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Black sports agents advancing in professional athletics

Cover Design By Andrew Nunez (83479)
Cover Design By Andrew Nunez

A generation of Black sports stars have graced American playing fields and courts the past 40 years and have come into our living rooms as examples of personal determination, youth role models and social progress.

Yet few of them have been represented by an agent who looks like them. That dynamic began to change somewhat in the mid-1990s when the Black Sports Agents Association (BSAA) conducted its first regular general meeting to address the imbalance of representation among sports agents. Back then, it was the Rev. Jesse Jackson and the Rainbow-PUSH Coalition who convened this rather upstart group, comprised primarily of lawyers, accountants and former professional athletes. They wanted to form a coalition to attract other African Americans to step into the ritzy, glitzy world of high-stakes negotiations between some of the world’s most prominent businesspersons and some of the world’s finest athletes.

Professional sports has opened a door during the past half century to economic prosperity for Blacks and other minorities that, generally, does not exist in many other parts of American society. A sports agent often serves as the gatekeeper into this rarefied world.

According to bylaws set forth by the Uniform Athlete Agents Act of 2000, a sports agent is typically charged with helping a professional athlete manage his/her career. They may work with one person or provide services to several clients, handling accounting and legal duties, negotiating contracts as well as providing advice about signing contracts. A big part of the job also involves marketing their clients to potential sponsors to increase a player’s notoriety and, certainly, their bank account. The primary responsibility of the agent is to get the client(s) the best deal on performance contracts by meeting personally with team owners, general managers and coaches. This is when they discuss a proposed salary, length of contract, benefits and certain stipulations/riders based on the needs and desires of the client.

The BSAA originally set out to strengthen the “involvement, credibility, representation, image and cohesiveness” of African Americans in the sports industry. Among its five major goals are to: (1) “enhance the visibility, (2) create and promote a vehicle to articulate the goals/objectives, (3) educate/ develop, (4) promote ethical principals/practices, and (5) advance the interest” of professional athletes among Black player representatives.

Agents will seek out lucrative contracts by regularly communicating with other teams’ general managers across the various professional sports leagues. In representing draft choices—mostly the premier college players or those extremely rare “can’t miss” prospects from high school or amateur status (e.g. Kobe Bryant, the Williams sisters, Yasiel Puig)—the agent must market the player to scouts and to team executives to build their reputation to improve chances of securing a good deal.

A new face of agents

Agents will also suggest and often oversee endorsement contracts with sponsors. Many apparel, automobile and consumer-based companies—the latter group ranging from men’s toiletries to electronic gadgets—will eagerly sign contracts with athletes to increase sales of their goods. The agent will generally spend most of the day managing finances, keeping careful records of a client’s playing wages, sponsorship benefits and expenses. Sometimes they’ll complete tax forms, set up an insurance plan, provide legal counsel (provided they are an attorney) and give advice about smart investments.

Most prospective agents are former amateur or professional athletes and usually begin their careers with consulting firms or amateur sports organizations to start building a small client base. Networking and successful self promotion are essential to move forward as a sports agent.

They also must pass specific certification for each different major sports league before they can represent someone. For example, if an agent has been certified to work with the National Football League but wants to represent a player in the National Hockey League, he/she must receive certification there as well. Practically all sports agents are certified and work with a specific league. You must pass a written examination to represent a player in the NFL; in baseball, an agent is required to represent at least one player on a major league roster to become certified. Other certification requirements include meeting player’s union regulations and/or state-mandated employment guidelines. These requirements generally adhere to standards set forth by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Relations.

African American agents have, traditionally, been a rare commodity in the entertainment industry, which has been where many sport agents originated. You generally don’t see Black agents in the motion picture, television or Broadway entertainment venues because these coveted positions were traditionally reserved for White persons who, in the old days, would typically work at Hollywood’s William Morris Agency or Creative Artists Agency. Today sports has become a more specific entity requiring from an agent a fundamental knowledge of the playing fields/courts and what it may take to lead a teenager or young adult from amateur status to the pinnacle of professional athletics.

The first celebrities that Black sports agents have generally sought to represent have been African Americans, many of whom never knew Black agents existed or, sadly, have demonstrated limited faith in these agents’ respective abilities to convince an influential White powerbroker to believe what they say about their client. This tradition has, in past years, represented an unfortunate standard of belief and faith among some Black athletes about soliciting the advice of a qualified Black man or woman eager to represent them in multimillion-dollar contract negotiations.

That’s no longer the case.

Today, the BSAA is the premier collective of Black sports agents and now boasts several hundred members who have for 20 years successfully negotiated more than $3 billion in annual salaries and business transactions. They’ve also created the Executive Membership Program which has become a group of top entrepreneurs and business executives that educate, develop and partner with player representatives, professional athletes, entertainers and the community at large to strategize about respective entrepreneurial goals of the “rich and famous” of color. The BSAA wants to foster better relationships with other successful Black front-office sports executives—sometimes outside of sports—to promote economic development that, maybe, could filter down into Black communities nationwide. This is part of an effort to introduce more minorities into working in front offices.

Over the past two decades, African Americans have made significant inroads into the high-finance and perennially stressful world of professional sports agents. Among the biggest names are: Bill Strickland of Blackwave Media Group, who was the first Black agent listed by Sporting News (2009) as one of the “100 Most Powerful People in Sports.” Among his many current and past clients are NBA stars Rasheed Wallace and Joakim Noah and NFL star Daunte Culpepper; C. Lamont Smith, founder/president of All Pro Sports and Entertainment, and negotiator of a $42 million contract for Eddie George of the NFL; Kimberly Holland (representing track star and Olympic silver medalist Terrence Trammell); Aaron Goodwin, CEO of Goodwin Sports Management (GSM) and representing Kevin Durant and Dwight Howard of the NBA; Eric Goodwin, president of GSM (Matt Barnes and Chris Webber of the NBA); Bill Duffy, founder of Bill Duffy Associates International, with offices in seven countries (Rajon Rondo, Steve Nash and Yao Ming of the NBA); Larry Reynolds (baseball stars Tori Hunter, brothers Justin and B.J. Upton); Fletcher N. Smith, founder/owner of Blueprint Management Group which renegotiated former NFL quarterback Donovan McNabb’s 2002 contract that included a then record-high $20.5 million signing bonus; Henry Thomas, former president of the sports marketing/management group Consolidated Sports Management Group Inc. (basketball stars Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh); and Sharon Creer who manages clients from Houston, Texas, to Slovakia (including WNBA players Tiffani Johnson and Toccara Williams).

Should Black players hire Black agents?

“You would think that more Black athletes would hire a Black agent today, but that’s not always the case,” said Thurston Reese, a retired sports agent who for years decried a perceived lack of interest among Black athletes in hiring someone who looked like them. “It’s sad to say, but it’s often the old ‘slave mentality’ that says that a White person knows more and is better qualified. That stems from a lack of education, plain and simple. White owners just want to make the best deal. [Just] because a Black athlete [hires] a White agent does not mean that person will represent you better simply because he looks like the owner. There’s no real prejudice among White executives when it comes to money. You don’t have to be a ‘Phi Beta Kappa’ to be a successful agent. If you have the skills, talent and creativity, you’ll find you can exert as much power and influence as anyone else, regardless of color.”

Creative Artists Agency (CAA) may be the most famous of all talent consortiums and the majority of its representatives are White. C. Lamont Smith said a few years ago that more African American players should consider hiring a Black agent because the tradition of having a White person negotiate with another White executive has become outdated in an era where more persons of color have entered the executive ranks in such professions as law and accounting. It may be possible that in hiring a Black agent and his/her firm, the Black athlete may be able to increase the number of future minority personnel at [said] firm because Black-owned companies may be more open to hiring Black employees. Such a method of  patronage could be similar to the “Recycling Black Dollars” campaign launched years ago in Los Angeles.

Smith said he was attending the yearly National Football League draft in the mid-1990s and couldn’t help but notice the shocking lack of Black agents representing young, budding millionaires.

“What kind of message are we sending to African American athletes when on the first day of the draft they turn on the TV and all they see are White guys in decision-making roles?,” Smith asked.

Another successful agent, Andre Farr, has cited “self discrimination” among Black athletes as a hurdle that has often hindered the success of Black agents.

“For years, not only in sports, but in every area of professional management and business, [Blacks] would not do business with African Americans,” Farr said during a 2008 interview with ESPN. “[Clients] felt like they might be locked out of the process, or that they wouldn’t be able to negotiate a fair and equitable deal. That attitude has vanished.”

Farr went on to say that Black agents are respected today as much as any professional and the antiquated belief that White sports owners and (Hollywood) producers consider a Black representative’s [financial] presentation before worldly billionaires as “second rate” could not be “further from the truth,” he said.

Black agents, Farr added, must operate on the basis that things are “color blind” one way or the other. “Race never enters our thinking,” he explained. “I think if you operate that way (race neutral), then people look at you for the quality of work you do.”

Bill Stickland may be the most famous and accomplished among the Black agents, representing today more than 50 prominent athletes and entertainers. He has sympathy for the desire among Black athletes whom he said would genuinely like to work  more with persons who resemble them. “The argument used to be there was an absence of competent Black agents,” Strickland said. “I don’t think that’s the case any longer. But now you see players saying, ‘There are no Black owners, so White guys can deal with other White guys better.’”

Bill Duffy is one of the most famous and successful Black sports agents. He agrees with Smith that it is sometimes difficult to compete against the larger agencies like CAA or Octagon Sports Management, because these corporations can offer a prospective client “up front” money before they sign contracts. Frequently a White-owned agency will support an African American in recruiting a Black athlete by, allegedly, hiring this person as a “token” Black to be their “front person” in the guise that there are many African Americans with the firm. Often this is only an illusion.

“It is important for other young Blacks—whether they be business persons or sports entrepreneurs—to know that an African American can lead a major organization to success,” Duffy once commented to ESPN. “This is a challenging business. It is competitive. Sometimes it can be difficult to break in unless you’re with a major firm, or have become an established entity. Great strides are being made regularly by Black agents.”

Most agents go beyond the basic contract negotiations for their clients. They also sort out marketing, speaking engagements, entertainment deals, etc. The prerequisites for a sports agent include knowledge of business administration, marketing and law. A good sports agent must familiarize themselves with contract negotiations and know what the various brands/companies look for in a spokesperson.

College internships are a good way to begin

Internships can provide prospective sports agents with excellent experience. You may not be negotiating on behalf of Mike Trout or Blake Griffin, but an intern will get the opportunity to see what a player’s contract looks like, read scouting reports and learn how to develop a marketing strategy for a specific athlete.

A sports marketing internship in college may help a person to develop a contact list of prospective clients. This is when most prospective professional sports agents tend to stay in touch with those persons who can help their future career.

If you make it to the top tier among sports agents, set your rates by requesting from four to 10 percent of your client’s income. Some agents post an hourly fee or work for a flat rate.

Maintaining a “voice”

A nagging problem existing within all American professional sports organizations is that the leagues tend to view potential role models for Black youth from the standpoint of social “progress” or upward moblity for a single individual as opposed to social service to the nearest Black community.

Practically every town has a “Black” community, so the athlete—usually from out of town—could make it a point to donate more to the “underserved” area of his/her adopted home town. “They need to give more back to the community,” Reese said. “If the player and agent can agree that, once the contract is signed, the agent will then donate a portion of his/her percentage back to the kid’s old neighborhood, you could foster more opportunities for growth among young people in the inner city. More young Black players should learn to invest in the Black community wherever they may be playing.”

Like others working in predominantly White environments, some Black sports agents have had to, inherently, trust in their own abilities and potential while managing the ever-present issue of race. They have had to overcome isolation to establish not only their place in the arena of professional sports, but also to cultivate and maintain a “voice” that will be ultimately heard and respected. They’ve also had to know the “unwritten” rules adhered to by Blacks and develop the “sixth sense” necessary to play the corporate management “game.”

Black agents have learned to cultivate and manage relationships with peers within their profession, a professional trait that can be crucial to securing more meaningful and influential positions. Also, they’ve had to study and understand what true power is, how to compete for and acquire it, and how to translate that knowledge into substantial leadership opportunities.