Sports agents: Mud, boots & eight percenters

STEVE KILGALLON
Last updated 15:44 01/06/2014
Jerry Maguie

NOT QUITE JERRY MAGUIRE: Sports agents are shaking off their dodgy image as trenchcoat wearing hustlers.

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Like real-estate agents, journalists and car dealers, sports agents have always suffered an image problem: the grubby bloke in a trenchcoat, on the sideline of some distant school field, surreptitiously slipping his business card to a 15-year-old.

Whenever they made the news, it was rarely good: trawl the Australian clippings alone, and you could find prominent agent Gavin Orr refusing to defend a charge of forging the signature of Parramatta rugby league prop Fuifui Moimoi on a contract. The implication another league agent, Sam Ayoub, was involved in a match-fixing scandal that ended the career and eventually the life of a Bulldogs player, Ryan Tandy. Australian Rules' leading fixer, Ricky Nixon, disgraced after an affair with a teenage fan and a host of alcohol-related offences.

Yet somehow there was also a dubious glamour.

There's Tom Cruise's loveable cinematic battler Jerry Maguire, who had them at hello and showed them the money. And so for British prime minister's son Euan Blair, it was reasonable to shun law and accountancy to become a football agent, expecting to make millions (and duly, by the age of 23, doing just that).

In America, the super-agents have always made big money. Thanks to the lucre now available in rugby, league and cricket, that time may have come for New Zealand's 8 per centers: goodbye trenchcoat-man, hello businessman.

Three men in smart shirts sit inside a bland conference room on an Auckland city-fringe suburb, spreadsheets and coffee in front of them, the voices of other men crackling through a Skype connection. This is the new way.

It's the weekly conference call of worldwide sports agency Esportif International - on the line are agents in South Africa, Wales, England, Australia and France. The spreadsheets list every professional rugby union club in 10 countries and their recruitment requirements. Rugby fans and journalists would kill to be here: the aspirations, contract values and potential suitors of the world's best are debated. Can they persuade Club A that player X isn't injury-prone? Can we get more from club B for player Y after the great season he's having?

One player - not a client - is canvassed. A club in the UK is interested. The British-based agent is told the player's character is questionable and the club should be warned. A few weeks later, the player signs elsewhere.

Talk turns to a Super 15 player named Bundee Aki. At the time, rugby fans would have been under the blissful impression that Aki, a promising wing, would stay in New Zealand and pursue All Blacks selection.

But Aki has been studying a comprehensive document supplied by Esportif explaining the tax benefits of playing in Ireland, and how after three years he could be a lot richer and then play test rugby for the Irish. He's impressed. He wants to go.

In this game - Sharrock talks of "global connectivity" - New Zealand rugby could be seen at times as an export business.

The money for agent and client is often offshore: domestic players pay a flat fee, and so their business can be seen, says Sharrock, as "like conveyancing. You can't build a business on it."

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And that's why you probably won't see big-time agents on schoolboy touchlines - kids aren't worth it. There's not enough income in sports like netball, hockey and boxing either. Instead it's the overseas market that can be vital, and so the December to February "recruitment season" is often the busiest time.

Aki agrees to the Irish deal. "Three months ago, he would not have even understood there is an opportunity to go play somewhere like Ireland, become a ‘project player' for them, play internationally, the massive tax rebates - all sorts of opportunities," says Sharrock, talking about image rights, pension schemes, offshore payments. Players are given comprehensive information packs which stretch as far as the cost of living, the climate and the quality of local schooling and greeted at the other end by another agent. "It's not," says Sharrock's business partner Craig Innes, "just wave them off at the airport and ‘seeya later' ."

But Sharrock stresses he isn't just pushing players offshore. Look, he says, imagine you work at a big accountancy firm. Your big rival offers you a pay rise and the chance of becoming partner. Of course you kick the tyres. "That's what we do. We are an HR company."

One of the options for the older player who wants a good career-end pay cheque is Japanese rugby. Innes, a former All Blacks centre and Manly league star, has found a niche taking these "hired guns" to Japan. His job is to know what the big Japanese clubs want and get his clients in there. Most are owned by giant corporations, so negotiations can be tricky - and he has to make sure his men fit, he says; the worst thing for a Japanese club sponsored by a car company would be a drink-drive conviction.

Sharrock says it's traditional for the agent to be blamed when players leave a club. "I don't mind delivering bad news. If they want to say ‘you've taken him away', that's OK if it makes them feel better." But he doesn't lie. He knows players' market value and he doesn't do dutch auctions. "Bluff is a pretty dangerous game . . . make sure you've got something, or you'll look pretty naked when the tide goes out".

He tells his players to treat themselves as a "small business". When each signs with the agency, he gives them a speech about their career path, what off-field goals they need to achieve, what position they want to be in when they retire. He says he's seen too many players finish broke.

His model is to wrap services - law, accountancy, media training - around his clients, map out their careers, and ensure there is someone on the ground, whatever country they end up playing in, to support them.

Mel Cairns, wife of cricketer Chris (this interview was conducted before the latest match-fixing allegations surrounding Cairns), is esportif's commercial director and secures "endorsements, commercial opportunities, sponsorships, ambassador roles, charity alignments" for players and encourages them to think of their "personal brand".

Part of this is not making a fool of yourself on the internet (for instance, nude All Black Aaron Smith or sextape league star Konrad Hurrell) and involves a social media tutorial showing bad examples (Smith) and the good (Dan Carter, David Beckham) who leverage their Twitter accounts into commercial opportunities. Players should tweet their sponsors and offer selective personal details to secure endorsements - so if a company wants an All Black who is a father, or a farmer, or loves a certain type of music, they know who to call.

Sharrock believes the days of the solo operator, the friendly uncle or mate, are ending. Between his group and New Zealand's biggest agency, Essentially Group, they have the majority of the market but there are still the hobbyists with real day jobs and a couple of elite clients.

Mark Keddell is chief executive of Pack Group, which owns a 20-strong group of restaurants and bars, but dabbles in boxing management. Presently, he's looking after a young heavyweight, Hemi Ahio. "I do it for fun - I enjoy the rush of the guy fighting and the fact you're part of the team," he says. "But I also do it because in boxing there are people trying to take two crumbs out of the six crumbs that are on the table. I try to get the kid a piece of cake: don't take $200 out of $600."

Venality, says Keddell, risks the health of boxers. "Some [agents] don't have the fighter's welfare first. It's what they get that comes first. But genuinely, if you do what's best for the fighter, and do it right, the money will follow. They are not just pieces of meat."

That ruthlessness is part of the reason New Zealand's leading rugby league agent, Peter Brown, is starting to downsize his operation.

Brown who will instead focus on his booming south Auckland childcare business, ChoiceKids, is tired of the "cut-throat" nature of the more ruthless offshore agents.

Brown has always done things differently: he takes 6 per cent, instead of 8. He doesn't charge fees until players earn at least $50,000 a year. Brown, whose clients include Warriors players Shaun Johnson, Manu Vatuvei, Thomas Leuluai and Sam Rapira and 25 professionals in the English competition, says the business has become more competitive.

There are now more than 100 accredited National Rugby League agents - although a licence system has stopped them, for example, pursuing under-16s without permission - and his English client list is diminishing because "people have got on to it and if a guy is on £80,000 and you take 8 per cent of it, it's money for jam".

Over the years, Brown has invested a lot of emotion and time into his clients. Some, he says, despite all the help he has offered, have frittered away their earnings: "Some you cannot help and are destined to have nothing, no matter what you do for them."

It's Saturday morning, and Sharrock and rising All Blacks star Charles Piutau are house-hunting among century-old villas of Mt Eden.

Sharrock has handled relationship breakdowns, career-ending injuries, financial dramas and particularly, police issues for his clients. "For some, you become that trusted person in their life."

Piutau is buying an investment property. He's frighteningly sensible for a 22-year-old. "Just like footy, you set your [personal] goals," he explains and talks about "earning a lot of money in a short space of time, stewarding that and making the most of it".

Sharrock's standard speech appears to have worked: "He has seen the different paths and how players end up," Piutau says. "He's painted that picture to us athletes at this young age."

Piutau seems unlikely to be the sort of player to make the 3am phonecall Sharrock dreads, but is ready for. If his clients are arrested, he tells them this: don't make a statement, I'll get you a lawyer. Don't say anything to the media until we know the facts and the courts have finished. Then "if you bugger-up, front up". Make the mistake once, people will forgive. Make another, you're a clown. Third time - too much.

That's particularly relevant to those who enjoy the limelight and derive the resulting sponsorship and social benefits. "At 22, everyone thinks you're cool and are giving you high-fives and you think you're invincible. I'd like to think we play it straight with them and tell them what they have to hear. It's like having kids sometimes."

Sharrock played rugby and league provincially and "for a trip here or a leather jacket there" helped his mates out. He was originally a financial advisor, and fell into this work full-time 15 years ago when a teammate, Walter Little, was offered a Japanese contract and asked Sharrock to assist. While a working knowledge of tax and contract law is essential, he believes his most important qualification comes from a teenage holiday job at the Waitara freezing works: "That gave me an ability to communicate at all levels: I was talking to ex-crims, doctors doing holiday jobs, burned-out lawyers and gang members."

So now, in a single day, he can discuss surgical options with both a doctor and an injured teenage player, consider career plans with a veteran league player, and sign contracts with a chief executive. "For most people, that's damn hard to do: most corporates talk on the same level with the same type of people all day."

Wanna be Jerry Maguire? Get out your butcher's knife.

- Sunday Star Times

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