Agent Falk talks lockout, Jordan's brand, LeBron's mistake, more
As NBA lockout headlines go, this was nothing for David Falk.
The agent who represented Michael Jordan and many more of the game's biggest names, and was known as an advocate of the stars and adversary of commissioner David Stern during work stoppages, was in the news again.
"I think that I could make this deal in one day, with either party, I really do," Falk said last September of the collective bargaining negotiations, which were three months from a resolution.
His bold proclamation was nothing compared to the good-old days.
Falk, who sold his agency, FAME, to SFX in 1998 in a deal that would eventually be worth about $200 million, was as influential as they came in the 1980s and '90s. During the 1998 NBA lockout, he represented four members of the union's executive committee (including president Patrick Ewing) and was routinely accused of being an obstacle to a deal.
Falk, who currently represents eight NBA clients while also acting as a Syracuse professor and successful businessman, wasn't on the negotiating frontlines this time around. He offered his advice both publicly and privately, but stayed mostly above the fray during the acrimonious six months that led to an agreement.
When I tracked him down to see if he stood by his September prediction, Falk wound up reflecting on the lockout while taking aim at union executive director Billy Hunter and the agents who played such a pivotal role in it all. And yes, for the record, he stands by what he said.
From the day Billy came in, I tried very hard to offer my advice and input. With my experience, obviously I know what he's dealing with as well as he does because I've been doing this for 38 years. And I think Billy -- I like Billy, I think he's a very nice guy -- is very, very reluctant to accept help sometimes because some agents have players in a certain position [of influence].
Everyone knew before you started that with the new TV contract, the salaries were going to go from [an average of] $5.5 million to $7 million, so why are we having players take losses up to 22 percent on $2.2 billion ... to get to the point where they got to? It's a very frustrating process for me.
And I think I have more experience. Most of the stuff from the uniform player contract of today, I created -- the early termination option, the "love of the game" clause, buyouts. Half the stuff that's in there is stuff we created over the years, but now you have the thing is so buttoned down that there's zero creativity left in the thing at all. I'm a businessman. I don't look at myself as an agent anymore. I'm a businessman. I've sold a business for more than some of the NBA teams may be worth today. I have other businesses I own, and I consider myself a businessman like many of the guys who own the teams.
I've never met a person in a high position, whether it's a CEO or the president of the United States or a king, who doesn't have dozens of advisors that he relies on. He makes the final decision, but you surround yourself with a presidential cabinet. You have as many smart people as you can, hopefully people smarter than you, to help make sure that you do a good job. Billy has never embraced that concept. I think he somehow feels like putting smart people around you makes you look weak to the players.
Everybody is saying that because the rules don't allow you to differentiate yourself on the contract, how do you differentiate yourself if everything is the same? What's the only variable if you're recruiting a guy and you can't say you can get him more money? How do you separate yourself? People separate themselves by what they offer the guy.
There are issues that need to be addressed that I think hurt the players, hurt the teams. There are companies that represent teams and players, companies that represent coaches and players, GMs and players, even though there are rules against that. But the union doesn't have the wherewithal to police that stuff any more than the NCAA has the wherewithal to police the cheating.
Now, I don't believe that. But I think [the problem is] preponderate. I'm not mad about it. I'm not here to be like a muckraker or to turn people in. It doesn't matter to me. It only matters because if you wonder why players switch agents so much, it's because they make decisions for bad reasons. And I think it's unfortunate.
You have all these rules, and no one is enforcing them. It's silly. You have rules where I can't represent Michael Jordan when he became president of the Wizards, and almost every agent there has a whole division of their company where they represent coaches. I said to the union, "How do you allow that to happen?" And they say to me, "Well, we can't regulate corporations." I said, "Really, you couldn't pass a rule that says, 'In order to be registered as an agent representing players you can't work for a company that represents coaches?' " And they're like, "Oh, we never thought about it." If there's a will, there's a way.
But when he started, the intent wasn't to manage him to create a brand. It was to manage him to become a great player and the brand grew out of being a great player. I think today's generation of players are trying to skip that step. They're trying to create brands, but you can't create a brand. I think the brand is something that derives from your recognizability, your favorability, your performance, success, personality. It's a blend of different factors.
Michael Jordan developed a brand because it was something that developed naturally. It wasn't something that was manufactured, and I think today too many people are trying too hard -- in a faddish kind of a way -- and the fad things never last. In Michael's generation, there were people like Jim McMahon and Brian Bosworth -- they were fads. They were hot for a couple of years, but [Jordan's] brand lasted because it was built on a very strong foundation.
Everyone has been trying so hard for the last 20 years to find the next Michael Jordan. There will never be another Michael Jordan, and brands come along only occasionally. I think Tiger Woods is a brand. I think Muhammad Ali was a brand. Pele was a brand.
The problem is -- and I like [LeBron's manager] Maverick Carter, as well -- very few players have capable management. I think most of the players are managing their agents, because the agents don't have the confidence or the courage to tell the players what they really think they want to hear. They tell them what they want to hear because they're afraid of getting fired.
For me, when players of the intelligence of Nick Young
If you had $160 million to invest on two funds, and one was called the LeBron James fund and one was called the Jerome James fund, how much money would you put in the Jerome James fund and how much would you put in the LeBron James fund? Under the rules, the league was forcing Cleveland to invest $40 million in the Jerome James fund or some other fund like Jerome James. That's the height of stupidity.
So if Michael Jordan comes out and says he doesn't agree with that, does that make him a hypocrite or does it make him a smart guy? It just makes it clear the people who criticized him don't have the faintest clue how business works in professional sports.
Now, why aren't they on the same team? Why are they on different teams? Because the union has put them on different teams prior to Billy getting the job, and Billy hasn't brought them back and I don't think Billy really even wants to bring them back. There's a very strong antipathy between Billy and the agents. It's got nothing to do with me. It's between Billy and the agents.