So, You Wanna Make a Living in Lacrosse? Got a Rep?
By Lee Southren
The landscape of your game is rapidly changing. There are new MAJOR corporate players in your game and even larger ones are on the near horizon. The professional leagues are expanding. The rate of youth players turning to lacrosse is growing at an exponentially explosive rate. What does this mean to you? If you are a college All-American looking to get into the pros and maybe make a living in the game, it means YOU NEED AN AGENT!
The pot of gold that overflows in the main 4 professional sports is still a ways away, but there are more slices of this growing pie available than ever before. I have been an NFL football agent for the past 5 years and, from the outside, watched lacrosse grow to this point. Even the great Alexander Wolff of Sports Illustrated wrote a huge spread on the game's growth. But, why didn't lacrosse get the cover that month? Maybe there was no agent in the background pushing for a picture of Mike Powell or Gary Gait to be that next lacrosse cover for the greatest sports publication on earth. It's only been 40 years since the last one. That will change.
The Alexander Wolff story will be the last in SI about the growth of the game if they read their own printed words. The game is here, now. And Gary Gait on the cover of SI is the next logical step. Kyle Harrison should be a guest on the Oprah show and the Powells should be on every late night show representing the US Team as three brothers. These are all no-brainers that could never come to pass if an agent does not help them happen. In the world of mass media, each lacrosse star will compete with the athletes from the big four as well as the "franchise stars" from other sports, like Biking's Lance Armstrong, Golf's Tiger Woods and even skateboarding's Bam Margera for every inch of national press space. Magazine covers and late night TV appearances for lax stars will be HARD FOUGHT victories won by agents, not happenstance events as they will seem to most.
Kids who play lacrosse are playing for the love of the game. If they are good enough to earn a college scholarship and become a star there, they will be exposed, as their college career ends, to the big business of lacrosse manufacturers, pro league executives, catalog companies and local business opportunities. These kids are not experienced enough to navigate through those first all-important initial signings. They have no idea what is in their own best long term interests, what type of money, product and / or exposure they are entitled to and how to negotiate with grown men that negotiate for a living. A just-out-of-college player is about as equipped for that process as the company negotiator would be on the NCAA Championship field with a stick in his hand. It's David v. Goliath. And David's getting abused over and over again. Well, David. Here comes your sling and a hard rock. The agent is the equalizer. The agent is your "suit" in an industry of suits.
The lacrosse industry as a whole still seems to carry a mentality that players are and should be lucky to get anything at all to play the game they love. The myth purports and accepts that if it wasn't for a few "power suits", or Hawaiian shirts in some cases, the players would have nowhere to play and especially nowhere to get paid.
This is partially true. The existing professional leagues are very promising and a far more gratifying experience than the elite club leagues where they would otherwise play. The game gets exposure, great lacrosse is played consistently, and small marketing opportunities are available for some players which are "better than nothing".
The extension of private enterprise is where the players are falling short. Players' images are being used, for example, by retailers, camps, recruiting services and many others without consent and or remuneration. This is a rampant and abusive practice that is industry wide and hurts everyone in the lacrosse economy from the players to the photographers, teams, and leagues, including the NCAA. Third party deals are being negotiated on the behalf of players that will give them some product or recognition, while everyone else makes a killing off them in real hard cash. Remember cash fellas? What used to be a "Hey, we'll give you free stuff if you use it and wear it around" is now an actual contract that says "you get this and we get that" and most of the time the player gets some swag and the company gets unlimited use of the player's name and image and a guarantee that the player won't work or rep for another company for whatever period of time the kid was dumb enough to agree to, if they read the thing at all. We're not here to make enemies. We want to help grow the game and help everyone prosper. We're just not gonna let it be at the players' expense anymore.
Keep in mind that this is not the NFL, NBA, MLB or even MLS. The money is not anywhere close to being there. And that's okay, by the way. What the heads of the lacrosse nation don't understanding is that all these players are looking for is fair play, a little respect and some efficient accounting as to what is being generated from their sweat. And they wanted those things long before any agent came around. It's just that now they have a way to make that happen without attempting to work it all out themselves and living with the consequences of a bad deal or a bad start to a relationship with a new employer. The next generation of lacrosse will have more lawsuits and black eyes, a' la Warrior v. Powell Brothers, just due to the nature of the game's growing dollars.
But the deals aren't all mega-deals. A top level player trades his exclusive endorsement right to a major lacrosse company for three years in exchange for an average of $2,000 of wholesale product which seems like a lot to a new college grad. A year later, he's doing great on the field, making 50,000 bucks at his "real job" and a few companies are interested in giving him another 20 grand or so for some endorsement ads. But he's locked into a free gear deal that seemed pretty casual to him when he signed, but is now taken quite seriously by the company he signed with - the company now getting 20,000 dollars in value for a few sticks and game bags. The company has no reason to change it or let him out. The adult player signed it on his own accord, but there needs to be some fairness for even the most innocent and ignorant of these kids. But even they don't see it sometimes. "The game is not ready for agents yet" said this same player just before telling me of this whole affair. Revenue inhibition isn't his only problem either. His personal "image" promotion through the media is totally at the discretion and controlled by the manufacturer and to date, has been inadequate to non-existent.
And a player's image is paramount in today's niche marketed lacrosse world. I never liked the Casey Powell ads with him in the bar scene or other fast lane settings. That totally gave one the wrong impression of him and I say that as a parent of two lacrosse players. Casey is a classy, quality family guy.
Personally, I LOVED the Nicky Polanco Warrior ad. That was hardcore. And if it's what Nick wanted to do and matches his personality, then it is all good. As an agent we look out for the best interests of the player and the look to further the player's image goals. We interview our guys at length to find out what they are about and design ideas from there. I don't know Nick, but he's the best longstick in the game today and, I would guess, is a pretty hardcore guy. Nicky, if you are reading this, I want to represent you.
And Nick, let me tell you a little bit about myself. In football and other major sports, unfortunately, talent often overrules character. Unethical and embarrassing behavior and the worst in the sport actually get promoted the most. I believe character is most important. Lax players are generally classy, ethical and respectable guys. It's a comfortable sport to be in the representation game. My attraction to lacrosse started from my kids' love and involvement. The speed, the quality of the players, their skill, and the overwhelming need for someone to help some of these guys out got me in. I had developed a reputation in my financial planning business for 14 years and my sports representation career for 5 years. It seemed a perfect match and I was leaning. My kids attended a Liam Banks lacrosse camp and by the end of the day, my 8 year old was catching and shooting almost as well as his 10 year old brother who had been playing 3 years. He was hooked. We were, all the sudden, a "lacrosse family" anyway. I decide then to give it a go and I decided then that I wanted to sign Liam. My partner, attorney Mike Herbert and I started Faceoff Sports Management, LLC, the first lacrosse only sports management firm.
I wasn't sure how the lacrosse community would react to an outsider to lacrosse but an insider in the "image" and dealmaking business. And it has been a mixed bag. Most Players have been excited at the opportunity to have someone look things over for them, especially when it doesn't really cost them anything. We only get paid on deals that we create. A few players have said the game is not ready for this and don't think agents are good for the game, but they have been few and need representation more than they know. Far more have welcomed the concept openly. Some manufacturers and lax companies don't seem to be in line with that, and I know why after only weeks on the job. It is going to cost them some money and product, if they are lucky, to fairly compensate the players that they've, in some cases, already taken advantage of and already owe some redress.
A few of the top, top players have pretty good deals with some of the manufacturers and scant others have started their own product endeavors, but the real money in the growth of lacrosse is to be found outside of the tight and lawsuit-burdened budgets of lax companies. The traditional money in lax has been in camps where there's only so much to go around. Almost every top player lists camps as a major source of income. And for the most part, it ain't much as they compete with every college coach and local organization for those same dollars. The new "fool's gold rush" is instructional products which will not yield every pro player with a cool DVD a fancy new sports car.
Reaction from the pro leagues has been mixed too. The NLL has a union and we are friendly with them generally, while still maintaining a good relationship with the league through my partner, Mike Herbert. Conversation with the MLL has been very brief, but I have heard bits and pieces of the "agents are wasting their time because there is no more money for the players" argument. And that may be a fair statement, right now. But there is money in marketing arenas peripheral to their game, if they'll let the athletes and their agents develop those relationships independently and with league help, when appropriate. It will only grow the game and eventually help them pay the athletes better for their on-field performance.
Don't get me wrong, the outdoor pro game is in the infant stages here and you cannot get blood from a stone. And this is not about holdouts for more money, or power plays off the field. This is about helping to grow this great game, increasing revenues for all and compensating the athletes fairly without busting company and league budgets. The players have been speaking of a players union in the MLL and that may be a bit premature. But there are serious issues. MLL Players not being able to use gear of their choosing is a very tough one to start with. On one hand, the current environment hurts them, limiting self promotion in many cases and product promotion in even more. If the teams and players had more marketing latitude on the field, there would be far more money in the tills. But, being totally fair, Dave Morrow had the balls and vision to start the league. Therefore it is fair that they are probably reaping the most rewards. However, I do believe though that for the MLL to really explode at some point, there has to be some level of parity amongst other companies as it pertains to athlete and team sponsorships. With the NLL starting an outdoor league too, it may take an eventual merger of the two to work out all the kinks. That's what happened with the old MILL and NLL only a few years back and they have become a healthy league in the "Jim Jennings era" after years of near bankruptcy status.
The US Team deal with STX is not as much of an issue because it is more limited in time and scope. There are ways that the US team guys can make money along with this great honor, but the agreements in place with the US Team sponsor STX and those already in place between many team athletes and rival manufacturers leave only limited opportunities for the few non committed players currently available. I represent one of them, but a dialog will not begin, I suppose, until the current talks about what equipment players can use and who STX can use to promote their substantial 2006 product line are completed. I have spoken with US Lacrosse but talks have been brief, but the same applies here as in the MLL. Sharing the financial opportunity will grow the game. It's a trade-off. It just makes even more sense here. Other than beating Canada, what is the point of the US sponsoring a US team, but to promote and grow the game?
And all of these entities are in tune with the real promotion engine for the game - TV, and peripherally, the Internet (eventually they are the same as a broadband standard emerges). TELEVISION IS VITAL. National TV and local TV will play a massive part in the next evolution of the game into the mainstream. Of course, the TV folks will also want their cut of the profits too. All growth will involve new people making new money in the game. It has to happen. But that's where we come in, synergizing the Oprah Winfreys and Jimmy Kimmels of the real world with the Christian Cooks and John Christmases of our world.
I can count on one hand the stars or superstars of lacrosse that have successfully made a dent in building a financial future through lacrosse. We will change that, at least for the guys we represent. Our firm has a professional client list of 9 players and we're growing rapidly. And already the winds of change are about. I heard the other day, someone called me Wyatt Earp, for good or bad. I don't care what you call me. Just call me.
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