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Fame Jam

Making millions for NBA Stars: the high-powered world of super agents David Falk, Curtis Polk and Mike Higgins.
Alejandro Benes
From the Print Edition:
James Woods, May/Jun 97

(continued from page 3)

Polk, a University of Maryland alumnus, describes a similar disappointment with U.M. forward Joe Smith: "I thought that Joe and I hit it off and could relate to each other very well. I had the advantage of being able to spend a lot of time with him because Maryland is just down the road here. I think that his college coach likes us and respects us and knows that we're good at what we do."

Polk says he feels that the agency sometimes loses players because others around them--family and friends--lead them into bad decisions based on their own agendas. "We tend to put a lot of heart into the effort to get the kids, and you feel that if they could really look at it on the merits, we should get [them as clients]."

A second-year player with the Golden State Warriors, Smith has yet to develop a large marketing portfolio. One wonders if Falk's and Polk's declarations of regret are not just telegraphed invitations to Detroit and Oakland: There's still room for you at FAME. Grant, babe! Joe, buddy! Guys, are you listening?

Sometimes simply having so many big fish as clients can dissuade new players from signing on, although Polk insists that FAME works equally hard for all its clients. FAME serves as agent to nearly 40 NBA players and another 15 in football, baseball and overseas basketball. Of these, of course, one stands out: Michael Jordan. Falk's representation of Jordan goes back more than a dozen years, even before he started his firm. He calls Jordan the most famous person in the world. Falk should know. By all accounts, much of Jordan's fame is due to the efforts of FAME.

"Most outside observers spend hours trying to analyze: 'Did Michael Jordan carry David Falk along for a nice ride for the past 12 years?' Other people wonder: 'Did Dr. Frankenstein Falk create Michael Jordan in a laboratory somewhere?' Michael and David haven't spent three minutes in 12 years worrying about it." Sitting in an overstuffed blue leather chair in his Washington office, Falk dismisses the question. "We just concluded that it's been great. For me, it's been a tremendous honor to have a chance to work with the greatest athlete in history, with someone I have great fondness for as a human being, for whom I have great respect as a man and whose loyalty to me personally I appreciate."

Working with FAME has helped make Michael Jordan a tremendously wealthy man, and there are clear indications that the partners of FAME are also doing quite well. Agents typically receive 20 percent of the revenue from endorsements and other off-the-court deals. By some estimates, Jordan has amassed close to $200 million from Nike, Gatorade, Coca-Cola, cologne and cartoons. Two of Jordan's recent non-basketball ventures were sheperded by FAME: "Michael Jordan," the fragrance made by the Beverly Hills designer Bijan, was cited as the best marketed product of 1996 by the American Marketing Association, and Jordan's first cinematic turn came last fall with Space Jam, an animated joint venture between FAME and Warner Brothers.

Understand that in no way does Falk take Jordan for granted. Any NBA player can say goodbye to his agent by giving 15 days' notice. And, according to Falk, his "business marriage" with Jordan did not start out as a particularly close one.

"I think for the first four or five years he intentionally kept me at arm's length, watching, evaluating," Falk remembers. "I think things happened probably after the fourth year where I passed muster. I think that it's a measure of his intelligence that he wouldn't press a button and sign with somebody and say, 'OK, I trust you now because I've signed with you.' He wanted me to prove myself, and I think that's exactly the way it should be. You've got to stand the test of time." Now they are friends who compete to exchange, um, compliments.

"A lot of people don't like David, but he's the best at what he does," Jordan told USA Today last year. "What he does is get underneath your skin, whoever he's negotiating with, because he figures out what your objectives are, your angles. He understands the market; he understands the players. He's a brash, arrogant, egotistical, aggressive negotiator, which is good, because when you have someone represent you, you want him to do that. Marketing-wise, he's great. He's the one who came up with the concept of 'Air Jordan.' "

It is a measure of their closeness that Falk and Curtis Polk were among the few non-family members who gathered with Jordan after his father was murdered in North Carolina. It was soon after that the superstar had his stint in baseball's minor leagues. "Baseball is something Michael has always loved," Falk explains. "It was a challenge for him to play baseball and something that his father had encouraged him to do, actually after he won his first NBA championship. I thought it was terrific that someone who had accomplished everything that could possibly be accomplished in a career could take on a great new challenge to do something he truly loved."

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