The Hollywood Merger That Could Reshape Football’s Transfer Market

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LONDON — Everything about the deal seemed to indicate greatness. The most obvious were the numbers: the merger created a company with a combined value of an estimated $5 billion. There was also the language. A “landmark”, according to Variety. “Seismic,” according to The Los Angeles Business Journal.

In this case, however, time is the best way to measure the scale. It was last September when news trickled out of Los Angeles that two of the world’s largest talent agencies, Creative Artists Agency and ICM Partners, had decided to join forces, but it wasn’t until June that the union was given the green light.

The nine-month delay can be attributed to antitrust investigators sifting through the deal and trying to determine whether the unified agency would be wielding too much power. The Justice Department and the Federal Trade Commission have reportedly been eyeing the future merger.

The main concern was the potential impact on Hollywood if two of its most influential agencies became one market-dominant giant, and what that could mean for the industry. The Screen Actors Guild, for example, expressed concern that its members could be “disadvantaged” by the deal.

At no point did anyone feel the need to mention football. However, it is there where the impact of the deal is felt most strongly.

Both CAA and ICM have grown into football in the past three years. In 2019, CAA acquired Base Soccer, one of Britain’s largest sports agencies, with over 300 professional clients. A year later, ICM struck a deal to buy the even larger Stellar Group, in what was considered the most expensive acquisition in the company’s history.

Base and Stellar have been powerhouses for years — Stellar, the largest agency in the sport, represents more than 800 clients — but they were also rivals, and not always cordial. But once the Justice Department agreed to CAA’s acquisition of ICM, they became teammates.

That, of course, has implications for the companies, the agents that staff them, and the players they call customers — including stars like Gareth Bale, Jack Grealish, and Eduardo Camavinga. But the size of the combined venture could also have a profound effect on the delicate balance of power in the fraught, lucrative player trade that serves as the financial engine for the world’s most popular sport.

Poetic License

There is one element of Erkut Sogut’s debut novel that, he admits, belongs entirely in the realm of fantasy. Football is not, he insists, in fact controlled by a cabal of super-agents who resort to anything – sabotage, match fixing, kidnapping, murder – to keep the game and its riches in their vice.

Everything else, he claims, is real. In fact, the plot of his book TBEN, a thriller set against the backdrop of football’s transfer market, is drawn from first-hand experience. Sogut has spent 15 years as an agent and is best known for his long-standing partnership with Mesut Ozil, the former Arsenal, Real Madrid and Germany playmaker. It is a world, he said, that does not require much poetic freedom.

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The portrait of the industry he paints is not flattering. His characters are generally peddlers and vultures, charlatans and sharks, engaged in a sport full of corruption and mixed with favoritism. However, it is intrinsically familiar: football has grown accustomed to the depiction of cops as puppeteers in sharp suits and designer sunglasses, exerting ultimate influence on the fate of players and teams.

But that image, which permeates Sogut’s novel, doesn’t quite capture the reality of the industry as it stands today. People like Jorge Mendes – consigliere of Cristiano Ronaldo and José Mourinho – can be cast as rainmakers with enough clout to bend the entire market, but they seem increasingly the exception rather than the rule. The world of agents is in turmoil, football’s latest battleground between new money and old hands.

Although FIFA’s controversial 2015 decision to deregulate the industry opened the doors for any family member or friend who wanted to sign up to represent a player – a move that turned a chaotic and irrevocably dark world into a ” “complete free-for-all”, as one cop put it – the main entrants in recent years were not cowboy operators looking to make a quick buck, but established companies looking for new fortunes.

That market now includes not only CAA — which first got into football by handling the commercial deals of Mendes’ stable of stars — and ICM, but also California-based sports agency Wasserman. The latter established a beachhead in English football in 2006, but has grown rapidly over the past two years by acquiring another UK agency, Key Sports, and Spanish company Top Value, as well as opening a German office.

The profession is not a mystery. According to FIFA, agents and intermediaries made more than $500 million in commissions last year alone. In 117 deals, those paydays rose to more than $1 million. Even that seems like a small change from, say, the deal Erling Haaland sent to Manchester City this summer: his representatives would have made somewhere in the region of $40 million simply for delivering his signature.

Those kinds of numbers are hard to resist. “Football is the #1 sport in the world,” said Jonathan Barnett, co-founder of Stellar. “If you want to be a big sports agency, you have to be involved.”

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The benefits of scale

Many people have offered to buy Andy Evans’ company over the years. There have been investigations from other football agencies and from companies that have never worked in football before. Talks have been held with several companies in Britain and at least one from the United States. None of the approaches felt quite right, according to Evans.

Sometimes the finances don’t add up. Sometimes Evans hasn’t sold on exactly what a new owner had in mind for World in Motion, the agency he founded a quarter of a century ago. But most of the time he was not at all inclined to sell. “I’ve been using it for a long time,” Evans said. “I’m not particularly inclined to not run it.”

The list of clients he has compiled is impressive – with Aaron Ramsdale, the Arsenal goalkeeper and England defender Conor Coady – but Evans has never had any desire to operate on the sort of scale of Base and Stellar. That was a conscious choice: He has long believed that being a David was an advantage.

However, he is aware that the arrival of the companies, and in particular the merger between CAA and ICM, could change that equation.

When he pitches a potential client, Evans notices that the first question is always the same. “It’s always, ‘Who else are you representing?'” he said. “Players especially want to know that. They know that if you don’t know anyone, you won’t get anything done. People just didn’t answer the phone.”

That gives the monolith that emerged from the union of CAA and ICM – and, as a result, between Base and Stellar – an almost unassailable advantage. Neither company expects to lose any football agents as a result of the merger; the intent is to grow the customer list instead of shrinking it. The answer to the question “Who else do you represent?” might as well be “everyone”.

“It was a huge benefit in terms of commercial, marketing and organization,” Barnett said earlier this year, before the merger was approved by the Justice Department, but he was adamant that even being part of ICM would have been “fantastic” for both its staff and its customers. The impact of joining forces with CAA can only be greater.

heavy lifting

Michael Yormark, with his cut glass jaw and cropped hair, doesn’t seem like the kind to be easily intimidated. A veteran agent, he has spent the past six years spearheading the expansion of Jay-Z’s Roc Nation label into international sports, painstakingly building a customer base that started accidentally with Jérôme Boateng and has since grown into the Belgian star. Romelu Lukaku and Chelsea defender Reece James.

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One might have expected then that Yormark would greet the prospect of a colossal new rival on his turf with something between reluctance and fear. Instead, in an interview at Roc’s London headquarters, he seemed genuinely enthusiastic. “That deal is great for us,” he said.

His logic is clear. Roc Nation’s pitch to potential clients is based on what Yormark described as a “360-degree service,” a service that is as much or more focused on fulfilling their aspirations off the field than negotiating new contracts or arranging money-changing transfers. The label keeps its customer list small.

“The hard work is in helping them build a brand, a platform, whatever they want to do,” Yormark said. That’s impossible, says his company, with a customer list that runs into the hundreds. “It would be hard to do what we’re doing with 150 customers,” said Alan Redmond, Roc Nation’s head of football. “It would be impossible if we had 400.”

Within CAA, those concerns are lightly brushed aside. Executives believe the company’s scale belies its flexibility. The oft-cited example is NBA player Zion Williamson of the New Orleans Pelicans.

Williamson, when selecting his representation, made it clear that he wanted a “boutique” feel, exactly the kind of treatment that has made Roc Nation his trademark. To win his autograph, CAA turned. Williamson and his family, a CAA director said, have two points of contact at the agency, no more. The fact that those representatives are only a small part of a gigantic company is hidden from view.

However, there are others who are concerned that the kind of representation players can gain is far from the main consequence of the merger.

While the advent of corporations—with shareholders and workplace cultures and public imagery to worry about—may signal an advancing professionalization of what has traditionally been the kind of lawless industry Sogut’s novel describes, it also exposes players to the possibility that their future will be determined by a greater need to bolster a parent company’s bottom line.

“Having an agent under pressure to move you early because it’s best for the agency can jeopardize a career,” as one veteran agent put it.

Of course, that has always been a risk for players. They have always been vulnerable to the fact that their careers have been shaped by the interests of their agents that outweighed their own. It is this tension that makes the world of agency such a rich, compelling setting for a thriller, for example. There have always been sharks in the water. The only thing that has changed is the size of the fish.

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