How A Hollywood Talent Agency Has Taken Over The Sports World

tom condon peyton manning eli manning sports agent

Photo: Chris Trotman/Stringer | Getty Images

Agency (a·gen·cy) (n): An organisation, company, or bureau that provides some service for another. … A company having a franchise to represent another.This isn’t some half-baked #Illuminati conspiracy theory about a Hollywood sports agency pulling the strings throughout the biggest sports in America. Or maybe it sort of is.

In any case, when Peyton Manning decided to play for the Denver Broncos on Monday, it gave the NFL world the juiciest, most irresistible storyline you could have possibly squeezed from Peyton’s free agency. It’s either a spectacular story or a spectacularly insufferable story, but either way you’re probably going to have multiple conversations about what Peyton Manning means for Tim Tebow this week. All of which is to say, if Monday’s news felt a little too perfect, it’s not necessarily a coincidence.

If you think about the past few weeks, Manning’s free agency push was as much a testament to his agent as anything else. Between leaking the mysterious Duke practice video (which then ran around the clock on ESPN for a solid two weeks), slipping news to various reporters every few days, shuttling Manning around on a private jet for top secret meetings, entering a “secret third team” into the sweepstakes at the 11th hour and then landing in Denver, the most fascinating option of them all … it reads like a season’s story arc for an HBO Drama.

As Andrew Brandt pointed out Monday, this shouldn’t be that surprising. Manning’s repped by Tom Condon at Creative Arts Agency (CAA), the same group that brought us “The Decision.” The two “decisions” involved completely different characters from top to bottom, but the common thread is telling. In either case, we’re talking about relatively simple business decisions transformed into daily-updated spectacles that had people addicted to the news cycle even when there wasn’t really much news.

It’s not just Peyton and LeBron. Think back to Carmelo, another CAA client, forcing his way to the New York Knicks, where — success or failure — the Knicks have been one of the biggest stories in the NBA ever since the day Melo demanded a trade. Same with Chris Paul, who is also represented by CAA.

Or, if we’re talking football, think back to Nnamdi Asomugha last summer. He’s repped by Ben Dogra, a CAA agent. Once the NFL Lockout ended, Dogra and Nnamdi toured the NFL with the same playbook that Manning used this spring, playing teams against each other and ultimately spurning the Cowboys at the eleventh hour to join the Eagles and a team full of superstars, and Nnamdi was on the cover of Sports Illustrated.

For some perspective, Nnamdi was a great player, but before 2011, he’d had 11 interceptions in eight seasons. In other words, Nnamdi Asomugha isn’t the player you’d expect mainstream fans to be agonizing over. But that’s where the entertainment sports machine comes in. After a few weeks, he was Deion Sanders, and once he signed, the Eagles immediately took on the label of “Dream Team” among sportscasters.

Whether they deserved the “Dream Team” label doesn’t matter. All that matters is we were talking about whether they deserved it, and the more people talked, the more people hated them for it. So for the first two months of the season, the Eagles were the Miami Heat of the NFL.

It’s just another form of entertainment. Creative Arts Agency had been one of the biggest music and film agencies in Hollywood before they decided to get into sports in 2006. Since then, the clients they’ve spent big money on acquiring are a roster of some of the biggest names in the business, including LeBron James, Derek Jeter, Cristiano Ronaldo, both Manning brothers, Dwyane Wade, Carmelo Anthony, Tony Romo, Sidney Crosby and scores more.

Given all the control CAA has over the biggest names, it’s tempting to see the web of networks in sports, then try to connect the dots and concoct some conspiracy. Just last week the New York Times wondered if a CAA agent would try to steer a high school recruit to John Calipari at Kentucky, another CAA client.

But stuff like that is a waste of time. There’s no deep, dark conspiracy here — at least not one where agents are helping Calipari lure high schoolers. Or the world Adrian Wojnarowski once imagined, where William Wesley was trying to “deliver” Melo and Chris Paul to the Nets so that Mikhail Prokhorov hires John Calipari and everyone gets rich.

If there’s a guiding principle to the big stories we’ve seen from CAA clients in the past few years, it’s not about consolidating star power, but maximizing entertainment value.

CAA reps Tebow and Manning, for instance, but putting them on the same team makes no sense. Having them collide and then go separate ways? That pretty much guarantees that two of their biggest clients will be the biggest story in football for the next six months. Everybody wins.

So, back to Manning. If you’re trying to understand why it makes sense for an injured superstar who has spent his entire career playing indoors to turn down a Super Bowl contender in San Francisco to sign with a cold weather city and play for a team that overachieved last year, you have to think about why it made sense for CAA to get into sports.

Agency (a·gen·cy) (n): a means of exerting power or influence.

Here’s the hypothesis:

1. In 2006, CAA realised that the entertainment industry was fragmenting, and between digital cable, DVR and piracy, growth in the entertainment business was about to level off. But off to the side is sports, the industry that defies DVR and has a built-in platform (ESPN) for round-the-clock promotion. Sports combines the spectacle of Hollywood with the passion of politics. It sells itself, and it’s the only industry that’s more or less bulletproof in the face of the threats facing the rest of the entertainment industry. Nobody DVRs the Super Bowl.

2. In the past three years, there have been exactly fIve stories that made me want throw a chair through my television and set my laptop on fire. LeBron James’ free agency, Carmelo Anthony’s trade demand, Tim Tebow’s whatever-that-was, the NBA Lockout and Peyton Manning the past six weeks. There’s a common thread between four of the five, and it’s not just ESPN.

3. People complain about those stories literally all the time, but people complain about Facebook literally all the time, too. As SLAM Online’s Ryan Jones once wrote:

Facebook’s public approval numbers are comparable to those of cable companies and airlines, ranking Facebook among the least publicly approved companies among humans who respond to calls or emails from companies that conduct surveys. … Facebook just reached 500 million users.

In February, Facebook was valued at 100 billion dollars.

4. LeBron James was among the most hated athletes on the planet after The Decision, and also one of the richest. Carmelo Anthony was booed mercilessly for weeks before, but he just won a power struggle with his coach in New York City, and this year fans voted him an All-Star starter despite a terrible first half of the season. Peyton Manning on the Broncos may never win an MVP or a Super Bowl, and some fans in Denver are already complaining about his arrival, but he’ll be a bigger story in Denver than he ever was on the Colts. Tim Tebow, too — wherever he goes, he’ll either start because he sells tickets, or he’ll be on a contender. Either way, he won’t lose an ounce of relevance. As they all become more inescapable, everyone — the athletes, ESPN, CAA — sees their net worth inflate, even if their popularity does the opposite.

5. CAA understands better than anyone else that sports is entertainment. CAA didn’t injure Peyton Manning’s neck and cause the Colts to fall into Andrew Luck and cut Peyton Manning; they didn’t make Danny Ferry trade for Antawn Jamison instead of Amar’e Stoudemire in Cleveland; they didn’t make Carmelo Anthony marry LaLa and want to move to New York City. But they’ve done their best to create a monopoly on the biggest names in sports, and when those situations arise, there’s no agency better positioned to package the stories in a way that allows others to discuss them around the clock, making their already-famous clients practically inescapable. As sports becomes the premier industry in entertainment, this is how it will grow, and athletes will be the new movie stars. If everyone’s complaining about Tim Tebow coverage, everyone will still watch Tim Tebow. Or the Heat. Or Peyton Manning in Denver.

6. Did CAA help push Peyton toward Denver and Tebow to capitalise on the drama his free agency could create? Probably not. But if you’re wondering why he’d spurn a similar offer from a better team in San Francisco, it’s just an idea. You don’t even need some conspiracy theory to understand why this makes sense. CAA’s shown the value of a good story, and we’ve shown how easily we’ll take the bait. You think athletes like Peyton haven’t caught on to how it all works?

This post originally appeared at SB Nation.

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