NEW YORK — The elevator goes up to the 39th floor, and through a pair of double doors, a neon paper airplane glows on the wall. Staffers pass through the lobby dressed stylishly casual, as if they’re heading to brunch or maybe a concert. There are few hints about the businesses that weave together these cubicles and glass offices — plus those one floor below.
There are branding experts, a social media team, a group focused on digital growth, another on philanthropy, and spread throughout the Times Square office space is Roc Nation Sports, a fledging and mysterious sports agency that’s part of the sprawling business empire run by Jay Z, the hip-hop icon and street-wise, uber-successful entrepreneur.
His business portfolio includes jets, a music-streaming service, colognes and high-end liquors, but Jay Z’s athlete portfolio is just as intriguing: Dez Bryant, Robinson Cano, Yoenis Cespedes, Victor Cruz, Miguel Cotto, Geno Smith, Ndamukong Suh.
“It’s a family. You gotta feel special when they’re asking you to join them,” said Willie Cauley-Stein, a Roc Nation client who just completed his rookie season with the Sacramento Kings. “It’s so exclusive.”
This summer represents a milestone moment for the young agency: NBA star Kevin Durant becomes a free agent July 1, the biggest chance yet for Roc Nation to show it’s more than flash and bravado. While basketball observers increasingly feel Durant might be sticking around Oklahoma City for at least the short term, the folks around Roc Nation are giving away few secrets about what kind of contract might be in store.
“We know this is a big deal and a big moment in his career,” said Rich Kleiman, Durant’s agent with Roc Nation, who worked with hip-hop stars such as Wale in a past professional life. “We also have to be his guiding light in this. We can’t let the pressure of the situation be bigger than it is. Obviously, we understand all eyes are looking at him and looking at his decisions, and people want to see how we’re going to handle it, too.”
Three years after first dipping its blinged-out toes into the sports-world waters, Roc Nation remains something of a mystery. The company recently opened its doors and agreed to a series of interviews to explain its operation. While some observers expected Roc Nation to be a mega-agency by now, its employees insist the business works best as a high-end boutique operation.
While it will tout a family-oriented approach, personalized attention and high-end marketing services, one attribute distinguishes Roc Nation from others: the company CEO. Just consider: When Jay Z was in Tampa and needed a place to work out, he stopped by the Tampa Bay Bucs’ facility. Once there, he was presented a jersey by quarterback Jameis Winston with “Young Hov” written across the shoulders, a gift not afforded to most sports agents.
And in December, after Roc Nation client Todd Gurley rushed for 140 yards and a pair of touchdowns to help the St. Louis Rams end a five-game losing streak, Jay Z was invited to raise a hand in the postgame locker-room huddle. The players who weren’t in the middle used cellphones to shoot photos and video. Needless to say, Scott Boras isn’t usually feted in quite the same way.
But perhaps just as important, company officials say Jay Z’s deep pockets allow them to put their clients’ interests ahead of their business interests.
“We’re fortunate that our sports division is part of a bigger company. We can afford to be selective,” said Michael Yormark, president and chief of branding and strategy. “Listen, we could have 100 athletes today if we wanted them. That’s not what the goal here is.”
Jay Z’s 40/40 Club opened in New York City in 2003 and quickly became a popular destination for athletes visiting town. The rapper often would mingle with his guests, and inevitably talk would turn from sports to business. “They all wanted advice,” said Juan Perez, Jay Z’s longtime associate who co-owned and managed the club. According to Perez’s telling, the more athletes probed Jay Z, the more the hip-hop mogul badgered Perez to delve into the sports agency business.
“Jay kept saying, ‘Come on, let’s help these guys.’ We already have the management side with the artists. It’s not different bringing in athletes. It’s the same thing; they just perform on a different stage,” said Perez, now the president of Roc Nation Sports.
They made an instant splash, signing Cano and helping negotiate the deal that took him from New York to Seattle. Jay Z was particularly active in those early days, helping recruit clients such as Cano, Cruz and Durant. Perez said Jay Z spotted Skylar Diggins on television and insisted they sign the WNBA star.
Outsiders couldn’t quite figure out Roc Nation’s game plan. It didn’t recruit big-name agents who could hand over their own roster of stars. It relied on assistance from Creative Artists Agency for many of its early deals, and it was the subject of loud whispers in almost every sport, accused of poaching clients and even investigated by the NFL Players Association for skirting rules (ultimately absolved).
Roc Nation was flashy and aggressive, the entire tone set by the man atop the pyramid who taunted Boras by name in the lyrics to one track on the 2013 album “Magna Carta . . . Holy Grail.”
Boras has said little on the record about Jay Z’s sprawling operation but once told ESPN, “If Steven Spielberg walked into USC Medical Center and said, ‘I want to do neurosurgery,’ they don’t give him a scalpel.”
Jay Z became certified by both Major League Baseball and the NBA to serve as a player agent, though his day-to-day duties are a bit nebulous. Perez said he and Jay Z must approve every athlete the company represents, but Roc Nation doesn’t trot its high-profile CEO in front of high school pitchers or college point guards.
“I don’t want to dilute what he is and bring him in all the time just to try to get a player,” said Kim Miale, head of Roc Nation’s football division. “I hate to use him as purely a recruiting tactic. I think it comes off as cheap to do that.”
Jay Z personally welcomes every new client into the fold, often with a phone call after they have signed. If they catch Jay Z in the office that day, they will pose under the neon paper airplane for a photo. Many of the newer clients who have yet to meet him in person don’t try to deny the allure.
“I come from a town of 800 people and you just listen to Jay Z there. You never think about meeting him,” said Cauley-Stein, a native of Spearville, Kan. “Then suddenly one day you’re in his office, hearing stories about his whole journey. It’s just surreal to be a part of it now.”
But company officials say Jay Z is only part of the pitch.
“If you think about it, you don’t want people to join the company just because it’s Jay’s company,” Yormark said. “You want them to join the company because they see how the company can help them meet their goals. Jay’s the gravy.”
Rice Lake is a small Wisconsin town with a population of 8,400 and is about the furthest thing from the hard-scrabble streets or glitzy posh lifestyle Jay Z so often raps about. Roc Nation visited twice to recruit Henry Ellenson, a quiet 19-year-old who on the surface seems to bear little resemblance to the agency’s more high-profile clients.
“People don’t know what a Roc Nation athlete is,” said Joe Branch, head of the company’s basketball division. “It’s not all flash and glamour. We want the right guys, the right fit.”
After Ellenson decided to leave Marquette following his freshman season and declare for the NBA draft, his parents interviewed about 20 agencies.
“I felt I could trust them,” Ellenson said of Roc Nation. “I felt the Roc Nation family is so elite, and I wanted to be part of it. Just the connections they have to really get myself out there. A kid from northern Wisconsin who’s never been in the national spotlight, they could get my name out there.”
Ellenson likely will be a lottery pick at next month’s NBA draft, projected to go as high as No. 6. He and his family went to dinner at Wolfgang’s Steakhouse in Times Square the night he signed. That’s when Jay Z called.
“He just said, ‘Welcome, now get to work,’ ” Ellenson recalled. “He said being part of this family, you gotta be a hard worker. Obviously, he’s had a lot of success, and I hope I might have the same.”
There’s little obvious connection among the 27 athletes on Roc Nation’s roster: Some are perennial all-stars, some court controversy and some are minor leaguers. After some splashy early signings, Roc Nation recently has landed prospects. Offensive lineman Ronnie Stanley became the agency’s highest NFL draft pick in March when the Baltimore Ravens took him with the No. 6 pick. Ellenson likely will be its highest NBA pick and one of three clients who could hear his name called at next month’s draft.
It’s a similar approach to how Jay Z and Perez built the agency. While they slid Kleiman over from the music side, it built a roster of agents who were mostly unknowns.
“They wanted someone that was young, fresh, hungry and more importantly a hard worker,” said Kyle Thousand, head of the baseball division. “. . . For me, at that point in my career, it was a no-brainer.”
Miale had been working as an NFL agent for four years when Roc Nation hired her. She had represented a few players on roster fringes but had no players active in the league at the time. “I try to forget about that period because it’s so much better now,” she said with a laugh.
The company employs six staffers tasked as the point-person for a handful of athletes. They might help coordinate a cross-country move, schedule a business meeting or score concert tickets. It’s a personal attache service that’s much more common in the entertainment field, where an artist has a team scrambling to meet every need and whim.
“Everybody here gets the same treatment,” Perez said. “I treat everybody like a Jay Z.”
The neon paper airplane is recognizable. Clients wear the logo as jewelry. It’s as likely to be seen on MTV as ESPN. Roc Nation boasts a brand that transcends the sports world. Yormark said slotting has zapped some of the creativity from player contracts, and Roc Nation can really distinguish itself in the endorsement deals it lands, which benefits the agency as well. A sports agent earns a set amount on most player contracts (3 percent in the NFL, 4 in the NBA, 4 to 5 in MLB, for example). But on endorsement deals, agents can earn anywhere from 10 percent to 15 percent.
Yormark concedes that many pillars of the Roc Nation pitch aren’t unlike what other agents might sell: the personal attention, the family atmosphere, the aggressive marketing and corporate relationships. Yormark was previously the CEO and team president of the Florida Panthers for 11 years and had heard it all before.
“Yes, every agent says the same thing, but most of them can’t deliver,” he said.
Roc Nation agents say they turn away some prospective clients and also miss out on others. They can’t claim to specialize in a single sport the way Boras or Tom Condon can. They don’t have the Hollywood connections of CAA or the track record of David Falk. Agents don’t typically talk on the record about their competition, but skeptics question whether Roc Nation has remained small by design or because athletes weren’t blinded by the agency’s sparkle. Some say Roc Nation brags about the marketing and endorsement side because it hasn’t yet negotiated a string of stunning player contracts.
“We’re not the best fit for everybody,” Yormark said. “We’re not shooting 100 percent in our recruiting. There are people who ultimately decide to go to other agencies. But as we tell everybody, if you’re looking to build your brand and you want more than being a good basketball player, football player, baseball player, this is where you want to be.”
Perez said athletes can be different than entertainers but the level of attention the agency offers them doesn’t have to be. He has a difficult time seeing Roc Nation growing to 100 or more athletes. The vision he and Jay Z plotted out in the 40/40 Club years ago was smaller and more intimate.
“We’re a different company, man,” Perez said. “A lot of people don’t understand that. You look at a powerhouse like CAA or Wasserman, what those guys are doing and what we’re doing is two way different things. . . . What we’ve accomplished in just three years has never been done. Find another agency with a roster this deep in just three years. It hasn’t been done.”