This article offers some practical tips (drawn from the author’s experience) on how to select a football agent. Specifically, it looks at:
- The challenges facing young players
- What an agent can do to help a young player
- How a player can pick the right agent for himself
- Points to consider before making the final decision
This article is aimed not only at players, but also their parents or guardians who may well play a crucial role in identifying, choosing and working with an agent. In England, a player is permitted under The FA’s regulations to sign a representation contract with an agent from the 1st day in January of the year of his 16th birthday.1 However, a representation contract with an under-18 year old player must also be countersigned by the player’s parent or guardian.2 In practice, it will often be the parent or guardian of a young player who liaises most closely with the agent and it’s therefore important that the agent holds the trust of both the player and his family.
THE CHALLENGES FACING YOUNG PLAYERS
It has been reported that out of all boys who enter clubs’ football academies at the age of 9, fewer than 0.5% (or roughly one in every 200) will end up making it into the same club’s first eleven.3 Research by the Professional Footballers Association found that of the boys who, at 16 years old, manage to progress into the elite scholarship programme at professional football clubs, 5 out of 6 will not be playing professional football by 21.4
The statistics are worrying and, for aspiring young footballers, daunting. 5 Whether or not a player defies the odds and makes it as a professional footballer will depend on a huge number of factors. Some are within the player’s control – their attitude, determination, tenacity, physical fitness, mental strength, willingness to learn, and so on. Other factors are not – clubs’ requirements, a coach’s tactical preferences and style of play, natural ability, avoiding injury and even simple luck.
One thing that is very much within a young player’s control, and which can potentially have a significant influence on their success in such a competitive industry, is his choice of agent.6 Choosing the right agent certainly doesn’t guarantee a player a career as a professional footballer; equally, selecting the wrong agent doesn’t mean that a player won’t make it. However, a bad choice of agent can lead to missed opportunities, poor career choices, a failure to fulfil potential and, in a worst-case scenario, a life outside the sport. This was highlighted in 2016 when Emmanuel Eboué was given a one-year ban from playing football over his refusal to pay his former agent, which resulted in his club, Sunderland AFC, terminating his playing contract.7 He did not play professional football again.
A few years ago, FIFA changed the way in which agents are regulated. Before April 2015, becoming an agent involved passing a difficult exam and holding professional indemnity insurance. Neither of those requirements apply anymore and removing those quality controls has led to thousands more agents in the game.8 As a result, it’s more important than ever that a player chooses the right agent for him, but governing bodies offer little in the way of guidance with regard to that choice.
It may of course be the case that a player doesn’t wish to work with an agent. There are several high-profile examples of players who rely on family members or other professionals to support their careers. Whether or not this is appropriate for a player will depend on his circumstances, the people around him and his requirements. In general, this is likely to be a more viable option once a player has established himself as a professional. At an early stage in a player’s career, a good agent can (as we will see below) provide a young player with considerable value, expertise and support.
WHAT CAN AN AGENT DO FOR A PLAYER?
Before turning to the questions to consider when selecting an agent, it’s important to understand what an agent can do for a player. There are numerous functions that an agent can (and should where appropriate) fulfil – here are 10 of them:
- An agent can act as a mentor, assisting the player with his mental, physical, technical and tactical development. The player’s club should help the player in those areas as well – some do so better than others – but an agent can supplement this club-led development. They should attend at least some of the player’s matches and provide an honest and independent assessment of a player’s performance and progress, talking regularly with the player regarding how he can improve every aspect of his game.
- An agent should ensure a player’s relationship with and reputation at his club is as strong and positive as possible. A player’s agent should have a good relationship with key decision-makers at the club and should champion the player and his development in discussions with the club.
- If it seems a player won’t be retained by a club, it intends to sell his registration or his contract expires, or if the player himself doesn’t want to stay, the agent should work with the player and/or club to identify options and find the next opportunity for the player – one that is right for the player and gives him the best opportunity to showcase his ability, continue his development and progress to the next level.
- An agent should be experienced in handling contract negotiations – often assumed to be the main responsibility of an agent. It goes without saying that an agent SHOULD be able to achieve the best contractual position possible for his client.
- An agent can assist a player in structuring his image rights arrangements. An image rights structure, by which a player’s image rights are assigned or licensed to an image rights company – which may then, separately from the player, enter into contracts with a player’s club and third-party commercial entities in relation to the exploitation of the player’s image rights – is certainly not appropriate for every young footballer. However, it will be a justifiable, legitimate business arrangement in certain circumstances. An agent can procure the necessary legal and tax advice to assess whether an image rights structure is appropriate and, if so, implement it for the player.
- An agent should source commercial opportunities for the player and then manage those commercial opportunities to ensure the relationship with the commercial partner runs smoothly. Whilst the player is young, that may be limited to a boot deal, but other opportunities may be available for emerging talent, often seen by brands as being best-placed to engage with a young audience. For example, a number of young footballers have recently been engaged to promote the launch of video games.9 Structuring commercial arrangements correctly is important (more on this below).
- An agent should help the player by sorting out day-to-day tasks that may arise. Whether that means sourcing boots for a player who doesn’t have a boot deal, helping a player to relocate, making travel arrangements or providing the player with a concierge-type service, an agent should be there to call upon at any time.
- Social media is increasingly important in raising a player’s profile. Not only can this have an impact on the commercial opportunities open to him during his career, but it also enables better engagement with fans, the player’s ability to champion social causes that are important to him and, crucially, can provide a source of income and open doors after retirement. An agent can offer different kinds of assistance when it comes to social media, from informally advising a player from time to time to appointing a digital agency to run a player’s social media accounts. An agent can help to ensure that a player’s social media profiles and posts conform with his commercial obligations, do not upset his club or commercial partners and don’t contain anything defamatory about third parties.
- An agent can play a key role in crisis management – if something negative happens, whether on or (more likely) off the pitch, the agent will typically be the first person a player calls. His agent, in conjunction with the player’s professional advisers, can work to solve problems and minimise any damage caused to a player. In such circumstances, it’s crucial to ensure that the player receives advice from the right professional advisers, and this will often be left to the agent to procure.
- Last, but certainly not least, an agent can play a crucial role in assembling a team of professional advisers around a player for the duration of his career, including a specialist lawyer, accountant, financial adviser, etc. Assembling the right team of individuals to best advise the player can have a profound impact not only on the player’s career, but also his life after football. It’s shocking to see how many former professional footballers, many of whom enjoyed careers at the top level, struggle financially (and even face bankruptcy) after retirement.10 Many of those former players have said publicly that they received bad advice and if they’d had the right people around them, things would have been different. An agent can play an instrumental role in putting those right people around the player.11
WHAT MAKES AN AGENT THE RIGHT OR WRONG CHOICE?
When a young player (or indeed a player at any stage of their career) is choosing which agent to sign with, there are a host of different things to consider, including:
- What does the player want from an agent and how involved do they want the agent to be in their career? Some players want close, almost day-to-day contact with their agent; others want an agent to source and negotiate playing contracts with clubs but little else.
- What is the ethos of the agent / agency? Many agents’ websites will say similar things about their approach to player representation, but it’s important to sit down with the agent and get a real feel for the way in which they provide their services.
- Who within the agency will look after the player day-to-day and when it comes to contract negotiations? The player should meet, get on with and trust all of the individuals within an agency who will be involved in representing and supporting him.
- What experience does the agent have? Sourcing opportunities and contract negotiation are skills – a person does not become adept in such matters simply by registering as an agent (or “intermediary“).
- How knowledgeable is the agent? It’s important that they have a detailed knowledge of how the player’s contract at a club compares with other players of a similar age, level and position so that they are able to set reasonable expectations and sensible targets in discussions with both the player and club(s).
- Does the agent have a good reputation in the industry? Whilst what others think about the agent may seem less important than what the player thinks, it’s important to know that the agent’s reputation isn’t going to hinder the player’s career in any way.
- How strong are the agent’s relationships with the player’s current club, clubs that the player may be interested in joining in the future and/or clubs in general? If the player’s agent is not on good terms with relevant club(s), it could in the worst-case hinder discussions with his current club or even block a player’s move to another club.
- Does the agent represent other players at the player’s current club? If so, is there a risk of a conflict of interest? Clearly, if an agent represents two young strikers at a club, there’s a risk that championing one to the coaching staff prejudices the other’s chances. This may be reason enough for a player to not feel comfortable signing with an agency.
- Do the agent’s plans / aspirations for the player match the player’s and is the agent’s pathway for the player realistic? It’s not only important that the agent and the player are on the same page when it comes to planning the player’s progress; it’s also crucial that the agent is realistic in his assessment of the player’s prospects. Many young players have been ‘sold the dream’ by agents promising the world but delivering little. A healthy and productive relationship between the player and agent will be grounded in a mutually agreed pathway for the player’s career.
- If the player may be interested in an international move, does the agent have connections or capabilities overseas? Some agents will have strong links with overseas clubs or agents, or may be part of a wider network internationally. This may not be of interest to a player, but if the possibility of playing overseas does excite him, the agent’s connections internationally may be an important consideration.
- How big is the agency and, by extension, where will the player sit with regard to other talent and opportunities? The player may need to decide whether he prefers to be a big fish in a little pond, or a little fish in a big pond. There can be advantages and disadvantages to small, medium and large-sized agencies. The individuals within the agency are, in the author’s opinion, far more important than the size of the agency.
- How capable is the agent and to what extent would the player be able to rely on him in crucial negotiations and in managing a matrix of commercial arrangements? A player should not confuse an agency’s size with its capability – there are plenty of small agencies that are commercially capable and astute, adept in negotiation and well-connected in the industry. Equally, whilst some larger agencies provide an exceptional representation service, there are others that may fail to get the best deal for their clients. It’s a difficult point for a player to assess before signing with an agent and therefore seeing their work first-hand, so it’s something to bear in mind when questioning an agency on the work they’ve done / services they’ve provided to other clients.
- Is the agent likely to find commercial opportunities for the player? Whilst some of this will depend on a player’s performances, progression and image, it will also depend on an agent’s relationship with potential commercial partners, including boot manufacturers.
- Crucially, do the player and his parent(s)/guardian get on with the agent? Whilst a player’s relationship with an agent is, fundamentally, a business relationship, it will likely be far healthier and more productive if the player and his family members like the agent.
- Is the agent able to represent the player in accordance with the FA’s regulations in the player’s country? Each country’s domestic FA will have its own rules regulating agents and if an agent can’t / doesn’t comply with those rules, that may prevent the agent from providing the full representation services the player expects / requires. For example, in England an agent (intermediary) must be registered with The FA to sign players aged 18 and over, but the agent must also have additional authorisation from The FA to work with players under the age of 18. Fewer than half of the registered agents in England have such additional authorisation.
- What will the agent charge the player for his services? FIFA’s regulations recommend a commission percentage of 3% of the player’s remuneration, but that has generally not been adopted by the industry. Most agents in England charge 5% commission, though 10% is fairly common around the world. It is open to the club signing a contract with a player to pay the agent’s fee on the player’s behalf (in England this results in a benefit in kind tax liability for the player). It is also open to an agent to represent both the player and the club(s) in a transaction, provided he/she has the full and informed consent of the parties (known as ‘dual representation’), reducing further the player’s liability to his agent. An agent should be knowledgeable in the regulatory and tax implications of doing so and should ensure the agent’s fee is paid in the most tax efficient and regulatory compliant way.
- Finally, a young player may also discuss with a potential agent whether or not commission would be charged at all at the earliest stage in the player’s career. In any case however, agents are not permitted to earn remuneration in respect of an under 18-year old player – as a representation contract with an agent is limited to two years’ duration, and a representation contract can be signed by a player from the 1st day in January of the year of his 16th birthday, it is conceivable that a player will not have to pay anything to his agent in respect of a playing contract signed during his first representation contract.
MAKING THE FINAL DECISION
Choosing an agent is a big decision; one that may not be easy to make.
In the author’s opinion, a player should not sign with an agent simply because he/she’s a family friend, the first one to approach the player or promises the world. The person a player appoints could have a significant effect on his career in football, or even whether or not he has a career. Snap decisions regarding the choice of agent often don’t end well and if an agent is exerting pressure on a player to sign with him, he’s probably not the right person to appoint.
The best thing that a player can do when selecting his agent is to take his time, work out what he really wants from an agent and consider who would be best placed to deliver that to him. If in doubt, a player should talk to other people about his proposed decision, whether that’s family members, team mates, club staff or a lawyer working in football.
The harsh reality of professional football is that very few aspiring young players actually make it. Choosing the right agent can be one of the building blocks supporting a successful career in the game.