Cline-Thomas Group Acquiring Stake in Power Agency Athletes First

A consortium led by venture capitalist Rudy Cline-Thomas is nearing a deal to purchase a significant stake in full-service athlete management firm Athletes First, according to multiple people familiar with the matter. The agency, which represents NFL stars including Aaron Rodgers and Dak Prescott, has been looking for a strategic investment partner for more than a year, according to multiple sources.

The Cline-Thomas group is expected to acquire the one-third stake (33%) owned by Dentsu Sports International (DSI), a subsidiary of Japan’s Dentsu Inc. The Japanese advertising giant purchased its stake for $16.5 million in a 2015 transaction that valued the agency at $50 million. Since then, Athletes First has added to its representation roster, going from 180 to more than 200 clients, including coaches and broadcasters.

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Cline-Thomas, the founder of venture capital firm Mastry Inc., has been a longtime advocate of building Black generational wealth through equity ownership and investment plays. Known for his work with his business partner and Golden State Warriors guard Andre Iguodala, the former sports agent turned financial advisor has developed a reputation for being a leading voice in the athlete investor community, where he has connected various athletes, mostly in NBA, with Silicon Valley startups. Among those Cline-Thomas has assisted is San Francisco 49ers Pro Bowl linebacker Fred Warner, who is repped by Athletes First.

Cline-Thomas didn’t respond to request for comment while Athletes First declined to comment.

Athletes First is home to some of the most powerful agents in the NFL, including CEO Brian Murphy, Todd France and David Mulugheta. The investment from Dentsu provided Athletes First adequate funding to get France in 2020 and Trace Armstrong, a top agent for NFL and college coaches, in 2016.

The firm, based in Laguna Hills, Calif., launched in 2001 and has negotiated more than $2 billion in active NFL agreements, according to Pickswise and marketing agency ICS-digital. Besides Rodgers and Prescott, highly paid quarterback Deshaun Watson is also an Athletes First client. Watson’s $230 million guaranteed deal with the Cleveland Browns continues to impact quarterback negotiations around the league.

The agency has negotiated deals for eight Super Bowl MVPs and 102 Pro Bowlers, according to its website, and it’s slated to have one of its best rookie draft classes in its history, which is highlighted by Ohio State star quarterback C.J. Stroud. Meanwhile, New York Giants quarterback Daniel Jones recently switched agencies from CAA to Athletes First as he looks to ink a new deal this offseason.

DSI has used sports marketing and ad strategy to penetrate the U.S. with help from its marketing agencies like MKTG. Dentsu’s initial Athletes First investment was hailed as a strategic partnership that would diversify business and potentially provide greater marketing avenues for Athletes First clients while giving Dentsu a stronger footprint in the U.S.

The equity partner exit from Athletes First may have broader implications that expand to sister company and sports marketing agency, Athletes First Partners. The separate entity, which launched in 2018, has been working alongside minority partner Dentsu Inc. and Dentsu International, a London-based marketing and communication company that provides media strategy, consulting, among other services.

Dentsu’s vast network has helped Athletes First Partners bolster its portfolio of clients, which includes the NBA Players Association, Paralympics Properties (Team USA) and sports merchandise retailer Fanatics Inc. The agency, which is handling the sale of the Edmonton Oilers jersey patch, was recently retained by Six Flags Entertainment Corp. to represent all 27 of its North American parks in a joint sponsorship and marketing program.

Dentsu, which cut thousands of jobs amid pandemic restructuring in 2020, is cashing out as authorities investigate the company and others for rigging bids for contracts for the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympic Games, held in 2021. Company officials admitted to wrongdoing in relation to the Tokyo Olympics when questioned by prosecutors last month, according to the Japan Times.

The Cline-Thomas group’s acquisition of Athletes First comes as several sports agencies consolidate their business. Priority Sports & Entertainment acquired Element Sports Group, while Wasserman Media Group’s baseball division bought Jet Sports last year. Earlier this month, HYBE America bought Quality Control (which includes Quality Control Sports) for $320 million.

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