There is no career choice I am asked about more than that of being an NFL player agent. I hear from dozens each week -- students, young professionals and those with established careers looking for a change -- interested in becoming an agent.
I try to be as realistic as possible about the opportunities and actual responsibilities of an agent. There is no clear path (save for being college roommates with a first-round pick) other than the tried-and-true method: preparation, timing and separating oneself from the pack by developing a marketable skill set.
Many are attracted by the glamour of working with famous athletes (and the movie "Jerry Maguire"). And yes, it can be exhilarating. However, the life of an agent is an all-consuming emotional and physical roller coaster catering to the whims of clients in their 20s. There are highs in signing a new client or securing a major contract, and lows in losing out on a potential client after months of recruiting or even losing an existing client to another agent for reasons that are hard to understand. (I know. I lost Ricky Williams to Master P.)
When I moved from the agent to the team side, I found the work is very different. As a team executive, one spends a great deal of time negotiating and managing present and future roster expenses. As an agent, a large percentage of time is spent recruiting new clients rather than negotiating for existing ones. I always thought that fact alone gave teams an advantage in negotiations. It is a team executive's job to know how to navigate through the CBA rules; agents usually are too busy recruiting and troubleshooting problems for existing clients to become experts at interpreting labor agreements.
Being an agent is akin to having a real-life fantasy football team -- rooting for clients on different teams -- with a real-life component to it. If that fantasy team does not produce, the result is not just razzing from friends. An agent's livelihood depends on it.
There are 714 agents certified by the NFL Players Association for approximately 1,800 NFL players. To become certified, an agent must have a graduate degree and pass an exam, administered annually in July, testing knowledge of the CBA and contract rules. Last year, 140 new agents passed the test, set free to recruit, sign and represent NFL players.
The annual fee to maintain certification is $1,200 for agents who represent fewer than 10 active players and $1,700 for agents who represent 10 or more.
Here are some other interesting notes about NFL agents, according to the NFLPA:
• 42 percent of agents -- 300 of them -- have no clients currently in the NFL.
• 25 percent of agents have between one and four clients.
• 13 percent of the agents represent half of the players in the NFL.
• 25 percent of the agents represent 78 percent of the players in the NFL.
The NFLPA's annual meeting of player representatives --not the most sympathetic group toward agent fees -- periodically addresses the fee structure for agents. The maximum fee has been reduced a couple of times over the years and is now at 3 percent of the player's contract.
The 3 percent fee applies to money actually received: Agents must wait to collect on things such as bonus deferrals, salary and negotiated incentives until the player actually has received the money. And once a player's contract is terminated, the agent fees on the remaining balance of that contract also are extinguished.
Agents cannot charge 3 percent for restricted free agent or franchise tag one-year contracts. The maximum for those is 2 percent.
Fee undercutting is rampant. Agents will charge less than 1 percent to entice a player to sign. Lowering fees has become a staple for agents seeking to gain business.
When I was an agent more than a decade ago, pre-combine personalized training arranged by the agent was a new wrinkle in the business. The player repaid those expenses, initially borne by the agent, when he signed his contract. Now, agents must bear this nonrefundable expense for incoming rookie players.
Agents pay training centers up to $25,000 just to hold a spot for a potential client. And beyond training and lodging expenses, there are rental cars and restaurant deals that have become further enticements from agents. The competition never stops.
For a first-round pick with millions ahead in guaranteed money, these costs might be justified. For most rookie players, however, these expenses set an agent back on a player, an investment into what the agent hopes will be a significant second contract.
This time of year -- between Thanksgiving and New Year's -- is "go time" for agents. Most experienced agents have learned that "I'm going to wait until after the season to decide on agents" is player code for "I've already committed to another agent." Since the NFLPA's "junior rule" restricting contact to underclassmen has been rescinded -- NFL player representatives voted to eliminate it -- agents are positioning to be ready if those players forgo remaining eligibility.
Agents are crisscrossing the country meeting with players, coaches, advisers and parents as the decision-making process reaches its apex. Recruiting -- similar to college recruiting -- consists of agents' making their pitch: selling their best clients, best contracts and best connections to NFL management. And, of course, few agents are above letting the player know about weaknesses of the competition. In such a competitive environment, especially for top players, some agents use "whatever means necessary," leading to unscrupulous behavior and payments.
A powerful recruiting tool that has surfaced in recent years is the "marketing guarantee." That's money from the agent to the player -- I have heard of guarantees of up to $2 million -- to be set off against future marketing revenue delivered by the agent. And, of course, if the agent is unable to secure the initial amount given to the player in marketing income, the player still keeps that money.
There is always the push-pull with bigger agencies and smaller agents: Bigger groups sell influence and contacts; smaller agents sell personal attention. Ultimately, a player's choice comes down to comfort level, gut feel, or the fact that the agent represented a friend or teammate.
These agent decisions will all be made in the coming weeks, with the potential futures of the players -- and the agents -- at stake. Choose wisely.