July 8, 2012

Meet the agent

As more and more money flows into the game, managing players has taken on more importance than ever before

In the film of the same name, Jerry Maguire described them as "poets of emptiness". Player agents spend their time constructing couplets of commercialism, scripting sonnets with sponsors and writing rhymes for riches - some of them perhaps for themselves. As sport becomes a product rather than a game and the players turn into commodities instead of people, business has overtaken the basic principles of a pastime that has turned into a profession.

In the film, Maguire believed he had figured out how to stop money from gobbling up the game. In a manifesto called "The Things We Think and Do Not Say" he wrote about "less dancing, more truth", "fewer clients, more personalised", and concluded with an emphatic "the secret to this job is personal relationships". Cricket's better player agents seem to be on the same page. Most agree trust is the one thing they cannot do their job without.

The other point of concurrence is to do with the growing amounts of money in the game. Although cricket does not yet have the same levels of cash as some other sports, particularly football, player management has become crucial in the game.

Having first come into the game in the UK as middlemen between counties and overseas players, agents now do everything from overseeing players' national contract negotiations to helping them buy houses. For their troubles they are entitled to between 7.5% and 20% of the value of the agreements they negotiate, depending on the country they operate in: England and Australia have higher percentages for agents. Usually commercial endorsement contracts (as opposed to national board ones) carry the highest rate for an agent. Other services, from financial assistance to life coaching, are performed for set fees.

Arthur Turner, a former Western Province chief executive, who is a director of One World of Sport, a management company that has Vernon Philander, Alviro Petersen and others on its rolls, explains that his agency's key areas of focus are contract negotiation, career planning, sponsorships and endorsements, lifestyle and financial services, and investments. "There are many opportunities in cricket now and there are also many people looking to take those opportunities," Turner says. "So you have to have someone to help you manage them."

Turner looks at cricket through a long-term lens, from an administrator's perspective. His agency identifies players in the amateur competitions and signs them up, taking a gamble on how far their careers will progress. "Not everyone is going to succeed but we sign up guys that we think will be able to become good franchise players," he says. The arrangements usually start off as two-year deals but extend far beyond because most players are signed young. "We act as their support system. It's good to see their progression and help them make big decisions."

One of those had to be made when Petersen was dropped from the South African Test squad last November. The opening batsman considered a Kolpak deal with Glamorgan, which he then needed to get out of when he was recalled to the national team. Turner helped him through that phase and says it was one of his proudest moments as an agent when Petersen scored a century in his comeback match, against Sri Lanka in Cape Town. "He was under pressure and in some ways it was a way of saying we made the right decision."

The personal touch is what gives Charlie Austin, an agent in Sri Lanka, satisfaction. Austin moved to the island for work with an environmental NGO, then started a travel agency and even worked for this website. He became friends with Mahela Jayawardene through his involvement in cricket and that opened the door to Austin's agency career. The combination of the absence of professional athlete management companies in Sri Lanka and Jayawardene needing assistance with his off-field affairs resulted in Austin being asked to step in. In a market where the domestic game is largely amateur, he had to operate part-time until 2006.

Austin compares the role to celebrity management almost. "It's not easy for Asian cricketers, given the huge expectations and pressure they have to contend with every day," he says. "There are also plenty of controversies. There have been a lot of issues over the years and I have aged quite rapidly during certain periods."

To prevent premature grey hairs the Essentially Group in the UK spreads the job among many people. Being in the country with the most sophisticated commercial cricket business, theirs is a more complex set-up. "There's not one individual doing everything for the players," Rich Hudson, Essentially's Head of Cricket in the UK, explained. "We'll have a commercial manager, a lawyer, an accountant and general assistants, so at any one time you could have four or five people working on a player's affairs."

The UK is also the only cricket market where agents have to be accredited by the cricket board. "We have to sit an exam and we're asked questions about the rules of qualification for cricketers, ECB central contracts and anti-doping amongst other things. It provides a level of security for players, knowing the individual representing them is of a prescribed standard," Hudson says.

Because county cricket is still one of the biggest marketplaces for the game, Hudson estimates that around half the cricketers he deals with are overseas players. He admits, though, that it is becoming more difficult to secure players from other countries for county stints because of the increase in cricket, particularly 20-over competitions, worldwide. "Most of the time we have to sign two contracts to get one player. Players pull out because of different schedules or injuries. County cricket is now tending to look towards players who are not necessarily the most glamorous but who offer reliability and consistency in availability. Someone like Steve Magoffin from Western Australia, for example."

On the other hand, the T20 game has also benefited agencies. "The more money in the game, clearly the better for majority of the stakeholders, including us," Hudson says. Other agents agree, although they admit that the club-versus-country debate that accompanies the growth of T20 cricket can become tiresome.

Emma Everett manages West Indies captain Darren Sammy, Dwayne Bravo, Kieran Powell and other players. She says she grew up around the game through her father, who was friends with many West Indies legends. Since Chris Gayle's much-publicised spat with the WICB and his reputation as a T20 mercenary, players from the region have been associated with similar behaviour but Everett was quick to counter the notion that it applies universally. "We constantly have people approaching us for my players to participate in various global tournaments that may sometimes clash against the West Indies tour calendar and team commitments, but that is an inevitable thing," she says. "My players and I never seek to compromise their position in the West Indies team, as that comes first."

It is becoming more difficult to secure players from other countries for county stints because of the increase in cricket, particularly 20-over competitions, worldwide

Often, large sums of money are involved. A recent example is of South Africa A's series with Sri Lanka A. Faf du Plessis was withdrawn from the Friends Life T20, where he would have represented Somerset, because CSA wanted him to captain South Africa A and work on his long-form game. Du Plessis ended up losing around half a million South African rand (approximately US$ 62,500).

Despite the assumption that all agents are in for is the money, there are self-prescribed limits. "We have a rule that our players can endorse a maximum of three products each," Turner says.

The agent scouts around for companies that are, as Austin describes, a fit for the personality of the player concerned. Austin pitched Angelo Mathews as the face of an ice-cream brand in Sri Lanka highlighting keywords and attributes such as "youthfulness", "fun-loving" and "dependable allrounder", which matched the company's brand image.

Occasionally more than one player on an agency's roster could fit a certain brand and agents may have to choose. Hudson says that in such cases the agency then presents both players "as equal options" and lets the company decide who appeals better to them.

Usually a player only becomes attractive to companies looking for brand ambassadors once he is established and has built a marketable profile. Mathews' deal, for instance, was signed last year, when he was fairly well-known. "Unknown players are practically impossible to sell," Austin says. "It's the top players that are wanted." There's no better example of the truth of that than MS Dhoni. The Indian captain endorses over 20 brands, earned US$23 million from that sort of work over the last year, and was named the world's richest cricketer by Forbes magazine.

While endorsements can become a full-time job for the top players, agents are aware of the need to draw the line carefully, so as to not allow them to overload the schedule. "You have to remember that international cricket is hard and so they have to spend most of their time concentrating on that," Turner says.

Austin advises that young players "do not rush into a management relationship" while they are still breaking into the international game. "It's the top-level players that really need agents, because they have so many obligations. The younger players just need an equipment deal and some general advice and encouragement now and then," he says. "The only exception to that is when someone is clearly super-talented and you need to help them prepare for life as a star."

And what about when that star starts to shine all too bright? Neil Maxwell, agent to Brett Lee among other players, talks of another role agents are sometimes called on to perform. "It is very important that managers are true to their values and advise players accordingly," he says. "I see examples of some players being allowed to do whatever they feel is best. If a player is being a goose then he needs to be told."

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent