With recent outbreaks at South Carolina, Alabama, LSU, Georgia Tech, Florida and now UNC-Chapel Hill, two things are certain: the agent epidemic isn’t abating and no university with premier players is immune.
Realistically speaking, there is no instant cure for this systemic affliction. But with a little vision there is a way to affordably and substantially reduce the threat. And with a little chutzpah, there’s even a way for the state of North Carolina to turn its misfortune into a high-profile opportunity.
Becoming a sports agent is relatively easy. Succeeding at it, on the other hand, is anything but. The difficulty is finding, signing and keeping clients in a viciously competitive marketplace overrun with agents and their emissaries.
According to ProSportsGroup.com, 25,000 people in the U.S. call themselves sports agents, of which 4,000 are certified by one or more professional players unions. Yet in any given year roughly 3,900 athletes compete in the big four moneymakers – namely the NFL, MLB, NHL and NBA. With an astounding 5:1 ratio of professed agents to pro athletes, it doesn’t take an economist to conclude there are too many agents chasing too few prospective clients.
No doubt there are good law-abiding agents, but in this pressure-cooker environment plenty are willing to bend or break the rules to gain an edge. And they do it with little fear of punishment and no apparent concern for the repercussions.
Unfortunately, when agent misdeeds involve student-athletes, the universities are usually left holding the bag. For starters, the NCAA can impose a range of sanctions including fines, scholarships reductions, postseason disqualifications, win forfeitures and even program eliminations. And sanctions aren’t even the worst of it, as one scandal can spoil the reputation of an entire institution.
It’s not for lack of laws that rogue agents go unpunished. Forty states, including North Carolina, have adopted the Uniform Athletes Agent Act that, among other things, gives states the right to both sue and prosecute bad agents. If aggressively investigated and pursued in all jurisdictions, the current epidemic would be checked. The problem is, these laws are rarely enforced in some states and inconsistently enforced in others.
Why? States are strapped for funds and being forced to make hard choices as to where and how to allocate resources. Understandably, there are bigger fish to fry.
Of course, deterrence works only if the deteree perceives a reasonable risk of being caught and held accountable. As currently funded and configured, the existing system and cast of stakeholders can’t solve the problem: the NCAA has no jurisdiction over agents; professional players associations have no genuine interest in policing agent interactions with student-athletes; universities have little to gain and too much to loose by suing agents; and states (when acting autonomously) lack adequate financial resources to do the job.
There are solutions, however, and one that hasn’t yet been floated doesn’t depend on substantial or long-term public funding. Moreover, it even offers North Carolina an interesting economic development kicker.
The plan has three elements:
First, the lead state, presumably North Carolina, would solicit other resource-constrained states to join in forming a multi-state consortium to regulate sports agents. A good starting point might be states in the Atlantic Coast Conference footprint.
Second, consortium members would support the formation of a nonprofit entity similar to a mandatory state bar association, only its raison d’être would be the regulation of sports agents. Agents operating in any consortium member state would be required by law to be association members.
Third, the newly created association would assume responsibility for a range of activities, including those currently performed by state agencies such as agent registration, investigations and imposition of sanctions. Of course, consortium states would retain the right to pursue rogue agents on their own with civil actions or criminal charges if they so choose.
A multi-state consortium will have greater negotiating clout with professional leagues and players associations. This will be particularly important when pushing for cooperation on important matters such as enforcement of agent sanctions.
Also, the association should be self-sustaining and cover its own costs with dues paid by its membership. This would be impossible with a single-state approach but achievable with an expanded multi-state membership base.
With demonstrated success, the association could draw other cash-strapped states into the consortium and, eventually, become the pre-eminent voice and self-regulator of the sports agent business.
Logically, the state that grabs the lead stands to host the show. For North Carolina, it’s also an opportunity to turn a bad situation into a nice lemonade.