People Interview: Power Player

Although he represents Kobe Bryant and other star athletes, sports agent Arn Tellem says business, not glamour of celebrities, keeps him in the game.

Staff Reporter

As one of the nation's top sports agents, Arn Tellem counsels the likes of Lakers guard Kobe Bryant and Red Sox shortstop Nomar Garciaparra.

His path to sports began in 1980 when Tellem, then practicing tax law at Manatt, Phelps, was given the freedom to develop a sports practice. His mentors at Manatt were Steve Greenberg, son of Tiger Hall of Famer Hank Greenberg, and Alan Rothenberg, who was counsel to former Lakers owner Jack Kent Cooke.

Leveraging the firm's reputation, Tellem landed his first client in 1981 pitcher Mark Langston. A year later, while remaining at Manatt, Phelps, he began a six-year stint as general counsel for the then San Diego Clippers.

Tellem left the firm in 1989 to form Tellem & Associates, which he sold 10 years later to SFX Entertainment Inc, a producer and marketer of live entertainment, for a reported $25 million. The following year, SFX was bought by radio and entertainment giant Clear Channel Communications Inc. although he still runs the agency from his Brentwood offices.

Question: Describe a day in the life of a sports agent.

Answer: The practice has changed for me over the years as the practice has grown. When I first began, it was just me and an assistant. I really did everything for the players, from negotiating contracts to ordering shoes to sending out Mother's Day gifts. Now, I focus more on doing the contracts with teams and marketing deals and counseling to the players regarding matters on the field or off. I have 22 people working here. There are other younger agents and there are assistants that help the players in their personal lives. I still negotiate the contracts. That's the main reason why players come here.

Q: Can you negotiate a $100 million contract over the phone?

A: Yeah. They know me, they trust me. With respect to those deals, sometimes a face-to-face meeting may be necessary just to gauge your sincerity. Is there real interest in going to that team? But the nuts and bolts of the deal are negotiated over the phone. Once you have the business terms flushed out, when you get to the drafting of the contract, that is done by e-mail or fax. But then you go over it on the phone again. As far as meeting new clients and getting new clients, that's clearly face to face.

Q: You were part of the influence for the HBO sitcom "Arliss," which is about a sports agent.

A: The producers spent a lot of time with me in the beginning. We gave them a lot of story ideas. I don't identify with Arliss. The differences are that my life and Arliss's life are totally different. I'm not very exciting or interesting. I basically work and go home to my kids. I'm exhausted at night. I really don't have a social life other than going to my kids' Little League games. For me, it's all about what's best for my clients. With Arliss, there's a conflict what's best for Arliss and what's best for the clients.

Q: What are the unattractive qualities you see among sports agents.

A: There's been a parade of horribles. The most glaring has been where agents have gotten involved in managing money and have made horrendous mistakes. A lot of them have often committed fraud. The athletes have a short window to make money and preserve their income. Agents have taken money, co-mingled money, used money for their own purposes. (Losses) can never be recovered. The second area is dealing with the teams and players and making sure contracts are written the right way protected, guaranteed. There have been mistakes. There are certain agents who would rather be out traveling and going to games than doing work. They can get away with it for a little while but ultimately it catches up with them.

Q: Player pampering seems to have grown over the years, as well as coverage by the media. Your thoughts?

A: Back when I was a child, players weren't seen on television everyday. In the old days, the media traveled with the players on trains. And media protected players. They wouldn't delve into their personal lives. Today, with ESPN and Fox and with all the media coverage, players are under the microscope the minute they wake up. Now there are books written about them that go right into their most intimate personal lives.

Q: How do you get along with star athletes?

A: You're looking at someone who is probably the exact opposite of the stereotypes that you see in the movies. One: I'm basically a shy person. Two: I tell every athlete I'm not going to be going out to clubs or hanging out at games. If they want me they can find me at the office. If they want to socialize, I'll have lunch or dinner with them, but I'm not going to be hanging out.

Q: You're known for rarely attending games played by your clients.

A: I'm upfront whenever we begin a relationship. You can't talk to a player while he's playing. The agents who go to games just want to be seen. It's not about work. It's about flash. It's not about substance.

Q: Describe the process of recruiting an athlete before another agent gets him.

A: In basketball, we recruit from all over the country. Most players are easily identifiable. You know who the good players are. In baseball, we focus pretty much on going after players who are California-based Southern California principally. There's enough talent here. To get players, you use every resource. You use your existing players to help talk to players. You have relationships with coaches that you've developed over time that might help you or at least get you in the door to make a presentation. You have to go to the family. Who is speaking for the player? Often it's the parents.

Q: How do you present yourself?

A: The player has to know that you're speaking the truth, that you're a person of good character, that you're someone that he can count on. Hopefully, as you show him respect, you'll get respect back from the player. The last quality is hard work.

Q: Did you persuade Kobe Bryant to sign out of high school?

A: When he came to me, he had made a decision to go pro. He and his parents made that decision. He understood that so much of being a great athlete was winning and being in an environment where the organization was dedicated to winning and had a history of winning.

Q: What do you do when you're not negotiating contracts?

A: A lot of what we do is counseling in their personal life, whether it's legal questions or dealing with their financial people. Issues come up when they get married. In the entertainment business there are business managers, there are career managers, there are agents and there are marketing people. There are many more layers. In sports, the agent is someone that does a lot of those services. Because the player trusts the agent and has better communication with the agent.

Q: You had sextuple-bypass surgery at age 38. How has that affected your outlook?

A: I have bad genetics. My father passed away from a heart attack at the age of 41 and there's a history of heart problems on his side of the family. The time my father passed was without a question the most impactful event in my life. I grew up eating chicken fat, liver knishes, cream cheese, corn beef and pastrami. Tons of eggs. Obviously that diet did not help. I lost about 35 pounds over the last couple of years from diet and running. I feel great, a lot of energy. I've always felt that time is precious having witnessed my father's passing.

Interview: Arn Tellem

Title: President and chief executive; executive vice president
Organization: SFX Basketball Group; SFX Baseball Group
Born: 1954, Philadelphia
Education: Bachelor of Arts, political science, Haverford College; University of Michigan Law School
Career Turning Point: Taking job as general counsel for then-San Diego Clippers in 1982
Most Admired People: Winston Churchill, Abraham Lincoln, Marvin Miller, Howard Cosell, Hank Greenberg, Willie Mays, Sandy Koufax.
Personal: Married, three sons.

For reprint and licensing requests for this article, CLICK HERE.