The 15 Most Influential Sports Agents
A 12-year NFL career (1974-85), a three-year run as NFLPA president (1984-86) and a sophisticated understanding of NFL economics have helped make Tom Condon the most influential agent around. He's negotiated some of the largest deals in NFL history, including the Manning Brothers' contracts, which together total nearly $200 million. Condon has approximately 80 clients, with quarterbacks Drew Brees, Tony Romo, Matthew Stafford, Matt Ryan among his most prominent. Who did Elvis Dumervil call after his contract snafu with the Broncos? Condon, who promptly negotiated a $35 million deal for the linebacker. Not all of Condon's clients are easy sells. One of his most impressive feats was preventing Manti Te'o from falling in the draft. Despite the embarrassing catfishing scandal and a poor showing at the NFL combine, Te'o was an early second- round pick of the Chargers. Think his agent had anything to do with it?
You know you've made it when teams' personnel decisions are shaped by whether players have you as their agent. And you know you've really made it when a league changes its draft rules because they don't know how to beat you in a free market. "He's a Boras client" is a phrase uttered by baseball executives with irritation, fear and admiration. It means the player is likely to test the market whenever he can become a free agent and will probably go to the highest bidder. It also means the player's advocate will make a sales pitch like no other. Scott Boras negotiated Alex Rodriguez's 10-year, $252 million deal with the Rangers, Barry Zito's 7-year, $126 million deal with the Giants and literally dozens of other free-agent contracts that seemed over-priced then and now. He also arranged for top draft picks -- including J.D. Drew and Jason Varitek -- to play in independent baseball leagues as a way of obtaining negotiation leverage. Baseball has instituted new rules capping how much teams can spend on drafted players, rules which Boras derided as "mockery" but were in fact a tribute to him.
No agent is as influential in player representation and players' association politics as Arn Tellem. According to HoopsHype.com, Tellem is the number one NBA agent in all of the leading metrics -- he's first with 46 player clients (including Derrick Rose and Russell Westbrook), first with 12 All-Star clients, first with six maxed-out clients and first in total salaries negotiated: his players were paid a stunning $274 million in 2012-13. Tellem's influence extends beyond mere numbers. He played a leading role in the ousting of Billy Hunter, going so far as to penning a widely-shared letter in which he described Hunter as incompetent and untrustworthy. Soon thereafter, Hunter was fired under a cloud of suspicion about his competency and trustworthiness. Memo to those who want to lead the players' association: Arn Tellem can be reached at http://www.wmgllc.com/portfolio/arn-tellem/.
The most powerful and perhaps most intimidating agent in hockey, Don Meehan, along with Pat Morris, represents around 125 NHL players, including Steven Stamkos, Henrik Lundqvist and P.K. Subban. For more than three decades, Meehan has dominated the industry of NHL player representation. But not without an occasional blip. In 2006 Alexander Ovechkin fired Meehan and replaced him with . . . no one (Oveckin decided to be his own agent, with help from his mom). Not many agents would threaten to sue players -- the people agents need for work -- but Meehan has done just that. When Redwings defenseman Chris Chelios was quoted in 2007 as saying Meehan undermined the NHLPA and was involved in "sketchy or shady" investments, Meehan wrote to Chelios saying he was going to sue him for libel. Chelios quickly retracted the remarks and said he was misquoted. The message was clear: don't mess with Meehan. Not many do.
The stereotypical depiction of a sports agent is someone who's always on the move, always on the phone and always looking for a TV camera. Oh, and always ready to drop anything for a client. It's a description that fits Drew Rosenhaus, who since he began as a 22-year-old agent, has negotiated over $2 billion in NFL player contracts. Along the way Rosenhaus has mastered the art of manipulating perception. He guided Terrell Owens through a disastrous divorce from the Eagles into a $25 million contract with Cowboys. And he helped Willis McGahee, who had recently tore all three ligaments in his knee and was not yet able to walk normally, somehow get drafted in the first round of the 2003 draft. Rosenhaus was so confident of McGahee's first-round selection that he offered to give up his commission if McGahee fell out of the first round. Legend has it Rosenhaus mugged before TV cameras during the draft to create a self-fulfilling prophecy: by making it seem that teams were interested in drafting McGahee in the first round, teams would in fact become interested. Rosenhaus has around 170 clients, including Rob Gronkowski (who signed a $54 million deal with the Patriots) and NaVorro Bowman, who the 49ers recently committed to paying $45 million.
When an agent threatens that his player will hold out, the team usually thinks the agent is bluffing. Not when that agent is Eugene Parker, whose uncommon use of the holdout -- where a player forgoes his pay by not reporting to a team -- has drawn equal praise and scorn. Sometimes it has worked brilliantly. When Parker advised Ndamukong Suh, the second overall pick of the 2010 draft, to hold out from the Lions, it led to a five-year, $68 million deal, with $40 million in guaranteed money. Not too shabby. But Parker also allegedly advised Michael Crabtree, the 10th overall pick in the 2009 draft, to hold out the entire 2009 season and re-enter the draft unless the 49ers paid Crabtree like a top 5 pick. After missing a third of the season without pay, Crabtree signed a contract for about what the 10th pick could have expected. Not too great. Still, Parker is among the best agents around, with a client list led by Larry Fitzgerald and Devin Hester.
NBA players looking for an agent increasingly turn to Jeff Schwartz, whose NBA clientele was collectively paid almost $200 million in the 2012-13 season. Blake Griffin, Paul Pierce, Brandon Jennings and more than 30 other players now call themselves Schwartz clients. Like other agents, Schwartz's best work is found with clients who sign for much more than logic would predict. Case-in-point: Schwartz convincing the Clippers last summer to sign Lamar Odom, fresh off a tumultuous and unimpressive year with the Mavericks, for $8.2 million. This summer will be crucial for Schwartz's reputation. He and Danny Ainge face tricky conversations over whether the aging Celtics will bring Pierce back for '13-14, when he's due $15 million. Schwartz will also represent two free agents whose values incite debate among NBA execs: Al Jefferson and Jarrett Jack. If both players sign long-term, lucrative deals, expect Schwartz's clientele to only grow.
He's not as well known as Scott Boras, yet Fernando Cuza is respected by baseball executives just as much. Born in Cuba and raised mainly in Florida, Cuza has enjoyed more success signing Latin American players than any other agent. And he's usually received high praise for his bargaining skills, such as when he negotiated Miguel Cabrera's $152 million contract with the Tigers and Alfonso Soriano's $136 million deal with the Cubs. Cuza also displays a rare talent for getting teams to negotiate against themselves. Take one of Cuza's most celebrated clients, Red Sox DH David Ortiz. Ortiz was a free agent last winter and coming off major surgery to repair his Achilles tendon. Cuza told the Red Sox it would take a two-year, $30 million contract to re-sign him. Cuza made this steep demand even though Ortiz, a designated hitter, was of no interest to National League teams and also no American League team would give up a first-round pick to sign him. Ortiz's market for a two-year contract, in other words, seemed limited to the Red Sox. Nonetheless, Cuza convinced the Red Sox to re-sign its fan favorite to a two-year, $26 million deal. No one in Boston is complaining, especially after Ortiz's now historic "this is our f--- city" speech in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombings and his hot start to the 2013 season (as of May 9, he had an OPS of 1.126). But did the Red Sox have to go two years and for those dollars?
There's only one agent who can say he's represented Lebron James, Carmelo Anthony and Chris Paul. Leon Rose is that person. Rose suffered a setback when James left for another agency, but he still represents Anthony, Paul and J.R. Smith, who just won 6th Man of the Year Award, along with a dozen other players. Rose's best work? Arguably his handling of Eddy Curry's contract dispute with the Bulls back in 2006. The Bulls demanded Curry to take a DNA test to determine if he had a heart condition as a condition to a new contract. With the advice of Rose and attorney Alan Milstein, Curry refused on privacy grounds. It was a bold move that could have easily backfired and triggered litigation. Instead it led to the Bulls trading Curry to the Knicks in a sign-and-trade in which Curry netted a six-year, $60 million deal. Rose also has capably handled the myriad crises of Allen Iverson.
Most agents are compensated only through commissions from negotiated contracts, but agents "earn their keep" in other ways. Sometimes crisis management and image rehabilitation prove far more valuable. This is clearly true for Mark Steinberg, golf's number one agent. Steinberg, an attorney by trade, used quick-thinking and legal smarts to minimize the aftermath of Tiger Woods' perplexing early morning car crash in 2009 and the subsequent frenzy over Woods' tawdry voice mails to mistresses. Woods, of course, went on to lose his marriage and most of his endorsement deals, but it could have been much worse. Steinberg, who has also represented Vijay Singh and Annika Sorenstam, has helped Woods rebuild his image. Woods has regained his spot as the world's number one golfer and still attracts more than $50 million a year in endorsements.
Agents often worry about clients being "stolen" by other agents -- including agents in their own firm. David Dunn knows all about that. About a decade ago he was sued by Leigh Steinberg and suspended by the NFLPA for 18 months. The misdeed? Allegedly stealing clients from Steinberg, his former partner and mentor. Dunn had to declare bankruptcy to pay off his bills. For many agents it would have been career over. Not Dunn. He and his Athletes First partner, Brian Murphy, have built one of the most successful agencies around. They represent Clay Matthews, Wes Welker (so Bob Kraft is not a big fan), Ed Reed, Matt Cassel and Aaron Rodgers, whose recent five-year, $110 million deal with the Packers makes him the highest-paid player in NFL history. Dunn and Murphy also represent Mark Sanchez, a player who will probably keep them busy as long as he's a Jet.
Bill Belichick, Bob Stoops, Kirk Ferentz, Bo Pelini, Todd Graham and Bret Bielema would make an amazing coaching staff. They also make an impressive client list for Neil Cornrich, arguably the leading agent of football coaches, both professional and collegiate. He has deep connections throughout football and the trust of team decision-makers. Cornrich's also an attorney, which helped him secure a favorable $1.65 million settlement for fired Kansas State head coach Ron Prince. The Cleveland-based agent also represents several NFL general managers and a solid list of NFL players, including Marshal Yanda, Ted Ginn Jr., Riley Reiff and Montee Ball. Some of Cornrich's best work is detectable in less glamorous places, like in negotiating salaries for coordinators. He represents Colts offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton, whose salary exceeds that of some NFL head coaches.
Ben Dogra is the quintessential low-profile, high-impact sports agent. If you don't recognize his name, it means you aren't a decision-maker for an NFL team. It also means you aren't a projected first-round pick. Working alongside Tom Condon, Dogra is regarded as the best recruiter of young football talent -- including Robert Griffin III and Luke Joeckel, the second overall selections in the last two NFL drafts, respectively. Dogra also represents Mario Williams, whom he advised in signing a $96 million free-agent deal with the Bills last year. Given Dogra's reputation for sound judgment, it seems unlikely he also advised Williams on suing his ex-fiancé over an $785K engagement ring.
Sports agents are usually associated with major sports, but they play an increasing role in Olympic and extreme/action sports like snowboarding, skateboarding and surfing. None has achieved more success than Peter Carlisle, who represents Hannah Teter, Kelly Clark and other athletes in lucrative endorsement deals with Burton Snowboards, K2 Sports and other brands. Carlisle is also well-regarded for managing client missteps, including those of his most celebrated client, Michael Phelps. When Phelps was photographed "puffing on a bong" at a college party, some believed it would ruin his endorsement potential. Although one major company -- Kellogg -- ended its relationship with the Olympian, others listened to Carlisle and stood by Phelps. Phelps now earns about $7 million a year in endorsements and is credited with turning swimming into the top summer Olympic sport.
Motorsports have become a multi-billion dollar industry largely through smart business strategies, devoted fans and compelling drivers. But don't discount the role played by agents and promoters who worked to guarantee that drivers and their teams received a fair share. The leading agent/manager/promoter/motorsports extraordinaire is Cary Agajanian, who's represented top IndyCar and NASCAR drivers -- including Tony Stewart and Matt Kenseth -- as well as every major motorsports sanctioning body in the U.S. Agajanian's negotiation skills worked to substantially increase base salaries for drivers and pushed the compensation of top drivers into eight figures.