CAA stands at head of 2010 free-agent class

Marc J. Spears
CAA stands at head of 2010 free-agent class
View photos
LeBron James' decision this summer will impact the rest of the 2010 free-agent class

For 35 years, Creative Artists Agency has represented many of Hollywood’s top power brokers. Steven Spielberg. Tom Cruise. George Clooney. Will Smith. Tom Hanks. Brad Pitt. Julia Roberts. Nicole Kidman. Bruce Springsteen. The list goes on and on.

Less than five years ago, CAA decided to expand its reach into the sports world. Peyton Manning of the Indianapolis Colts signed on. The agency landed global soccer star David Beckham, New York Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter and NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson, giving it access to some of sports’ most marketable personalities. CAA’s basketball portfolio also has steadily grown after noted NBA agent Leon Rose joined in 2007 and Henry Thomas followed. The agency now counts Carmelo Anthony(notes), Allen Iverson(notes) and Tony Parker(notes) among its clients – not to mention LeBron James(notes), Dwyane Wade(notes) and Chris Bosh(notes).

James, Wade and Bosh, of course, are the names on the tongues of every NBA executive these days. All three will be free agents this summer, the headliners of what promises to be the deepest and most heralded free-agent class in league history. That all three are represented by the same agency only adds to the drama and intrigue. It stands to reason that CAA – an agency which wasn’t doing much sports business as recently as five years ago – will now have some influence on how the NBA’s power structure shifts for the future.

“When you have those type of players,” New Jersey Nets president Rod Thorn said, “that’s power in itself.”

Thorn’s Nets are among the teams hoping to lure at least one of the three stars this summer. The New York Knicks and Miami Heat – Wade’s current team – also figure to be among the top bidders. In addition, the Los Angeles Clippers, Chicago Bulls, Oklahoma City Thunder, Minnesota Timberwolves and perhaps even the Dallas Mavericks will have (or potentially have) significant salary-cap room to spend on a free-agent pool that could also include Amar’e Stoudemire(notes), Dirk Nowitzki(notes), Joe Johnson(notes), Carlos Boozer(notes), Rudy Gay(notes), Shaquille O’Neal(notes) and David Lee(notes).

James, Wade and Bosh obviously figure to be the biggest movers and shakers, provided any of the three move at all. The trio’s current teams still hold strong hopes of re-signing them. For all of LeBron’s flirtations with New York, the Cleveland Cavaliers have given him a roster that now owns the NBA’s best record. The Heat have been a disappointment, but they also will have enough money to pair Wade with another top-level player should he decide to stay. And though Bosh has been pegged as the one most likely to leave, the Toronto Raptors’ recent success has at least quieted speculation they will look to deal their franchise star before the Feb. 18 trade deadline.

“I want to be in Miami,” Wade said. “I’ve said it from day one. I’m sure my team will do everything in their power to make sure we’re a winning team. But at the end of the day, we have to do it. People have to want to come and be in Miami.”

Translation: The Heat better get Wade some help if they want him to stay. Could that help become Bosh? Or, in a significantly less likely scenario, even James? That the three are friends and now represented by the same agency has contributed to speculation that two of them may try to play together. All three also have relationships with Nike, whose influence shouldn’t be discounted. And should any of the three players be willing to take less than the maximum salary, their options will only increase.

“Anything is possible,” said Thomas, who came to CAA as the agent for Wade and Bosh. “Let’s put it that way.”

“Anything is possible because it’s the correct answer,” said Rose, who is James’ agent.

There is precedent for one agent or agency representing more than one of a particular class’ top free agents. Lon Babby of the prestigious Williams & Connolly law firm in Washington, D.C., represented Tim Duncan(notes) and Grant Hill(notes) when both were free agents in the summer of 2000. The Orlando Magic had the money to sign both and tried to do so by having Babby bring them to Florida together.

Duncan and Hill visited Disney World, took a city tour and went to the owner’s home together, but meetings with Magic coaches and executives were done separately. Babby said he was careful to respect the different goals and priorities of each player. While Duncan was seeking only a three-year deal and considering Orlando and San Antonio, Hill wanted a long-term contract and debated signing with about a half-dozen teams.

Hill made up his mind first, deciding to leave the Detroit Pistons and sign with the Magic. Duncan, at times over the three days, seemed to be leaning toward joining Hill. But after returning to San Antonio and meeting with coach Gregg Popovich and teammate David Robinson, he ultimately opted to re-sign with the Spurs. The Magic responded by signing Tracy McGrady(notes) – that year’s third-biggest free agent – to play with Hill.

“Obviously, it worked out the best for me to stay where I was,” said Duncan, who has since won three more championships with the Spurs. “[Being a free agent with Hill] definitely comes into play, but I don’t think it’s a deciding factor for anyone.”

Babby said he was careful to make sure both players made individual decisions, even if it appeared, at times, like they were packaged together.

“It lived up to the hype in a sense that they drove the market,” Babby said. “There were decisions that both of them made that garnered a lot of exposure and attention. I felt like I was just hanging onto a tiger and riding it out.

“The pros were getting the best information and dictating the market. You weren’t waiting for people to do things. You knew exactly what was going to happen, and when you did things you had the best information at the time. That was helpful.”

As a result of that summer, the NBA placed limits on what teams can do to woo free agents during the July recruiting process. In the years since, big-name players have seemed less interested in making visits to prospective teams, though Thomas would not rule out James, Wade or Bosh taking trips, perhaps even together.

“Needless to say, conversations will be had coming up to it,” Thomas said.

This much is clear: As with Duncan and Hill a decade earlier, whatever decisions James, Wade and Bosh make – and likely in that order – will impact the remainder of the free agents.

“If one company has influence on so many good players at one time, that makes it really difficult for negotiations for everybody in the league,” one Western Conference executive said.

Rival agents have expressed concern that teams will hold their money while waiting for this summer’s Big Three to make up their minds, delaying signings for less-heralded free agents.

Babby also represents Boston Celtics guard Ray Allen(notes), who will be a free agent this summer. He admits that unless Allen reaches a quick agreement to re-sign with the Celtics, he’ll likely have to wait until James, Wade and Bosh decide their futures before fielding outside offers. The Memphis Grizzlies’ Gay will be one of the top players in the second tier of free agents, and his agent, Jeff Austin, is optimistic the Big Three won’t cause a long delay.

“The top guys will be done quick,” Austin said. “There is too much money at stake, too much money that will be held. If you hold a player for too long, it could be a big risk.”

What CAA can provide its clients this summer is a synergy that perhaps other agencies can’t. Rose works with James, and Thomas helps guide Wade and Bosh, but they also will exchange information with each other about prospective suitors, as well as their own clients’ wishes.

“Being together, we can share that information and discuss all the various scenarios that are available,” Rose said. “It’s just going to be a benefit to all of our players. Ultimately, it’s going to be their decision. There won’t be any information that is left out or won’t be a part of the process.”

Said Thomas: “The most important thing to any negotiation process is having good information. Because we are together, our information will be as good as anyone out there representing free agents.”

Rival agents naturally see another side to the story: By spending so much time with James, Wade and Bosh, CAA will have a harder time handling the needs of its other free agents. “It just brings us back to the information flow,” Thomas said. “The access to information we have not only with ‘The Big Three,’ but all of our clients that we have in play this summer.”

There’s no denying that CAA has become a growing power within the NBA. The agency’s long reach in the entertainment world appeals to many of its clients, especially the bigger stars who hope to expand their portfolios outside basketball. “Not too shabby to be in the family,” Wade said.

CAA has a team of agents who offer clients opportunities in licensing, video games, music, motion pictures and television. Wade, Bosh and New Jersey’s Devin Harris(notes) visited CAA’s Los Angeles offices prior to this season to meet the different agents. Through CAA, Wade renewed a deal with T-Mobile and signed one with Flip Video. Bosh has a deal with the Ford Motor Company of Canada, Rogers Communication and Panini Trading Cards.

“They have many things they can do and have a lot of outreaches in different areas in marketing, movies, acting, sports, all these different things,” Bosh said. “I have a wide array of things that I want to do. I’m not a one-perspective basketball player.

“I’m not just thinking about classic general marketing for a normal basketball player. I want to think outside the box and maybe do something in a unique way.”

With the Denver Nuggets’ Anthony also relying on CAA to boost his marketing opportunities, the agency has a hand in the careers of four of the top five picks of the 2003 draft – all of whom currently rank among the NBA’s biggest stars.

“You see how once you get older how things don’t matter as much as when you first came in the league with myself, Carmelo, LeBron,” Wade said. “We all separated everything.

“Now, you see more things coming together, guys being a part of a certain team. In our day, we can all get what we want and it might be more powerful to be together sometimes with certain things.”

James still does the majority of his deals through his own company, LRMR Innovative Marketing and Branding, which he co-founded with childhood friend, Maverick Carter. Carter oversees James’ relationships with Nike, Upper Deck and Coca-Cola and negotiated deals with McDonald's, Cub Cadet, State Farm and Microsoft. As a result, most league observers say it’s Carter who continues to have the greatest influence on James – not CAA.

“In the end, [James, Wade and Bosh] are going to go where they want to go,” one Eastern Conference executive said. “They’re all getting the max. There is nothing CAA needs to do other than set it up wherever they want to go.”

And where will they go? For now, James, Wade and Bosh are content to focus on their respective seasons. The Big Three share the same agency, but they also value each other’s independence.

“All of us realize the responsibility of who we are,” James said. “And the responsibility to make the right decisions to do what’s in our favor.”