SHOW ME THE MONEY!
Agents get a pretty bad rap, particularly when it comes to England’s Premier League.
They’re all in it for a quick buck, trying to work a big money move or a new contract for their player that will ultimately help feather their own nest. That’s the popular thinking anyway.
During the summer Aidy Ward was vilified for the way he handled, or some would say engineered, Raheem Sterling’s €65 million transfer from Liverpool to Manchester City.
The move may or may not have been the right thing for the young England international, but it would certainly have benefitted Ward, who likely pocketed a seven figure cheque for his trouble.
It’s not so long since Irish golfer Rory McIlroy paid over a rumoured €20 million-plus just to buy himself out of what he saw a bad deal with his representatives, Dublin-based Horizon Sports Management.
Jorges Mendes, the super agent who has Cristiano Ronaldo amongst others on his client list, is estimated to have made more than €150 million from his players’ transfer and contract dealings alone.
Beyond Oscar winning Hollywood blockbuster Jerry Maguire most people haven’t got much of an idea what role a player agent has — or indeed whether their bad reputation is in any way deserved.
RTE Sport spoke with Niall Woods, the former Ireland rugby international who now runs his own business, Navy Blue, and is a well-respected rugby agent whose roster includes Jordi Murphy, Isa Nacewa and Tomas O’Leary.
Certainly, there are a lot of sharks swimming in the water. It hasn’t gotten any better following the decision by soccer’s world governing body FIFA to deregulate that side of the industry.
“Of all the agents I’d know I’d say you could count on one hand, even on two or three fingers, those that have the best interests of the player at heart,” explained a retired Irish former footballer who played out his career at Championship level in England. He is still making a living from the game so didn’t wish to be identified in this article.
“Most of them are hoping to get lucky with a young player and make a lot of money. A lot of players buy the bullshit the agents promise them. But are they going to be there to help the player, pick up the pieces, when it doesn’t work out for them?
“It’s often said that players can’t even wipe their own arse and that’s true because they have everything done for them. An agent has to give players guidance so that they can go to the bank or the shop on their own once their career is finished, just like anyone else does.
“It’s easy to do with the lads who are on big money. The harder job is with the lads who are further down the ladder.”
Richie Sadlier recently revealed that his former agent’s first thought on hearing of the player’s career-ending injury wasn’t to offer Sadlier a shoulder to cry on but to demand that his signing-on fee be repaid. The case was eventually settled out of court.
Several high profile soccer agents based both in Ireland and abroad were approached about taking part in this article, though all of them declined.
Of course, there are many good representatives working with their players’ best interests at heart. Many of those are operating at all levels of sports, meaning that their take-home pay at the end of the month may be pretty modest.
Stephen Bent qualified as an agent, sitting exams and passing tests, before FIFA pulled the plug and for two years he worked in Dublin for the Professional Footballers Association of Ireland (PFAI) on behalf of Irish professionals at home and abroad.
The PFAI has a duty of care to its members so they took a holistic approach to it’s mostly younger roster of players.
“We often had players coming to us with agents telling us that they couldn’t get in touch with them or that they just weren’t answering their phone when they relayed need them. That was quite common,” said Bent.
“We would have offered financial advice, career guidance, education, training advice — the whole package.
“We had one 17-year-old who signed for Shamrock Rovers and he wanted to leave school six months before his Leaving Cert. We were able to persuade him to stay in school and we offered him the support to sit exams.
“Another lad had signed a three-year deal with Celtic due to begin when he turned 16 but he broke his leg before he went and the club didn’t want him after he had recovered because they said he had a slight limp.
“His father came to us looking for advice and we took him on. We got a second opinion from the Irish team doctor, got him on an intensive programme with Philly McMahon, the Dublin footballer, and six months later Celtic took him on.”
The problem, Bent said, was often when a player came to sign their first deal once they left a club’s academy.
“The manager will often say that he will only deal with a certain agent so if the player wants to sign for that club he has to sign for that agent. It’s all ‘you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours’. It’s very frustrating,” he said.
Representatives are usually paid a percentage, normally about five per cent, of the value of a player’s contract. Sometimes the club pays, as is often the case at the higher end of the market, and sometimes it comes straight from the player’s pay packet.
The best agents get their clients the best deal, but they also prepare them for life after sport — be that following a brief and none-too-lucrative career, or at the end of a glorious and highly paid fairytale.
Those agents are also there for their players after they’ve finished playing to help ease their transition back into the real world.
During their careers, their agents also have to help them out with more mundane tasks like buying a place to live or a car simply because the player he kept in a bubble by their clubs away from the real world.
“A lot of the younger guys don’t have cheque books or credit cards and they don’t know the mechanics of paying for things because they’ve never had to,” said Woods, who played in Ireland and England in the early days of professional rugby.
“They’re in and all of a sudden they’re earning a bit of money so you’re just trying to help them manage their money.”
Woods has had to all sorts of lengths in order to source tickets to London movie premieres and UFC events that his players want to attend and he says it’s all part of the service.
Others need help on a different level and if they’re lucky their agent will be able help them through all manner of personal difficulties.
At the height of the Celtic Tiger boom it was estimated by that Cork star Sean Og O hAilpin could’ve made as much as €100,000 a year through endorsements and personal appearances thanks to his position as one of Ireland’s most bankable sports stars.
Those days are gone, and though Gaelic Games remain resolutely amateur a small number of players are still making a few extra euro as a result of their profile.
Some of the biggest names in GAA have agents, though many just rely on the guidance of the GPA. According to GPA spokesman Sean Potts: “We don’t tout for business for our membership, but we do have a rates card for our members and for our companies to refer to.
“We also deal with a lot of cases regarding image rights. Our members assign their image rights to the GPA to be protected and we are often approached for breaches of this kind.
“There is a difference between paying for the copyright of an image, such as a photograph, and getting permission for using a player’s image. We deal with a lot of that.”