01 Jan 2017

Sports Agents: Good Guys or Bad Guys?

  • General Interest

Niall Woods, former professional rugby player, from Navy Blue speaks about different aspects of being a sports agent.

When I tell people what I do nearly all the time the response is “ahh like Jerry Maguire” and in many ways the answer is yes. That said, most people’s memory of the movie is that he was a big time agent when in fact he was a small one man band desperate for survival and totally dependent on his one client Rod Tidwell not to get injured.

It does show how unglamorous the role of an agent can be and certainly in my experience since I started my own sports agency Navy Blue in January 2011 it is certainly not glamorous. It is certainly competitive & unless you do a good job for your client you won’t keep your client. It’s as simple as that.

As a former professional rugby player who played for Ireland at 22 I believe without being arrogant that I was a high achiever at a young age. You never lose that desire to be successful no matter what you go on to do. I played 11 seasons of first class rugby but suffered a career ending knee injury and was forced to retire with an arthritic knee. I haven’t run since which is now 12 years on so I firmly believe that having experienced the highs of playing rugby in front of 80,000 people to the lows of the injury I am very well placed to advise & manage players.

A day in my life consists of waking up & checking my twitter feed for news to see if anything has happened since the night before when I last checked particularly in the world of rugby with it being my primary business. With the two hemisphere’s interchanging constantly, there is potential movement of players in both directions like recent Leinster signing Lote Tuquiri.

Once I get to the office again a check of the websites to make sure I am up to speed on all the happenings in my world. If I have a player who isn’t getting enough game time for whatever reason I need to be sure I know where any potential loan deals exist to ensure he is put forward to the various clubs.

The bulk of my work is contract negotiation for rugby players and knowledge of the marketplace is crucial. So a big part of my day revolves around on-going communication with my players, clubs in Ireland and abroad, liaising with financial advisors on best practices for my clients, making available media advice, legal advice and also sourcing the best insurance advice for my clients as having been through it I know the pitfalls of not being insured properly.

I also work with a number of sponsors who I advise or work with on their sponsorship programmes so at different times that can take up plenty of my day. I have long been an advocate of players having representation. Clearly now I am biased!!

That said as a player you can’t focus solely on rugby if you are worrying about your contract or where you will be in 3 or 4 months time. The sooner you have that sorted the clearer a player’s mind is to focus on his sport. Having been in the situation it helps massively to understand the players mind-set.

There are so many factors to be taken into consideration when players are considering their next move. First and foremost is the rugby and where they believe they are best placed to play their rugby. Money is a factor for some more so than others but not in my opinion the sole factor. Other circumstances like family, study or other work commitments, commercial aspects are all factors.

Depending on the age and stage of the career a move out of Ireland may not be the best decision even though an overseas offer can be more tempting. Last season I had a client who had two options one in France or one in Ireland. The France option was more lucrative but from a rugby perspective it wasn’t the right move at the stage of his career. He agreed with me that the best place for him at this stage was to play in Ireland despite the money being less. He agreed with my overall philosophy that the long term view needs to be factored in at all times.

The primary role for me in 99.9% of cases is to secure the next contract for my clients whether in Ireland or abroad. When Ireland scrum half Tomas O’Leary approached me to work with him the brief was to get him a contract abroad. This can be easier said than done as dealing in the French market can be very difficult. Apart from the language barrier I have to use a French agent who is licensed in France. Therefore there is a loss of control over the negotiations, which for me I don’t like but something I have to accept.

Dealing in Ireland and the UK is more straight forward and a key part of my job is maintaining the relationships in the clubs. I am lucky in that being an ex-player I know personally almost every Head Coach or if not I know the assistant coach in the Pro 12 and more so in the Aviva Premiership.

When I entered the market I already had a relationship with most of the personnel from my playing days and as an ex player there is an immediate trust. This is in my opinion is an added bonus for my clients. That  said I have to believe in my clients and their abilities as rugby players as if I don’t my credibility with coaches gets questioned. Hence I am very selective in who my clients are.

Some players albeit a very small percentage negotiate their contracts themselves and some use parents. That is their choice but my advice would be “who knows the value of a player in all the different markets in Ireland and abroad” you the player, your parents or someone in the marketplace who deals in it every day?

One of the key reasons I joined the market was I didn’t believe there was a huge amount of quality agents around. I hope that I am changing that perception. The proof will be in what my clients say about me.

Outside of rugby I represent four of the top cricket players in Ireland, I also manage Paralympic athlete Mark Rohan to help him secure sponsorship revenue to allow him to compete as a full-time athlete plus I manage RTE Sport’s Darragh Maloney and Newstalk Sport’s commentator Dave McIntyre.

Looking at sponsorship opportunities for clients is also a key part of my job. I have a number of players who have a commercial value both current & past players like Keith Wood who Navy Blue partnered with Rabodirect on their sponsorship of the RaboPro12 competition. I also advise some leading brands on their sponsorship programmes and how best to maximise them. Having drafted the commercial section of the IRFU Player Contract whilst at IRUPA I know what can and can’t be done by a player but also by a sponsor.

Like any business if you are to be represented by someone it is of utmost importance that the person you appoint to represent you is professional, has the required credibility in the market place and above all in a personal relationship has good personal skills. The single biggest complaint about agents I got at IRUPA was that players didn’t hear from their agents except when their contract was up for renewal. They had no real relationship with their agent. This for me isn’t right.

So to finish up I wanted to bring this back to one of the last scene’s in the Jerry Maguire movie when on seeing Jerry being hugged by his client, another player turns to his agent and says “why can’t we have that kind of relationship”. That’s the one question I don’t plan on being asked.

First Printed: Winter 2013