November 27, 2013
An Agent's Take
The Art of Making Endorsement Deals
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.