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November 27, 2013

An Agent's Take

The Art of Making Endorsement Deals

by Joshua Kusnick

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Joshua Kusnick is an MLBPA-certified agent who periodically writes about his experiences representing professional players. You can subscribe to his podcast on iTunes, and he can be reached via email at JoshuaKusnick@aol.com and on Twitter @JoshuaKusnick.

Thank you to everyone who read and responded to my first column, which was about my day-to-day responsibilities during the offseason. Today I’ll delve into the marketing side of representing players, and share a story about MLBPA executive director Michael Weiner, who passed away last week, and who was a hero, a friend, and an absolutely amazing human being.

In addition to handling winter ball and free agency, I work year-round to acquire endorsements for all my major league and minor league clients. For pitchers, this means shoes, gloves, cleats, autograph signings, and baseball cards. For position players, it means shoes, gloves, batting gloves, cleats, turfs, bats, dry fits, autograph signings, baseball cards, and in the case of catchers, catching gear. It is a very competitive marketplace with a vast array of companies all competing for the same player pool.

Some players are financially compensated in exchanging for endorsing certain products. Others get free gear, and some even get both. Endorsement opportunities pop up for almost all players at all levels, and it’s up to the agent to filter through them all and use their knowledge not only to make the endorsement offers materialize but to finalize them as well. Failure to do so can get you fired in some cases, but the majority of players are aware of their circumstances and are quite cognizant of their endorsement value, which depends on their level, their parent club’s market, and in the case of major leaguers, how skillful they are.

How prepared a player is for dealing with endorsements, money matters, fan interaction, and even arbitration and free agency varies from agent to agent. I choose to make my players active participants in each process as often as possible. Each decision can potentially affect the rest of the player’s career, so it is very important for him to be proactive and involved.

The aspect of my career that requires the most marketing know-how is the baseball card contract. I’ve been a card/autograph collector all my life, and I credit many of my negotiating skills to the baseball card shows I attended as a child up until the baseball card bubble burst in the late 90s. The MLBPA controls the trading card license with respect to players’ likenesses, which means that a card company cannot use player images on its cards unless it strikes a deal with the MLBPA first. The team logos are managed by the MLB offices, and are a totally separate deal. Topps has held the exclusive contract for logos and images for several years, but now companies such as Leaf and Panini are making cards without the approval of MLB and releasing images of players with their uniforms airbrushed and their team names replaced by cities.

A few years ago, the famous baseball card brand Upper Deck had to hand the MLBPA and MLB a settlement for failure to pay for signatures it acquired from union members, in addition to using team logos without permission. The company was subsequently stripped of its licenses. The Upper Deck situation was sad for anyone who had been involved with baseball cards growing up, because of how iconic the brand was. And from the union’s perspective, the loss of competition between companies cost players a lot of off-the-field dollars.

The reason I’m still thrilled when I finalize a trading card contract is the moment when the player hears about the deal. It is, without question, one of the most incredible experiences of a young player’s life. It validates their career choice, and in almost every case fulfills a childhood dream. Baseball cards make players immortal, even if they don’t make the majors or last there very long. Imagine being selected in the June draft, signing your first professional contract and, before the year is over, seeing your baseball card alongside those of every superstar in Major League Baseball.

By December of this year, three of my clients drafted this past summer—Brandon Diaz of the Brewers, Carlos Asuaje of the Red Sox, and Alex Murphy of the Orioles—will have trading cards from Panini and Bowman. I was with Asuaje and Diaz and their families on draft day, I was with them on the days when they signed their first professional contracts, and I hope to be there for their first days in the majors as well. The last few months have been a whirlwind experience for all three players, but even though the season is over, they still have some exciting experiences ahead of them, like seeing their own baseball card coming out of a pack. Diaz and Asuaje were fortunate to get paid to autograph 900 cards randomly inserted into the packs. This is the first time they’ve been paid for their signatures, and it’s an accomplishment that reminds them that they’ve at least partially made it. The financial value to the agent is negligible in most trading card contracts, but the look on a player’s face the first time he sees his rookie card is always priceless.

However, the baseball card can be bittersweet for a lot of up-and-coming players. Does anyone remember the other two guys on Cal Ripken Jr.’s rookie card (Jeff Schneider and Bobby Bonner), or who was opposite Johnny Bench on his 1968 Topps card (Ron Tompkins)? For some players who don’t make it to the big leagues, baseball cards can become reminders of their failure to achieve an ultimate dream. Not all retired players look at them that way, but they are painful objects for some.

I have lost countless friendships with retired clients because it’s just too painful for them to recall the chapter in their life, now closed, when they had a reason to have an agent. It’s sad when it happens, but it’s an occupational hazard. I never get used to a kid calling it a career. I always try to find the bright side, but eventually all careers end. Players get hurt, get old, or just aren’t good enough, and eventually it even happens to the few who are lucky enough to play in the Show, whether for a day or for two decades. In some cases, when the uniform comes off for the last time, all that remains of a player’s career in the minds of the fans is his baseball card.

As a personal aside, I want to share a story about Michael Weiner, a colleague whose grace, genius, and inspiration motivated me to be the very best that I could be in all facets of my life. I have suffered from a lifelong illness, and two years ago I spoke to Michael for about 20 minutes before the agent meetings in New York about what we both had faced and what we both were facing in the future. I was astounded by Michael’s ability to live in the moment, not just on that occasion but in every interaction I ever had with him.

I had some major problems early in my career that were out of my control, and I’ll never forget what Michael did for me: he sent an email to a rival agent of mine, threatening to decertify him if he did anything nefarious that resulted in me getting fired. If anything that wasn’t on the up and up had occurred, the rival agent would have been done. At that point, I was a nobody with one client. Michael helped save my career in a way nobody else could have, and for that I will always be grateful. The man was a savant, an inspiration, and a devoted husband and father, and anyone who ever crossed paths with him was forever changed. I’ll miss him greatly.

Joshua Kusnick is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Joshua's other articles. You can contact Joshua by clicking here

Related Content:  Michael Weiner,  Baseball Cards,  Agents,  Endorsements

19 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

BP Comment Quick Links

robustyoungsoul

Really look forward to these. I've got a big baseball card collection from my childhood that I still enjoy pulling out and paging through once in a while like I'm sure many other readers here at BP do. Appreciate your unique perspective on how this is symbolic of a player's advancement in their career, but also potentially painful if it doesn't work out. There's a lot to ponder looking at those cards - often I spend a lot of time looking at the numbers on the back, but knowing what it may have meant to these players, I'll spend more time looking at the player on the front in the future.

Nov 27, 2013 06:48 AM
rating: 2
 
Joshua Kusnick

Thank you for taking the time to comment. I'm a lifelong collector but given my job I haven't asked for an autograph of a current player in 12 years. I enjoy in my extremely limited free time communicating with retired players. So many kind retired players have passed away the last few years I strongly urge anyone with the ability to send them notes that they aren't forgotten to do so while they can because it means a lot to them to hear from fans. Thanks again j

Nov 27, 2013 07:00 AM
rating: 1
 
louispupu

Hi,

I have a question about MLB contract. In some of the contracts, I see an "agreement for Major League contract", for example:

Minor League contract for $18,000/mo. Agreement for Major League contract for $91,500. $525,000 in Majors.

Do you know what this agreement for Major League contract mean and when does the player get paid with the 91,500 as stated in the contract above? Thank you very much.

Louis

Nov 27, 2013 07:33 AM
rating: 0
 
melotticus

Sounds like a split contract, which Joshua went over in his first piece. While Player X is in AAA he will receive the $18K/month, then when he gets the call to the parent club he receives the $91.5K/month deal.

Nov 27, 2013 16:56 PM
rating: 0
 
Joshua Kusnick

Are you an aspiring agent? I'm curious why the casual fan would ask such a specific question like this. Of course I know the answer but I'm not able to share those kind of specifics with the general public. Thank you for your question and I am sorry I cannot comment on it.

Nov 27, 2013 08:28 AM
rating: 0
 
louispupu

Hi, Josh
I understand that. I saw this provision in lots of contract but I was never sure what that means so I am very curious about it. Still, thank you for your reply. I appreciate it.

Louis

Nov 30, 2013 02:42 AM
rating: 0
 
Joshua Kusnick

Its called a split contract. The first number is the minor league salary the second is the players mlb salary. Good question

Dec 02, 2013 10:06 AM
rating: 0
 
louispupu

Thank you Josh.

I know about the split contract, but not the third number, the "Agreement for Major League contract. Just can't figure out what timing/event will trigger this payment or is it like a signing bonus. I've always been into these kind of contract stuff for but this has puzzled me for a long time.

Minor League contract for $18,000/mo. Agreement for Major League contract for $91,500. $525,000 in Majors.

In the case above, the player make $18,000 a month in the minor and $525,000 for the year in the majors, but I have no idea what that $91,500 is.

Anyway, I appreciate your time and reply. Thank you again.

Louis

Dec 03, 2013 10:14 AM
rating: 0
 
Joshua Kusnick

Player is paid over 5 months 18x 5 is 90k I'd imagine its a 1500 bonus for something without seeing the paper work. Or the math is off.

Dec 03, 2013 17:04 PM
rating: 0
 
louispupu

I see. I'll check with other contract data available. Thank you very much. That really clear things up. I'm looking forward to your next articles.

Louis

Dec 04, 2013 07:09 AM
rating: 0
 
melotticus

Excellent piece Joshua. I enjoy getting these behind-the-scenes looks at the business side. I agree with robustyoungsoul that its a unique perspective to look at both sides of the baseball card; the high's, accolades and awards then the low's of a .220 season average or getting cut. Thank you for bringing us such a different viewpoint.

It seems like just about everyone in sports has a similar story of how Michael Weiner did something for them that dramatically changed their careers in baseball, and he never asked for anything in return. I'm disappointed I never had the opportunity to meet such a gracious soul that wanted to selflessly help anyone he met.


One of your fellow agents, Matt Sosnick of the Sosnick Cobbe agency, partnered with Jerry Crasnick to put out a book about being an agent that was a fantastic read. I would recommend it to anyone who wants to know more about baseball agents (http://books.google.com/books/about/License_to_Deal.html?id=T4iFCgSyDX4C).

Nov 27, 2013 17:06 PM
rating: 0
 
Joshua Kusnick

I know matt well. Thank you for reading my story. Any idea on what I should write next?

Nov 28, 2013 17:55 PM
rating: 0
 
bowdrie42

Another great article; thank you for taking the time to write these. I really enjoy the insider's perspective, particularly the human aspect. Too many people forget that players are people, and I think it leads to some of the uglier "fan" incidents we see in sports sometimes. Also, great story about Michael Wiener. Very sorry to lose someone like that so young.

May I offer a suggestion for a future article? Brad Ziegler had some strong words for both owners and Jhonny Peralta recently. Realizing you may only be able to speak in general terms, what is your take on PEDs and how the players who have used them should be treated in contract negotiations? More important, what are the steps an agent can take to aid a client in avoiding this type of pitfall?

Finally, in response to the question above, I'd guess the $91.5k is for being added to the 40-man roster while the $525k is for making the 25-man roster.

Nov 27, 2013 23:32 PM
rating: 0
 
Joshua Kusnick

With regard to ped I have my own opinions like all...maybe ill do next article on the hof....I've represented ped users so I see both sides. There's a fall from grace but the redemption arc too. I think players should have a chance to redeem themselves at some point. I think the cleaner the game is the better and a zero tolerance rule would solve the issue but I highly doubt the mlbpa ever lets that happen. But could fans really live w the real fallout of a zero tolerance rule? I mean obviously guys are still trying to use and get away with it as we saw this year but in my book if a guy pays for his crime according to the jda what is the problem with him getting a new deal? I mean were in america a guy has a right to mess up and redeem himself. I guess im not so fast to crush the steriod era. I blame the owners the teams and the writers every bit as much as the players. I also think all confirmed users should be in the hof but with a big asterisk or notation on the plaque mentioning that they used. Pete rose and joe jackson should be in too no doubt. But to make things abundantly clear I am totally anti ped 100% and all users should face the jda penalties.

Nov 28, 2013 18:09 PM
rating: 1
 
BillJohnson

This is a fascinating response, and addresses a number of the key questions about PED use, while raising others. (One it raises: could the MLBPA objection to a zero-tolerance rule be overcome with a one-to-three-year "amnesty" program to allow current users to get clean without repercussions?) However, I'm both puzzled and, to be honest, disturbed by your contention that Pete Rose and Joe Jackson should be in the Hall of Fame "no doubt." Are you really equating PED use with gambling on baseball? This seems appalling to me.

Dec 01, 2013 07:38 AM
rating: -1
 
Joshua Kusnick

I'm sorry that part came out unclear. It was merely am aside. Steroids and gambling are two seperate issues with seperate repercussions. Rose and jackson are both hof worthy players and I see no issue w them being part of the hof so long as rose is not reinstated to work in the game... .as for peds......if only I had the answer id be very rich.

Dec 02, 2013 10:10 AM
rating: 0
 
Joshua Kusnick

Ive been working with an si writer that is doing a story on me. Not sure when its due out but it will free me up to discuss a lot more things on here.

Nov 28, 2013 20:31 PM
rating: 0
 
mblthd

Thanks for another great article, Josh.

Am I correct in assuming that, while players are W-2 employees of their teams for purposes of compensation for playing baseball, they are independent contractors for purposes of compensation for baseball cards, gloves, cleats, etc.? If so, is it common practice for a player to form a corporation or LLC to enter into such transactions, rather than report that income (and deduct the expense necessary to generate it) on a 1040 Schedule C? If so, are you involved in that process, or is your role limited to negotiating the actual terms rather than forming a business entity?


Dec 02, 2013 10:40 AM
rating: 0
 
Joshua Kusnick

Llc are not common. Players are definitely on their own and have final say on their own endorsements

Dec 02, 2013 11:34 AM
rating: 0
 
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