Around this time each year, members of the incoming NBA draft class have a tough decision to make: Who will they hire to be their agent?
While this may not seem like a big deal, there’s a huge difference between having a good agent with power and leverage versus a bad agent with limited contacts and pull around the league.
Most people don’t know how a player goes about choosing their agent and what goes on in the pitch meetings. Fans may see a tweet or short article announcing which player an agent hired, but that’s about it. HoopsHype wanted to take a deeper look at the process of selecting a representative, so we talked to several NBA players and agents to understand what it’s like to be on both sides of the table:
Player No. 1: “As I was considering which agents to meet with, I was really considering their body of work – what they’ve been able to do for other players, particularly what they’ve been able to do recently. And even though this is a business, I wanted someone who made sure things were family-oriented. If we’re going to be working together for a while, I need somebody I can trust and somebody who is looking out for me. The agent being family-oriented was important to me. Once I felt like I found someone who was on the same page as me and was honest about how both sides would benefit if I hired him, I knew that’s who I should go with.
“Usually in the meeting, they tell you what they can do for you and try to explain how they’re different from the others. Typically, they last about an hour or two. A lot of the pitches are similar, though, which is why you really have to take your time with a process like this. You have to make sure you have the right information and they aren’t just lying or telling you what you want to hear. I evaluated each agent over an extended period of time because I had time to do so. If you have two-to-three weeks or even a month, talk with them, learn about them and try to see if they can actually do the things they say they can do.”
Player No. 2: “I played at [a smaller college] and agents would show up nearly every weekend. My parents, my girlfriend – who’s now my wife – and I would go to those dinners or meetings just to get a feel for them. They would use the time to pitch us. When they would come, they’d have a packet prepared. It shows everything they’ve done and everything they will do to help throughout the draft process since you don’t really know what to expect coming out of college. They would also tell me their strategy for representing me and try to project what was going to happen in the draft and my career as a whole. They were just trying to make me feel comfortable and make me trust them. That’s a big part of it, honestly.
“It’s pretty intense. That’s really the first time you see that the NBA is a business and experience that side of things, so it was interesting. It took me a significant amount of time to make my decision, like one or two months, because I was doing my research on each guy. It’s a process and it’s a big decision, so you want to take your time with it.”
Player No. 3: “In my meetings, they were basically showing my stats, which players I compared to in the NBA, where I was projected to get drafted and what my career trajectory looked like. Then, each agent was saying what he could do for me and what they’ve done for others in the past.
“It took me a few weeks to decide on an agent. I was looking for an agent who actually realized my potential, who believed in me as much as I believed in myself. I took my time to decide. I definitely enjoyed the process. I did make a few mistakes when it comes to agents [I hired] over the years, though.”
Player No. 1: “I didn’t experience much bad-mouthing of other agents, it was mostly them talking about what they can do for you. Obviously, they will tell you that they can do the best job for you because they want you to hire them, but there wasn’t too much negativity. They didn’t attack specific agents or anything.”
Player No. 2: “If it’s a big agency, they’re talking about their success and what they’ve done with other players while also telling you that they’ll have time for you and that they won’t big-time you or focus mostly on their bigger clients. On the other hand, the smaller agencies are trying to prove that they’re significant enough to get things done for you in the NBA world. The smaller agencies will also stress that you’ll be a top priority because they don’t have a big client list, unlike some of the large agencies competing against them. It really comes down to what you’re looking for as a player.”
Player No. 1: “I didn’t really like the whole agent process because I just wanted to get to work and play basketball. I understand that the NBA is a business, but I just wanted to get to the part where I was putting in work on the floor and focusing on basketball. I didn’t want to be worried about all of the agent stuff. But, at the same time, you have to make sure you hire the right person who can help you moving forward – not only in the near future, but potentially 10 years from now or even post-basketball. So I understood the importance of it and I took it very seriously, but at the same time, I really just wanted to be focused on my pre-draft training.”
Player No. 2: “I wouldn’t say that I enjoyed it, but I knew it was a necessary thing that I had to do. Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t a bad thing and it’s not like I was dreading it. It was interesting to hear the pitches and get some different perspectives on things. But it’s not something I really enjoyed or anything.”
One player disliked the agent-selection process so much that he refused to discuss the experience even under the condition of anonymity because he simply didn’t want to rehash it.
Agent No. 1: “Every agent is different, but I like to be the most prepared person and not leave anything to chance. In the four or five months leading up to a potential pitch meeting, I’m going to games, talking to the family, bonding with them and things like that. As the meeting gets closer, I take a full week of prep to learn everything I can about the kid – his game, his family dynamic, what he’s like on and off the court, his likes, his dislikes. I’m not someone who recruits 30 players a year. If I’m recruiting a player, it’s because I really believe in him. It’s really about quality over quantity for me.
“Once it comes time for the actual meeting, I show my track record: the guys who are somewhat similar to the kid who I’ve done well by, the contracts I’ve negotiated and the past draft picks I’ve had. I also share my vision for where I see the player’s career going, walk him through what the pre-draft process is like and how we operate as a company.”
Agent No. 2: “Those meetings can be pretty difficult because usually you haven’t spent a lot of time with the people you’re pitching to in the room. Yeah, you’ve seen them at games and talked to them on the phone a bit, but you haven’t spent a significant amount of time with them and gotten to really know them. Prospects will sometimes line up five or six of these agent meetings in a row, so you basically have an hour and a half to really connect with the player and his family and give your pitch.
“What you’re trying to do is sell yourself and your abilities, and explain what you’re going to do for the player. You’re telling him how you’re going to make him better and help him reach his full potential. You also want to demonstrate your understanding of how the league works, so they know you’re knowledgeable when it comes to the Collective Bargaining Agreement and the pre-draft process and free agency and all of that. But, put simply, you’re selling yourself and explaining how you can benefit them. The problem is they’ve heard similar things from many different people, so you have to distinguish yourself.”
Agent No. 3: “At the end of the day, this is a sales job.”
Agent No. 2: “It’s a high-stakes game because you’re dealing with a lot of money. All of us agents are very competitive, though, and we love it. If you’re good, you’re good. That doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll always get the guy, though. Agents need to have thick skin since they may have to face rejection, and they have to flexible because things are never easy. It’s rare that there’s a meeting and then the player says, ‘Okay, I’m ready to sign!’ That’s happened to me one time in my career and I’ve been doing this for nearly two decades. That’s really, really rare. There’s usually, like, five more meetings after that initial one and you have to go in being prepared for that.”
Agent No. 4: “The pitch meeting is like the final exam. If you’re doing this right, you’ve been recruiting the particular player you’re meeting with for quite some time. When a player decides to leave school and declare for the draft, that’s not when you start recruiting a player; you’ve been recruiting that player for years. You’ve already gotten to know the people in that player’s life.”
Agent No. 3: “Just like in college recruiting, being first can oftentimes be helpful. If you can find a player who you think can be good down the road, you start on him earlier rather than later.”
Agent No. 4: “In my experience, the meeting will usually include the player, their dad or a dad-like figure, their mom, their high school coach or AAU coach and then some other person like an uncle or a friend who will be this player’s ‘manager’ going forward. You’re trying to gauge who you should be speaking to in the meeting.”
Agent No. 2: “You definitely have to make sure you’re talking to the right person. The player may be in the room, but you may need to direct the pitch at the mother or the uncle or whoever is helping them make decisions.”
Agent No. 4: “The pitch is different for every agency. If you’re a larger agency like CAA, you’re talking about how you represent Tom Hanks and Oprah and all of these big names. Sometimes, their pitch is essentially, ‘Look at what we have. Why wouldn’t you join our team?’ Honestly, I would do the exact same thing if I were them. Sometimes kids fall for it when an agent can say, ‘Hey, look at the stars I have!’ But, at the end of the day, are those other clients going to help that specific prospect? Probably not.
“For a smaller agency, you’re focusing more on the relationships that you’ve built with the player and the people closest to him. Then, of course, you’re talking yourself up. If you’re a lawyer, you explain why that’s beneficial to the player. You also talk about player’s strengths that you’re going to focus on pushing and which teams have the greatest need for a player like him. You discuss some of your previous contracts. You go through what your company plans to do in terms of marketing the player. You offer public relations services sometimes. You talk about your leverage and try to flex whatever muscles you can. Then, you field questions and answer them the best you can.”
Agent No. 5: “Sometimes, you’ll get into a meeting and it’s pretty clear that the player has already decided on another agent – that there’s a 95 percent chance that they’re going with someone else. But they’ll still hold the meeting because some kids like going through the process and some of the family members relish the attention that comes with the meetings.”
Agent No. 3: “I went to the McDonald’s All-American Game this year and I realized that a lot of those players are already committed to an agent and they’ve already been paid. It’s the worst kept secret in the agent business – some of these kids are being ‘bought’ before they even enter college.”
Agent No. 4: “The setting or format of the pitch can vary. Sometimes it’s a PowerPoint presentation. Sometimes it’s over a nice dinner. Sometimes it’s in the living room. Sometimes their college coach has set it up and you’re with him. It just depends. Good agents have to be flexible and versatile.”
Agent No. 3: “I’ve had some meetings set up in a conference room. I’ve had some meetings at a restaurant. Sometimes it’s at the kid’s school. One time, a kid’s dad was sick, so I actually did it in his hospital room. It was sad, but I’m glad he was able to be involved. At the end of the day, I have my entire presentation on my iPad, so I can do the pitch anywhere. I’ve met with some kids in my car. I won’t name the players, but two years in a row, I signed a player after one of their games while we were sitting in my car in the parking lot just going over stuff on my iPad. I’ve shown the iPad presentation to a player’s family member in the walkway of an arena during a game and that got me a meeting with the player and ultimately landed me the player. I always have my presentation on me, and I have marketing plans for guys laid out way in advance. I can really do my pitch anywhere.
“When it comes to the content of the actual pitch, I think it depends on the player and their family and their situation. When we’re in the meeting, I don’t leave anything to chance. We have an entire plan in place. I show it to the player and break down exactly how we’re going to execute it. I always tell people in these meetings, ‘I know you have questions and feel free to fire away, but I think I’m going to answer every question you have and then some.’ Usually, when we get to the end, there aren’t any questions. The main thing is being super prepared.”
Agent No. 4: “Some agents will trash other agencies when they’re meeting with players, but I stay away from that. If you trash another agent, I feel like it says more about who you are than it says about the agent you’re trashing. I just focus on what we can offer the player, but there are definitely agents who will criticize the competition. Some will even try to scare the player by saying, ‘This agent can’t get you what you want, and going with him could ruin your career.’ Fear is a powerful thing, and some players will respond to that kind of pitch. I’ve never liked that approach, though.
“Other times, agents will sugarcoat things and tell the player what they want to hear and then give them the bad news later. There’s a whole lot of that. Some of these kids are being tricked or lied to about their stock or career trajectory. I try to be honest with the player, so there aren’t any issues or disappointment later on.”
Agent No. 1: “The whole time, you need to be engaging them and making sure they feel like an active participant. That’s really important. It’s a conversation; you don’t want to just be talking at them for one or two hours or however long the meeting goes. If it’s boring for them, it doesn’t matter if you have the best plan for them and the best material prepared, it’s not likely you’ll get them. I try to be energetic, fun and keep things light, so it doesn’t feel like they’re stuck in a classroom again.”