The History of Football Agency: The Journey of Scouts, Lawyers, Intermediaries and Middlemen
The history of football agency, and sports agency in general is fascinating. Since before the start of the 20th century, individuals have taken on roles and responsibilities that are often attributed to our modern concept of what an agent does. After the first half of the 20th century, several names began to emerge as the dominant forces across the sports industry in the talent management field. The work of an agent has also progressed and evolved alongside the changing dynamic and norms of modern sport. Many new skill sets, challenges and responsibilities have become a part of an agent’s duty whilst others that may have been integral to the traditional role of an agent in the beginning are no longer a significant component of the job. The future of agency is unpredictable but there are several possible pathways which the profession might go down and different areas it might venture into.
In the next three blogs, under the umbrella of the new series, ‘The World of Football Agents’, I will be exploring these ideas. In this blog I will endeavour to examine the history of the field of football agency. From the moment men, external to a football club, became involved in scouting, to the days of Gigi Peronace in the 1950’s, right up until the deregulation in 2015 and the modern era of ‘superagents’. In doing this, I will also refer to the emergence of ‘intermediary work’ and talent representation in other sports and the impact this had upon football. I will follow this up next week with a detailed insight into how the roles, responsibilities, duties, tasks and generic job description of a football agent has changed so dramatically over the last century and the reasons behind this continually-adapting and evolving field. The trilogy of the series will culminate in suggesting the possible futures that might await football agency and what factors influence the journey the profession continues on.
In the Beginning
It could be argued that some men that operated within football from around the beginning of the 20th century up until 1950 were a form of football agent. These men conducted work on behalf of clubs in scouting players and had a role in mediation for their contracts and transfers. This was particularly prominent in England as well as some other European countries. During this time, football had not reached its professional era. Whilst players were paid, the wages were minimal and capped and they all worked other jobs on the side. Football was more of a hobby but the involvement of external third-parties in the movements and loyalties of the players was beginning to emerge.
Back in this era, players were viewed as commodities. This is an accusation that is often made in the modern era as well. It is an age-old worry that with clubs exchanging money (and large sums of it in the modern era) for the services of a human being, it is possible to lose sight of their rights, footballing autonomy and ‘humanness’. Consequently, an anti-intermediary sentiment began to rise within football as clubs and fans believed they were an unhealthy addition and encouraged the commodification of young men playing a sport they enjoyed.
The term ‘agents’ wasn’t used during this time and still seemed an alien concept. On the face of it, all that was happening was a handful of men willing to involve themselves in a football club would take on some kind of scouting or mediation capacity within the club. In a pre-professional era, there was no regulation in place to control, guide or restrict their activities. At this stage, it was a very primitive and basic occupation rather than a professional livelihood and commissions in the millions seemed an unrealistic development.
The earliest indication of the future that sports agency might present was through the work of the legendary Gigi Peronace. In 1957, his first ever deal broke the football transfer record as he moved John Charles from Leeds United to Juventus for £65,000, an enormous transfer fee at such a time. Peronace identified that he could utilise his status and power to entice players in the UK to opportunities in Italy. The biggest selling point was that the wages limits were still in place in the UK at the time whilst the salaries available in Italian football were unrestricted. This was epitomised when Charles collected £10,000 as a signing-on bonus at Juventus when the norm for signing-on fees in the UK was £100. Peronace had leaped at the opportunity and went on to represent clients such as Jimmy Greaves and Denis Law, continuing his pattern of finding them buying clubs in Italy where they could earn far more for their services as football players. Peronace had begun to pave the way to the future of the agency field in football.
The 1960’s: The True Birth of Agency
In 1961, the maximum wage legislation in UK football was abolished and the FA adopted the same regulation as the Italian system which Peronace had used to his advantage. Playing football in the UK became more attractive as the average salaries of footballers rose by 61% by 1964. For agents, this meant there was a far greater extent of bargaining and negotiation power for them to become useful to clients. Their importance and value to players increased in direct correlation with the rise in professionalism of football and the income that they could earn from the game.
Across the pond, Mark McCormack was bringing the profession of sports agency and talent representation into the eye of the general public for the first time. Beginning in 1960, having graduated from Yale University with a degree in Law and meeting golfer Arnold Palmer on the golf circuit, McCormack rose to fame by taking on the responsibility of representing some of the world’s major sports stars at the time.
As his career developed, McCormack diversified his client roster across several sports, particularly tennis and became the agent of Brazilian football legend Pelé. He founded the International Management Group (IMG) which continues to be a global powerhouse in the modern era of talent management and was part of a major merger with William Morris Endeavor (WME) as detailed in the previous blog.
One of the biggest progressions in sports agency that was made by McComack was his extension of the agency profession into client endorsements and sponsorships. He reframed an agent’s perspective of their responsibilities to their client to include prioritising boosting their marketability and popularity. He believed that in the era that sport had entered, the concept of an athlete as their own popular personal brand could “transcend borders, language, cultures and even sports itself”. It was a revolutionary approach to agency and he can be credited with laying the foundations for the role of agents in modern sports and in football.
Football underwent the process of globalisation during this period of time. The sport had become a regular on television and was being viewed across the world. As a result, the popularity of football itself and the players that played it was rising exponentially. This presented further opportunities and possibilities for football agents. The metaphorical ceiling to what agents could achieve for their clients was disappearing and the scope of their responsibilities in the job description was lengthening almost endlessly.
This idea grounded itself in the 1970’s. Football agents were tasked with continuing the promotion of internationalisation for the sport and the players that they represented. Their clients were now globally marketable and a new age of commercial deals and endorsements added an additional area of expertise and negotiation aptitude demanded of agents. Furthemore, part of the sport’s globalisation was a relaxation in transfer restrictions and overseas deals. Agents began to ignore the traditional transfer channels within individual countries and went about forging new pathways between football clubs from across their continent and beyond.
During this decade, a couple of major figures emerged in the world of football agency. Dennis Roach was one of the best known agents at the time. He began in 1973 with none other than Johann Cruyff as his first client which helped to quickly establish himself as a desirable agent for footballers globally. Before the decade was up, Roach claimed the very first £1million deal in football as he transferred Birmingham’s Trevor Francis to Nottingham Forest for the groundbreaking fee. Over his 20-year career, Roach continued to represent top talents such as Glenn Hoddle, Mark Hughes and Harry Redknapp.
Elsewhere, the now world-renowned Pini Zahavi started out on his journey in football agency in 1979. After managing clients such as Rio Ferdinand and brokering Roman Abramovich’s acquisition of Chelsea Football Club, many acclaim that Zahavi is the true godfather of modern football agency and he continues to represent players of the calibre of Polish superstar, Robert Lewandowski. He has operated through the height of the transition period for agents as a broad focus across legal advice, contractual negotiations, client branding and endorsement deals became the norm of an ever-increasingly professional and lucrative sport.
Professionalisation: The 1990’s and Millennial Boom
The agency field had to keep up with the evolution and modernising dynamic of football as the 21st century approached. Agents had become an integral part of football by the 1990’s and after a period of many players receiving inadequate salaries after naively appointing close family relatives as representatives, they had been rightly recognised for their importance and value to players. Consequently, by the beginning of the decade, the majority of players called upon the services of an agent to assist with contract negotiations with clubs and legal advice as a minimum; and for those that were more marketable and popular with the public, also to help seek lucrative and appropriate endorsement opportunities. The number of agents in the world of football had soared as many hopeful individuals cited it as an opportunity to make a desirable income in one of the top sports in the world. It was only a matter of time before the football industry recognised agents as professionals of the sport.
This momentous occasion came in 1994 as FIFA formally repositioned agents as professionals. With this, they implemented regulation, guidelines and criteria. This included a structured licensing system in order to obtain a licence that granted permission for individuals to operate as an agent. Many national associations implemented their own examinations that agents were required to pass, incorporating FIFA’s legislation. This was in recognition of the alarmingly high rate at which new agents were entering the industry. The hope was that the exam, licensing and application fees would discourage those that were entering the industry for the wrong reasons or with an insufficient and inappropriate skillset from ever applying.
In 1996, one of the first well-known agents to pass the exam and to obtain his licence was Jorge Mendes. He has been a mainstay in the world of football agents ever since and has represented or continues to manage some of Portugal’s finest footballing talent and beyond. His clients include Cristiano Ronaldo, Ruben Neves, Angel Di Maria, Joao Cancelo, Darwin Nunez and manager Jose Mourinho, to name a handful of superstars on his roster. He entered the field at a time when agency was undergoing a distinct stage of reformation but Mendes established himself as a major figure and has experienced great success since the turn of the century.
Several factors over the next few years before 2000 further added to the attraction of being a football agent and the potential lucrativeness of the profession. In 1995, the Bosman Ruling once again caused a significant alteration to the pattern of transfers in global football and the freedom that players and their agents had. With ‘free agents’ able to negotiate higher wages for a free transfer, the bargaining power of agents was enhanced even further and the possible commission remuneration for themselves rose in situ.
Paid television also emerged in the world of sport. Paying subscriptions to broadcasting companies in order to watch football and other sports was a new concept but one that immediately caused a jump in the financial value of the sports. Broadcasting and television rights payments were distributed amongst football clubs and player salaries benefited substantially. As always, with more money available to players, there was also more money available to their agents. Despite the implementation of licensing and examination, the number of agents in football continued to rise as the chance of representing a client who earned a large sum of money each year was too attractive to ignore.
Needless to say, popular culture also played its part in launching the agency profession into the public spotlight. The 1996 Tom Cruise film, Jerry Maguire, was Hollywood’s interpretation of the world of agency. Modelled upon the life and career of NFL agent Leigh Steinberg, the film depicted agency as a glamorous, exhilarating, ultimately rewarding and lavish lifestyle. It was very successful at the box office and exposed the general public to the life of an agent, or at least what Hollywood made it out to be.
The result of this decade of change was a new wave of agents entering the business. Agents were now coming from all walks of life. Lawyers, bankers, ex-footballers, scouts, marketers, journalists, directors and almost any other profession were trying their hand in the football agency field. There was a large list of transferable skills from other industries that were readily applicable to the agency profession. However, the vast scope of agent responsibilities, capabilities and services they were demanded to provide to their clients meant that very few reached the top level and worked with the best clients. Nevertheless, across the first decade of the century and the start of the 2010’s, the full force of the new wave was felt. In 2001, FIFA had 631 agents registered globally under their relatively new licensing system. By 2009 there were 5,193 across the world.
2015-2022: The Age of Deregulation
Prior to 2015, an emerging trend presented itself that coupled with the other areas of evolution in the field of football agency. There was an alarming volume of ‘player representatives’ that were operating without a licence. These individuals were often carrying out the same responsibilities and services for players that a licensed agent was. The difference lay in the way that they sought remuneration and commission through other forms away from the contracts and below the books through kickbacks or ‘benefit in kind’ payments. However, this was easy enough and meant that fans, media and football authorities observed that the growing value of agency fees being paid by clubs each year were perceived as leaking money out of the game.
This was recognised in 2009 and plans were made to change the regulation system for agents to try and encourage all agents to work above the books in accordance with FIFA’s legislation. These plans came to fruition in 2015. They materialised in the form of a complete deregulation. National associations were given the option of generating their own individual regulations for agents. Apart from France and Italy who upheld their exam processes, other footballing nations withdrew such requirements. Instead the process of becoming an agent became astoundingly straightforward. An aspiring agent simply needed to pay a relatively small fee and verify that they do not have a criminal record and they were able to obtain a licence. As expected and as I have discussed in previous blogs around the football agent regulation system, the number of agents has inevitably risen once more and the money spent by clubs on agency fees continues to rise. The number of agents operating in the UK alone peaked well over 4,000 during this time.
There has been new terminology adopted within the world of football due to the altered positioning, regulation and hierarchy of the field. Agents became known and referred to by FIFA as ‘intermediaries’ to indicate their change in role and perception as mediators and ‘middlemen’ for transactions. Some individuals at the very top of the agency industry have also become known as ‘superagents’. They boast some of the biggest names in the sport as their clients and have a significant level of power over major football clubs and control over transfers whilst collecting enormous commissions, having acted on behalf of more than one party in a single transaction. One of our previous blogs has explained how multiple representation manifested itself in transfers and how FIFA plans to prevent it.
FIFA has recently done a U-turn and as our exploration of the history of football agency reaches the present, 2022 is the year when regulation will come back into force. These regulations extend further than before in recognition of the relentlessly increasing commissions and power that agents receive in football. The regulations establish new laws regarding commission caps, licensing, a new exam and a ban of multiple representation. The details of this can be found in our previous blogs.
Beginning from the 20th century, this blog has followed the journey which football agency has taken. It is obvious that the profession has experienced drastic changes and evolution as the game of football itself has altered. It is important to provide context to the agency industry before our next episode which will assess how the exact responsibilities and job description of a football agent has adapted to modern football. We will follow this by exploring how the future of football agency might unfold.