Sunday, April 08, 2007

Top athletes follow celebs in picking A-list agents

Some of the biggest names in sports have gone A-list with their representation.

Erasing an already-blurred line, football's Peyton Manning, baseball's Derek Jeter, basketball's LeBron James and hockey's Sidney Crosby are now the Hollywood agency brethren of Tom Cruise, Tom Hanks, Brad Pitt and Nicole Kidman.

In little more than one rim-rattling year, Creative Artists Agency (CAA) — a longtime superpower of actors, directors, writers, musicians and entertainment/corporate deal-making — has built CAA Sports from concept to colossus.

Among its 380-plus clients are the last five NFL MVPs, the 2006 National League baseball MVP, the No. 1 selection in the last two NHL drafts and former NBA MVP Allen Iverson. At least four of USA TODAY Sports Weekly's top 13 prospects in this month's NFL draft are with CAA, including two of the top five.

CAA helped arrange the deal that will bring international soccer megastar David Beckham to Major League Soccer's Los Angeles Galaxy this summer. It also represents multi-time world champion boxer Oscar De La Hoya and action sports icon Tony Hawk.

"They are multitasking," James says of CAA. "They're not just in the sports world, they are into movies and a lot of other ventures, so at the end of the day it's going to be great. CAA is going to definitely impact my marketing, impact my business and impact a lot of things we do."

The lines between Hollywood and sports celebrity have been fading for years. Back in the early days of the movie business, you had swimming champs Buster Crabbe (Flash Gordon) and Johnny Weissmuller (Tarzan), not to mention former University of Southern California football player Marion Morrison, better known as John Wayne. More recently came former football stars O.J. Simpson, Jim Brown, Fred Dryer and, of course, The Rock, who was known as Dwayne Johnson when he played at the University of Miami.

But these days, the crossover is ramping up. Pro athletes hang out with movie stars and date them; Jeter has been spotted with the likes of Jessica Alba, Jessica Biel and Scarlett Johansson. And more and more they seem to be seeking to transition from the playing field to show business. For example, ex-NBA player Rick Fox has appeared in numerous TV shows and movies, including HBO's Oz and FX's Dirt.

It's no surprise, then, that starry-eyed athletes would want to align themselves with a Hollywood talent agency rather than a traditional sports agency. Traditional sports agents can provide many of the same services — contract negotiation, marketing, financial management. And they probably would charge similar percentages of the money generated by the deals they make. But few, if any, can say they can line up an endorsement deal or a guest spot on a popular TV show just by walking across the hall.

CAA Sports' Hollywood cachet has helped it rocket up in terms of high-profile stars — and high-profile agents, who have joined CAA and brought existing clients. (So far CAA has concentrated on men's team sports, so it has no women among its athlete clientele.) James moved to CAA in February when his agent, Leon Rose, whose clients also include Iverson and fellow NBA star Richard Hamilton, switched over from a law firm.

But Philadelphia Phillies first baseman Ryan Howard, last season's National League MVP, joined on his own. After firing agent Larry Reynolds, Howard hired Casey Close, who had joined CAA.

Hockey agents Pat Brisson — who represents Sidney Crosby, the NHL's leading scorer this season as a forward for the Pittsburgh Penguins — and partner J.P. Barry looked at many options after their relationship with another sports representation and marketing giant, IMG, ended. They chose CAA, Brisson says, because "CAA has so much experience. This company understands the entertainment world more than anyone else."

"You want to put your athlete with the best brands possible, and if a company is already with Manning, Jeter, Beckham, it helps Sidney's status to be connected to these guys," Brisson says. "Especially in the world of hockey, we are still trying to branch out into a much bigger role."

Many ways to bring in bucks

But CAA Sports is not just about turning star athletes into movie stars. In fact, that's far down on the agency's agenda. Instead, CAA Sports prides itself on offering its clients a full spectrum of services. News releases announcing a signing have noted that CAA Sports clients "will enjoy the extensive resources of the entire agency, from film, television, music, licensing and endorsements to marketing, speakers, broadcasting, philanthropy and video games."

Hamilton, a guard for the Detroit Pistons, agrees. "They've got so many opportunities."

Jeter, the New York Yankees shortstop, adds: "If there is something you want to do, you are able to do it because they know so many people. They're always working. They're always doing things."

Jeter has had major endorsements before CAA, including deals with Gatorade, Nike and Ford, and he says he is continuing with those. "There's more coming," he adds, "but I can't speak on it now."

Brisson says deals "in the oven" would include Crosby and other CAA clients in other sports, but he declined to be specific.

Washington Nationals third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, a 22-year-old in just his second full season as a pro, doesn't look at his relationship with CAA as solely a business proposition. "Anything we want entertainment-wise, we can get — whether it's movies, Broadway shows, concerts," he says.

While CAA Sports officially hung out its shingle last year, it wasn't until this year's Super Bowl that it had something of a public coming-out, in the form of a gala party that attracted such Hollywood luminaries as Cruise and Katie Holmes, Billy Bob Thornton and Alec Baldwin.

About the same time, the agency announced it had recruited three celebrated sports deal-makers to lead its sports group: Howard Nuchow, ex-president of Mandalay Sports Entertainment, a company co-owned by Hollywood moguls Peter Guber and Paul Schaeffer, which operates a group of minor league baseball teams; Fox Sports Network executive vice president David Rone; and Michael Levine, ex-president of Van Wagner Sports Group, a sports media sales firm.

"We look forward to working together across all of CAA to create new opportunities for clients in the worlds of sports and entertainment," Rone said this week via spokesman Michael Mand.

CAA Sports might not be all about Hollywood, but the Hollywood connection certainly helps. The agency helped negotiate the $250 million deal that will bring Beckham to the Galaxy for five years; a sizable portion of that money is expected to come from commercial arrangements to be made by CAA Sports and 19 Entertainment, a London-based company that represents Beckham globally and is run by American Idol creator Simon Fuller.

Beckham said during a news conference in January that he had spoken with Cruise by phone "and asked him for his advice" about moving to Los Angeles when Beckham's deal with Spanish team Real Madrid expires June 30.

Third-rounders need not apply

How do other dedicated sports agents compete? Short answer: They don't.

"They are huge," says John Caplin, director of marketing and player relations with the National Sports Agency, which represents such NFL players as Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive end Kevin Carter and New England Patriots cornerback Ellis Hobbs.

"We're always in the top 25 or so, and we do have some of the higher-paid guys, but we don't get many first-round draft picks," Caplin says. "CAA, on the other hand, they don't want anything outside the first or second round. And they're elite enough that they can be as selective as the players, which is a luxury not many of us get. But there's really no hard feelings."

Brice Miller of Complete Sports Management is a bit more critical. The vast resources of CAA Sports, along with its Hollywood cachet, make it impossible for smaller agents such as himself to compete, he says, particularly among star players with dreams of taking their careers beyond the playing field.

"CAA is just bringing a lot of resources and other media/entertainment assets to their clients," he says. "In terms of fundamental necessities that a player needs from an agent, they are not doing anything else a good agent can't do."

However, Miller adds, "You can be the greatest agent in the world, but if you can't get clients because of the type of competition CAA brings, you will never be able to really prove your worth. … This becomes hard to do when companies like CAA can swoop in and steal a lot of clients because of their resources and Hollywood flair."

Creative Artists Agency has gotten many of its big-name sports clients by hiring the athletes' agents, who then continue to work for CAA Sports while representing the same players. Thus, the agency is something of a confederation.

Casey Close, a top baseball agent who used to head the baseball division at veteran sports agency International Management Group (IMG). When he joined CAA Sports in April 2006, he brought along more than 70 major and minor league players, including New York Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter, Chicago Cubs first baseman Derrek Lee and Seattle Mariners first baseman Richie Sexson. Shortly after he joined CAA Sports, he snagged Philadelphia Phillies first baseman Ryan Howard, 2006 National League MVP.

Tom Condon, who used to head IMG's football division. When he and longtime partner Ken Kramer were hired by CAA Sports, also in April 2006, they brought such star players as Peyton Manning and his brother Eli, New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees, New York Jets quarterback Chad Pennington, Indianapolis Colts wide receiver Marvin Harrison and Kansas City Chiefs tight end Tony Gonzalez.

Ben Dogra and Jim Steiner, former co-managers of the SFX Football Division. The pair came aboard last July and brought such top NFL players as Seattle Seahawks running back Shaun Alexander, the 2005 league MVP; Tampa Bay Buccaneers running back Cadillac Williams, Saints running back Deuce McAllister, and Philadelphia Eagles safety Brian Dawkins. In a statement at the time, Dogra called working under the CAA umbrella "an opportunity like no other. The access, relationships and expertise at the agency offer limitless resources we can now bring to bear for our players."

Top-flight hockey agents Pat Brisson and J.P. Barry joined a month later, in August 2006, creating CAA Hockey. Formerly co-managing directors of IMG Hockey, they brought Sidney Crosby, the National Hockey League's leading scorer this season, and others, including San Jose Sharks center Joe Thornton, the NHL's leading scorer and MVP last season and New York Rangers forward Jaromir Jagr, one of the league's all-time scoring leaders.

Leon Rose, the attorney and agent for NBA greats Allen Iverson and LeBron James, among others. Rose came aboard in February to head CAA Sports' basketball representation division. He also brought Detroit Pistons guard Richard Hamilton and Toronto Raptors forward Andrea Bargnani, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2006 NBA draft.