Making millions for NBA Stars: the high-powered world of super agents David Falk, Curtis Polk and Mike Higgins.
From the Print Edition:
James Woods, May/Jun 97
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No one doubts that, even though FAME is a partnership, it could easily be called "Team Falk." Basketball Digest has ranked Falk as the second-most powerful person in the NBA, subordinate only to league commissioner David Stern. Since 1991, The Sporting News has placed Falk in the top 32 on its list of the "100 Most Powerful People in Sports." And in 1995, Advertising Age named Falk one of the top 50 marketers in the United States. Falk enjoys the honors, but nevertheless believes that focusing on him sells FAME short.
"A player will gravitate to one person. It's not always to me. A lot of the younger players sort of gravitate to Mike. Like Bobby Hurley or Calbert Cheaney," Falk says, protesting that he gets too much of the credit. Then he lapses into coach language: "We present different looks. I think each of us could be successful in our own right, but to use the most overworked term of the decade, I think we have a synergy."
Synergy was very good for FAME last year. During a one-week period last summer, the company negotiated 13 salary contracts--for eight free agents and five rookies--that totaled $410 million. The players' union sets 4 percent as the maximum that agents can charge a player for negotiating a contract. At that rate, FAME's cut of the 13 contracts could be as much as $16.4 million (the partnership doesn't always charge the maximum fee).
Polk came up with the strategy and all the deals were handled from FAME's "war room." "We just set it up in our conference room and had a big chart, computers; we had all the numbers and we put up all the teams," Higgins recalls with delight. "We had six phones put in and everything. We had so many deals to negotiate. It's a discussion: 'All right, this is what's been put on the table. Are you talking to Houston?'" Each agent looked out for the interests of all the firm's clients, whether or not he had worked directly with a particular client, Higgins says. "I have a relationship with [president and general manager] Stu Jackson of the Vancouver Grizzlies who I talk to on a daily basis and who might have some [salary] cap room, and they might be interested in a Chris Gatling [now of the New Jersey Nets], and yet I don't work with Chris on a day-to-day basis. But I was talking to them about offering Chris a deal this summer, although we did a deal with Dallas."
Falk, Polk and Higgins were constantly on the phone while in simultaneous communication with each other--kind of a "three-headed monster," Higgins says.
The agents of FAME had to move fast. They did a deal for Michael Jordan first: 45 minutes, $30 million, one year. Nothin' but net. They made a pact for Bullets forward Juwan Howard to go to Miami for $101 million, then secured $105 million for Mourning with the same team. But the league later voided Howard's contract, ruling that Miami had violated the salary cap regulations. The decision left Howard without a contract and in serious jeopardy of taking a 50 percent pay cut because most of the teams by that time had considerably less room under the salary cap to match the $101 million agreement. Polk had to scramble to get a $105 million deal by which Howard would remain with the Bullets for seven years. Left out was Chapman, who had played for Miami the year before.
"We had a certain position because of the power of an Alonzo Mourning and Miami's desire to sign Juwan Howard to really leverage Miami and to force them to do Rex's deal first," Falk says. "Out of respect for Pat Riley--I said it before the thing started and I'll say it again, I have great respect for Pat Riley; there's no doubt he's one of the great coaches in the game and maybe one of the great coaches ever and he's very competitive and I respect that because so am I--I didn't want to leverage Pat Riley or [Heat owner] Mickey Arison. I think when we took the pressure off and [Riley] had a different vision of how he wanted to construct the team, I'm not sure that we brought maximum leverage to bear on behalf of Rex Chapman, so I thought I'd let him down."
Miami made offers that Chapman and Falk considered too low and Chapman ultimately landed in Phoenix with a one-year contract, still a FAME client, but not nearly as rich as he and his agent had hoped. What happened to Chapman is not Falk's first disappointment and it surely won't be his last, though usually they don't involve clients already in the FAME family.
"I would say that my greatest disappointment probably was not being selected by Grant Hill to represent him. I'm a huge fan of Grant Hill and his family," Falk says of the third-year Detroit Pistons guard. Hill's father is former Dallas Cowboys running back Calvin Hill and his mother, Janet, is a high-powered Washington consultant. Hill has done quite well in the endorsement market, and his basketball talents are often compared with Jordan's at the same point in his career.
Falk says that it was his experience with Jordan--making mistakes and learning from them--that made him want to bring his knowledge to bear for Hill. "All of a sudden you have a young player who's very special and you don't have a chance to take all [your own] special, unique knowledge-- and it is unique-- and put it to work for him. It was a disappointment. I'm not angry about it."
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