17 Tips for Selecting a Sports Agent

Roy Kessel
Roy Kessel ready to represent players

One of the most important decisions that a college football player has to make is the selection of an agent to represent them in their mission to reach the NFL**. 

Unfortunately, there is nothing that prepares these players, nor their families for this process.   Just like the recruiting process in high school, the athletes go thru it one time.  The agents have typically been thru the process dozens or hundreds of times.  So the agents know the rules, know the hot-buttons and know how to manipulate the information into a format which is most digestible for the player and their family (or most slanted to the agent’s favor)

It is really an unfair advantage, and an unnecessary one.  The schools could do some basic education about the process.  This would arm their student-athletes with the information that is easily available.  It would allow the players to get a grip on the process before the agents start recruiting them.  We will have a follow up article about how the schools could do a better job educating players and managing the process, but for today, we are examining the most important things a player needs to know in order to select the best agent for themselves.

So here are 17 tips for making a good selection of an agent:

  1. Big Names are not everything
  2. Complete trust is the single most important element in choosing your agent
  3. More money does not equal better representation
  4. But, more money can help provide you with important services
  5. Beware of promises
  6. Do not believe everything you hear
  7. Make sure that they behave professionally
  8. Make sure that they have their own success(es)
  9. Understand the process before you start
  10. Best time to meet with agents is after Spring football before fall camp starts (for those who are planning ahead for next year)
  11. There is nothing an agent can do for you during your senior season (legally)
  12. Training facilities are rarely the differentiating factor
  13. Beware of bundled services
  14. Don’t put all of your eggs in one basket
  15. Make sure you are comfortable—fully comfortable
  16. You have to be open and honest throughout the whole process
  17. There is no rush-do your own due diligence

Big Names are not everything—it is great that some of the “big names” are interested in representing you.   But you have to ask yourself the question, “Is that the type of person/agency that I want to be represented by.”  There are many good independent agents so make sure you consider some of the following factors.  Your agent does not need to be with the biggest organizations.  The agent’s experience is definitely relevant, but the real question for you becomes the agent’s ability to service your needs.  Will the agent give you the personal attention you desire?  How much effort will they put in if your career runs into some bumps along the way?  Will they stick with you and help even if you fail to live up to the overall expectations.  I have heard many stories of players, even high draft picks, who failed to get proper help and communication from their agents because the player was running into difficulties and not living up to his potential.  While larger agencies can provide some additional perks and benefits, remember that the most important part of the agent’s role is to help guide you through the draft process and the contract negotiation.  The other perks are typically relatively minor in comparison.

Who do you fully trust?  TRUST is the #1 most important element in this relationship.  If you do not trust EVERYTHING that your agent is telling you (because of lack of experience, potential conflicts of interest, other agendas), then you will have a very difficult time having a productive relationship.  One of the hardest parts going into this process is the feeling that you are in it alone and you do not have anyone to trust.  The person you trust the most SHOULD be your agent.  If you do not get that feeling about an agent you are considering, (or that is currently representing you), then you should look elsewhere.  There will be many frustrations as the process proceeds, you need someone you can rely on, and someone you TRULY believe is giving you honest and accurate information (as opposed to the information that YOU want to hear or the information that THEY want you to hear).  Other players will yap in your ear, other agents will try to steal you away and often even college coaches, pro scouts and training facilities will try to have an impact on your selection.  If you fully trust your agent, that should just amount to background noise.  If you do not fully trust your agent, then that chatter will become a big distraction and continually create the doubt which will undermine your relationship with your agent.

More money does not equal better representation—Over the years I have seen many, many agents jump into the process, spend a ton of money, make a quick splash and then flame out quickly.   Often they flame out because they fail to properly evaluate prospects and spend in the wrong places.  Other times they flame out because they were more concerned about the splash and the image than they were about working hard on behalf of their clients.  Many people are not willing to put in the effort that it takes to represent athletes. Once they realize that the business side of being an agent is not about being at parties, events and games, they get easily discouraged.  While it is nice to be taken to an expensive dinner, and to be given other perks as part of the agent recruiting process, you would NEVER select other professionals (accountants, lawyers, financial advisors, etc.) by how much they spend entertaining you.  You should not select an agent based on that criteria either.

More money does help provide you with important services—Money is not necessarily evil.  Money is a very important element in this process.  No agent can represent you well without having the resources available.  Someone struggling in their own life may not be in a position to do a good job for you.  If they are stretched thin as a result of business demands, family demands, divorces, business failures or other draining events, their ability to help you might be limited.  It takes a lot of money to pay for the required travel, training and other expenditures that are part of the recruiting, training and draft process.  The biggest agencies can offer many of these perks, but there are many successful agents who operate in a smaller agency environment and do a terrific job for their clients.

Beware of promises—nobody can promise you what round you will be drafted in, what team will draft you or which teams will offer you opportunities as an undrafted free agent.  This is especially true early in the process when you have not had the Senior Bowl, East-West Shrine or any other all-star games, you have not been to the NFL Combine, and you have not gone through your pro-day workout.  People can give you a fairly accurate idea of where you might fit in to the overall ratings (based on earlier scouting reports), but you have to recognize that many of those rating systems are flawed and are only early projections.  Until the entire process is completed, you should be wary of these promises.  Do you own homework.  Each year there are significant changes between the top players projected coming into the season, and where they end up in the draft.   I once met with a father of a DL at Michigan.  He was upset because I told him his son was a 7th round pick or free agent.  He said he had other agents promising him that he was probably a 2nd round pick or “at worst” a 3rd round pick.  Needless to say, he signed with another agent and didn’t get drafted.  Just because one agent is giving you information you do not like to hear, that does not mean he/she does not believe in you.  In fact it might be a signal that they are being more honest with you.  If they did not want to represent you, they would not be recruiting you.

Do not believe everything you hear (or that is presented to you)—make sure that you understand the sources of the information being presented to you.  A lot of the information you receive from different agents should be the same.  If it is inconsistent with what several other agents have told you, it is worth further examination. Unfortunately, many agents misrepresent some or all of the following information:

  • their client lists
  • work that they have done for NFL players
  • their work history and background
  • contracts that they have negotiated
  • how much their players “rose” in draft rankings after they started representation
  • the degree of customer service
  • their ability to get your marketing/endorsement agreements
  • the extent (and value) of their relationships around the league

Listen to everything that they say.  Study it carefully.  Do some of your own due diligence (as we explain later) or ask someone else that you trust to help.  Some of the misrepresentations are very well disguised and hidden.  In his book about the agent game (Illegal Procedure: A Sports Agent Comes Clean on the Dirty Business of College Football) , Josh Luchs gives some terrific examples of how agents completely changed projected draft orders of prior seasons early draft projections so that they could show how much they had helped their clients climb up the draft boards. 

Make sure that they are professional—you do not need someone else to party with.  You do not need a person who wants to “hang out” with you.  The person you are hiring as an agent is there to provide you with professional services.  You have plenty of other people to hit the clubs with.  You agent needs to spend his time networking with scouts, player personnel and coaches.  In weeks like the Senior Bowl or the Combine he/she should be out late and working those networks.  But your agent has his/her role to perform, and if they are looking for the party scene, they are probably not a good choice to provide you with the professional service that you are looking for.  Obviously nothing wrong with the agent going out with you for dinner or drinks or spending time together at a club, but make sure you keep an eye on the frequency and extent to which they are living this “lifestyle”

Make sure that they have their own success—This is one of the most important items.  If you agent is dependent on YOUR success, than that means they are not established and have not achieved their own success.  Even if you choose to select a less experienced agent, make sure that they have been successful in their prior endeavors (i.e. law practice, accounting, financial services, other business).  Too often I see players signing with individuals with no demonstrated track record of any kind.  They select someone they became close to (or often an agent or runner became close to the athlete with this in mind).  These are the situations where the agent can become dependent on the athlete’s success and that level of desperation may cause the agent to take actions which are not in the player’s interest (i.e. giving in too easily to contract demands, asking the player for loans, not taking trips or attending events that the agent should be at).  The professional track record of the agent you are selecting is very important.

Understand the process yourself before you start—This is something that you can easily do to help protect yourself.  DO NOT accept all information given to you by agents as a given.  Unfortunately, many of them want you to believe that they are giving you some proprietary secrets.  They rarely are.  Much of the information is available online through the NFLPA website or other easily accessible resources.  One of my pet peeves is that many of the schools do a very poor job of educating their athletes.  This failure allows the agents/runners to get closer to the players and provide them with information, misinformation or other inappropriate items.  If the schools took time to educate the players about this process earlier in their college careers, they would be reducing the perceived power and value the agents have.  A brief program of educating players would go a long way.  And by educate, I am not talking about the NCAA rules, university regulations or other life skills (though those are also important).  They need to educate the players specifically about the draft process, the agents, the timing, the expectations and the frustrations.  My analogy is this:  1) the universities’ refusal to educate the players about the agent process under the rationale of “they don’t need to know about agents until they are done with college football because they don’t need an agent before that”; would be like saying, 2) “I am not going to talk to my kids about sex, drugs and alcohol until they are done with high school because they don’t need to be doing any of those things during high school.”

Training facilities are rarely the differentiating factor—Training is important.  No question that good training can help you in the draft process.  Good performances at all-star games, the NFL Combine and your pro-day can go a long way to solidifying your draft position.  Read that again:  Solidifying.  Not necessarily changing.  If you talk to NFL personnel, they will tell you that most of your grade comes from your performance during your college career, your character and your perceived ability to contribute (taken from observations, conversations with your coaches and interviews).  Estimates vary, but I put the number at no more than 10% of your overall grade being determined by your actual physical performances at the NFL Combine and/or your pro-day.  So if you take that number, ask yourself how much better any one facility needs to be in order to have a dramatic impact on your draft position?  Find a place that you are comfortable with BUT DO NOT select your agent based on your like/dislike of a particular training facility.   Trust your agent to have you in a good spot.  If you are selecting an agent you like less because he has reserved slots at a training facility you like more you are asking for trouble.  I still believe the colleges could eliminate almost this entire problem by training their athletes for the combine.  Some schools do that, but at many schools the players training for the NFL Draft are viewed as a distraction rather than an asset and the staffs are happy to get them away from their current players.  I think many players would do well training in familiar environments with a support network in place and some familiarity.  Instead, the current trend seems to be to send the players away from their comfort zone, away from classes (if they still care about graduating), away from people that can allow them to be a normal person.  When they get in the “draft culture”, they have too much unstructured free time which can often become difficult for many of the players to manage.

Beware of bundled services—I have never been a fan of the model that allows the agents to virtually require a player to utilize all of the services that they offer.  The important role of the agent is to be at the center of the circle with the player.  The other service providers should be independent people/organizations in order to provide the best chance for checks and balances.  If an agent says “Don’t worry, I will take care of everything,” you should be concerned.  In today’s world, no one person has the ability to handle their duties as an agent, as well as issues relating to: insurance, marketing, financial management, marketing, social media, training and conditioning, nutrition, legal services, accounting, etc.  And just because you have a great relationship with one agent, that does not mean that you should necessarily be stuck with “their people” for all of those services.  The most healthy structure for the athlete is where all of those services are provided by independent people that can serve as checks and balances and prevent misuse of power or help you through difficult times.

Don’t put all of your eggs in one basket—related to the point above, I put this as a separate item just to make sure that you read it again.  Do not give any one person/organization all of the power.  Make sure that you develop a strong group and strong team to represent all of your interests.  The different perspectives of your team of professionals will give you a valuable overview of what is going on in your world.

Make sure that you are comfortable—Your doubts will only increase as times goes by.  If you are not comfortable now, you will probably not be comfortable later.  You need to go in with full confidence and excitement.

Have to be entirely open and honest throughout the process—Your job is to find the best agent.  Do not try to hold back information or play games with the agents.  The agent can only do as good of a job as you allow.  If you are holding back on your agent, that is a signal that you may not fully trust them (as discussed above).  That will be extremely detrimental to the agent’s ability to represent you.  As I often told my clients when they consulted me on legal issues, “you have to tell me everything.”  We make decisions based on the information in front of us and we develop strategies which allow us to avoid landmines and other problems.  If there are hidden issues, that could undermine your own interests.  If you are unhappy or upset or uncertain about things along the way, you have to realize that is to be expected.  Your agent is there to help you resolve those issues and feelings.  But if you get upset about something and do not discuss it with your agent, you are not helping yourself.  You are building up the barriers and the resentment.  If you are ultimately not comfortable with the way your concerns are addressed or with the explanations you are given, then you may need to look for different representation.  However, if you fail to have the conversation with your current agent, you will not know the difference between normal insecurities and concerns as opposed to significant problems.  If you ultimately have ongoing problems, then look for someone you trust so that you can discuss with them whether your concerns are a sign of real problems, or just needing a different perspective.

The best time to interview and meet with agents is after spring football and before fall camp starts—We included this section in here for the players who are starting to think about this process for next year, or in the future.  Take advantage of the summer.   Most schools will let you meet with the agents on campus if the agents are registered with your school and your state (as they are supposed to be).  This demonstrates to the agent that you are in control of the process, that you intend to keep everything above board, and that you expect them to comply with all applicable regulations.  Whether you do it on campus or not, make sure you meet with several agents, hear their varying pitches and give some thought to which 2-3 agents you might want to consider as part of your final process after your senior year.  A lot can change during your senior season (for better and for worse).  Let the year play out.  Take the time to get to know the agents who are recruiting you.  See whether they honor your requests and give you the space to play your season without distracting you from the task at hand.  You will learn a lot about them when you observe how they treat you during this period and it should be considered an important part of the process.  So get those interviews out of the way when you are not playing football.  And then make sure you tell the agents that you need to concentrate on football.  The professionals in the industry understand that.  They will stay in touch but should not be intrusive and should not be disruptive your football schedule.

There is nothing an agent can do for you (legally) during your senior season—The most important thing you can do during your senior season is play football.  And play well.   Having a successful senior year greatly exceeds anything else that can be done in the draft process.  So by the time you select an agent (and they go to work on your behalf) recognize that YOU have done the hard part.   There is nothing an agent can legally do for you during your senior season that will help you in the process.  They cannot pay for things, cannot take you places and cannot do any of these things for your family and/or girlfriend.    Agents can stay in touch with you and are likely to email, text or call.  But they should do that at times that do not disrupt the demands of your football or school schedules.  Many will want to stop by and visit for a few minutes after games to show you that they are still interested in you.  But if you lay out the boundaries over the summer during your interviews, you should be able to expect the agents to respect those requests.  If an agent is doing improper things to recruit you, then you have to ask yourself whether they will be just as likely to do those things TO YOU at a later date.  Any promises which violate NCAA, university or NFLPA regulations should be an immediate concern to you about the long term viability of the representation relationship, even if the immediate reward/perk being offered is enticing.  You should report any improper activities to your compliance officer.***

There is no rush—Too many people rush the process. Too many agents will put pressure on you to make your decision. The reality is that other than selecting a training facility, the agent will have plenty of time to work on your behalf. I always told my clients I liked to have our representation in place prior to the Senior Bowl so that I could use that week to discuss my players with NFL personnel such as scouts, coaches and others that can influence the draft process.  You do not need to sign as you walk thru the tunnel after your bowl game.  You do not need to sign the day after you may have had a tough bowl loss.  This is an important decision.  Take the time to consider it properly.   If you have followed the advice above and have interviewed agents over the summer, you should feel less rushed when your senior season ultimately comes to an end. Larry Fitzgerald did not sign with an agent until very late in the draft process because he had a very good understanding of the process, had people around him who helped him through the process and knew he was going to be a very high pick.  He is an exception.  But the point is DO NOT MAKE A DECISION UNTIL YOU ARE FULLY COMFORTABLE.  Regardless of what “pressures” are put on you by an agent, this decision is too important to rush.  Make sure you do your own due diligence or have someone you trust help you with that process.  The person helping you should NOT have any type of vested stake in the results of the investigation (i.e. should not be a current teammate, former teammate, college coach, university official or other players you know in the NFL—because each of these groups have significant potential conflicts of interest).  The only type of information you should get from those groups is their perspective on the type of service and the integrity of the agent you are asking about.  Remember, people will typically be VERY willing to tell you about things that they are unhappy about in their investigation. 

As you go through the process, remember that you are selecting a person to represent your interests in a high stakes professional career.  It is a very personal decision.  There are many very good agents who are qualified to represent you.  Think about your own values and the type of personalities you are comfortable with.  Those should be your guiding principles.

* This article can apply in principal to many other sports and the agent selection process involved therein.  Each sport has its own “culture” and its own set of rules.  It is important to select someone familiar with the landscape for the sport you are playing because that makes it more likely that they will have at least some of the relationships which will assist in representing you.

** Though some players acknowledge their willingness to work their way up through the CFL or AFL, the reality is very few players make it on this path and nobody’s career goal is to play at that level (though some are willing to accept it).

***yes, I realize many people reading this will tell me that is a fairy tale expectation, but I still believe that if the players were given education and an easy mechanism to report this conduct, it could be handled more effectively by the universities, the NCAA and the NFLPA.

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