If you’re reading this and think the life of a sports agent revolves around befriending star athletes and living luxuriously, I’m afraid I have some bad news. You have two choices: stop reading now and continue to live in your imagination, or see the harsh realities of a cutthroat industry. The glamorous lifestyle mentioned is perhaps the reality for maybe the top 10% of agents in a sea of hundreds. Even when an agent thinks they’ve got everything under control, they could be surprised at what’s awaiting them around the corner. Those in the profession are blindsided all the time, by both clients and rival agents that kick the leg out from your chair.
Howard Shatsky always had a passion for sports. At the age of 12 he first thought about the possibility of becoming an agent. He began his career as an intern with NFLPA in 1989. While still in law school at American University, he was fortunate enough to mingle with a multitude of high ranking executives and current NFL agents – a few years later, Howard joined the industry.
He was kind enough to spend some time over the phone to speak about life as an agent, gave advice to aspiring agents and shared some invaluable stories. Howard took the time with me to compare being an agent in the past (20+ years) to today. He is the founder Profession Football Management (PFM) where he strives to help clients succeed on and off the field. He formed PFM “to provide my clients with an unparalleled level of personal service, competence, and commitment.” Unfortunately, as we will discuss, not everyone is guided by basically accepted moral principles and Howard learned some of this the hard way.
When I first spoke with Howard, he stressed the importance of networking.
“You need to know someone in sports in order to effectively break in. Almost every time, a person gets in not because of what they know, but rather who they know.” Shatsky added, “Either Peyton Manning was your next door neighbor growing up or you were fortunate to intern with somebody along the way. Finding your first job when you don’t know anybody in the industry is difficult.”
He also recommends students (or anyone interested in the field) to offer to work for a reputable person for free if that means getting your foot in the door.
“Experience is invaluable even if it is not paid. Maybe someone will see your work, appreciate the value you can offer and offer something more permanent. One advantage kids have now getting into the business is social media. I never had such a tool. You have to get your name out there to the world, gain popularity and build your brand if you want to stick around. Shatsky then brought his point full circle by using my own life as an example. Back when I was 18, I had no opportunity to meet a player like you did with Marcus Dixon, you got to know me, then him and built your own relationship with each other.”
Howard later mentioned that there are plenty of other people befriending athletes like I am, but they don’t have positive intentions.
“The problem is the “runner rule” that the NFL enforces, where if you follow the rules, agents can’t take a third party introduction. Runners [middlemen between the player and agent] can Tweet ‘Hey @ _____ follow me back for a sec, want to Direct Message you something’ and get away with it. Players have to be careful about who they form relationships with. You don’t know who they are or what their motives are for contacting you – I love my job, but it can be a shady business. For example, I left a stadium years ago with a player on the Redskins I represented, I was shocked at the number of people that walked up to him on his way out trying to pitch him this or that idea.”
Shatsky then added this,
“As an agent, maintaining good relationships with those involved in football are crucial. I am a very good friend of a current Head Coach and I remember speaking with him at the Combine about one of my players because his team needed a defensive back. The Coach told me that he won’t sign a guy just because I represent him, but at the very least they’d bring him in for a workout. One of my most important jobs as an agent is to build relationships into opportunities for my clients. Plenty of my former clients are now position coaches in the league, I can’t force them to sign a client of mine at their position, but getting a players’ name in front of them is incredibly important. Without networking and forming relationships some guys may never even get the chance to put on an NFL jersey.”
Moving along, Howard and I then discussed the role of agents in everyday life as well as relations with a player’s family.
“Nowadays, you’re more of a bank than anything, the only way I can describe it is that the ‘A’ in agent stands for ATM. A majority of kids decide what agent they’re going to hire based not on who is most qualified, but who has the deepest pockets. I can’t say every player selects his representation this way, but the vast majority of them do. Many agents are afraid to tell their clients’ ‘no’ to anything because they worry they could get fired. Players hire too many ‘yes’ men, but then wind up broke. Shocker.”
Next up, more from Josh Elkin’s interview with NFL agent Howard Shatsky.
Howard Shatsky has been representing players since 1989 and has worked with many Pro Bowl players such as Michael Strahan and Brian Westbrook. Howard is also an adjunct Sports Law Professor at American University. He owns Professional Football Management which is a firm that represents both players and coaches. You can follow Howard and interact with him on Twitter: @HowardShatsky