You will have no doubt seen the movie ‘Jerry Maguire’, the story of an established sports agent who is at the top of his game before he is forced to go it alone in an industry that takes no prisoners. Maguire, played brilliantly by Tom Cruise struggles to stay afloat losing almost all of his clients along the way, but it is Maguire’s relationship with Rod ‘show me the money’ Tidwell that eventually leads him to several other pro athletes and a way back to the top.
Meet Eugene Lee a 39 year old sports agent from Canton, Ohio and the founder and Chief Executive Officer of ETL Associates based in New York City. Lee is an up and coming sports agent and was heavily featured in an episode of ESPN’s award winning ‘30 for 30’ sports documentary series. During the episode in question, entitled ‘The Dotted Line’ directed by Morgan Spurlock (Super Size Me) we get to witness Lee in action and delve deep into the cut throat business of American sports agents, some of which represent the nation’s major sports stars.
While studying Law at Notre DameUniversity, Lee was approached by members of the University football team, whom he casually played basketball and had become friends with. They knew that Lee had accepted a job with a major law firm and that part of his job would involve contractual law and therefore he would gain invaluable experience in contract negotiations. In 1997 Lee became a certified agent whilst still studying Law, so for the time being at least it was just a sideline exclusively for Notre Dame Football Players. It was six years later in 2003 that Lee went it alone and opened his own sports law firm, ETL Associates. Another Notre Dame alumni, Deveron Harper of the New Orleans Saints was the firm’s first client.
So what does it take to be a successful sports agent? Well according to Lee you need several attributes, such as ‘Intelligence, interpersonal communication skills, perseverance, a tireless work ethic, confidence and most importantly, faith’. We get to witness Lee execute all of these skills during the course of the documentary.
Although there are moments captured in ‘The Dotted Line’ that are reminiscent of something that you might see in Jerry Maguire, this is not a movie, it is real life with real people, who have real ambitions and of course we are dealing with real money.
The Dotted Line picks up with Lee in December 2010 doing what he says is the hardest part of the job, the travelling. Lee is on the move, going up and down the country visiting college football players, who will be entering the forthcoming NFL draft which takes place in April. These potential clients will be hoping to become NFL stars of the future and Lee has varying degrees of success both during and after filming in trying to secure their services.
First stop is Manasas, Virginia to meet with Brandon Hogan a cornerback from West Virginia University. Lee, perhaps with his sales head on sees Hogan as the top shut down corner that will be available in the upcoming NFL draft. If Lee’s projection of Hogan bears fruit he will be a first round pick and will therefore sign a professional contract somewhere in the region of $15-$20 million dollars of which ETL Associates will get a 3% cut. However, draft experts peg Hogan as a 4th round pick, which would put the contract figure at closer to $3 million. An industry rule prevents agents getting more than 3% on a player’s team contract, although agents can charge more on other contracts such as marketing endorsements. After the meeting Lee believes he has done enough to secure the player’s services but later receives the disappointing news, which Lee says ‘totally surprised me’, that Hogan has in fact signed with another agency.
The disappointment of losing out on Hogan is put aside as Lee travels down to Florida to meet with South Florida Linebacker Jacquian Williams. Lee’s sales pitch to Williams is not just 100% convincing but somewhat inspiring, leaving Williams to simply say ‘where do I sign’. Music to the ears of any potential agent but there is no time to bask in the glory, as it is back on the road this time to the Chicago home of Notre Dame running back Robert Hughes. Lee is successful again after convincing Hughes and his Mother, who gives Lee the final seal of approval after firing the questions his way. Lee’s claim that he ‘nailed it’ is spot on.
In total, ETL Associates have six clients on their books who will be entering the forthcoming NFL draft, and Lee must now help prepare them for the draft in order to enhance their chances of being selected as high as possible or in some cases being selected at all. This in itself is not without financial risk, as Lee states that it takes approximately $9,000 to prepare his clients for the draft. The problem for ETL Associates is that the types of players it currently has on its books are by no means the biggest names that will be eligible for the forthcoming draft.
Once the visits to potential new clients are complete it is time for Lee to start promoting his guys. The best place for Lee to start networking is at the NFL Scouting Combine, held annually every February in Indianapolis. The Combine is an invite only event for approximately 330 college players who will be entering the forthcoming draft and it is a chance for players to showcase their talent by completing drills and sprints, lifting weights and completing an intelligence test. It also allows NFL teams to conduct interviews with players that they may have interest in drafting in just under two months from now. The Combine is the perfect place for lesser known players to enhance their status and a good performance can push a player from a potential late round draft pick to the middle rounds or above. This will also improve the contract that they will receive and means more money for player and, of course, his agent.
Unfortunately for Lee none of his six players have been invited to this years Combine, leaving Lee to walk the corridors of the facility and hang around the entrance handing out cards with information on each of his clients. It is here he can make contact with representatives from all 32 teams, although the majority of his meetings do not really go too well. This is mainly down to Lee’s current client list, more than anything else.
Thursday April the 28th and the 76th NFL draft will commence at Radio City Music Hall, New York City at 8pm local time. The draft will take place over the course of three days. There will be seven rounds with a total 254 players being picked by the 32 NFL teams. Auburn quarterback Cam Newton is the first player selected by the Carolina Panthers, who have the first pick. Newton would later sign a professional contract with the Panthers, somewhere in the region of $22 million.
This is the first draft since an NFL rule that caps rookie contracts was put into place. Compare Newton’s $22 million with the $78 million that Sam Bradford got for being the number one pick a year earlier in 2010, before the cap was in place. Despite this Newton is the sort of player that Lee would love to have on his books. Rounds 1-3 pass without any of Lee’s clients being selected, this is to be expected.
It is now Saturday and onto round four and Lee knows that the time is coming that things have to start to happen for his clients and with the 98th,overall pick the Carolina Panthers select….Brandon Hogan, yes the one that got away. This would have matched the previous highest drafted player that ETL Associates have ever had which was also a 4th rounder back in 2009.
Lee is forced to sweat it out for the next few hours as rounds 4 and 5 pass without incident. Lee checks the paperwork he has prepared on each of the 32 NFL teams and believes that the Giants need help at the Linebacker position and have 3 picks in the sixth round. Lee calls one of his clients Jacquian Williams, a Linebacker, to share his belief that things will happen soon and tells him to stay positive. 20 picks into round 6 and the Giants are on the clock, the pick is in and a mini disaster strikes as the Giants select a Linebacker, but it is not Williams. Lee is looking frantic and starts networking, texting representatives from other teams trying to generate interest in his client by stating that an un-named team has previously expressed interest in his client Williams.
Just when things are starting to look ominous for all involved the moment finally arrives late in the round when, with the 202nd overall pick in the draft, the New York Giants select Lee’s client Jacquian Williams. Lee is genuinely ecstatic for his client and of course for his 3% commission. A brief phone call to Williams ensues with Lee screaming ‘You’re a New York Giant’. The two act like a couple of kids at Christmas. It is one of those ‘Jerry Maguire’ type moments.
The scene at the home of another of Lee’s clients, Robert Hughes looks more like a funeral than Christmas, as the draft passes without the NFL hopeful being picked up by any of the 32 teams. However, several weeks later Hughes would be signed by the Chicago Bears as an un-drafted free agent meaning his contract would be minimal. Hughes would later be cut by the Bears before the season starts. The 2011 NFL season would pass without Hughes’s involvement but in early 2012 he was picked up by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers but did not make the final 53 man roster and was released by the team recently. Again it would appear that the 2012 NFL season will not involve Hughes, whose NFL dream seems all but over. Robert Hughes is no longer a client of ETL Associates. None of ETL’s other clients would get drafted in 2010.
ETL’s problems would continue however, when out of the blue Lee receives notice that Jacquian Williams no longer wishes to be a client and intends to sign with another agency. With Williams yet to sign a professional contract with the New York Giants, which is not unusual at this stage, it means not only does Lee lose a client but will not get a dollar back despite investing heavily in getting Williams drafted in the first place.
In regard to Williams’s betrayal Lee said ‘It was extremely disappointing because I believe we put Jacquian in that position due to our resources and tactical pre-draft marketing. You equate your own core values with the players you represent and because character is such an important trait for us, I really did not expect Jacquian to perform such a disloyal act’.
Around a month or so later Williams would sign a 4 year contract with the Giants worth $2,119,000. This included a $79,000 signing bonus. Williams gave no real explanation for jumping ship and is now onto his third agent in just over a year. Lee however has moved on, he added ‘We have moved forward and the future is what excites me the most’.
With ETL Associates being an up and coming sports agency in a difficult and crowded market place, exposing itself in a nationally televised documentary was a risk to say the least. Only time will tell if the gamble paid off but despite the setbacks, ETL Associates and Eugene Lee in particular, have come out the other side in a positive light and Lee is more than happy that he was able to take part.
‘The movie has opened many doors and truly legitimized us with players and fans alike as one of the rising agencies in the industry’ Lee also added, ‘It was an honour and a blessing to have been featured in a Morgan Spurlock directed documentary’.
So what does the future hold for Lee and his company? ETL would represent only 3 clients at the 2012 NFL draft, Eddie McGee, Brian Smith and Jeremiah Warren. All three were un-drafted but later signed with NFL teams. Unfortunately for all three and ETL none of them were able to keep their place with their new teams and have now all been cut from the roster, again leaving all three to wonder if their NFL dream is over before it has really begun.
Lee knows the difficulties that his company and his current client list are facing in an unforgiving industry but Lee, citing the faith he says is so important, sees a bright future for his company. ‘I anticipate having between 4-6 top calibre clients for the 2013 NFL draft’. He is also aware that it’s a slow process and Lee keeps his projections for the next five years to an achievable amount, ‘While it is difficult to estimate an exact number, in five years we should represent a substantial number of NFL players, at least 20’. As it stands ETL has 5 NFL players on its books but only one of those, Sergio Brown (Indianapolis Colts) is currently on a team.
ETL Associates calls itself ‘The most up and coming agency in the athlete representation industry’ and this would appear to be true. However, trying to break the monopoly of the established agencies is not easy. It would appear that ETL will need at least one big name client to get the ball rolling. One thing that is for sure is that you cannot help but be inspired by seeing Eugene Lee in action and once you have seen the documentary ‘The Dotted line’ you will just want him to succeed.