Traditional agentry has too often been lampoonish, cartoonish, greedy and destructive to clients and sports itself.
Some of the basic concepts, which are slavishly adhered to, are just wrong. The battle in sports ought not be labor versus management.
The critical challenge for the NFL is Major League Baseball, the NBA, HBO TV, Walt Disney World and every other form of discretionary entertainment spending. Sports are not like the need for food on the table or
transportation to work. They require fans to invest time, emotion and money on viewership, attendance and purchase of related products.
The job of representing athletes doesn't work maximally unless agents see themselves as stewards of the sport. The focus needs to be on building brand, raising popularity and interests and creatively exploring every ancillary revenue stream and possibility.
Viewed this way, any individual player negotiation which turns acrimonious and hostile in the press is self-destructive. With the country in its worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, fans will not empathize with an athlete angry because he's "only" being offered $10 million dollars instead of the 15 he believes he deserves.
Depending on method of calculation, the median family income in this nation is $51,143, which means any offer more than several hundred thousand dollars seems enormous. Worse is the specter of millionaires fighting billionaires in collective bargaining.
Missing any games due to labor impasse hurts sports and brand. As P.T. Barnum said, "the show must go on."
At the point where my practice had superstars for many teams throughout a league like the NFL I approached owners and said that we need to be partners in building the brand.
To truly compensate players the economics of the pie need to be as large as possible. With enough economic largesse, contract negotiations could be smooth and private bringing value to both sides.
The task became one of exploding the television contracts, imagining every revenue flow that could come from a stadium, every way that merchandising and use of social media could be enlarged.
By putting yourself in the position of seeing the world the way an owner sees it, it becomes possible to contribute possibilities toward enhancing the bottom line.
There were 619 players who entered the free agency process in the NFL. The top-of-the-line superstars in football generally never become free agents.
Irreplaceable players have their contracts redone by teams before the final year so as to not risk losing them. In those few cases where team and player have such different perspectives as to what is fair, a
team will use a franchise tag to stop the player from entering free agency.
It is only those players, A-minus and below in value, who are allowed to enter free agency. They are lucky and may get better contracts than more proven, productive stars.
The auction bargaining mentality, which gives players the only true leverage they will experience, turns B-plus players into A-plus contracts.
The role of the agent in this process is profound.
The first job is to contemplate the prospect of free agency in the negotiation of a prior contract. The goal is to time a player's maximum arc in respect to achievement and future promise at the point of complete contractual freedom.
Knowing free agency is coming gives an agent ample time to research and anticipate who the most interested parties will be. Injuries and other signings can alter the possibilities.
Research into the coach, general manager, pay structure and modus operandi of each team is vital.
Long before the process begins the agent needs to focus a player on an introspective thought process designed to explore a player's deepest hopes and aspirations.
The key is to have the player clear on what his own top values and priorities are. This is not generic, what fulfills one person may be different from another and what another player values is irrelevant in this discussion.
It is all about pleasing a client.
I ask them to prioritize the following values and considerations:
1. Short-term financial gain.
2. Long-term economic security.
4. Geographical considerations — weather, lifestyle, urbanization, proximity to home.
7. Legacy, charity and community.
8. Second career.
And then there are the football issues:
3. Quality of coaching.
4. System the team plays.
Usually players are motivated by a combination of these factors. but some things must be more important than others.
It is only by listing the values that it is possible to evaluate the possibilities. Otherwise cognitive dissonance may take over, swinging from option to option, back and forth. This creates stress.
An athlete could make any decision to relieve the stress.
Free agency in its early days allowed players a leisurely time to move from team to team and create leverage.
The Jacksonville Jaguars and their executive then Michael Huyghue changed the dynamic. They realized they could be shut out of signing any of the players they coveted at a position by player indecisiveness and travel.
They created a new dynamic. They targeted the few most critical players, invited them in on Day One of the process, offered a premium deal and made it contingent on the player accepting it on that visit.
Their offer was good enough that most players signed.
The premiere money is available in the first few weeks and after that it dries up.
(More to come in a later column.)
LEIGH STEINBERG is a renowned sports agent, author, advocate, speaker and humanitarian. His column appears weekly. Follow Leigh on Twitter @steinbergsports.