Where are India’s Jerry Maguires?
What is wrong with the player representation business in this part of the world?
It was early 1997 when Jerry Maguire releasedinIndia.AsIwasthenworking for TWI, the television arm of IMG, the biggest player management agency in the world, it was a must see. And while the main villain in the picture looked disquietingly like a lawyer who worked out of our office, Tom Cruise’s depiction of an idealistic player agent was an inspiration to all of us who wanted to work with sport in India.
It’s 20 years since Jerry Maguire came and went, and professional player management is still in the wilderness in India. And with the number of sports leagues emerging, it is a serious worry in an industry that is just beginning to take baby steps towards becoming an organized sector. So what is wrong with the player representation business in this part of the world? It probably starts with the players.
The top athletes are suspicious of anyone in a suit and wonder why they should part with a 15-20% commission on deals which are anyway on offer. In effect, the Cola major was anyway dying to sign them up, what real value does an agent offer?
It’s easier to find a trusted friend or relative who also acts as the agent and will be happier with a much lower commission. It sounds logical, except that thefriendisusuallynotbestequippedto negotiate a meaningful long term deal withamultinational,andtheunclemay also be taking a cash cut which might just be a tax headache in the future. I remember dealing with one such agent during the IPL who would peddle an upcoming India star for photo opportunities with complete strangers in return for cash and once even a slightly used laptop!
In many cases the player agent also acts as the major domo for the player and his family. And while a personal touch is probably really important in any representation business, picking up the player’s mother’s laundry is not what an agent should be doing. These agents rarely have the skills to build a player’s profile over time and help craft an enduring brand. The legendary golfer Arnold Palmer, IMG founder Mark McCormack’s first client was getting sponsorships decades after retiring from the professional circuit. Surely, the likes of Dhoni , Leander or Anand deserve a similar longevity in our country.
The other problem is that a national team captain’s agent tends to attract a whole lot of junior players. And sometimes it is the other way around, new players feel awkward about not signing with the captain’s firm even if they have been given no such indication by the captain. So a change in captaincy, especially in the cricket circuit, results in a significant exodus of clients from the company managing the former captain.
The international players in the business also stuttered at the start. In the heydays of player representa- tion in the mid and late nineties, local Indian firms were offering significant minimum guarantees to the top players. Given that it was a norm in India, it was very difficult for the likes of the International Management Group (IMG) to insist that they did not ever pay up front financial guarantees to any player. And as player representatives for IMG doubled up as sponsorship sales heads for major events, they obviously focused on just the large value deals.
It’s obviously not all doom and gloom, there are a few firms doing excellent work, including one obviously inspired by a Jerry Maguire dialogue. But the numbers are miniscule. Today, there are more than five hundred professional athletes across all sport, and a vibrant and growing market, especially in regional markets.
A client may not see huge scope for Wriddhiman Saha in national television advertisements, but he would definitely add value in Bengal. Add to that the immense opportunities for present and ex-players for speaking engagements, celebrity coaching and local live events and you have a long tail that can really offer significant value. We need more Jerry Maguires now.