A sports agent negotiates contracts on behalf of professional athletes. Agents often perform other personal services for their clients, such as offering financial or legal advice or even serving as an informal counsellor, but their number one job is contracts. To negotiate a contract for a player in any of the major team sports, an agent must be certified by that sport's players union. Certification is just the beginning, however. To make it in this highly competitive--even cutthroat--industry takes clients and capital.
Certification requirements vary among the major sports. The National Football League Players Association has the most intricate set of rules for certifying what it calls "contract advisers." Would-be NFL player agents must have an undergraduate degree and either a Master's or law degree, and must attend a two-day seminar, pass a certification exam that covers details of the league's collective bargaining agreement and obtain liability insurance. The National Basketball Players Association's rules are not as detailed, but the union still requires an undergraduate degree and makes potential agents submit an extensive application questionnaire. The players associations in Major League Baseball and the National Hockey League don't publish their specific regulations, though they will say they require a background check, as do the football and basketball unions.
Prospective agents should check with individual players unions for specific instructions on applying for certification.
Every state sets its own rules for regulating sports agents. Many, such as Florida and Alabama, require a license. If you're hoping to work as a sports agent, check with your secretary of state's office for guidance.
There just are not enough professional athletes to go around for all the people who want to be agents. In basketball, you can be a certified agent without having any clients, but a football agent must negotiate at least one player contract every three years, or lose certification. Baseball's players union sets a high bar, stipulating that a new agent cannot be certified unless he has at least one player on a 40-man roster wanting him as his representative. This creates a tricky Catch-22: It's extremely hard to attract clients without certification, but you can't get certified without a client.
The saying "It takes money to make money" certainly applies in sports agency. Just to apply for certification can cost money. For example, as of 2010, the football union was charging a £1,072 application fee; in basketball, it was £65. The union may also charge annual fees to maintain certification. The fee for a football agent with fewer than nine clients was £780 as of 2010; for 10 or more clients, £1,105. In basketball, it was £975.
But beyond those fees, an agent must be well-capitalised to serve his clients. Though agents make their money by getting a percentage of each contract they negotiate--2 per cent to 5 per cent is common--they typically sign athletes just out of the amateur ranks. It will be months, maybe even years, before these athletes sign a contract. Until they do, they will rely on the agent for money for living expenses, travel and training costs. Some athletes will never get a contract; others will never get one large enough to justify the agent's expenditures; and those few who will sign a big contract could be stolen away by another agent at any time.