Akin-Solanke-Caulker is the Founder & CEO of The Athletic Network Corporation, a sports agency founded in 2016 headquartered in London’s West End. Caulker, by his own admissions, was not as good as some of his peers who now play for England rugby, soccer, or track and field, but he did play semi-professional rugby in the lower leagues, giving him a valuable insight into contracts and the business of sport.
Sport Agent Blog interviewed the articulate and charming Akin Solanke-Caulker about his journey in the industry, his unique story about OVO, and his goals for the upcoming years:
“What was growing up in LA like and how do you think that affected your choice to work in the sports industry”
First and foremost, I still remember it like it was yesterday. I have family friends who are still there, some of my oldest friends in fact from ( I’m showing my age here) 1996 or 1997 are from Los Angeles and the surrounding area. For me, as a six or seven-year-old, I was living life in the sunshine and it felt like an extended holiday, but what I didn’t know was that subconsciously I was soaking in everything around me; from going to Venice Beach and seeing pick-up games on the concrete courts and seeing how animated people get, and if they were wearing certain Jordans or certain brands just to go play a game of basketball. Obviously, you can’t get away from the Lakers, but funny enough I used to wear a Chicago Bulls jersey when I was younger, not a Magic or Kareem. I think the MJ aura is like a non-soccer fan going and getting a Real Madrid Cristiano Ronaldo jersey and not knowing why, but just knowing and accepting he’s the man. For me, I was wearing that Bulls jersey around, but it all went into the melting pot of creating who I am now in terms of understanding how to tell an athlete’s story. One thing that you will notice with our talents is whenever we sign them to a deal or even showcasing myself as an agent, I am ALWAYS telling a story behind the scenes such as “this is how we got this done,” “this is why we are doing this,” or “this is how this deal became what it was because the player has this passion.” As Europeans, we don’t do enough of that. American sports do a fantastic job of really digging deep into the DNA of who their talents are. In Europe, we are a lot more surface-level and that is just a cultural difference. LA definitely shaped me. I love it. I have been back a few times, even went back in 2018, and attended one of the NBA All-Star parties. Shout out to my girl, Sam Baker, at Jordan who hooked me up, I took Cassius Marsh, who played at the time with the 49ers as a linebacker. We went to this party with Martin Blencowe, one of the founders of Cameo, and it was insane. I was walking around Mark Wahlberg’s house and there’s Steven A. Smith here, Kyrie Irving here, even some of the actors from Ballers were there. MJ, himself, over there. I am looking forward to getting back to LA soon.
“You mentioned that you have agents or figures that you follow closely, who are some examples?”
First and foremost, it was so important for me to understand who came first. Who led the market, when sports agencies began? Who was the Godfather or Godwoman? What were the differences from then to now? I find it crazy that someone could come into this business, and not know what they are walking into, and they just place themselves into the present-day timeline here and don’t look back. For me, the Last Dance was a real eye-opener because truth be told I didn’t know too much about David Falk beforehand (Michael Jordan’s agent). After watching it, I did more research on Falk than Jordan, such as understanding how he started at ProServ the tennis-focused agency and digging into how he used to broker deals by really making sure that he knew where the market was in terms of positional salaries. As an agent, you should always have an understanding of where the market is, but now it’s like I’m really focused on making sure because it moves so quickly. I might have a Center Forward, who plays for the X team, who is paid a certain amount, but when he or she wants a new deal renegotiated, it is my job to know what the other top players in that position are being paid. David Falk has been a huge part of really understanding that.
Bringing it more into the present day, I really have a lot of respect for Zeke Sandhu, from ELITE Athlete Management, who represents Odell and a whole lot of other clients. What I really like about Zeke is that he has organic relationships with his talents, when I make my move into U.S. sports I’m calling him for sure. With the players that I represent, it’s exactly the same. It’s about more than just the player/agent relationship, my players sometimes tell me some information and I’m like “Oh my gosh “, but when you pick an agent, they should be an extension of your family. Your agent should be someone you can turn to and talk to and confide in, not just when it is contract time.
And lastly, I have a family that is FILLED with women, and one thing that I always have been very comfortable with is a powerful woman. So when I see agents like Nicole Lynn on the NFL side, Allison Galer on the WNBA side, Fara Leff @ Klutch, and on the marketing side, a close friend of mine, Lindsey Waterhouse – when I see them crushing it, I love it. I should give a mention to Alexa Stabler on the NFL side too, who is on my podcast Agent on Agent.
It’s hard enough to be a sports agent as a man because this is a very competitive industry, but in this patriarchal society I definitely get hyped when a female agent does well, and by the way, they’re not in the positions they are because of equality or diversity or any of those buzz words – they’ve EARNED every single deal, player, or accolade that they get.
“What makes your agency different?”
I’m always hesitant to answer this question because I like to sell The Athletic Network through what we do – I’m big into action. Anyone can pay for a really nice website or for fresh apparel and all that drip, but to actually do the work and be there for your client is huge. One of the things I always ask prospective clients and their families is “Tell me what you think is better: an agent who has 2 clients, not necessarily big clients or super well known, but everything that they have asked for the agent does, OR an agent who has all of the flashing lights, 100 players with super big contracts, but none of them have got what they have asked for. I always ask the clients and their families who would be the better agent, and for me, it is the first one. He or she has listened, gone into the market, and delivered. A lot of people only see top agents like the ones who have the most salaries under management or who made the most commission, but that’s what sports agency is. If you break down the word agent, it comes from the Latin word agenus which means “to do” – so first and foremost we’re different because we do, we don’t just talk about it.
Every single day we are working. We have quarterly meetings with our clients where we go over what targets they want to hit. Are they happy with the team they are with currently or do they want us to look for a new team? Do they have a boot deal? If so, are they happy with that brand? We look to see if they want to do more with charities or launch Youtube pages. We really sit down and say this is where the client wants to get to, and these are the steps that it will take to get there, and that’s how we will get it done. Our second difference is our core values, of which we have 4: Number one is to believe that you’re the best, I’m not trying to represent someone who doesn’t have the hunger to be a top dog. The second is to leave a legacy, you have to be in it for more than just a big paycheck or to have nice cars. I’m in sports agency to leave a legacy, I want a bronze statue of me in Stoke Newington where I’m from or maybe on my gravestone, it will say “ Here lies Akin the Agent. He changed the game.” The third value is take risks – nothing ever came from playing it safe and finally, the last one is – do. Don’t just talk about being the best, don’t just talk about all these things you want to do – Go out and DO the work: seek out new coaches, new ways of training, preparing your mind – whatever it is.
“What are some of the differences between the European and American markets from a sports agent’s perspective ?”
I study both markets from a fan’s point of view. For example, right now Naomi Osaka is going crazy with her profile. During a post-game interview at the Australian Open, she talked about how she had Greek food one night and then a Greek player beat Nadal, so she was going to keep eating Greek food, and it’s that authenticity that athletes in the U.S. have in bucket loads, you would never hear an English athlete saying that. A lot of that is because in England it is seen as if you are doing something other than your sport, you are not focused, which is nuts. Anyone who saw The Last Dance, saw Michael Jordan make Space Jam in the summer, and then went on to win another championship that season. If you can film one of the most iconic films and win a championship, there is no way that “off-field endeavors” take away from your focus. It is all about the player. If you are performing on the court, pitch, or field, then there should be no problem for you to be building your brand. For example, Hector Bellerin, who is an Arsenal football player, does a great job building his brand in fashion. He plays for a big team in England but also has that alter ego so to speak. In the US, athletes are really marketed from the college-level, even the high school level as you can see on QB1 on Netflix. In England, our equivalent to QB1 would be like going to watch kids play hopscotch in the playground.
I remember watching an UNINTERRUPTED piece on Calais Campbell, an NFL player who was in free agency. They filmed the free agency’s ups and downs. His agent called him and his agent said, “I’ve got you 25 million dollars a year” and Calais says that’s amazing, but let’s see what X team says. His family was also there and you could see how he was feeling. These are things that build brand equity. So when the season starts, even if you may not be a huge NFL fan, if you happened to watch that piece, you will tune in. We don’t do that in Europe… yet. We are changing that, slowly but surely. Guys like Jack Sullivan, who is the managing director of West Ham women, are doing a great job telling stories. They had a documentary on BBC which was awesome. We do a great job with our production team, Roll the Dice, creating athlete’s stories, like with Laura Rafferty, who is one of our players. We created content based off of her ACL injury and how she came back from that. We have done the same with some players like Jadon Sancho and media platform Soccer Bible in like 2016, I need to find that footage, it’ll be gold dust now!
“What does a normal day look like for you during the season and during the off-season?”
Because of covid, I have not been out to a live game since this time last year around Valentine’s Day. In England, we only had a small window where fans went back to stadiums and then it got locked down again. In the season, it is a big part of what we do. We go to games to watch current clients, prospective clients, and also to network with different agents and sports directors. During a normal Monday-Friday, it is very hard to answer that question because no one day is the same. I sleep with my phones downstairs so they are not in the room with me. I could be going all night if I had them in the room with me. I wake up, look at the sky for a little bit, read a book for 10-15 minutes to get my brain working. From there, I check-in on all of my clients, making sure that they are okay. We really do a good job of asking “How are you?” We don’t just ask them “Everything good, okay, bye.” If they are training, we ask them how is the coach; what do they need?
This year especially I’m very focused on building out our own roster instead of co-brokering with other agents. Now we are starting to build our own talent pool. A lot of what I am doing at the moment is watching highlights and having calls, to get a feel for the players and their families. We do a lot of business with brands in the US and the Southern Hemisphere too. The big thing for me is that I’m getting light in from all different angles, not just working on soccer deals or rugby deals. We are doing some stuff with Warner Brothers on some of the film releases they have coming out this summer, and Lamborghini in the esports world too, so when I go back to the traditional sports world, I’m a lot more dynamic.
“You’ve done a number of on and off-field deals since starting in 2016, which has been your favorite?”
That’s a great question, and in their own way, they all hold significant memories for me. Some like a deal I did in 2015 for an England rugby player and Call of Duty the video game, made me really feel like I belonged, and some, like a sports nutrition deal I did for his teammate a year or two later made me realize just how much I still have to learn and grow in this business.
My favorite is probably my most recent, co – brokering Olympic swimmer Adam Peaty’s sportswear deal with Castore. At 25 AP isn’t even close to his peak yet, and his marketing potential is limitless in my opinion – you’ve got a handsome articulate guy who DOMINATES his sport and has fun and is true to himself whilst doing it, it’s the perfect blend. Doing the deal alongside Adam’s swim agent Rob Woodouse was a pleasure too because as agents we learn from experience, and he’s one of the most experienced in the business.
“How do you ensure meaningful relationships with your clients?”
The word you just used “meaningful” says it all. You can be a top-level agent and just do the bare minimum. I know some agents that only speak to their players once a month or every now and again for a check-in. I never understood that because if I am going to sign you, I am signing not only the player but the person behind the player. In order to have a meaningful relationship, it has to be organic. You cannot force it. Every single one of us knows about a forced relationship, and they just don’t work. After a while, you start to bump heads. What we do is present our players with opportunities. I always say before any opportunity that we give them, look if this isn’t for you – tell me. I want them to be as black and white as possible. I will not get my feelings hurt because it is my job to put a spread out for the client, like a buffet. What the client decides to pick up and eat is down to them. My job is the chef to put everything out there. Once they know that, they feel a lot more comfortable, and when they are comfortable they don’t make forced decisions. It also doesn’t feel transactional. Meaningful relationships are huge for me and it’s just a case of they know I am there for them. It is not about the money. We work with all of our clients for a minimum of 3 months before we even ask them to sign anything. I have to know them and they have to know me. If I sign a player on Day One and he is late for training or she is rude to coaches, then I have just wasted a whole lot of time creating the profile and putting them on the website. We do a really good job of telling the client we are there for them, but we are not just trying to sign you.
“Where do you see yourself in the next 5 to 10 years?”
I hope still with a full beard and luscious head of hair. I look after them both.
I definitely see the US market as one that I am going to expand into and look to put my stamp on in the very near future. We had some initial conversations with some guys like Zeke Sandhu, who I have mentioned before and respect massively. You and I discussed Fernando Tatis and the big, bad hitters club. I like baseball more from a marketing angle, so it could be interesting. I definitely see The Athletic Network being a major player, not just in European sport, but also in the United States. The ten-year question is a bit further on, I want to have more of an impact. I don’t want to just make money, it comes and goes. I want people to talk about the company and myself in the same way they talk about David Falk, Rich Paul, Fara Leff, for who I have a huge amount of respect. I want people to talk about us with that same reverence. They not only represent huge players, but they stand for something.
“What advice would you give to an aspiring agent?”
First of all, be very aware that there are going to be more downs than highs. What I mean by that is you are not going to be on the ground grinding the vast majority of the time. However, those high points (signing a deal and seeing one of your players succeed) when they come, wow, there’s no feeling like it. If you are able to prepare yourself early on for not being king on top of the hill 24/7, you will be just fine.
And have tenacity. If someone emails me or texts me about an interview or an internship, the ones who email again and do it in the right way are the ones who stand out. When I have to do a deal now, I will have to follow-up with people that I have previously emailed and haven’t gotten back to me. It’s not people being rude, but for the most part, it is just having to be prepared to shovel and get to that pot of gold.
“ And lastly what is the story with the OVO jersey on the wall?”
In 2016 a player I was working with at the time, Jack Butland, was playing for England but fractured his ankle before the Euro. I signed a deal for Jack to fly out to the South of France with The Daily Mail Sport to do commentating on the games and some Q & A’s. At the time, One Dance by Drake had just come out and he was starting to take over. His trainer, Johnny Roxx, who since has become a close friend of mine, was a guy that I wanted to establish a relationship. I saw OVO and saw their star rising and I said to him that we should establish a relationship where our athletes can be around that.
I flew Johnny out to the South of France. He is a really top dude for any of you who have not seen his profile, check him out. He is a really talented trainer in his own right, Drake aside. He has worked with basketball players, hockey players, and boxers as well. So back to France we’re on top of a yacht sipping coffee Patron and he’s face-timing Drizzy, great times. Through that, we built a great relationship. The next year was the “Boy Meets World” tour in Europe, and I got a call from Roxx and he told me that their show was that night and Drake needed a masseuse since they had just flown in on a long flight. They needed someone to make sure his body was good for the show. I had told him previously that when he was in London that anything he needed to let me know. Out of all things, he could have asked for, he asked for a masseuse. I called all of my people and no one was available last minute. I said I had to come through because I told him I had him. I ended up calling a guy that I knew from university and I said to him, “I need you at the O2 at 7 PM.” He had asked me why and I told him I needed him to massage Drake. I gave him the address and told him to do his thing.
Drake was so happy with it that he kept my guy for the ENTIRE tour and flew him from London to Berlin to Paris to Los Angeles. He was doing a World Tour himself. I was there for all of the UK shows and when we talk about internships and experiences, those few weeks spent sipping Virginia Black Whiskey and at the time being around Odell Beckham Jr, Von Miller, and Mark Ingram, etc was priceless, they were in their off-season so they would come in their own plane to follow the tour. Getting to know those guys were awesome. A year after this, I played in the OVO football tournament with my guy Will Smith and a few others. I am waiting for Roxx or Drizzy to sign the shirt for me and maybe I can get the OVO sports agent started – that would be dope.