An NBA player firing his agent has become as common as changing his cell number.
For example, Mitchell Robinson has had six agents since declaring for the draft through only his second season in the league.
Being an agent in the league is about more than negotiating a lucrative contract during free agency or an extension period. An agent’s job description in today’s world can include the following: Recruiter, mentor, friend, advisor, and communicator. During the social media age, where there are more access points to a player than ever before, agents have to work harder to maintain a relationship with a player and bring the player’s family into their own as if they’re in-laws. If they don’t, there’s always another agent looking to swoop in and poach a client for a hefty commission before he signs his next big contract.
HoopsHype spoke with six NBA agents on the condition of anonymity about their experiences getting fired by clients. The agents have varying experience levels ranging from several years in the business to multiple decades.
HOW AGENTS LOSE PLAYERS
There are numerous ways an agent can lose a player.
When a player is underperforming in a contract year, he sometimes blames his poor play on the agent or coach and looks for a change. That’s when the player is vulnerable to another agent or outside voice getting into his head. Or, when a player starts to improve and outperforms a previously negotiated contract, a rival agent can claim the player’s current agent didn’t do a good job negotiating, and the player isn’t being promoted or marketed enough while he’s playing well. The prospective agent sells a grass is greener on the other side concept to the player in limbo.
Older agents can sell players on their experience and a client list and several big contract signings as proof of their work compared to younger agents seeking their first big deal.
“For me, I think what’s used against me is that I’m inexperienced, so I don’t really have the experience or the power, which is I think a bunch of b——- at the end of the day,” one agent told HoopsHype. “I don’t think that’s a real thing. I think it comes into play a little bit. Relationships are important, but at the end of the day, I still think talent is really what sets the mark. I mean, me and you could be LeBron James‘ agent, he’s going to get a max contract.”
Some agents also promise marketing opportunities such as private equity and help to take care of a potential client’s family members.
“We all know that there’s literally about 2-5 percent of the NBA players make significant income off the court,” one long-time agent told HoopsHype. “It’s either because they have a massive appeal, a massive social media, following, or they’re just superstars.”
Whether it’s a family member, manager, trainer, former coach, close friend, teammate, or someone else in a player’s inner circle, there’s usually an angle for an intermediary to push for a change in representation.
“Everyone’s incentivized when people switch,” one prominent agent told HoopsHype. “Somebody’s getting paid, like 99 (percent) someone’s getting taken care of in the next contract, or somebody’s getting paid when there’s an intermediary involved. Sometimes, players grow up, and they start to figure things out, and then they don’t use an intermediary. They learn enough, they talk to some veterans that they respect, who have a good reputation. They say, ‘I’m going to find someone for me, not who my dad wanted or, or my AAU coach wanted or whoever. I want to make my own decision.'”
Veteran players – especially superstars – have major influence over younger players, according to several agents. The veteran can snatch the younger player and bring him to the agency representing him. What’s the incentive for the veteran player? A reduced agent commission fee is a possibility, per several agents. An agent can make a maximum of four percent on a playing contract. If a player recruits another client, an agent can offer to negotiate the player’s contract for a lower commission percentage.
Intermediaries can come outside the locker room from sources you’d never expect who have access to a player, including sneaker representatives and even tailors.
“They (sneaker reps) have relationships with the players at a different angle, and they’re trying to push players with an agenda whether it’s for kickbacks, which I assume it is, or it’s for another reason, I don’t know, but they don’t play neutral,” one agent who has negotiated maximum-salary contracts and large endorsement deals told HoopsHype. “Then you’ve got the managers, and then you got the trainers. If you don’t sync up everybody onto your page and everyone’s biting out of your pocket, you’re going to lose a guy. You have to insulate the player to anyone that has any influence, and people that you don’t know have an influence, you have to be aware of as well. It’s a never-ending cycle. I remember one time, there was a tailor, like a clothier, who had influence over players who was pushing them to an agent for a kickback.”
Poachers can strike everywhere. A rival agent with a player on the same team could be waiting in the tunnel of an arena and strike up a conversation with another agent’s client.
For an agent with a star client, paranoia can set in trying to prevent a potential poacher. On a given road trip, an agent could make several trips to see his star client by visiting him when he gets to his hotel and greet him after a team dinner at the hotel, so another agent or potential influencer doesn’t bump into the player in the lobby. He can also greet the player the next morning before and after shootaround. The following day, an agent can visit the player before and after his game. Ultimately, an agent can only cover so many places, and there are going to be opportunities for poachers when the player travels to 29 other cities.
One player rep recalled losing a client to an agent who was living in the same city his client played. The agent claimed his former client was befriended and taken to strip clubs where he partied, drank, and smoked weed.
Maintaining a relationship with a client becomes similar to dating. If you’re dating an attractive person, there are going to be other people trying to flirt with that person. As an agent, you have to develop trust and a bond with the client you represent. Clients that have that connection with their agent will even share a text message, private DM, or any other contact attempt from a rival agent.
The added element of social media has changed the way one agent with multiple decades of experience corresponds with his clients. Before social media, he’d talk to his clients every 7-10 days. Now, it’s almost daily communication because there are numerous people around him. It’s intensified his relationship with his clients.
Sometimes, it’s not about the relationship or as subtle as recruiting a player by taking him out to fancy dinners, it’s more direct.
“The ones that upset me is when another agent drops a bag of hundreds of thousand dollars off at their house, and you lose the player over that,” another agent told HoopsHype.
The battle between agents for a client and a hefty commission can get heated if any of these scenarios occur, and a poaching attempt is provable.
“You have to get in the agent’s face and say, ‘Stay out of my yard,’” an agent told HoopsHype. “Then, you have to write them a law letter claiming tortious interference. Send them a very strong letter to say I’m not going to tolerate this, and you have to police it yourself. You either move the needle that way or the person is criminal, he doesn’t give a s— anyway, he does it anyway, and then you’ve got a battle on your hands.”
HOW THE BREAKUP HAPPENS
The ending of a relationship between an agent and a player is somewhere between ghosting someone you’ve dated or a messy and bitter divorce.
Usually, the first sense an agent has the relationship with a client is nearing the end is when the player doesn’t return phone calls or text messages.
“By the time they get to the phone, you could tell when someone calls you if they have the balls, most of the time they don’t, it’s by text,” one veteran agent told HoopsHype. “You know, it’s really an empty veil. It’s like a breakup by text with a girl you know or divorcing someone by sending them a letter or an email. It’s like thanks for your service, but I decided to move on. Very rarely do you get the reason why.”
While some agents felt their termination was coming, most of the agents expressed shock when terminated.
“I talked to an agent once out of New York who said, “S— my guy was toasting me at my wedding, and a week later, I got a FedEx package,” one longtime player rep told HoopsHype.
Another agent was preparing to negotiate a deal for his client on July 1. This agent saw the FedEx truck showing up at his cul de sac on June 15th. At that moment, the agent knew without opening the envelope that he’d been fired and would lose a large commission.
In case you were wondering, FedEx was the most noted carrier of the termination envelopes, according to the agents polled for the story.
Another agent was in the middle of negotiations on a multi-year contract worth tens of millions of dollars for his client, who was at his house for a Sunday barbeque when he was terminated.
“We’re two weeks into free agency, and he’s getting antsy because the deal wasn’t done,” the agent told HoopsHype. “It was agreed upon, but it just wasn’t done. (Another player) was in his ear saying, ‘You’re not being treated like a superstar player. Your deal should have been done on July 2nd.’ He fired me in the middle of doing a deal. This is a guy I raised in the business. He was like my son. It doesn’t really matter how close you are, it’s just random and arbitrary.”
During contract negotiations with a general manager, it can become extremely awkward and tense when an agent calls to say the client left but is working on getting the client back. It could lead to the end of advanced contract talks where a verbal agreement was in place.
“They don’t want that s—,” said another agent whose client fired him in the middle of negotiations. “They’ve got bigger fish to fry.”
Based on the experiences of the agents polled for this story, rarely does the relationship end on good terms.
“How often do you get back with your ex?” one agent asked. “Especially when there’s so much emotion and so many variables involved? It’s very hard to put it back together.”
Once the dust settles between the agent and former client, the relationship can go in a few directions down the line.
First, an agent takes the high road, wishes the former client well, and eventually, the client returns because he realizes the grass isn’t greener on the other side or he was lied to with false promises.
“I’ve had several athletes come back,” one prominent agent said. “I’m not a bridge burner. Sometimes it’s hard because you feel like you’ve been personally violated. You’ve gone to great sacrifice to help them and a lot of times it’s personal sacrifices with your time being away from your family, which a lot of times they don’t appreciate.”
“They’re very remorseful, and the relationship actually turns out to be better than ever,” one veteran agent added. “They show a lot of remorse because they really didn’t advance at all, and they learn the hard way.”
Second, there’s no further contact between the two sides and a lack of closure for the agent as to why he was terminated.
“I always try to reach out,” an agent said. “Sometimes they duck you. I just want an explanation. I want to know why. I’m trying to learn why you made this decision to move on.”
Third, the bad blood between the two parties can boil over into a heated confrontation and bitterness for years to come.
“I think in the beginning of my career I probably lost my cool one time with one guy,” an agent with a handful of years as a certified agent told HoopsHype. “We exchanged some words and kind of got into it where he was like threatening me.”
Many times before games, a former agent and client will look at each other and turn away immediately or say hello briefly and carry on. Generally, the tension can be felt by those around both people.
The overwhelming consensus was some form of compensation is warranted for an agent who has worked with a client multiple years. That would provide the agent protection should a player decided to leave right before free agency when an agent has worked years laying the groundwork for the negotiation commission.
“If a guy works for a guy for four years, and he fires him two months before the deal’s up, absolutely, there should be something,” one longtime agent said. “I know the player has a right to move on, but there should definitely be some recognition of what that previous agent did.”
Some agents suggested earning a commission on a year-to-year basis for their services instead of earning it off a contract negotiation. The thought process was agents make little to nothing on a rookie and could get fired by the player before negotiating his second contract.
In some instances, an agent and an agency split the commission if an agent leaves the company. In theory, the prior agent and the new one could split the commission of a client who changed representation for X amount of months before free agency.
Ultimately, the players dictate the livelihood of agents, and a split-second decision can change the life of one agent drastically.
“It’s really an awful business that’s really tough and very competitive, and there aren’t a lot of restrictions or rules on it,” one high-level agent told HoopsHype. “The players kind of set the rules, and the players want freedom, and they like getting the bag sometimes. Some guys like being bought and sold, which is f—– up, but it’s true.”
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