Why do we love sports? For some, it’s the exciting storylines and memorable moments. But what many have always loved about sports is its ability to even the social ‘playing field’. Though race plays a role, sport is one of the few subjective arenas that we have left, in which, your talents to determine your value.
For many African American sports agents, the playing field is not so even and their talents don’t always determine their value either. In an industry where the qualifications are universal, African American agents struggle to earn the business of athletes at the same rate of success as their white counterparts. “Sometimes it feels like we have to work twice as hard to prove that our certification is just a legitimate as our white counterparts.” Says one African American NBAPA certified agent who has been operating as a sole proprietor since 2002.
Unfortunately, this is not a new phenomenon. African American sports agents are not given the same opportunities as their white counterparts due to many of the barriers facing African American’s in society; lack of resources, systematic exclusion and unfair judgement. What is even more alarming is that in sports where African Americans athletes are the vast majority there is an inverse relationship when it comes to their representation. This is especially true in the NFL and NBA in which 70% and 74% of its players are African American respectively. But why is that?
Since its inception, the athlete representation industry has always been dominated by a select few. Building a reputation similar to that of a very exclusive country club. According to the NFL and NBA’s Players Associations’ there are 863 certified agents that represent approximately 1700 athletes and 367 certified agents that represent approximately 450 athletes respectively. Roughly 25% of NFLPA’s certified agents represent nearly 78% of its players, while roughly 5% of NBAPA’s certified agents clients makeup over 50% of the leagues salary cap.
To even get your foot in the door, you better have influential friends and ample funds. “In this business, the agents with the most resources are at the bigger agencies and typically they are not men or women of color,” says Kristen Campbell, an African American NFLPA certified agent since 2010. Just this summer, Campbell negotiated a 5-year, $41.25 Million contract for running back Devonta Freeman of the Atlanta Falcons, making him the 2nd highest paid running back in the NFL.
You wont find many African American Agents on the Forbes ’50 Most Powerful Agent List’. Nor do many of them have the resources to compete larger agencies such as CAA, Octagon and WME|IMG that have created an oligopoly in the market. Even less of them are employed by these agencies, thus creating a clear disadvantage
By nature, the athlete representation industry is extremely difficult to navigate. It has high entry barriers and even higher startup costs. To earn a clients’ business is quite a task. It takes tons of research and analysis as well as superior relationship building skills and that’s only the beginning. “Just because you have a client on an roster, doesn’t mean that you’ve arrived or you will have a good agent experience,” says Campbell. “My ability to offer clients individualized services and connect culturally helps strengthen relationships.”
Under these market conditions, African American agents have to aim for value over volume. For an NFL agent, the most financially valuable client is a starting Quarterback. Quarterback being the single most important position on the field makes them extremely valuable to NFL teams as well. As a result, they are the highest paid players on the roster a majority of the time. In 2017, Quarterbacks are the highest paid players on 20 of the 32 NFL rosters. This high financial value creates extremely high demand and an extremely competitive client recruiting process.
According to ‘Spotraq’, the Top 7 highest paid players in the NFL are all Quarterbacks. They combine to make over $146 Million during the 2017 NFL season. African American agents currently represent none of the top 7 highest paid players and all of them happen to be white, coincidence or commonplace? These findings come as no surprise, as it’s almost unheard of that a white player especially a Quarterback signs with an African American agent. “When it comes to white quarterbacks, you don’t ever see any one of them hire a black agent. And it can’t be about competence. Some of us have been working on this going on 20 years.” Said Lamont Smith, founder of All Pro Sport & Entertainment and Above The Rim Management, in article for ESPN.com.
This coupled with the fact that a majority of the NFL’s African Americans players choose white agents to represent them, further contributes to the narrative that the business of the NFL is not set up for African Americans to succeed. “I literally have to fight tooth and nail to get players to sign with me because they are used to the way things have always been.” Says current NFL agent and former player Elton Patterson in an article featured in Blavity earlier this week. “I am one of the few black agents in the league, and not only that, I played. I know this system.”
This “system” is not only in place in the NFL but has been commonplace in the NBA simultaneously. For decades black NBA players would shy away from signing with black agents because it was against the norm. Former NBA All-Star Chris Webber was quoted in a tweet by Howard Bryant of ESPN Magazine earlier this week claiming veteran players told him owners would be “offended” if he had a black agent, because it would appear “militant”. Fortunately over the years with the successes of agents such as Bill Duffy of BDA Sports Management, Aaron Goodwin of Goodwin Sports Management and Jim Tanner of Tandem Sports & Entertainment more African Americans agents in the NBA have been able to navigate the industry.
Similar to the NFL in the NBA it’s a volume over value approach. “When your client list is very small or nonexistent, it becomes imperative that we sign that one ‘star’ that we can build our practice around,” says an Agent 1. One ‘star’ client has the ability to accelerate an agent’s trajectory and fuel their success. “At times you have to be really creative,” says Agent 1. “If a guy has a superior skill, such as speed for example, its my job to align him with companies that offer fast products or services to their customers in a way that makes sense for both parties involved.”
In recent years we have seen an increasing number of star clients in the NBA seek representation from smaller, African American agents whom have capitalized on one success propelling themselves to new heights. According to ESPN, currently the top 7 highest paid players in the NBA will combine to make $215 million in salary during the 2017-2018 season. Three of the top seven highest paid athletes (Lebron James, Paul Milsap and Mike Conley Jr.) are represented by African American Sports agents (Rich Paul, Deangelo Brendrick and Mike Conley Sr.). Paul Milsap’s agent Deangelo Brendrick and more notably LeBron James’ agent Rich Paul have leveraged their ‘star’ clients to build reputable practices. Rich Paul is one of the 2 African American basketball agents on the Forbes ‘Top 50 Most Powerful Agents’ list.
Though there have been some success stories for African American Agents representing athletes in the NBA and to a lesser extent in the NFL, there is still ample progress to be made. For a long time, African American Agents have spoken about the elephant in the room that is the alarming disparity of successful African American agents to their white counterparts and how it closely mirror society. “While there has been some progress, the progress is glacier-like,” said accomplished sports attorney David Ware of Hall Booth Smith, P.C in article for ESPN.com.
As for competing with the larger agencies for top tier clients, the strength is in numbers. “Maybe it will take a couple of successful African American agents combining their practices into one large agency to compete.” Says Campbell, who proclaims the racial makeup of the athlete representation will not change unless something drastic occurs. One thing is for certain; the African American Agent deserves the same even playing field as the athletes they represent.
But maybe it’s time for more action and accountability, “I’m not here to change people’s views on race or gender, I’m here to be the best professional that I can.” Says Campbell who believes strongly that how one carries themselves goes a lot farther than our resources, “be the change you want to see, don’t just talk about the change.”