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Coming to Terms

Sports agents Mike Makaab and Craig Livingstone represent the cream of South Africa's athletes, who command jaw-dropping fees from clubs and sponsors. Our author rolls up his sleeves, takes aim for glory, and auditions for the A-list.

Original publication: Private Edition, 2011.

dartboard

Booze, fistfights, zoning out on daytime TV and tomcatting till dawn: right off the bat I could sense the hallmarks of my life were being checklisted for reform and chalked up for death. Yeah, right, dream on. Bloody agents. What unholy pact was I stumbling into? I’d assumed it would be all about immortalising me, but it was sounding suspiciously like marriage or, worse yet, what with all this odd talk of ‘financial planning’ and ‘tax’, like grownup life.

Yes, I heard, impositions there would be. Advice, encouragement. Buddy sessions with mentors, stuff about ‘finding balance’ and ‘not going overboard’. The line between private existence and public celebrity becomes wafer-thin, and I’d be judged as much on my lifestyle as my performance. No one minds a hero, but everyone craves a whipping-boy. This is ‘a short-term career’. The clock was ticking.

And then I heard something that made the clouds part and sunlight shine, if only for an instant.

In the future, I saw myself machine-drilled into a cyborg of sporting prowess. I would come to know the cheering ovals, the thunderous stadia, the madness of the vuvuzela hive: that was obvious. Just as obviously I’d be swept into a whirlwind of cover-shoots, fancy cars, trophy babes and massed fans. But, hey, it was nice to know I could still cruise on two packs a day. Smoking, thank the lord, would be cool, even compulsory. My agents-to-be said so.

Or at any rate appeared to imply that, whether I quit my intake or quadrupled it, my chances wouldn’t be affected either way.

So where, I wondered, did I stand with these guys? Although unstintingly courteous, the legendary sports managers Mike Makaab and Craig Livingstone were giving my do-or-die offer a curiously ambiguous reception. Gentleman, I had announced, I’m an undiscovered chain-smoking fortysomething darts-player. I battle to hit a bull’s-eye, often the board itself, but these are early days. I have vision, indeed double vision; there is greatness in me; and I thirst for darting glory. Show me the way forward.

‘I’m heading for the hills!’ Craig cackled, no doubt an agent ruse (show interest but not too much) yet I couldn’t help feeling a twinge of resentment that he might be favouring another of his clients over me – someone called Fourie du Preez, whom he mentioned was ‘one of the best rugby players in the world’ and a cove likely to emerge after the World Cup (huh?) as the sport’s highest earner thanks to a deal which he, Craig, had recently closed.

He revealed the sum. After you sat down for a while, it was surprisingly unridiculous; that said, it was nonetheless about 100,000% more than the fee I’d get for this article.

For his part, Mike turned to the darts bid with the air of a man rolling up his sleeves to try and find some good in what the day hath brung. ‘I guess,’ he sighed after a pause, ‘continue smoking … I’ve seen some of the world’s best darts-players totally out of shape physically.’

Did it mean the beer glass of my life was half full or half empty? I was, as I say, in an emotional turmoil as I tried to fathom the prophecy or indictment his words held. But Mike carried on speaking, and his voice took on a warm, golden note. There is much that a sports manager has to manage, and a player’s expectations are right there at the top, bottom and centre of the list.

‘The most important thing is that you need to get your confidence back, your eye in again, and – you know – start throwing those bull’s-eyes.’ He chuckled. ‘Otherwise you ain’t gonna make any money.’

It was the sort of calming, tutelary gesture which he’d presumably bestowed many a  time in his life, and whether I was being shown the way to glory or the door, I was certainly, with great delicacy, being shown the way. Our encounter was unusual, perhaps, in its details and extremity, but in its outline it appeared that it was a scene repeated time and again, the pivot around which so much else turns.

Mike and Craig are leading and longstanding players in South Africa’s sports-agency game, a demanding, high-stakes pursuit waged in the combustible space where sports, mass media, commerce and rock-hard life-realities impact on one another.

In olden times players fended for themselves or relied on family lawyers and the like when there was paperwork to sign or rand-and-cent matters to discuss – before 1994, Mike said, agencies were ‘unheard of’ locally. Nowadays they are a nearly indispensable gateway through which any athlete of big-league calibre or aspiration has to pass, and their rise has been sustained by the same nation-building energies and global forces that saw South Africa move from isolation to participation in the world arena.

Formerly an Olympic-level hockey coach and for long a devotee of Mark McCormack, the American golfer and lawyer hailed as the founding father of sports marketing, Craig was himself practising in a law firm when he made his pioneering début in rugby representation. ‘The 1995 Springboks were offered professional contracts for the first time, and five or six of them came to me for legal advice. I saw the commercial opportunities, and that’s where it started.’

Not long afterwards, he went solo with a start-up agency, glad to this day of his legal background but gladder it’s just that: background. ‘Doing the deals, being out in the field of play … that was the most stimulating thing, and got me going.’

During the same era, Mike Makaab was equally close to the action and exhilarating liberations of the Rainbow moment, serving in ’94 as technical manager and chief coach of Orlando Pirates, the biggest soccer club in South Africa, and in ’95 leading it to become Club Champions of Africa; a year later he was technical advisor to the national team that won the Africa Cup of Nations.

‘The day I decided to retire from coaching, it made sense to marry the two loves in my life outside of family: football and business. I became the first FIFA-licensed agent in this country, which gave me a head-start over my competitors – and there are a lot of them. But I’d like to believe I’ve paid my dues. I’ve seen sports management grow from its infancy.’

In 2001 Craig and Mike joined forces; today, their company, Prosport International, has offices in South Africa’s main centres as well as Europe and greater Africa, and positions itself as a blue-chip management service for the blue-blood athlete. Even an ace like me can recognise some of the names on the client roll-call: the Olympic swimmer Reek Needling, the cricketer Makahanyi Ntini and the footballer Bernard Parker, as well as rugby players such as Schalk Burger, ‘Beast’ Mtwawirira and the Springbok captain, John Smit.

If sport is the sublimation of war, sports management is the continuation of sport by other means. Mike may well have hung up his coach’s whistle to stand at a remove from the field of play, that terrain where human struggle is simplified, clarified and enlarged, but its turbulence still roars in his life, as in Craig’s, and is echoed by the engagements of their daily round: frequent flying, non-stop calls and meetings never-ending, with a litany of prospects, players, staff, sponsors, journos, CEO’s, officials, coaches and more.

‘Each and every day brings completely different scenarios, challenges and levels of composure,’ Mike said. ‘All in one day you can have incredibly high emotions and incredibly low emotions. This is the closest profession you can get to a rollercoaster ride. A lot of your success depends on the sportspersons you represent, and theirs depends on many variables – their fitness, injury, or lack of injury, their form, the form of their team, the way they feel about their career at that point. It’s as if you live the emotions of each and every player you represent, on a daily basis.’

So don’t get the wrong idea, Craig said. ‘Anyone thinking it’s glamorous to represent all these celebrities isn’t living in the real world. It’s high action, high stress. You need to be pretty hard-nosed and level-headed to handle the scenarios that get played out.’

Sure, he agreed, if you’re a pro sportsperson this is a good time to be alive. Athletes earn money principally from two sources – contracts with clubs and unions on the one hand, endorsements for corporate sponsors on the other – and business is a-boom. The recession is receding, South Africa is endowed in talent, and among what Mike called ‘the Big Three’ (football, rugby, cricket), players salaries are rising, better overseas offers emerging, and the guys are scoring solid tom on and off the field.

It also looks swell to be an agent. Commissions, Craig said, are ‘generally 10% on the player contract, sometimes less, not more, and on endorsements and sponsorships, 20%.’

A happy season all around. Then again, he explained, only a fraction of players reap full benefit from sponsorships. ‘Not everyone is marketable, not everyone has the X-factor.’ Or as Mike put it, ‘Probably 90% of sponsorship spend is on 10% of sports personalities – the 10% left is for the 90% to fight for.’ Sponsors’ number-one criterion is that players be at the top of their game. The second is that they have qualities that can enhance a brand: this one’s flamboyant, that one’s a saint, the other is edgy but a safe sell for safe beer.

The craft of brand-building can go wrong, of course. A minor heart-stopper along the rollercoaster comes when the star has an unscheduled training commitment and 300 guests at a breakfast event start checking their Rolexes. A major plunge is when he goes Krakatau, thereby contradicting the pitch on which he was sold, setting himself on a lonely road as an endorsement untouchable, and damaging his agency’s credibility with his bad behaviour.

As for commission earnings and the idea that the sports boom means untold wealth for agents, Craig was again qualified in his remarks. It can certainly be worthwhile – ‘if you have the right clients … If you only have five or ten young players, then good luck if you can pay your salary in three months.’ Although regulated, the industry is ‘fiercely competitive’, and he was sceptical about how viable its many newcomers would be. Fine and well to ‘live the dream,’ he said, but it takes elbow-grease, and the business model must be sustainable.

In his case, the model appears to involve a combination of blue-chip positioning and, over time, ‘lean, mean’ streamlining, both of staff and client-base: these days Craig himself supervises 10 to 12 clients (with more than that you risk ‘dropping balls and losing clients’). Just as important is acquiring new talent, often on the basis of referrals from existing clients. And then it’s service, service.

Broadly stated, managing a player’s career entails doing everything for that person shy of stepping in to do the sport. It ranges from deal-making and tax advice to providing an admin service: booking flights, collecting boots, playing side-kick at functions. Craig has even hand-delivered flowers to a client’s wife. But financial planning is especially critical.

‘They earn incredible amounts of money at a relatively young age, and often they’re not sure what they should do with it. It’s a flashy car, a flashier house, a coffee shop – buy this, buy that. That’s not necessarily the right way to go about it … For the rugby-player it’s a ten-year career, and in the grand scheme it’s not a long time to maximise revenue.’

The key service is bagging the best possible playing contracts. These are the athlete’s ‘lifeblood’ and the agent’s adrenaline-rush. Negotiations are complex, protracted exercises in off-the-field gamesmanship, but the kick-off is always the same: either the club makes an offer and you bargain upwards, or you make it and they bargain downwards.

If their offer is ‘cheeky’, go silent. ‘Never make a hasty decision,’ Craig said. Odds are the club will fear the player is off elsewhere and sally back with a juicier proposal. Flick it away. By then rivals are stirring to life. France, let’s say, will bid almost twice the price. Now revert to the first club for the coup de grâce. Chaps – escalate your offer or lose the player.

Not everyone in the stadium applauds manoeuvrings like these, and Craig bristles at complaints about players’ earnings. From MD to receptionist, people seek better deals. Why the tizz when jocks do it too? The stereotype of the greedy agent is particularly nettlesome. ‘Come on, we’re running a business! Of course money’s a factor – but it’s not the only one.’

As important in club placements is the ‘environment’: management, coaches, team, imminent personality clashes, the likelihood of whether your prize asset is going to flourish in the new habitat or end up rotting irretrievably on the bench while his golden years sail by. These decisions affect the player’s long-term prospects, something in which client and agent have a mutual, rational interest; never mind being rascally, the agent whose first recourse is the quick, easy kill isn’t necessarily being strategic.

‘Get the wrong agent,’ said John Smit, echoing the point, ‘and he’ll be selling you to every club around the world at the highest price to earn his comm, no matter how unhappy you might be, or performing in some ridiculous advert and making you look like a fool for a few bucks.’

When his career began he was a 19-year-old unsure of ‘what to say or do’ during his contract negotiations, and was regularly solicited by ‘chancers posing as sports agents’ until being referred to Mike and Craig. ‘With things happening at a million miles an hour, these guys were valuable and guided me as a father would to look long-term rather short-term.

‘Importantly, Craig knew what I was about, and steered my commercial exposure in that direction. So no centrefold shirtless Huisgenoot pics of me just yet, no diamond through the tongue, and certainly no dancing the full Monty on DSTV! … Make no mistake, there were times when I expected more from them, but all players in their early- to mid-20s think they should be endorsed like Tiger Woods.’

Right on, brother. Expectations: we were back to my bid for darts glory, back to that interpersonal space where ambition meets finite, mortal yob reality. This is what you desire from life; these are the cards that life deals. The agent mediates between them, a back-and-forth messenger who lights out into the world as your ensign and bad-ass hitman and brings back the world’s reply: news of loss or gain, oracles of how you stand with life.

Do you trust the messenger? Are his words leading you to despair or up the primrose path? He offers his pledges, sizes you up and forms his plans. From the agent’s perspective, he has to maintain your patronage and yet deliver the news, good or ill. Will the client bolt or keep loyal to the stable? More pertinently, does this person have talent? Determination? Or will some waywardness of character sour things mid-career? He’s sitting there, awaiting an answer.

‘If you have a good relationship with your agent,’ Mike said, ‘if you trust him, if he’s been upfront with you, if he’s believable in the industry, and he presents a scenario that as far as he believes is a fair deal given where you are in your career, the sensible sportsperson will understand and support that.’ In the case of those who think they’ve been undervalued and undersold, ‘you ultimately part ways’.

It’s like this, he explained. ‘You have to be honest and transparent from day one and set realistic expectations.’ A guy comes in and announces: ‘‘My name’s Mike Makaab, I’m a footballer, I believe I’m at a certain level and should be achieving certain things, playing at a certain level, earning certain monies or garnering certain sponsorships.’’ It’s an expectation, and it can be realistic or not.

‘We all have to dream and set our aims higher than we’d be satisfied with. But there comes a time when you have to take stock of everything and be realistic. I’ll never be a world-class football player because I lack pace – I’m talking about myself now. If you can accept it and place yourself where you’ll be at your best, that’s a manageable expectation. An expectation that isn’t comes when the player believes he’s at a level twice higher than he could potentially achieve.’

The agent represents the player, but the player also represents the agent: as trophy, sometimes as embarrassment, and perhaps even as mirror-image. Mike used himself as an example, spoke of himself. Was he possibly speaking to himself too – speaking to a younger, sporting self, and by extension revisiting his own coming-to-terms in the counsel he gives to the young guns, civilising their passions, initiating them into living reality?

Life doesn’t end at the final whistle, only paradise. ‘Unfortunately our sportspersons don’t give enough attention to preparing themselves for life after sport,’ Mike said. ‘It’s not only a financial thing. People ask why boxers go back when they’ve got enough money. They miss the adulation, the adrenaline when the crowd screams their names. … Managing that transition is one of the most important aspects of our industry.’

The agent-player relationship could last a lifetime. ‘You have to work together for a common cause with both parties always doing their best. But it’s a two-way process. I often liken myself to a car-battery. If I don’t get energised, I’m not gonna start the car – I need to feed off the energy of my clients. Then I can hopefully help them kick-start things.’

 

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