Talent reps lure sports specialists into the fold

THE ESPYS
Where: Kodak Theatre
When: 6 p.m., July 12
Televised: 9 p.m., July 16 on ESPN
What: Honoring the sports world’s most impressive achievements over the past year.
Nominees include: Best team (U of Texas football, U of Maryland women’s basketball, Chicago White Sox, Miami Heat, Pittsburgh Steelers); male athlete (Albert Pujols, Lance Armstrong, LeBron James, Shaun Alexander, Vince Young); best game (Astros vs. Braves, game 4, NLDS), Rose Bowl, Agassi vs. Blake (U.S. Open quarterfinals)
Arthur Ashe Courage Award: Female athletes who play organized soccer leagues in post-Taliban Afghanistan.

Since 1949, the Gersh Agency has been speaking the language of actors, directors, writers and below-the-line talent. But lately, over the din of a typical business day, the unmistakable cacophony of sports chatter can be heard.

What gives?

“What are players looking for? They’re looking for the add-on value,” notes Toi Cook, a former defensive back in the NFL for 11 seasons who landed at Gersh in December 2004, after running his own sports marketing firm.

Add-ons for today’s athletes can include spots on a TV show, a rap CD, commercials, public appearances, speaking engagements, books, online ventures, broadcasting and even producing.

It used to be that professional athletes had one agent to negotiate their contracts, and then, if they had aspirations of branching out into entertainment, they would seek out a Hollywood agent. Now those Hollywood agents are seeking them out.

Percenteries such as William Morris and ICM have been repping athletes who delve into the biz for some time. But lately CAA, which just signed former USC Heisman Trophy winner Matt Leinart, and Gersh have ratcheted up the trend by acquiring whole agencies or chunks of agencies. CAA landed football agent Tom Condon and baseball agent Casey Close earlier this year, and has quietly been negotiating to bring on other established reps in the pro sports arena.

Gersh acquired Steve Feldman & Associates, which has specialized in handling NFL players for about 25 years, and expects to expand into basketball and baseball in the coming months.

Gersh got in the game with a mix of famous and not-so-recognizable names, including Terry Bradshaw and Kansas City Chiefs tight end Tony Gonzalez on one end and newcomers such as football players Marcus Spears, Justin London and Jon Alston at the other.

“It’s not all about being in front of the camera,” Cook says. “What if you want to be a writer? What if you want to be a producer? At other agencies you’d have to hit lots of home runs or catch lots of touchdown passes to be the guy. Here, as long as you’re a client and you have an interest, we’ll help facilitate that.”

Says Gersh chief financial officer Hugh Dodson: “It’s like we turned this light on inside the agency and have become something other than what we were a couple (or) three months ago.”

At William Morris, that light has been on for almost 10 years now, thanks largely to the efforts of agent and former pro tennis player Jill Smoller. She handles such sports notables as sisters Venus and Serena Williams, former Laker Rick Fox and current NBA star Kevin Garnett, and golfer Michelle Wie. While agencies like CAA and Gersh have made splashes with aggressive moves into the realm, WMA and Smoller have been moving along successfully on a steady path.

“Actually a lot of recent interest from athletes began with ‘Arliss,’ ” says Smoller, referring to the now-defunct HBO sitcom, which started in 1996. “They all wanted to be on the show.

“But I think every agency and every business is looking to build alternative revenue streams. You’re crazy if you don’t. Sports and entertainment merged years ago. What the other agencies are doing is different from what we do. Years ago we set out with a very specific philosophy, to represent the best athletes and sports teams around the world, using all the resources of the company. We plan on continuing with that model, but we look at all business on a case-by-case basis.”

Yet not all marriages of sports and entertainment are meant to last.

“Sports in Hollywood is not new,” says Gil Pagovich of Maxximum Marketing, a company that reps players including brothers Tiki and Ronde Barber of the New York Giants. “There was Michael Ovitz at AMG. Master P represented ballplayers. We’ve watched all those companies get involved in sports, and now they’re not in sports anymore. Arn Tellem bought his business back (from SFX).

“I just think the sports business is best run as a smaller, more attention-based business. Bottom line, you have to look at your client first, then if he’s significant on the field he’ll transfer off the field.”

But David Carter, head of the Sports Business Institute at USC’s Marshall School of Business, suggests this is a movement that’s here to stay.

“The bigger trend in the last decade,” he says, “is that traditional sports agents are seeing their fees shrinking. It used to be commonplace to see 4% or 5%, but that’s coming down dramatically. Contracts have become reasonably standardized. So where does the agent add value? In marketing, financial management, endorsements.

“If you’re a Leigh Steinberg, you have to evolve your business or risk being on the outside looking in. That’s why you see momentum in these agencies that acquire agencies that control athletes. You might start seeing more agents putting themselves in a position to be acquired, or to be a strategic ally where they share fees.”

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