Why is Hollywood interested in football agencies?

Hollywood actor Julia Roberts is represented by the same agency as Leicester City’s James Maddison, while Samuel L Jackson’s representatives – ICM Partners – has also just bought into a football agency

Oscar winner Julia Roberts and England footballer James Maddison may seem unlikely ‘team-mates’.

But the major talent-spotters in the United States are getting increasingly involved in the football agency business – bringing actors and athletes under the same umbrella.

The work of football agents remains a mystery to most, but their reason for being is obvious – in June, the Football Association revealed Premier League clubs had paid £263.3m to agents in the year from 1 February 2019.

With such huge amounts of money has come increased scrutiny and significant questions.

For instance, around the role of Jorge Mendes in Republic of Ireland defender Matt Doherty’s move from Wolves to Tottenham for £15m in August. Mendes is Doherty’s agent. And the agent of both clubs’ managers – Jose Mourinho and Nuno Espirito Santo. Wolves’ owners Fosun, meanwhile, have a 20% stake in Mendes’ world-renowned Gestifute agency.

In 2018, the Football League investigated Mendes’ relationship with Wolves and said it complied with their regulations.

Elsewhere in the industry, though, there are widespread allegations of malpractice.

Fifa, the sport’s world governing body, has vowed to step in and regulate – saying it wants to “eliminate or at least reduce the abusive and excessive practices” in football.

“We are aiming for a system of balanced and reasonable regulation, instead of the law of the jungle currently in place, with conflicts of interests rife and exorbitant ‘commissions’ being earned left and right,” it said.

Given that description, the American agencies who look after the world’s biggest movie stars – with their own corporate image to protect – might want to avoid what appears to be a wild-west environment.

The truth is, they are not.

Last year, the Creative Artists Agency bought Base Soccer, marrying the organisations which look after the careers, among others, of Hollywood star Roberts managers Carlo Ancelotti and Jose Mourinho plus Leicester forward Maddison

On 8 October, another American talent agency – ICM Partners – bought Stellar in an even bigger, multi-million dollar deal.

ICM looks after the careers of stars such as Samuel L Jackson and Ellen DeGeneres. Stellar – Jonathan Barnett’s agency – negotiated Gareth Bale’s return to Tottenham from Real Madrid.

“We are very familiar with negativity towards [football] agents,” says ICM chief executive Chris Silbermann.

“I understand the perception and I get it that people see agents making a lot of money and some in the sport complaining about it. It is a rough-and-tumble business but I am comfortable with the reputations of the people I am dealing with.”

Rather than the stereotypical view of agents merely pushing clients towards transfers from which they profit, Silbermann says the reality of what organisations such as his offer is vastly different.

“We understand the power of celebrity and what to do with it,” Silbermann says. “The natural extension is to work with athletes because they are global icons in the way they have never been in the past.

“Agencies that represent global icons at scale don’t exist anywhere else. We can open doors.”

Silbermann has never met Bale. Barnett will continue to provide the football expertise and guide the careers of the Welshman and Stellar’s other clients, including Aston Villa midfielder Jack Grealish and Everton goalkeeper Jordan Pickford.

“My job is to make sure a player retires with enough money to know if they carry on working, it is because they want to, not because they have to,” says Barnett.

“We spend a fortune helping these guys get to where they need to be. We have a full staff of social media people because we don’t want them just going off and doing it on their own.”

Barnett says he would not engage in some of the tactics rival agencies employ in an effort to get their clients a better deal, but argues “as long as it is legal and ethical it is fine”.

He does feel there are problems the industry needs to address, and is particularly unhappy about the number of players now being looked after by relatives.

Barnett has been frustrated by Fifa’s approach too. In January, he joined Mendes and Mino Raiola – who represents Manchester United midfielder Paul Pogba – at an agents’ conference to discuss the situation.

On Mendes, he says: “He has done a fantastic job for Wolves, and in other areas he has done brilliantly also.”

So far, there have been no talks over reform. On Thursday, Fifa outlined its proposals, which include commission being capped at 3% of a players’ salary.

Barnett is unimpressed. He believes Fifa is trying to gain positive publicity by unfairly striking out at an easy target, and unless it changes its approach a court case is looming.

“I would love myself and a couple of agents to sit down face to face with Fifa with a blank sheet of paper,” he says. “I am sure we can do something really spectacular that would help everybody.”

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