Negotiating the Deals
Smith, Eric L., Black Enterprise
BEHIND CLOSED DOORS, AWAY FROM hot glaring lights and television cameras, the real power players of the sports industry put pen to pad as they get to work. No Showtime dunks or 90-yard touchdown receptions for them. Instead, they save leagues from sinking into chaos, arrange for Michael Jordan to drink Gatorade and make sure Deion Sanders remains a "prime-time" household name.
These men are the "super" agents and negotiators--among the most powerful men in professional sports. Few African Americans are in this elite group--which bestows millions of dollars on unproven 20-year-olds without working up so much as a sweat. But the question is, have things changed enough in the industry to allow more African Americans to negotiate their way into the agent elite? The answer may lie in whether or not marquis African American athletes are willing to give aspiring African American agents a chance to represent them.
Years ago, agents charged whatever commission they wished. Now, player unions limit them to charging no more than 4% to 5% of a negotiated contract. But, that's still a comfortable living if you're able to represent several players who command multimillion-dollar contracts.
R. David Ware, formerly a partner with the Atlanta-based law firm Thomas, Kennedy, Sampson, Edwards & Patterson, helped put together perennial Pro Bowler Barry Sanders' contract with the Detroit Lions in 1989. Although the four-year, $17.5 million deal remains the largest nonquarterback contract in the NFL, Ware believes his involvement in crafting it has done little to change the perception that African Americans can't produce when it comes to negotiating contracts.
"It is really disheartening that so few African Americans are given the opportunity to represent African American players," laments Ware. "Players wear Kente cloth and talk about pride in their heritage, but when it comes to business affairs, they don't use African American lawyers, agents or accountants."
After representing athletes for 16 years, Ware had a large enough stable of clients to open Ware & Associates in October 1994. The Atlanta-based law firm and sports management company also offers contract negotiation, marketing, legal and business management services for on-air personalities, writers and producters. Ware believes his success and the success of others such as William Strickland, president of basketball operations at International Management Group (IMG), proves that for African American agents to do well, "It's no longer a question of ability, but one of opportunity."
Strickland's latest claim to fame is "The Webber Deal"--a monster contract worth more than $74 million over 15 years. Strickland says the contract, which he co-negotiated with Chris Webber's attorney L. Fallasha Erwin, remains the largest ever signed by an NBA rookie. Erwin, who also handles his client's business affairs, credits Webber, one of a small but growing number of star black athletes who are choosing African American agents. "There are players who think to talk to some white folks you need a white attorney. When do we ever get to the credentials?" Erwin asks.
Webber says he looked for the highest credentials, but he was also committed to using African American representation. "It's an embarrassment that so few of us use black lawyers and agents," says Webber. "They should be given a chance."
Strickland certainly earned his chance. From 1983-1991, he helped lure talent that included Patrick Ewing, Dominique Wilkins and Michael Jordan to ProServe, a sports management company in Washington. In 1992 he left ProServe for Cleveland-based IMG, the largest sports management company in the world, employing 1,800 employees in 54 offices worldwide. He took several top black NBA stars with him.
He stresses that it took more than just skin color to do that. "You have to be wary of thinking that your heritage alone is enough to attract athletes," Strickland warns. …