On Friday November 3rd, I had the honor of participating in Jerrold Colton’s breakout session on negotiations in sports as part of the inaugural Wharton Sports Business Summit.
A Philadelphia native, Colton attended Rutgers University for both his undergraduate career and law school. He remarked on how humbled he was to be at the Wharton School, speaking in front of the next generation of leaders in the world of sports business.
To begin his talk, Colton outlined the requirements for becoming a sports agent. He joked that entry barriers are relatively low, seeing as all you really need is a client. However, he then went on to explain that the industry certification standards are higher now than in the past. Potential agents need to have a graduate degree, to complete background checks and tests, and to pay fees before they can become certified. Colton himself is both NHL and NFL certified.
For new NFL agents, breaking into the industry can be challenging. According to Colton, there are approximately 800 certified agents working at any given time to represent around 2,000 players. This leaves less than three clients per agent. And in reality, the distribution of clients is far from equal. A small percentage of agents from the industry’s largest companies represent the vast majority of the league.
Colton navigated this landscape himself back in the 1990s before he managed to land his first client: Boomer Esiason of the Cincinnati Bengals. Colton believes that Boomer chose him over other agents for two reasons: his background as a lawyer and his numerous connections in the sports world, which differentiated him from his competitors.
“I am only as good as my client,” Colton remarked after describing his work with Boomer. According to Colton, being an agent is all about servicing your client, whether they’re a first-round draft pick or an underrated rookie. His personal philosophy is to treat each of his players as if they are his only client. “My clients really become part of my family,” Colton explained, noting how he is even the godparents of some of his clients’ children. For Colton, being a successful agent requires building deep relationships with the players. This allows him to add personalized value that his competitors from the big companies can’t offer.
After successfully managing Boomer’s career and transition to the commentator’s booth, Colton began landing other clients, including six-time Pro Bowl guard Jahri Evans of the Green Bay Packers, cornerback William Gay of the Pittsburgh Steelers, and Hall of Fame kicker David Akers of the Philadelphia Eagles. As their agent, one of Colton’s critical roles was as a negotiator. “The key to any negotiation is leverage,” Colton explained. The secret to getting leverage in the NFL is educating your client and gathering as much information as possible. When it comes to negotiations regarding contracts and salaries, the agent’s opinion of the player has little-to-no influence. Instead, what matters is their relative value in the league and what other clubs think of them. This information used to be much more difficult to obtain, but in today’s increasingly digital world, salary data is available to all agents, allowing them to more accurately and objectively assess their client’s value relative to other players.
Moving forward, Colton knows that he will have to continue to evolve along with the industry. “I have to reinvent myself all the time,” he remarked towards the end of his talk. To this day, he still practices law, as he doesn’t like to put all his eggs in one basket. Colton recommends a background in law for those looking to break into the industry. While players don’t always recognize the value this can add, he asserts that it is an asset in the field, especially when competing against the big companies. While the industry may be full of challenges, the relationships you can build are unlike any other. For that reason, Colton is happy that he inadvertently got into this business, and hopes that the next generation of sport-business enthusiasts will try their hand at it themselves.
USBC Journal Writer
Class of 2021