The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘Super agents’ rep 75 percent of NFL players. It’s a competitive fight to sign the rest.

Agent Martin Fischman, center, talks with Tulane cornerback Parry Nickerson as Fischman's fellow agent and business partner, Stanley Wiltz, looks on. (Edmund D. Fountain/For The Washington Post)

NEW ORLEANS — It’s the first day back from spring break and, as undergraduates in shorts and sundresses loll on the lawn outside, three Tulane football players are seated around a U-shaped table in a small meeting room. With marker in hand, sports agent Martin Fischman stands before them at a whiteboard and poses a question:

“Ribbon sells for 19 cents a yard. How much will you save by buying 30 yards for $5?”

There was no such scene in “Jerry Maguire,” the 1996 movie that shaped many sports fans’ perceptions of NFL agents. But here, on the second floor of Tulane’s student union, the 34-year-old Fischman, a real-life Jerry Maguire, doubles as teacher, coach and cheerleader in leading a 40-minute test-prep session for the Wonderlic exam, which three of his clients will take the next morning as part of Tulane’s pro day for prospective NFL employers.

Working from a stack of sample tests, Fischman gives examples of the types of math, vocabulary and reasoning questions that defensive tackle Sean Wilson and running backs Dontrell Hilliard and Sherman Badie will face.

The goal isn’t to get them to memorize answers but to equip them with strategies for doing well on the 12-minute, 50-question test that has stunningly little to do with mastering an NFL playbook.

As they work through the answers together, Fischman offers test-taking tips, such as:

●Break complicated math questions into simple parts.

●Don’t rush through questions that appear easy.

●Budget your time. Spend no more than 14 seconds per question, then with two minutes remaining, guess, if need be, because wrong answers don’t count against you.

Then Fischman reviews the strength-and-conditioning tests and drills they will do the next day.

None among them was invited to February’s NFL Scouting Combine, so pro day represents their best chance to impress teams before the draft.

Read Part 1 of The Post’s NFL draft series: Jerry Jones, speed dating, and the NFL’s weirdest week

Eat a good dinner and get a good night’s sleep, the agent reminds them. Arrive hydrated but not waterlogged. On the 40-yard dash, try for personal bests in both attempts because the times are averaged, but decelerate gradually to avoid pulling a muscle. And after it’s over, thank each scout with a firm handshake and good eye contact.

“Y’all are fully prepared for what’s in store,” says Fischman, his voice upbeat but raspy from a bug he caught on flights to Boston and Fargo, N.D., the previous week to attend the pro days of clients from Brown and Minnesota State Moorhead. “We weren’t invited to the combine; we’re the underdogs. Let’s shock the world!”

Building the client base

There are about 830 agents certified by the NFL Players Association — more than one for every three players in or around the league — which makes it a brutally competitive business. Roughly 75 percent of NFL players are represented by just 17 percent of all certified agents, according to NFLPA statistics.

The majority of the richest contracts are handled by a half-dozen “super agents” such as Tom Condon, Joel Segal, Jimmy Sexton and Drew Rosenhaus. Condon, who represents Drew Brees, Eli Manning, Matthew Stafford and J.J. Watt, among others, accounts for $1.4 billion in contracts alone, according to Forbes magazine. At the other end of the spectrum are nearly 700 agents vying to sign the rest. When NFL rosters are culled to 53 each September, as many as 300 agents typically have no active clients at all.

Between the extremes are Fischman and his business partner, Stanley Wiltz, a former pro baseball player turned agent, who have steadily grown their client base each year since merging efforts to form New Orleans-based Fischman & Wiltz Sports in 2014.

Heading into the April 26-28 NFL draft, they have 13 prospects, their most yet. Two among them — Tulane cornerback Parry Nickerson, whose 40-yard dash time of 4.32 seconds at the combine tied for the fastest of any player this year, and LSU running back Darrel Williams — are projected as mid- to late-round picks. They also represent a half-dozen pros, including Arizona wide receiver Chad Williams and Detroit defensive end Christian Ringo.

Read Part 2: NFL draft analysis is a cottage industry — and everyone wants to join the neighborhood

Fischman wanted to become an NFL agent after suffering a life-threatening episode of heat stroke as a high school football player in New Orleans. After graduating from Indiana with a history degree, he returned home to attend law school at Tulane with a vision of advocating for athletes while helping his home town rebuild after Hurricane Katrina.

“Health is a premium part of why I got into this business,” said Fischman, whose wife is a child neurologist. “I think that if you truly care about people, and you also have a passion for what they do, and you know there is an inherent risk involved, you can hopefully protect them as much as possible while also being a solid adviser and a trusted negotiator.”

Wiltz, 46, a former Louisiana Monroe first baseman who was drafted by the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1992, was drawn to the business because of his own experience as an athlete. After meeting Fischman while recruiting the same player, the Louisiana natives decided to join forces and are equal partners in the firm, sharing clients and contacts.

“With two guys, we’re able to network twice as much,” said Wiltz, who towers over Fischman and shares his outgoing manner. “And we’re available to our players 24 hours a day, as well as their family members.”

That’s what appealed to Nickerson.

“Martin and Stan — they’re from the same city as me, so they relate to my situation and know what I been through,” said the 6-foot, 180-pounder, who was 10 when Katrina took his grandmother’s home and that of his cousins. “I feel like I have a strong connection with those guys. I trust them. They are very loyal. And I feel like with those guys, we could accomplish a lot of things.”

Dollars and business sense

There’s no requirement that NFL players use agents. In recent months, two high-profile athletes opted against it. Veteran cornerback Richard Sherman handled his own free agent negotiations with the San Francisco 49ers this offseason, and some questioned whether he maximized his value in doing so. And Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson, the 2016 Heisman Trophy winner and a projected first-round pick this year, tapped his mother as manager in lieu of an NFLPA-certified agent, although he will retain a lawyer to vet his contract.

“I know, coming in as a rookie, agents don’t negotiate anything, really,” Jackson explained at the combine, alluding to the NFL rookie wage scale that largely dictates a player’s salary based on his draft position. “You know you’re going to get the salary you’re going to get, and I decided I don’t need [an agent]. He’s going to be taking a big cut of my paycheck anyways, and I feel I deserve it right now.”

For many NFL agents, the riches of the game are elusive. Much like players, their profession demands significant front-end investment, persistence and a bit of luck to be successful.

The typical first step is getting certified by the NFLPA, which involves passing an exam to prove fluency in the collective bargaining agreement, the salary cap, the substance abuse policy and other issues; securing liability insurance; and paying an annual fee of $1,500 to $2,000. Agents are expected to pay for their clients’ training expenses in the run-up to the draft, which can range from $25,000 to $40,000. That’s typically not repaid, so agents must decide: How much should I invest per prospect, based on the expected return?

And the return is usually modest. Agents’ commission on NFL contracts ranges from 1.5 percent (under the standard NFLPA contract) to a maximum of 3 percent.

Similarly, the typical NFL rookie won’t be set for life after signing his first contract. The NFLPA tries to drive this point home before the draft via its “Pipeline to the Pros” seminars, held by request at college campuses. The sessions include a sobering look at what happens to the average signing bonus of a fourth-round draft pick — $580,000 in 2017 — after federal and state taxes are deducted, loans are repaid, the agent takes his commission and gifts are bought for family members.

“We introduce them to the business of football, to get away from the glitz and the glamour,” said Mark Levin, the NFLPA’s director of salary cap and agent administration.

Not every aspiring NFL player attends a seminar. Fewer still want to hear its message. It often falls to the agent, then, to paint a realistic picture — even if some are silver-tongued in recruiting clients, promising Pro Bowl careers and million-dollar signing bonuses.

Josh Rosen is Jewish. And a ‘millennial.’ Does the NFL care?

Equally important is building trust and credibility among NFL scouts and personnel executives. In Fischman’s view, that doesn’t mean bombarding scouts with heavy-handed sales pitches.

“I do believe a player needs a very powerful lobbyist,” Fischman said. “Agents don’t have the PhD in football, but the NFL scouts do, and the personnel directors and general managers do. This is what they do! They want to trust their eyes, their watches, their notes, their film review. So my job is finding the best way to lobby for my clients — to find maybe something that the team doesn’t know about them despite all the research. . . . There still might be something that slipped through the cracks.”

A director of college scouting in the AFC described Fischman as an honest broker — both in his dealings with NFL scouts and his clients.

“He’s not going to lie to us and try to drive up the price by pitting one team against another,” said the executive, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid the impression of favoring one agent over others. “He doesn’t make it about getting the most money if the fit isn’t right. And he does a great job explaining that to the players. He actually tries to teach them: ‘Hey, this is not about a money grab right now. You’ve got to think about where you’re going to be in the second and third year.’ ”

Time to go to work

At Tulane’s pro day, held this month at the New Orleans Saints’ indoor practice facility in suburban Metairie, La., Fischman and Wiltz split up the workload.

At one end of the field were the eight athletes (four of them Fischman & Wiltz clients) and representatives from 30 NFL teams, who conducted the drills and recorded results. At the opposite end of the field, looking on from behind a rope, were the agents, the media, a handful of Tulane players who turned out to support their teammates and the players’ family and friends. That included Badie’s girlfriend, Ashleigh Woodard, 24, who wore a T-shirt that proclaimed her “Badie’s Bae.”

Fischman arrived with a large duffel bag stuffed with power bars, Gatorade chews and protein-dense snacks, in case any of his clients needed a boost. He and Wiltz circulated among the moms to let them know how their sons were doing.

“This means the world,” said Shandrica Pugh, Badie’s mother, who tried to keep one eye on her son’s drills while texting video and updates to her mother and sister. “This has been going on since he was 5 years old. It has been nonstop. This has always been part of what he has wanted to do.”

By nightfall, some statistics appeared on social media — and it was good news, with Badie and Hilliard posting 40 times in the low 4.4-second range. And Nickerson, who had 16 interceptions at Tulane, had drawn plenty of attention.

The next day, the agents were on the road by 5:30 a.m., headed to Baton Rouge for LSU’s pro day, the last of their clients’ pre-draft workouts. But their lobbying and information gathering will continue until the final seventh-round draft selection is made April 28.

Then it erupts into a second wave: a manic feeding frenzy over the best players who didn’t get drafted. Each year, the flurry of phone calls extends late into the night as teams make offers for players who caught their eye while agents press for the best deals, haggling over signing bonuses of a few thousand dollars or, if all else fails, settling for a three-day rookie minicamp tryout with no contract at all — anything to give their clients a chance.

“It’s pandemonium, the way the process is structured,” Fischman said. “But I continue to fight for my guys.”

Read the rest of The Post’s NFL draft series:

Part 1: Part job fair, part spring break trip, part time warp: Welcome to the NFL’s weirdest week

Part 2: NFL draft analysis is a cottage industry — and everyone wants to join the neighborhood