A couple years back we ran into a sports agent named Lee Southren who was interested in the game of lacrosse, had signed a few pro players and was making some noise. Southren of Denville, NJ and Keith Askenas of Reisterstown, MD started the first lacrosse specific representation firm, Faceoff Sports Management, LLC. Lee was preaching to the choir, but he sold me the game of lacrosse and his athletes like nobody in lacrosse had ever even attempted. I wondered "What could a super agent possibly get out of this tiny and stingy game?" so I asked. Lee wrote what turned into a feature article on E-Lacrosse. It was an appeal to the graduating college star, "Hey Superstar, You need an Agent!" It was loaded with enthusiasm but laced with naiveté. The stable of athletes is now a few choice players and a new focus on coaches and even programs and the super agent has adapted to the multiple revenue stream model that has ruled the game for ages. The formula is simple: Pro salary + coaching salary + camps + endorsements = about 100,000 for the top fifty or so pros and there's not a lot of room in there for an agent to take a piece of the pie.
But Lee, like most agents, is a businessman, entrepreneurial and pretty observant, and while inventing the lacrosse agent business he's put together a unique and eclectic combination of independent observations and views. To be accurate, since Lee first wrote for us, he's dropped as many of his initial notions as he has kept, but it's that businessman's insensitivity that makes him a far better analyst of the present than he is a predictor of the future. We barraged Lee with e-mail questions over the holidays and asked about everything from the pro game to youth lacrosse and, as usual, the conversation was lively and spot on. We assembled the best of the exchange for a glimpse of the game only a super agent could give us.
E-Lacrosse: What's the business environment like in lacrosse? Is it recession proof?
Southren: The business environment in lacrosse is changing for the better. More and more people are realizing the growth spots in the game - not the whole game but parts that are marketable. Few things are ever recession proof. The game of Lacrosse is. But the lacrosse business is not.
E-Lacrosse: Are there too many lacrosse companies ( a glut) or can all of them make it?
Southren: By last count, there are 12+ companies manufacturing some sort of product including industry giants Brine, STX, Warrior, Gait and newcomers RBK and Adidas. Up and comers like Scorpion, Hammer, Talon, Shock Doctor, Maverik are threatening. Then there are companies like sport sock, Lax Locks, Lax Grip, Sure Throw and other companies who make things like training tools for the game. Clearly, they all cannot survive, in the next 18-24 months I hear and agree that we will see some "gobbling up" going on.
E-Lacrosse: Is lacrosse ready for television advertising money? Will that money come from lacrosse manufacturers or traditional TV sponsors?
Southren: If the NCAA Championship weekend is any indication of how people will support the game of Lax, then it absolutely is. The game is ready for TV AND CORPORATE MAINSTREAM ADVERTISING. But the money needs to come from outside the Lax industry. The manufacturing companies are tapped with product development, paying R&D players to endorse, in store promotions, team contracts, etc.
E-Lacrosse: Can coaches find opportunities based on celebrity?
Southren: Coaches are the true gem. It took Keith and I about 2 years to figure that out. Players come and go, get hot and then not so hot, and very, very quickly. But coaches stay and their legend grows. The 5 biggest stars in the game are coaches, easily.
E-Lacrosse: Are coaching salaries appropriate?
Southren: College Lax coaches are being paid a fraction of their worth. Most universities have a lot of available money but traditionally pay the "bigger sports" the bigger money, even at schools where lacrosse, not football or basketball is the winning team on campus.
E-Lacrosse: What revenue streams other than salary are coaches tapping these days? How can you help that?
Southren: Lax camps are coaching bread and butter. It's a natural and helps them to recruit as well. The creative coach will get involved with people that can bring them some regional deals such as hooking up with a local restaurant, a car dealer or a sports radio station even if it means swap free meals or a car lease for associating their team with the sponsorship of local companies. The top ten guys I could do a lot for. The rest need to make some noise first, and then call me.
E-Lacrosse: What are the revenue streams for players that are traditional and what new opportunities are arising?
Southren: Revenue streams for players have slimmed considerably. There are the traditional cash and product lacrosse endorsement deals for good pro players. These are typically less than 5,000 in value for the player - including free gear - about half of what they "earned" as a full scholarship college athlete. But some of the major manufacturers are so "in deep" with guys 2 and 3 years out, that they cannot afford to offer good deals for new players. With the exception of about 8 current pro players there's not much real money for anyone else and most of those guys perform a full time job for that money. Each year there are about 3 or 4 new just-out-of-college players that are looked at for a deal, mostly guys that will be drafted highly in both the indoor and outdoor pro games. There are some creative angles to getting player deals that add value to the sponsor. We have some of those on the talking block, but we're too early to reveal much on them.
E-Lacrosse: Why don't we see a superstar lacrosse player on a late night talk show? Or in an ad for soap or clothing?
Southren: Late night TV like most mainstream media only have interest in a national story. There were, and still are, numerous opportunities for some of the Duke players and coaches because of what they were dealing with. But that type of hype is not sustainable or desirable for the game. Mainstream ads will come in bunches after and only after a lax player, coach or team does something outstanding or relevant on a national stage. Right now, the only national stage is final four weekend. We probably had our best shot at that type of breakthrough, last year as Duke winning the championship would have been seen as the ultimate comeback story - a great way to wrap up a multi-year media vested event. Duke played valiantly but Johns Hopkins won, which is big news in lacrosse, but a mere footnote otherwise. I have some ideas but you may want to sit down first. Therr seems to be an x games, surfer boarder feel. There is some legit talk about some meetings taking place with heads from both worlds seeing if there is a viable synergy.
How far away are we from that type of mainstream? Surfers, skateboarders and most other sports' stars are all over PC ads, clothing ads, etc. Kyle Harrison signed with Nike but no ads yet that we've seen?
I think Nike is still trying to identify who and what they are in Lacrosse. RBK signed Brodie Merrill over a year ago and just recently have the ads out there. They are pretty cool ones.
E-Lacrosse: Reebok Is Lacrosse? After hundreds of years of the game's play and 30 in the modern era occurring pre-bok, is that claim a bit disingenuous?
Southren: It's marketing. It's good marketing.
E-Lacrosse: Will the lacrosse final four in New England be as successful as Baltimore? How about Denver or LA?
Southren: You can have the Lax final on the moon and people will attend it. That weekend has all of the elements of a great event, foreplay, great lacrosse, cool gear to buy, media, TV, reporters, hoopla, 48,000 plus fans and ultimately the thing that the outdoor pro league does not have… relevance.
E-Lacrosse: Is there room in lax for more than a few superstars?
Southren: Right now we need one or 2 superstars to "ride". Harrision is the closest thing to it but has yet to crack the mainstream or win over his peers the way the Gaits and Powells did. Personally, I like Geoff Snider, he is tough, blue collar, hated by every opponent, loved by fans and teammates and not afraid to be himself.
E-Lacrosse: Are coaches really the biggest stars?
Southren: As I said before, players come and go, but coaches have staying power. Our society is made up of coaches in every aspect of life. It's not just in lacrosse. Who's a bigger star? Marino or Paterno? McMahon or Ditka? Most people know the names Bear Bryant and John Wooden but few know Richard Perry or Walt Hazzard, household names when they played.
E-Lacrosse: Are programs like SU or Hopkins stars in their own right?
Southren: Big ticket programs like Syracuse, Hopkins, Duke, Maryland, Virginia will always generate the interest from kids wanting to play college lacrosse. It's mostly because of their history and partially because of the excellent marketing of their gear throughout lacrosse. Kids love gear. Did I mention kids love gear?
E-Lacrosse: How many other agents have gotten in since your controversial article a few years back?
Southren: Kyle Harrison has a guy who I hear is a good guy and has done some very good things for him. Other than that, I don't think many.
E-Lacrosse: What percentage of MLL players are represented?
Southren: The percentage of MLL players with an agent is probably less than 1%. Even agents have to eat and pay their bills with currency not hard or bartered goods, though I have a great collection of handles.
E-Lacrosse: What are you looking for in a player to represent?
Southren: Keith and I are mostly in the coaching business these days. The opportunity to exclusively represent Mike Pressler has been both an honour and a rewarding experience in many ways. A rare player opportunity that comes around every once in a while will be considered. We don't want to collect people. And we don't want to get anyone's hopes up just to be disappointed. We only want to work with people that we can perform for.
E-Lacrosse: Who are you repping currently?
Southren: We currently represent Mike Pressler and Bryant Lacrosse, Kevin Cassese and the Lehigh Lacrosse program. We have done deals in the past for Matt Ward, John Christmas, Xander Ritz and one of my favorite people in the world, Trevor Tierney.
E-Lacrosse: Tell me about Pressler's successes in the speaking world?
Southren: Pressler is a dynamic speaker. During the book tour of "It's not about the truth" he must have appeared on about 40 TV shows and 400 radio stations with some of the biggest names in media. At the end of the day the truth speaks for itself, always has, always will. There is no shortage of opportunities for the truth about his story in a world so devoid of it for so long. That's why people are still buying the book. But his reputation as a truth teller and the abilities he demonstrated all along at Duke and now at Bryant, leading young men, are what makes him a good speaker and have him gaining a reputation in that business.
E-Lacrosse: Is he in high demand outside of the game?
Southren: Mike has done some very high level corporate speeches to some fortune 500 executives and others. Someone asked Mike to sign an autograph for a kid who was struggling with his lacrosse game. Mike writes the kid's name followed by "Make every play count. Make every day count. Always play to win and you will always be a winner. He knows how, in a single breath, how to teach, encourage and manage expectations. He's a great coach. That and the notoriety from the case and his stand for his kids during the case make him a compelling speaker who leaves an audience feeling a personal connection and better for it. His sense of personal closure and new triumphs are contagious.
E-Lacrosse: Will he stay at Bryant now that they are DI or does he want back into the "show"?
Southren: If you knew Mike Pressler, you wouldn't ask the question.
E-Lacrosse: I'm so insensitive. We love Bryant. I heard there's a new book coming.
Southren: His next book will be out this spring. The working title is "how to raise a champion in sports and life, the 7 things all parents should know". Mike wrote it with Sports Psychologist Greg Dale.
E-Lacrosse: Who are the most marketable coaches?
Southren: I think the most marketable coaches are the ones who stand out in their program. An example would be Seth Tierney from Hofstra. Ask anyone who has met him. He is dynamic and exciting and wants to make Hofstra a powerhouse. He is a guy, in particular, who could be very successful fronting some local business marketing.
Kevin Cassese at Lehigh has the ability to elevate his program to a new level. He is articulate, good looking and a tireless worker. The old adage of "I work half days - 12 hours" doesn't even account for all the other stuff he does. He delivered that program all top quality brand name gear, uniforms and equipment for the first time in years and we were proud to be a part of that. We've got some great things in mind for Kevin, nationally and in PA.
E-Lacrosse: Are manufacturers fun to deal with or a pain in the ass?
Southren: Some companies are good to deal with, I wouldn't say fun. I have had some good, bad and ugly dialogue with lacrosse companies. To congratulate the good guys, Brine for one has a great team of execs such as Jon Brunell, Jenny Levy and Dale Kohler. We worked closely on the Lehigh deal and they are class business people. Scorpion is about to make a major push into the top lax arena that no one expects. They have a great blend of financial backing, top management and innovative product. They are poised to do very well. Paul Gait at deBeer/Gait is classy and a pleasure to be around. I haven't spoken to Warrior since 2005. They don't deal with Agents.
E-Lacrosse: LA in the MLL final - good for lax?
Southren: I am not sure what is considered good in the MLL. I am not sure what the MLL wants to stand for or what their identity is. David Gross made it clear a few years ago that my input was not welcome to them when they should have been encouraged by the mere presence of agents buzzing around their players. A league devoid of agents is devoid of opportunity. I can tell in their attendance (actual and reported) that outside of Denver players are not being utilized in local marketing and are not represented well, if at all.
E-Lacrosse: Will LA make it as a business if the Champion Philadelphia is not?
Southren: Because I haven't been involved in the status quo of the MLL, I am, of course, no expert in such matters, but as a college educated man and a relatively intelligent person I have a hard time deciphering why the NCAA CHAMPIONSHIP WEEKEND DRAWS 50,000 people over a weekend and the 2x MLL CHAMPIONSHIP TEAM in Philly gets about 2,000 in a town where the minor league hockey and NLL team pack in over 30,000 combined in a night. I must be an idiot. If it was my money at stake, I would listen to anyone who offered a free opinion.
E-Lacrosse: Does the MLL's structure take negotiation out of the mix when contracting athletes?
Southren: There doesn't seem to be enough money in the MLL for anything more than existence. Their merchandise is only available through a few catalogs. Tickets are the easiest thing to come by, if you even know that your city has a team. What is there to negotiate until ownership wants to make a good go of this.
In fairness, the expansion to Denver and LA ESPECIALLY WERE GREAT. They have a fair attendance and some excitement brewing. I would love to see a game out there next year.
E-Lacrosse: Can they strike or is that impossible?
Southren: If the MLL has a strike - they are as good as dead. I think at this point you have to really open it up - and not just a little bit, to make a difference. There is potential for the MLL as a product. And there is potential within the game for all to make more money. The Lacrosse is awesome, the uniforms are cool and the players are great guys and better role models than any sport I know of. But giant egos have killed even better ideas and products. The league's potential is no match for the egos involved in this one.
E-Lacrosse: Are they any closer to opening the athlete's opportunities to individual sponsorships from manufacturers or are they further away?
Southren: I know their argument is that they have only been around for 7 or 9 years or whatever and they are still growing. I have been a season ticket holder for 3 years and have seen games in 3 different cities. It looks the same to me.
E-Lacrosse: How long can the MLL hold on with 2000-3000 crowds?
Southren: I can't believe that the MLL has held on this long with the small crowds. It is strange that Philadelphia will not have team this season after winning 2 championships in a row. Where have you heard that ever happen before?
Lee's kids, Jake and JP
E-Lacrosse: Your kids play in New Jersey. What is the growth like there where you live?
Southren: My kids play in Randolph, NJ and are involved in their youth programs (4th and 6th grades). My 6th grader played this fall for the Jersey Thunder under the guidance of the Gallucci family at Ath-ed Lacrosse. What an amazing experience. In Morris County, NJ, lacrosse is growing by leaps and bounds. More kids are leaving baseball and coming out to play, not just in spring, but summer and fall, as well. There are more camps popping up, more flyers and e-mails for some elite team's formation. People like City Lax and others in New York City are starting to do clinics in Central Park. It's spreading pretty quickly.
E-Lacrosse: What gear are the kids there into?
Southren: The equipment the kids use is an interesting dynamic, as there is a big variation of products on the field. The companies who utilize the younger hip players as promo guys and do something creative with them are winning the gear wars.
E-Lacrosse: What about your kids? They get some swag, don't they?
Southren: Fortunately, my kids have gear from just about every manufacturer (except Warrior) from my dealings with them. The overflow has benefited about 10 other kids from ages 10-14 in the neighborhood. I have inadvertently developed a product testing group. Right now my 12 year old, JP, is wearing Brine protective, highlighted by Exodus II arms and Exodus II Mikey Powell Gloves. His helmet is a brand new Cascade pro7 (btw are the Jack Reid ads awesome or what?) His shaft is a Gait anarchy with a custom dyed Gait Chaos head in his travel team colors (dyed by the great Dave Hamilton of Randolph, NJ). My 10 year old, Jake, wears a similar ensemble but prefers his Gait Mutant navy and white gloves, Scorpion Rogue handle and Dave Hamilton dyed Gait Torque head.
E-Lacrosse: How's Cassese doing at Lehigh? What have you hooked up for them?
Southren: Cassese is done great at Lehigh. He has hired former Duke teamate and NLL star Taylor Wray as his assistant coach. There is a lot of work to be done just to get caught up and install his system, so I know he's extremely busy. We put out an RFP to all the companies to see who may be interested in putting together new uniform and equipment deals - top to bottom. We had great response but Brine was willing to leverage their existing relationship and his personal service deal to bridge the gap and get this deal done.
Scorpion will be the official shaft/handle sponsor of Lehigh Lacrosse. Their footwear and uniforms will be New Balance and everything else will be Brine. The Lehigh kids will have everything new in numbers for the first time in several years. We are currently working on a protein bar and nutrition deal and a national fitness product deal for them as well.
E-Lacrosse: Who's gonna win the NCAA's this year?
Southren: My money is on Duke for D1, Bryant D2.
E-Lacrosse: Mesh or traditional?
Southren: I'm a traditional guy so I will say mesh. :
E-Lacrosse: What's your involvement with Scorpion?
Southren: Our involvement in Scorpion has been, thus far, on a consulting basis. There is a strong connection to Pressler there. We believe in what they are doing.
E-Lacrosse: Who do you fear in a negotiation?
Southren: No one. The only fear I have is that someone will actually listen to me.
E-Lacrosse: What's the next big thing to happen in lax and when?
Southren: The next big thing in Lacrosse will happen when someone does listen to me.
E-Lacrosse: If lacrosse was a stock, would you buy hold or sell?
Southren: I would buy slowly until someone listens to me - and then release the hounds! BUY BABY BUY!
E-Lacrosse: You're two years into the game and after the initial E-Lacrosse article. Any regrets?
Southren: Nope. I wouldn't even say we were premature as much as I would say that in the last 2 years the concept developed. We are still here with some solid deals under our belts, money in our corporate bank account, deals on the table and daily email inquiries.
E-Lacrosse: If people don't like what you've said here, where should they send the complaints?
Southren: People may not like what I have to say but they can count on the fact that I'm honest. After that, if you still have a problem, take a number 'cause there's a long line ahead of you.
What's the biggest challenge in the game right now?
Southren: The biggest challenge in the game is to get some of the higher ups and the people in control of the game to open up their minds, stop fighting with each other and work together to grow Lacrosse out of the confines of the square box.
December 31, 2007
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