We Can't All Be Jerry Maguire -- Or Can We?
Harford Business Ledger: April 2006
This section of the Harford Business Ledger is devoted to sports, and any discussion of sports and the involvement of law in sports eventually includes sports agents and player representatives, most of whom are lawyers. The whole industry of sports agency and representation has really only existed for a few decades. In the good old days, athletes didn't need lawyers to play sports; they had managers only. After watching the movie "Cinderella Man," my wife commented that after Jim Braddock beat Max Baer, Sr., for the world heavyweight championship (in 1935) and was paid his prize money for that fight, that was the end of any compensation he would receive for becoming the World Heavyweight Champion. There were no endorsements, commercials, movie roles, TV spots or underwear commercials. The trailer for the movie informed the audience that Jim Braddock went back to work in a factory, bought a modest house and lived there for the rest of his life.
Today, for an athlete, competing in your sport is the least complicated part of your career -- and that is not always the athlete's doing. Any athlete with a show of promise can be besieged by commercial opportunists looking to get in on the ground floor. Maryland Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps had a team of agents and representatives assisting with the deluge of offers and opportunities that came his way BEFORE he even competed in the 2004 Olympics. News reports about Harford's "own" Kimmie Meissner generally don't mention that she also has retained managers and press agents, who are already attempting to control commercial use of Kimmie's "image" (for instance, dealing with requests from Harford County companies wishing to put "Good Luck Kim!" messages in their advertisements).
There is no question these days that athletes need professional assistance dealing with the complexities with which they are faced, but what really is the proper role for these agents and representatives? My brother George Young was the General Manager of the New York Giants for 20 years, and spent most of those years on a daily basis dealing with agents in player contract negotiations. His perennial complaint was that agents did not really fill the role most desperately needed by professional athletes: helping them hold on to their earnings and planning their lives after their sports careers would end. According to George, agents would spend most of their time attempting to negotiate contract terms (which were generally non-negotiable), rather than dealing with money management issues for the long term. The careers of many highly paid athletes are at best short-lived, and can be involuntarily terminated at any time by injury.
As we are all well aware, salaries for many professional athletes have skyrocketed to incomprehensible heights. Television revenues and product endorsements are likely to cause that trend to continue. Professional athletes will, therefore, continue to need significant professional assistance managing their careers and assets. It would be best for those professional advisors to concentrate on the long-term needs of their clients. The professional sports representation industry is likely to continue to grow and include many collateral professions. Professional sports representation would be a great niche for young, aspiring legal and accounting professionals. Maybe it's time to go make friends with some high school coaches!