The Agency Choice: Big Or Small?

Do you prefer the personal service of your local mom-and-pop hardware store, or do you lean toward the advantages offered by a big box corporate establishment?  It's the type of choice we're faced with as consumers every day.  Similarly, baseball players with Major League aspirations must choose their representation, and a major factor is whether they prefer a big or small agency.

Reds right fielder Jay Bruce, who left the Boras Corporation for Sosnick Cobbe Sports when he was still in high school, told me in February, "If you take the baseball part out of it and think about small companies vs. big corporations, there's more personal service at a small company."  Rays righty Jake Odorizzi seems to agree, saying, "I think it's more personable, really, talking to the same guy about everything.  You don't feel like a dollar amount when you're in a smaller firm.  [At a big agency] I'm sure some of them get lost in translation a little bit."

Surely one gets better service at the local hardware store than at a chain, but is that really true of baseball agencies?  Baseball's most powerful and well-known agent, Scott Boras, certainly doesn't think so.  In a February conversation, he explained that having a 75-employee staff frees up more time for him to focus on what's important.  "In my job, I have the ability to focus on certain parts of representing the player: talking with them, dealing with them at the Major League level, talking about their approach, taking care of their needs.  All the administration, all the management of the company, all the things that have to do with the operation of the company are done by other staff members.  Frankly by being a company of size, the top executives can focus on players while they can also afford to hire people to do a lot of the work that is needed to operate a company.  When you have a small company and you have the jack of all trades doing all the things, buying the copy machines, renting the offices, paying the bills, doing all these administrative things, they lose focus that they have on the players."

B.B. Abbott of Jet Sports Management is one of three full-time employees at his agency, which represented Chipper Jones and currently has Brian McCann, Jonathan Broxton, Chris Sale, and top prospects like Zack Wheeler, Byron Buxton, and Mike Zunino.  Despite running a small agency, Abbott doesn't feel bogged down by administrative tasks.  "We have systems in place for the more administrative portions of our business and client representation.  I would argue that these systems and how they are structured allow for a more substantial and meaningful representation of our clients.  I would also tell you that I am completely informed and included in every decision for each of our clients, because I want to be.  That does not distract me from the more critical parts of the representation process because we feel as if we maintain a manageable number of clients."

Abbott highlighted the importance of his relationships with his clients.  He told me in an email, "The type of relationship I am talking about can ONLY come from spending time with a client and his family.  You cannot make that up with more resources, contracts and clients."  

The extra resources offered by large agencies matter to some players, however.  Mets first baseman Ike Davis, an Octagon client, told me in March, "There's just more people reaching out trying to improve your brand, getting more opportunities and more business ventures.  There's more connections and more hands that are working on stuff."  Boras, who boasted of a $6 million computer system, a 20-man arbitration staff, a scouting system, a sports fitness institute, and psychologists on staff, said, "I think it's very difficult for a boutique agency to offer all the necessary resources an athlete needs.  When you're talking about an agency that has less than ten employees, it would be very difficult for them to manage their Major Leaguers, manage their minor leaguers, and manage the people in the draft, mainly because if all the needs of all the players were to be taken care of – medical, psychological, growth, endorsement, contract, at all different levels."

Furthermore, Boras sees a conflict of interest in a small agency relying on a handful of players for its revenue.  "When you have a small number of players you run into something that's very difficult.  The teams know that one or two particular players are the revenue base, are the ability of existence of that company for the future, and thereby they can't afford to turn down contract proposals.  They can't afford to turn down $60 or 70 million so that the player in six months can make $200 million." 

The client's goals come first, countered Abbott, since the client ultimately calls the shots.  "The bottom line with any agency, big or small, should always be that decisions should be driven by what the client is trying to achieve.  Clients and their desires should always be at the forefront of that process, and those decisions are arrived at after considering all the information about a contract proposal and his/his family's future.  I know we pride ourselves on giving complete information to each player and family so that they can make the best decision for themselves.  That should be true of any agency, regardless of their size."

Both Abbott and Boras say they have intentionally limited the size of their agency. Abbott feels he offers the best of both worlds: "Complete full service and one stop shopping in an environment that thrives upon one on one contact, building relationships and providing extensive information to our clients and their families."  Boras feels his agency could also be bigger, but he would rather be picky.  "We represent players that have very high skill levels.  We have our own scouting system and we're very selective."  The numbers back that up, as the Boras Corporation ranks second in 2012 wins above replacement per Major League player.

The big versus small agency choice will always come down to personal preference.  Big firms will tell prospective clients about their resources and experience, and small groups will highlight personal service.  There seems to be plenty of room for both — by my count, 100 different agencies had at least one big leaguer contribute positive value in 2012.

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