May 28, 2012

The Rule Book: Rick Olarenshaw on 5 keys to success as a sports agent

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Rick Olarenshaw is a former AFL player, TV pundit and now Managing Director of the Essentially Group’s Australian operations. He launched the Australia arm of athletes1 and built it into one of the leading sports management businesses in Australia.

In 2008, athletes1 was acquired by The Essentially Group, with Rick being appointed MD of Australia and promoted to the global management team as Global Head of Cricket.

The Essentially Group client list includes Brownlow Medallist Adam Cooney, Brendan Fevola, Wallabies coach Robbie Deans, Test Cricketer Ryan Harris and Darren Lehmann, and Olympic swimmer Emily Seebohm. Essentially also has a strong Events & Corporate Hospitality arm to their business.

Rick looks at the state of the sports agency business in Australia, the importance of respect on both sides of an agreement and the key factors involved in doing the job successfully.


 1 ‘You don’t just wake up one morning as a sports agent’

I was a physiotherapist by trade and did a post grad in finance and investment. That formal education provided a strong foundation for the business side of sports management. In addition, I played AFL, and what you go through as professional athlete yourself is something you can’t read out of a text book! 

From there I did an internship with athletes1 in London which was acquired by The Essentially Group a few years back.  I spent time working with other agents and learning intricacies of sports agency work before I actually started being active in the market, and I spent time in London with them as well learning best practices.

 I felt like once I launched as an agent I was quite well credentialed. Now, with the staff I employ here at Essentially, I don’t allow them to start managing clients and negotiating contracts until I am confident that they’re ready. Marty Pask, who has become an outstanding agent, initially spent a lot of time just shadowing me. He developed his own style but I didn’t allow him to manage clients until I thought he was ready.

One thing that causes me frustration as a long-serving agent is people who come in to the industry with little experience and act for athletes. You can’t wake up tomorrow and be a doctor or a lawyer but you can wake up tomorrow and label yourself a sports agent. Going forward, and I’ve raised this with the AFLPA, there has to be a bigger barrier to entry.

To become a sports agent there should be something like a 100 point check; a degree that’s relevant, a certain amount of experience working in sport and so on, and each facet gives you points. There is no accreditation in place for many sports and cricket, where I do a lot of work, is one of those. I’ve seen guys who are very inexperienced, don’t know the systems, and don’t understand contracts or the knowledge of the markets. It makes the job harder for the more experienced agents, and also for CEOs and general managers.

If you can tell a good story you can become a sports agent like that and it’s happening all the time. Athletes are sometimes naïve, if they hear a good story it may seem greener on the other side of the fence. I’m hoping there will be a transition over the next few years where it will become a lot tougher to become a licensed sports agent.

2 ‘Market knowledge is power’

When someone starts with me it’s with client services, learning, shadowing on contracts and shadowing me through a trade week for instance. It’s this approach that makes great agents. I see so many agents, experienced business people in other fields sometimes, and I don’t think they’re doing the right thing by their client because they rush in and don’t have the market knowledge and experience.

Cricket, for instance, is a very sophisticated sport with many different markets and competitions. It’s a global sport, bigger and more difficult to work through than AFL, yet there is no accreditation process in place.

Essentially has agents working around the world in different markets. But for some guys out there it’s just a hobby and in the long run this can put a player at risk of not getting the best opportunities or rewards. To have market knowledge you need a big network in the sport to find information that’s not readily available.

A big client list helps because you know what players are on. You lean on other agents in your organisation. That’s an advantage Essentially have, especially in cricket – we’ve got that database of information which other agents don’t have, especially  the one-man-bands or guys who just operate in the Australian marketplace.

3 ‘You don’t have to be mates with the talent, but you do have to respect them … and your rivals’

You don’t need your clients to be your best mate and they don’t even need to like you, as long as they respect you and you have a good working relationship.  Every client is different. Some are happy to talk to you every 12 months when their contract comes around, whereas others need a lot of contact, sometimes weekly. It can be a challenge figuring out where they sit on that scale.

Sometimes people think the agent is there to wipe the player’s bum, but as I say to players, “you don’t ring your accountant or plumber when you get locked up in jail.”

When they get in trouble with the law it’s an issue for clubs and you find that players tend to go to their clubs first.

Six or seven years ago if a player was depressed or homesick we’d have to deal with it, but I find now they go to the resources that clubs or the players association have.

As an agent we’re there to do their contracts and advise on their sporting career. That’s the crux of our job; advise them on contracts, the rules and regulations of contracting such as free agency, the commercial aspect of their careers … not so much rescue them from jail.

I try and keep good relations with other agents, because sometimes I can find opportunities for their clients commercially, and vice versa. I’m not one to go and poach athletes. I’ve had footballers come to me and want to change management. I often send them back to their companies to try to work it out, as sometimes they haven’t even raised the issue with their current agents. if they absolutely cannot reach an agreement then they can come back.  Most often they work it out and don’t have to…

It’s a matter of respect. I’d like to think if they hear that one of my clients is disgruntled they’d have the respect to do the same thing. Attacking another agency’s client list can be seen as unethical. When it comes to draft time though, and players haven’t signed, we’ll be just as keen as other companies, but once that young player has signed with a company we’ll step away.

4 ‘There is such a thing as too many clients’

It’s a fine line. You need to have a good strong client list to have the market knowledge and keep respect with the clubs and organisations. You find if you have something clubs and organisations want they treat you better. You have to have good commodities in your stable, but you want to make sure you don’t have too many that you can’t manage effectively.

 I look at companies with 100 footballers and don’t know how they can do the right thing by every single player. We’re around 40. We have a philosophy at Essentially where we try to mirror an AFL club list. In rugby it’s different because companies tend to stay away from managing too many players in one position … that doesn’t really apply to AFL or cricket.

I try to encourage our clients to drive their relationship; and to remember that if they have a problem to pick up the phone. We’re not mind readers. There are going to be bust ups with clients, we’ve lost them over the years, sometimes small issues, sometimes just because we’re on a different wavelength and sometimes what they’re expecting from you is unrealistic.

There are always different reasons why athletes would change management companies and you have to accept that sometimes it doesn’t work out, like a marriage – one out of three is successful, and we hopefully get our statistics higher than that!

One lesson I’ve learnt is: if an issue or concern is raised by the athlete or you’ve heard something on the grapevine, pounce on it rather than skirt around it. Small issues can snowball into much bigger ones.

Athletes will genuinely say that what they want from their agent is trustworthiness. If they have that trust in you then they feel they’ll get advised well in terms of their contract and where their career is heading. That’s the number one thing. They want someone to guide them in relation to the business side of their sport.

5 ‘Agents have the right to choose their clients too’

We try to take on clients who are “good citizens” and try their best when it comes to their sport. We tend to steer clear of guys who might not be committed to their sport wholeheartedly. Athletes pick and choose their agent so I think it’s within our right to pick and choose athletes as well. We don’t have to answer the door to everyone who comes knocking.

Brendan Fevola is one who we discussed internally about whether he should be taken on board, but despite some concerns raised, we signed him and fortunately it has worked out really well. Brendan has flourished with us. We really listened to him and opened up communication and got to know him. The first point to clarify was what his objective was coming on board with us, and we were very clear about what services we were going to provide.

Everything we’ve entered into has been a joint decision, entering Dancing with the Stars – we generated that opportunity, discussed it with him and decided to go ahead together. It’s the same with his book that gets released soon, they were joint ventures and it’s turned out well. He’s in a good position in life at the moment and I’m proud of our contribution to his career.

Was there a risk with Brendan? I guess so because he did come with a bit of baggage. Other companies told us ‘don’t go near him, he’s too hard to manage,’ but we’ve found him a really good client and he listens to what we say.

We parted ways in the end with Jason Akermanis because we were on different pages; we’d offer some advice and he’d go against that. It was amicable, there was no big bust up – we had different philosophies on where he should go, whereas at the moment with Brendan and us, we’re on the same page.

Previously on The Rule Book: RWC 2011 marketing chief and Asia Cup 2015 deputy CEO Shane Harmon on how to host a major sports event.


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