Ross, 44, was exasperated by the industry he had grown up in. He felt it was becoming less about relationships and more about numbers. The suburban dad from Leesburg, Va., has represented six first-round picks and negotiated more than a half-billion dollars in deals, but he presents himself as workmanlike in a flashy world, which is perhaps why his client list of about 15 includes plenty of offensive linemen, such as New York Jets tackle Morgan Moses, Tampa Bay Buccaneers guard Ali Marpet and Cleveland Browns guard Wyatt Teller.
In the kindest light, agents are champions of labor, standing up to ownership as sports become a bigger and bigger business. In practicality, agents are also self-interested, cloak-and-daggering one another for a client here, a percentage point there, small but significant slices of the world’s most profitable sports league. Ross, as competitive as anyone, thought things had gone too far, and he saw himself as a veteran urging his peers to keep the business sustainable.
The glamorous life of an agent — game tickets, first-class flights, celebrity face time, behind-the-scenes influence — now seems more fragile. Every year, agents cover their clients’ costs between college and the pros. The price tag for predraft training has ballooned since the NFL put the draft in prime time in 2010, and when throwing money around didn’t win enough clients, some agents started slashing their fees from the standard 3 percent. Thinning profit margins have led to worries that the industry could collapse.
Sports lawyer Darren Heitner said agents shoulder much of the blame. Their efforts to outbid one another for prospects have created a model affordable for only the largest companies, such as Creative Artists Agency and Athletes First, which this year represented 15 of the 32 first-round picks and nearly 20 percent of all players drafted.
Many agents “feel as if they have this amazing burden upon themselves, but the industry at large bred this, and the power players allowed this,” Heitner said. He pointed out that, at this scale, football divisions of even large conglomerates might struggle to be profitable in this “race toward the bottom.”
In the future, Heitner added, “boutique agencies,” sports-specific companies that constitute the rapidly shrinking middle class, may have to consolidate to compete — or the entire business model might undergo “a forced reinvention.”
Even Ross, at a high-profile agency in Select Sports Group, has felt the squeeze. He said he has lost recruits because he maintains the 3 percent fee, and he has had to be judicious in which prospects to sign. Each prospect can cost tens of thousands of dollars.
During a drill in Mobile, Ross spotted a good example. He recruited a prospect for months and developed a good relationship with the family, but he never made an official offer because he had heard the player wanted $100,000 to sign. The price wasn’t unprecedented — some top quarterbacks were rumored to have received at least 10 times more — but Ross suspected the player might not be drafted as high as others projected. He decided it was too risky.
Still, curious, Ross said he obtained other agents’ pitches to the player. He saw the offers of predraft training, accommodations, per diem and fee cuts. Smart but overly competitive agents were “devaluing themselves” and “destroying the business,” Ross said. He acknowledged this shift can be a boon for players — similar services, lower cost — but said that when big firms buy clients, it degrades the overall experience. The personal touch is gone; players are treated more like products than people.
Basically, this is Ross’s pitch: He cares. He will be there for you even when the money isn’t. Several years ago, he said, he lost a top prospect because one of the big fish promised the player’s mother that she could meet a celebrity it also represented. After the draft, in which the player was the company’s seventh first-rounder, the player couldn’t get a call back because the agent was too busy.
“I want people to sign with me based on my capabilities, not on the package that I put in front of them,” Ross said. “However, at the same time, if I put myself in their shoes and I’m 22 years old and someone offers me six figures worth of money, you kind of go: ‘Oh, yeah. I would like that.’ ”
A losing proposition
After the Senior Bowl, agents shepherd clients through the rest of the predraft process, which typically includes the NFL scouting combine and a pro day. This year, without the combine, Ross sent his only client, LSU linebacker Jabril Cox, to prepare for the pro day in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., with Pete Bommarito, one of the biggest names in the predraft training cottage industry that has erupted along with interest in the draft.
Before the draft, three agents said, players usually cost between $30,000 and $70,000. That expense might be palatable if other agents weren’t also cutting fees for the chance to pay for it. Many agents worry rate reductions will become permanent because in 2016 the NFL Players Association changed the fee portion of its official agent form, called a Standard Representation Agreement, from 3 percent to 1.5 percent with both parties needing to agree to any other figure.
To explain the significance of fee cuts, Ross used an example. Say you represented the 31st pick in the draft, a major accomplishment. The pick’s slot value is about $10 million. Three percent is $300,000; 1 percent is $100,000. If you made a competitive offer — say, 1 percent and predraft training — and the player didn’t demand a large sum just to sign, your net over the four-year rookie deal is about $50,000.
“You’re making $12,500 per year,” he said. “Then you fly out, go see him, some nice dinners, stuff like that, that’s three or four grand. So your net was $8,000 [per year] that you made off a guy that went in the first round.”
Players understand their leverage. Neil Stratton of Inside the League pointed out that, because of the volatility, vanity or volume of agents clamoring to sign players, any prospect can find one willing to pay for elite-level training and accommodations, making almost every rookie contract a break-even or money-losing deal for the agent. This is viable long term only for agencies with deep-pocketed backers, such as CAA and the private equity behemoth TPG.
For everyone else, the business model puts a massive emphasis on second contracts, which carries a new set of risks. From 2011 to 2014, 13.4 percent of second-round picks, 29.8 percent of third-rounders, 37.2 percent of fourth-rounders and so on didn’t sign a second contract in the NFL, according to the book “The Drafting Stage.”
It’s also relatively common for agents to steal players from one another. Once, shortly after the draft, Ross said, another agent offered one of his non-first-round picks $300,000 to jump ship. The player asked Ross to match it, and Ross explained that, even at 3 percent, he still would be taking a $180,000 loss over the next four years. Another time, Ross called a client on Christmas Eve to discover the player, on the verge of his second contract, was no longer a client. Apparently, Ross hadn’t received the letter.
“[The player] goes, ‘Well, send me your fax number, and I’ll send the letter again,’ ” Ross said. “That’s like telling somebody: ‘I have a gun, but I ran out of bullets. Can I borrow one of your bullets so I can shoot you right quick?’ ” He paused. “It ruined Christmas for me.”
That’s why some agents seek to build strong relationships with clients. In spring 2019, when Cox needed shoulder surgery, Ross advised him to undergo a specific procedure with a renowned specialist. Ross took the train from Washington to New York to be there, even though Cox had decided to stay in school for his senior year. That helped solidify a bond with the family that proved strong enough to withstand advances by other agents.
In May, after a difficult predraft process in which Cox injured himself training and had to reschedule his pro day, the Dallas Cowboys picked the linebacker in the fourth round. In an ideal financial world for Ross and Cox, Cox’s career will mirror that of Wyatt Teller, another Ross client. The 2018 fifth-round pick became one of the league’s best guards last year, and if he replicates the performance this season, he could sign a second contract worth more than $15 million per year.
In the current system, the best way for Ross to maintain his quality of life is to find such players every year, a tall order. For Ross, it’s easier to avoid such thoughts by pouring himself into recruiting. Before he left Cox’s draft party in Kansas City, Mo., he texted a player set to declare in 2022.
“Next year bro!!!!”
A tenuous future
Thinning margins, the cellphone era and ratcheted-up pressure to maintain close relationships at all times have transformed the job description of an agent from “business adviser” to “24/7 concierge.”
Many agents, including Ross, handle not only high-stakes contract negotiations but also some of their clients’ most mundane tasks, such as scheduling driveway snowplows and cable-box installment appointments. The demanding nature of the business often perplexes those around Ross, though he pointed out that if he didn’t answer his clients, someone else would.
“The stress of always being on … [I] don’t even realize it,” Ross once told his girlfriend, Jolynn Pehlke. “I’m addicted to the rush of business. I live my life petrified that if I miss that phone call, I get fired.”
After the draft, Ross’s father, Doug, died following a lengthy battle with cancer. He was devastated and tried to set work aside, but while he was working through his father’s affairs, the Washington Football Team released his client Moses. Ross immediately coordinated visits for Moses and renewed his recruiting efforts to find the next Cox, the next Teller.
This summer, he found himself on a new frontier when the NCAA approved new name, image and likeness rules for college players. He, like others, negotiated a small marketing deal with a local business for a recruit.
As he and other agents navigated the new landscape, the industry continued to shift. ICM Partners, one of the big four Hollywood agencies, expanded into sports by buying SSG, Ross’s company, and international marketing firm GSE Worldwide acquired DEC Management. The moves prompted many agents not at one of the biggest or smallest agencies to wonder what would happen to them.
Late this summer, at home in Virginia, Ross eased into a deck chair looking rested and relaxed. The marathon of the predraft cycle had not yet begun. The last one had taxed him as much as any in his career, and as the business continued to change around him, he knew it could get tougher. But in this moment, on a sunny afternoon, Ross said he had hope for the future. He would do what he’s always done, recruit good players, and as he sat there, enjoying a moment of silence on the porch, the phone rang.