Canadian, I do not feel limited at all! Living in a major city like Toronto is just as easy as being in Dallas. At the end of the day, travel is travel!
Before the pandemic, I was adjusting to a lot of travel and always being on the go! With traveling, there are a lot of sacrifices made like missing holidays or family events. But it is just one of the many sacrifices that are required to be successful in this field.
However, I do not think any of these hurdles have been impossible to overcome. When looking at challenges you need to tackle them head-on and be reflective in your approach using past experiences. Overcoming these obstacles has led me to be more self-reflective and self-directed. This in turn has guided me to make wise decisions about choices in the industry and what I was looking for in an agency.
DB: If you could give the 18-year-old version of yourself advice, what would it be?
KS: I would tell my 18-year old self when I first decided to pursue a career in basketball to enjoy the process! When we rush, we do not stop to enjoy how we got to where we are today. The magic is in the process – do not rush it. Through it, you will learn, grow and gain valuable insight that will be carried with you the rest of your career.
This industry is tough, so instant gratification is highly unlikely. Overall, this is a very rewarding career and I know that if I make the sacrifices I need to, I have what it takes. To succeed in this industry, you must be assertive depending on the situation, personable, empathetic when required and be able to communicate. I’ve heard numerous times that this is a competitive field, and now I understand why.
There is no checklist that fits all, but I know you need to make sacrifices, take advantage of internships, volunteer and realize that success does not happen overnight.
I would also tell my 18- year old self to be your own judge of how you measure success. In this industry it is so easy to compare yourself to other people – don’t! Everyone’s journey to success is different, and it is a part of our story that makes us who we are. Measure success by your players thanking you and letting you know you have helped them grow off and on the court. Just remember your calling and what you are meant to do. Keep an open mind and be prepared to learn and grow with your players. And lastly, never lose sight of who you are or where you came from. Continue to inspire, touch lives and make an impact in this world. You were given this platform for a reason.
DB: Where do you see the landscape of sports, specifically basketball, going once we as a society create a new normal post COVID-19?
KS: This year has been a very difficult and unpredictable year for everyone. The landscape of sports has been altered by this pandemic. However, I believe the value and appreciation for personal connections and bonds has been enhanced as we walk through these unprecedented times. As the NBA season resumes in Orlando, we need to expand and strengthen those connections to focus on ending social injustice and racism. As life begins to get back to a new “normal” after the pandemic, the conversation shifts from social distancing to social responsibility. Let’s make the choice to leave behind those injustices that were accepted in the past. We need to support players that use their position in society to fight for justice. We have lost so many lives due to one disease and still need to fight the disease of racism. Sports help maintain the status quo but can also change society. Society is extremely invested and dependent on sports. It helps people come together no matter your race, gender, ethnicity, etc.
The players returning for this season are still strongly fighting for equity and social justice. The NBA, along with their players, has always used their platform to speak about the injustices going on in our world. When sports return, we will see athletes continue to use their voice to motivate positive change. We have already heard the NBA is allowing players to put a message of choice relating to social injustice on their jerseys. This is just one example as to how the league is already making a difference. If all 300 players have “Black Lives Matter” on their jersey the message becomes redundant and lost by getting overlooked. Instead, allowing each player to be specific with causes and messages goes much further. These jerseys alone will spark conversations that otherwise may not have been discussed bringing more awareness to the front. Collectively and individually these players have so much power and it is all about using great influence to do important work.
Sports bring people together from all over the world, enabling everyone to compete and work together towards a common goal. Sports provide the opportunity to build trust, loyalty, faith, teamwork, and dedication. In the past, sports have led the way towards collaboration and progress, and could do so again in the future. We need to continue to celebrate diversity and be clear that silence is acceptance of racism. The next generation is going to be the most diverse group of young people and these athletes are the ones that have the influence on our youth. It’s time we start to use sport as a positive force for equality.
Sports are a reflection of a functioning society. In order to have the ability to have sports happen we need to have a functioning society. We are living in a time of massive struggle. The NBA is a platform for players to provide an example to society. More than anything, I really hope that post-COVID-19 these issues are still at the forefront and that we make progress.
DB: How do you balance your time between the different clients you have, their schedules and their needs?
KS: In terms of balance, every client like every agent is different. You need to be able to read personalities and really take the time to get to know your clients. Doing so helps with certain things that may seem simple. I know some clients are slower to respond and have a busy schedule, so if there is something urgent or could be misinterpreted, I just pick up the phone and have a 5-minute phone conversation instead of going back and forth over text. I know a lot of people do not like talking on the phone, but sometimes it’s easier this way.
I always work with people that are respectful and mindful of your time. Your players need to appreciate you if you are putting in the work for them.
In a service-based industry, time management is a critical skill. I am very organized, so between my agenda, calendar, iPhone notes and sticky notes, I make sure to wisely utilize my time. Phones and technology have made life easy enough to be accessible and able to work wherever I am (except driving!).
It is also important to realize that this is not a 9 to 5 job, especially given the global nature of the sport. The bottom line is that I just focus on prioritizing everything and always keep an eye on what benefits each player the most.
DB: What advice would you give to young women that want to pursue a career in athlete representation?
KS: I would say that the job is not glamorous, and you need to be prepared for secondary, not primary limelight. The greatest trait you can bring to the able is being selfless and putting your client first.
You cannot be a bystander and be successful. You must be fully engaged, get involved, and take advantage of every opportunity to learn more about the various roles you can play. Internships are a great way to see what you like and don’t like. I found these experiences incredibly useful in guiding my journey.
Do not be limited in your scope. There are many different avenues to sports as a career. Being an agent is only one of many paths. Alternatives include marketing, player representation, roles with teams and leagues, etc.
On a personal note, I would say that if you are going to work for a company, make sure that employer is respectful. Ensure you are in a safe learning environment and there will never be a time that you are put in a situation that jeopardizes your reputation.
My advice is to just focus on being the best you can be, regardless of gender. Gender has no bearing on one’s ability to perform any of the roles I mentioned above. Everyone has their own personal strengths. You just need to leverage those strengths to make the biggest difference that you possibly can. Know when to walk away, and always go with your gut instincts.
If you always focus on serving your client ethically, you can never go wrong, and you will have no regrets. It’s as simple as that, and don’t just solely focus on being a female.
DB: What’s the best piece of advice you’ve received about maneuvering through this industry?
KS: Never lose sight of who you are or why you chose to enter this field. I entered this field because I love it. It’s my passion. So, when little things might get me down, I just remember why I’m doing it, and remain thankful that I’ve been given the opportunity.
Focus on the well-being of your players. That means everything…short-term, long-term, health, happiness, prosperity, etc. If I do that, everything else will fall into place. Both for them, and for me.
Always act ethically and you will be able to sleep well at night knowing you did the right thing.
There are times that you will be faced with a decision where there is no clear right or wrong answer. Ethics refers to principles and concepts of right and wrong and are used to help make decisions involving concepts like truth, justice, honesty, right and fairness. However, ethics do not always provide conclusive answers. Sport reflects a society’s ethical standards and contains its own qualities and societal structures or institutions. For example, Western culture’s drive for profit and winning could adversely motivate someone. Ethics can help ensure that the right decision is made. If your conscience or moral compass is where it should be, your judgement and ethics will rarely be challenged. Being ethical is the most important quality I can exhibit.
To be successful in the sports industry, I believe that one must also be loyal, caring, flexible, empathetic, and compassionate to the exclusion of personal wishes and advancements.
DB: If there’s one part of the sports agency business you could change, what would it be and why?
KS: I would love to see more agencies offer paid entry-level roles so that those who have completed internships and know they want to enter this industry have a way to do so while earning a livable wage. Being an NBA agent is absolutely a full-time job. If you have to find another source of income, you won’t have the time needed to do this job right.
I’ve been very fortunate to be mentored by Bernie, who has helped me understand additional ways to bring value to the industry while expanding my income opportunities. That’s why I made the point above about internships. I highly recommend testing the waters with an agency to make sure it is the right environment for you starting out.
To stay in touch with Kirsten, you can follow her on social media: Twitter: @KirstenSimmons | Instagram: @KirstenSimmons