This year’s NFL free agency period compressed a summer’s worth of contacts negotiations into a time frame of a little more than a week.This forced pro football agents like Joel Segal to close dozens of deals in a matter of days … with more to come.
Tucked away at a corner table in an empty dining room of a midtown Manhattan steakhouse, you wouldn’t think that the man nibbling on a hamburger and fries would be responsible for the livelihood of dozens of pro football’s best players.
Dressed in blue jeans and a striped shirt, instead of a typical power suit, Joel Segal doesn’t look like a guy trying to negotiate $300 million worth of contracts in a month.
He looks a little like Jerry Mcguire… but at the end of the movie, when he’s finally figured out all the answers to life.
However, if you saw how quickly the restaurant’s staff had worked to find him this private place to hold a quiet interview, you’d understand more of his story.
When we meet, Segal starts by interviewing me, asking about my background and experience as if he might be thinking of adding me to his impressive roster of clients.
But soon it’s down to business at the restaurant, too. Time to talk football … and big dollars.
This summer’s NFL lockout threw the life of Segal and every other agent in football into suspended animation. Unable to sign players or negotiate with teams, they were forced (like everyone else) to study the ongoing lockout talks from afar and try to decipher how the football world was about to change.
When the spell broke on July 25 they all sprang into action, scrambling to complete the wildest free agency season that anyone can remember.
“We’re still digesting the new CBA rules,” says Segal, “but we’re just happy to be back to playing.”
Typically, an offseason begins in March, with the rookie scouting combine and the opening of free agency. But this was a year unlike any other. The NFL lockout shut down all league business for months. When it was finally resolved, NFL teams had just over a week to sign all their new players and get them into camp.
Complicating matters further was the fact that two years worth of free agents were now becoming available, to fill the same number of roster spots as before. “I expected there to be a game of musical chairs and not enough chairs,” says Segal. “And that’s what is happening.”
Segal, who represents dozens of NFL players as the president of Lagardère Unlimited Football, went to work. Over the course of the next eight days, Segal put together contracts for about 20 players worth a total of $150 million in compensation.
What normally would have taken months of phone calls and meetings and complicated paperwork, was pulled off in a just over a week. And it’s not over yet.
Click here to see his notable 2011 deals →
Two of his biggest clients – Michael Vick of the Eagles and Chris Johnson of Tennessee – are not yet free agents, but are looking to get new contract extensions before the season begins. (Johnson is actually holding out from Titans training camp, while Vick was given the dreaded “franchise” tag by Philadelphia, keeping him off the open market.)
Some estimates suggests those two players could pull in another $150 million in contracts. Sports agents typically earn between 3-to-5 per cent commission on such deals.
In addition, Segal still has a handful of veterans who need jobs. As training camps unfold, other players will get hurt, cut, traded, or teams will simply realise that they aren’t as strong as they thought they were at certain positions. Every roster move on one squad creates an opportunity for a different player somewhere else. That’s where Segal comes in.
[credit provider=”Lagardère Unlimited Football”]
Like many agents, Segal went to law school, but never intended to find his fortune in the sports world. He was hired by a large “white-shoe” firm out of college, but says he quickly lost interest in the day-to-day grind of life in a big law office.
So he quit and moved back to his parents house. He had followed the careers of legendary sports agents like Leigh Steinberg and Bob Woolf and decided that was where he wanted to try his hand.
He printed up some business cards with his mother’s phone number on them and began cold calling football players. It’s not easy for an unknown lawyer with no office and no experience to convince professional athletes to trust him with their financial future. “A lot of guys hung up on me,” he says.
Eventually, Segal landed his first client in Brad “Mr. Smooth” Baxter, a little-known running back for the New York Jets. Once he got that first client, however, the doors were opened and it wouldn’t take long for other players to come through it.
“Having that first client gives you instant credibility. That’s when others see that they can trust you and it just builds from there.”
Soon after he signed his first college player – Grambling wide receiver Jake Reed – before the 1992 draft, which led to landing Reed’s brother, Kansas City cornerback Dale Carter, who became his first first-round pick. That lead to an All-American receiver out of Penn State named OJ McDuffie and soon he was building one of the most impressive portfolios in the business.
Today, Segal has several dozen clients on a roster that could field an All-Pro team two or three players deep at every position. He rattles off the names from memory: Vick, Johnson, Santonio Holmes, Reggie Bush, Percy Harvin, Tarvaris Jackson, Jason Campbell, Michael Jenkins, brothers Mike and Maurkice Pouncey, Glenn Dorsey, Marques Colston, Levi Brown, Will Smith, Ike Taylor, Ashton Youboty, and many more.See our list of the top sports agents in the world →
How does he find the right deal for the right guy? Much like an NFL GM would, during the offseason Segal builds what he calls “very fluid” depth charts of all 32 NFL teams. By constantly monitoring all the available roster spots, he knows exactly who needs talent at which positions and what opportunities might be available for his clients.
Take Santonio Holmes. A former first-round draft pick and Super Bowl MVP, Holmes is an incredibly talented wide receiver, but had his share of off-the-field troubles as well. (In 2010, he was traded suddenly after an alleged incident in a nightclub, then missed part of the season after violating the league substance abuse policy.) When he became an unrestricted free agent for the first time last week, his agent had to weigh all the options to find the best team at the best price.
“Santonio is a special player with a rare talent and there was a strong market for his services. So I had to look at his priorities with where he wanted to play, and ultimately he chose the Jets,” Segal said.
“The key is to have strong communication between you and client, to understand their needs and find the right system for them and the right organisation.”
For another player, like new Indianapolis Colts lineman Jamaal Anderson, the best option might be a one-year showcase deal that could set him up for an ever bigger contract next season.
“Whatever contract I’m working on now is the most important contact there is, because to the player, it’s the only one that matters,” adds Segal.
Then there’s Randy Moss. Arguably the most talented player that Segal has ever worked with, Moss announced his surprise retirement just as the free agency period was heating up. After playing for three different teams in 2010, there wasn’t a job out there that suited his interests, so Moss called it quits.
“Randy had very specific ideas about where he wanted to play,” says Segal. “There were offers, but ultimately he wasn’t 100% happy with them so he decided to retire.”
At 34 years old, many doubt that the uber-talented Moss is truly finished. Once the season begins, some teams in need of more offensive firepower will surely come calling and Moss himself may decide he isn’t quite done with football after all. But when asked if Moss’s retirement is for good, Segal gives a diplomatic answer.
“I anticipate that I will get those calls [from GMs], but I can’t speak for Randy Moss,” he says.
The free agent madness has calmed down a bit for now, but Segal’s work is far from over. He’ll spend the next couple of weeks travelling to training camps to check on his clients – “It’s my favourite time of the year. I love visiting with the guys.” – and working to land deals for his remaining unsigned players, like Darren Sharper and Channing Crowder.
There’s no rest during the regular season either, as Segal attends two to three games a week in person – checking in with the athletes, meeting their GMs and coaches, and planning ahead for the next offseason. With 32 teams and dozens of players to take care of, there’s always another deal right around the corner.
“I will outservice and outwork anybody,” he says, “My job is to look out for and protect my clients.”