How does a sports agency talk up one of its clients without inherently talking down another?
That's what NFL gurus who followed every move in the April 26 draft are wondering. Their point: consolidation of sports agencies, resulting in more top picks being represented by fewer industry rep houses, tempts them to play one client against another in negotiations.
"There's a conflict of interest at the top of the draft," says Scott Wright, a long-time draft follower who runs the website www.drafthistory.com.
Wright's ire is focused on CAA Sports, which represents three players drafted early in the first round. Michigan offensive lineman Jake Long, Ohio State defensive end Vernon Gholston and Boston College quarterback Matt Ryan are all CAA clients.
CAA Sports is the sports agency unit of Creative Artists Association, the entertainment industry talent rep firm that brought high-powered sports agent Tom Condon and his crew into its fold in 2006.
But an analysis of the numbers by Forbes.com found no pattern of rising disparity among first-round salaries and bonuses has emerged yet. Historically, the annual income growth for blue chippers has benefited everyone – high, middle or lower first-round picks – pretty equally.
Last year's top five picks – LSU quarterback JaMarcus Russell, Georgia Tech receiver Calvin Johnson, Wisconsin tackle Joe Thomas, Clemson defensive end Gaines Adams and Penn State tackle Levi Brown – took just under a third of last year's rookie money, while the top 10 picks accounted for half. Those breakdowns are in line with those in 2000, when the top five picks took home 32 percent of the money and the top 10 picks took 51 percent.
That doesn't mean things aren't changing. The consistency has most likely been a result of a diverse group of sports agencies each fighting for their clients. That model could fade if agency consolidation continues. According to the NFL Players Association, 23 separate agencies represented the first-round class in 2000. By 2007, that number was reduced by just one. This year, though, the number shrunk to just 18 agencies representing the 32 players who had been projected to go in the first round by Scouts, Inc. CAA Football has five players, while Roanoke, Ind.,-based Maximum Sports Management has four.
Experts believe the rebuilding Dolphins, coming a 1-15 season and needing help on both sides of the ball, were considering both Long and Gholston as their top choice (they went with Long). "You (needed) an agent for Gholston who will disrupt discussions between the Dolphins and Long," says Mike Florio, who runs the website www.profootballtalk.com and also provides draft expertise for The Sporting News. In other words, any efforts to sell the Dolphins on Long couldn't help but be at the expense of Gholston. CAA did not return phone calls.
Most agents have begun recusing themselves from representing more than one player at the same position, Florio points out, to avoid those very types of conflicts. But with many teams having multiple needs, draft competition isn't limited to quarterback vs. quarterback or lineman vs. lineman.
Like any agency, CAA wants to have a pitch ready for top college recruits every year. And being able to say you represented three top-10 picks in the 2008 draft is a pretty good one, points out players' association spokesman Doug Finniff, regardless as to whether or not the practice is in the best interest of its current clients.
No NFL first-round pick is in danger of starving, of course. The average rookie take for last year's crop was over $5.5 million. The $157 million in first-year compensation brought home by last year's 32 first-round picks dwarfed the $44 million collected by the 31 players in the first-round class of 2000.
CAA already delivered Long to the Miami Dolphins as the first pick in a five-year, $57.75 million deal, less than the $61 million last year's top pick, Russell, got from the Oakland Raiders. Condon, who handled Long's negotiation for CAA Sports, was able to save face a bit on getting his client less money than last year's first pick by pointing to the fact that it's a shorter deal (five years vs. six) that pays more money per year and yields to free agency a year sooner. But that assumes Long doesn't get seriously hurt before his contract is up, the NFL equivalent of playing with fire.
Does the deal portend a trend? Players, and critics, have been watching closely to see.
The top five: