Sports agents act as representatives for professional athletes in many different types of negotiations, providing advice and representation concerning contracts, endorsement and advertisement deals, public appearances, and financial investments and taxes, among other areas. They may represent only one athlete or many, depending on the sport, the size of their agency, and the demands of the client or clients they represent. There are approximately 21,000 agents employed in the United States. However, that figure includes literary and talent agents, as well as sport agents.
Sports Agent Career History
People have been entertained by the spectacular feats and athletic skills of individuals and teams even before gladiators performed in front of thousands in the Coliseum in ancient Rome. In the 20th and 21st centuries sports has consumed a large share of people’s free time. Sports figures, like movie stars, have become internationally recognized figures, renowned not only for their athletic prowess, but also for their charismatic personalities. Instead of closing deals with a simple handshake, sports teams now “sign” new actors and athletes to contracts. Like movie stars, athletes began to realize the need to have talented representation—or agents—to protect and promote their interests during contract negotiations. The role of a sports agent has expanded to include many more duties than contract negotiation, although that area remains a crucial responsibility. Today, sports agents handle most, if not all, aspects of a professional athlete’s career, from commercial endorsements to financial investments to postretirement career offers.
The Job of Sports Agents
The sports agent’s primary duties consist of negotiating contracts and finding endorsements for his or her clients. Contract negotiations require great communication skills on the part of the sports agent. He or she must clearly summarize the athlete’s salary and benefit requirements and have a clear vision of the athlete’s future—and how any given contract might affect it. Agents usually represent their clients for the duration of their clients’ careers, which sometimes means finding work for athletes once their athletic careers are over. For example, an agent may be able to build into the contract a coaching position, in the event that athlete is injured or otherwise unable to complete the contract. Having a good sense of timing helps the agent as well. Part of understanding a bargaining situation means knowing when to stand your ground and when to cut a deal.
Endorsements and public appearance deals bring additional income to the athlete, but they also have the potential to create a great deal of media attention around the athlete. It is the role of the sports agent to ensure that this media attention is positive and works to the benefit of the athlete. Marketing the public image of an athlete is increasingly difficult in today’s mediasaturated world; in the past, all an athlete needed to do to be considered a winner was be successful at his or her sport. Today, an athlete who wants to attract top endorsements and public appearances must have incredible charisma and a blemishfree image in addition to being a top athletic performer. Generally speaking, agents must be extremely careful when choosing endorsements for their clients.
Often, a great deal of “schmoozing” is necessary to achieve the kind of contacts that will help clients. For example, an agent for a tennis player might court the attention of executives whose companies manufacture items related to tennis, like tennis racquets, balls, and clothing. By developing friendly business relationships with these individuals, the agent has a direct line to those in charge of dispersing product endorsements. If and when those companies decide to use an athlete to help promote their products, the agent’s athlete hopefully will be the first considered. Networking like this is part of the sports agent’s everyday work routine. In between reviewing contracts and financial arrangements, he or she might be on the phone, chatting to an advertiser, scheduling lunch with a sports scout to uncover fresh talent, or handling some other aspect of the athlete’s life, such as renting an apartment for the athlete during spring training.
Financial advising is a growing part of the agent’s job. Successful new athletes suddenly have a great deal of money. In order to manage those funds, the agent needs to know a reliable financial adviser or act as the athlete’s financial adviser. Creating or finding tax shelters, investing money, and preparing for the athlete’s retirement are all duties that agents routinely perform for their clients.
Other duties, which are sometimes so small and trivial as to be deceptively insignificant, are many times what keeps a client happy and convinced that the agent has only the client’s best interests in mind. This might mean making sure the athlete’s mother always has a great seat at home games, or pestering a talk-show host for months to schedule the agent’s client for a post-game interview on a popular sports radio program.
Sports Agent Career Requirements
High school courses that will be helpful include business, mathematics, English, and speech. Business courses will provide the financial knowledge an agent needs to act as financial adviser and contract negotiator.
No educational requirements exist for sports agents, but it is increasingly difficult to enter the field without at least a bachelor’s degree in business administration, marketing, or sports management. Many who eventually become agents also go on to pursue a graduate degree in law or business, two areas which increase but do not guarantee your chances at success. Contract law and economics are courses that can help an agent improve the client’s chances, and his or her own chances, for successful negotiations.
Certification or Licensing
Many sports agents obtain a license or professional registration as demonstration of their commitment and integrity. Although these are not yet mandatory, it is one way for athletes to determine who, among agents, is legitimate and therefore a better person to hire. Agents working for clients who belong to unions, such as the National Football League Player’s Association, are required to obtain a union franchise. Basically, the franchise is an agreement between the agent and the athlete’s union in which the agent promises to abide by the standards created by the union to protect its members. All licenses, registrations, and franchises are easily obtained by paying a filing fee and do not represent a real challenge to the sports agent.
Contacts and exposure to athletes are the unofficial requirements for sports agents. Simply put, without knowing or having access to athletes, it is next to impossible to represent them. Insiders say that often, a successful agent’s first client is his or her college roommate—later hired when the college athlete turned professional.
The sports industry generates revenue in the hundreds of billions of dollars, only a portion of which actually goes to the athlete, so everyone who comes to the bargaining table—from management to athlete to advertiser—has a lot at stake. Sports agents must be able to handle tension and stress well, arguing effectively for their client’s interests whether the opponent is the head of an international shoe manufacturer or the local real estate agent trying to sell the athlete a new house.
Finally, a large part of the sports agent’s job is talking, making contacts, and then using those contacts to improve a client’s position. This type of interaction is the bread and butter of a sports agent’s career. As one insider put it, being just this side of annoying, obnoxious, or brash helps in this business. Often, the agent with the most name recognition is the one who ends up with the job.
Exploring Sports Agent Career
Finding jobs in this field is as challenging for those just starting out as it is for those at the top. Even intern positions and entry-level jobs are hard to get, because so many people are struggling to enter the field. Insiders recommend starting as early as possible and taking any job that gives you exposure to athletes. High school students can start by shagging balls at tennis tournaments, golf caddying, or applying for coveted ballboy/girl and batboy/girl positions with major league ball teams.
College internships are probably the most valuable introduction to the field, especially when you consider that many of the top management firms that hire agents do not accept younger applicants. These firms are looking for men and women who are eager and willing to learn about the field. Insiders believe the internship is crucial to getting a solid start because it may be the last time when anyone will let you close enough to see how the job is done; once someone passes the internship stage, they are viewed by other agents as competition and the avenues of communication close up. Although young recruits in an agency receive some informal training on the job, the secrets of the trade are highly individualized and are developed by the truly successful among the agents.
Agents are employed by the professional athletes they represent. They are also employed by top management firms, such as International Management Group.
If you do not know an athlete, have no connections or access to athletes, and have had no experience prior to applying to agencies, chances are you will find yourself changing fields pretty quickly. Just as there are no professional organizations and no formal training to do this job, there is no one way to do it, which only makes getting started more difficult. The best way of breaking into the field is to start early and obtain a good internship—one that gives you some exposure to agents and athletes, as well as a chance to develop those contacts. Add to this any information or hot tips you might have on new, fresh talent and you may have a chance. International Management Group, a top employer of sports agents, has summer and semester internship programs for young people interested in this career.
Most people who become agents get involved with a sport, either because they once played it, or a sibling did, or they have followed it so closely as to have made important or solid contacts in the field. Coaches, scouts, and the athletes themselves would all be considered good contacts. So, too, are newscasters, athletic trainers, even physicians; in short, anyone who can introduce you to athletes is a potential contact.
In the field of sports management, advancement comes with success, the formula for which is pretty straightforward; if an agent’s athletes are successful (and the agent handles the careers of those athletes well), then the agent is successful—financially as well as in terms of reputation. A good, solid reputation will, in turn, garner that agent more successful clients.
Sports agents can earn phenomenal amounts of money by representing a single star athlete like Michael Jordan, Venus Williams, or Tiger Woods. Athletes of this stature earn $50 million a year or more in salary and endorsements. A 5 percent commission on such earnings would net the agent approximately $2.5 million a year. Agent commissions, or percentages, at top management firms run anywhere from 5 to 10 percent of the player’s earnings, and up to 25 percent for endorsements the agency negotiates on behalf of the athlete.
Although these are high salaries, anyone interested in pursuing a career in this field should understand that most of the athletes the typical sports agent represents are not of the rare star-like variety. This means that they will earn significantly less than agents who represent premier athletes. According to the U.S. Department of Labor’s 2002 National Occupational Employment and Wage Estimates, agents of all types (including literary and actors’ agents as well as sports agents) earned a median annual salary of $55,140 in 2004. The lowest 10 percent earned $24,910 or less, while the highest 10 percent earned $130,290 or more annually.
According to one insider, the sky’s the limit; if an agent is extremely ambitious and the agent’s contacts within the sports world are fruitful, he or she can earn well over a million dollars a year. People entering the field of sports management should know the realities of the job—the million-dollar scenario is as likely for agents as it is for athletes. It takes ambition, talent, timing, and lots of luck to make it big in this field. Enjoyment of the work, then, is crucial to job satisfaction.
Sports agents work with athletes in various stages of their careers, often before those careers even take off. Agents may spend time with the athlete at practice, hours on the telephone in the office, a day or two scouting out new talent, and lunches and dinners with potential advertisers or employers of the athlete.
Sports agents spend most of their time on the telephone, arranging meetings, discussing prospects, networking connections, keeping in touch with the industry trends and issues, and most of all, speaking with their client about strategies and whatever problems the client is dealing with, from negotiating a raise in salary to helping the player through a slump.
Sports Agent Career Outlook
The outlook for sports agents, in general, is very favorable. The U.S. Department of Labor predicts faster than average growth for agents over the next decade, mainly because the sports industry is thriving and there is nothing to suggest that the public’s interest in it will dwindle. The increasing popularity of women’s sports leagues, such as the Women’s National Basketball Association, also accounts for the rapid growth in this field. Also, as cable television brings greater choices to the viewer, it is possible that less-publicized sports will gain in popularity through the increased exposure, thus breathing life and revenues into those sports and creating new demand.