When Jon Alston dropped his traditional sports agent last April, he opted to sign up a representative that is far less traditional for a linebacker: a Beverly Hills talent agency.
The reason? Alston hopes to develop a career in entertainment in addition to his professional football career, as many other athletes today.
"I was a drama minor in college and thought that signing with Gersh Sports would be a great opportunity for me to pursue my interest in television and film in addition to sports," said Alston, the St. Louis Rams' third round pick in the 2006 NFL draft.
Alston signed up with the newly formed sports division of the Gersh Agency, a mid-sized talent agency that's signing up athletes who generally aren't household names. But Gersh is not the only such agency to dive into sports.
Since April, the giant Creative Artists Agency has spent millions of dollars to acquire the services and client base of football agents Tom Condon and Ben Dogra; baseball agent Casey Close; and hockey agents Pat Brisson and J.P. Barry, all of whom are certified to negotiate contracts with sports teams.
And the William Morris Agency founded a sports division in 2002 when it hired Jill Smoller, who represents such high-profile sports clients as Michelle Wie, Serena Williams and Kevin Garnett for marketing deals, but has yet to hire a certified contract agent.
The reason for the matchup between talent agencies and athletes is fairly simple.
Athletes are enticed by the opportunities in entertainment during and after a sports career that lasts less than four years on average.
And talent agencies say that demand for athletes to perform in movies and television has grown. What's more, reality television and such new media as video games and mobile digital devices have turbocharged the opportunities for athlete-performers, including less well-known players.
"The convergence of sports and entertainment in new media will provide opportunities for the second-tier athlete," said Jeff Marks, managing director of the Sports Business Group, a sports marketing consultant.
And of course, talent agencies are in a great position to match up their athletes with others in their stables, such as writers or video game producers.
Using agency resources, Gersh athletes have auditioned for various pilot projects. Some clients have already found success; the agency represents four actors in the "Friday Night Lights" television series that debuted this season.
Alston attended television auditions prior to training camp last summer. "Gersh's contacts are wide because they are headquartered at the center of the entertainment industry," Alston said. "I was able to read scripts and meet producers. It was an eye-opening experience."
Gersh is pinning a lot of hope on athletes. Hugh Dodson, Gersh's chief operating officer, said: "In five years, we expect sports to double the agency's income while our client base will grow by 25-30 percent."
Gersh Sports is the brainchild of Dodson and Super Bowl Champion Toi Cook, who is senior vice president of business development and sports marketing for Gersh. Cook and Dodson met when their kids played football together, and they developed the concept for the sports division at a lunch.
Principals Bob and David Gersh gave their blessing.
"We saw sports as another form of entertainment," said David Gersh. They expect the growth of the sports division to mirror the agency's successful comedy division that has helped clients Carlos Mencia, Dave Chappelle and Jamie Foxx expand into television and motion pictures.
The division launched in March with the acquisition of Steve Feldman & Associates. The boutique sports agency, run by certified contract agents Steve Feldman and Josh Luchs, had a 30-client portfolio of football players including Corey Dillon, Rodney Harrison and Lorenzo Neal.
Luchs became a certified agent in 1990 and always tried to find a way to get clients into film and television, but never found an open door to Hollywood.
"Now, our athletes have met with the heads of casting at Disney and other studios and have built a foundation for their future," Luchs said.
Football agents receive just 3 percent commission of the value of a sports contract due to union rules, far less than the traditional 10 percent cut that talent agencies receive for film and television contracts.
However, by signing athletes, the talent agency is first in line to benefit from those TV and film contracts, and it stands to benefit from lucrative sponsorship and endorsement deals that command up to 20 percent commissions.
"Sports is one of the fastest growing segments of the entertainment industry," Dodson said. "It generates seven times more revenue than motion pictures and there is more money available for athletes now than ever before."
All is not simple, however. Players Inc., the marketing division of the NFL Players Association, controls licensing rights for all NFL-related endorsements. That means Players Inc. must approve an athlete's appearance on Wheel of Fortune, for example.
That complicates talent agencies' work because it adds a layer of complexity, and Players Inc. gets money for athletes' appearances.
For top players who command big fees that's not a problem because there's enough money for everyone.
"There's a marketing pyramid and the people who have performed the best the longest are at the top," said Doug Allen, president of Players Inc. "The hardest part is to achieve greatness on the field, but players also need to have interesting and reliable personalities."
Gersh's approach is a bit different because it's relying on second-tier athletes and looking for entertainment opportunities outside the realm of the players union. For example, it might sign up players to appear not in team jerseys but as generic athletes in a commercial or movie or video game.
Creative Artists, by contrast, has spent millions signing up big-name agents and famous athletes and is seeking big deals.
But some industry experts suspect Creative Artists may have a hard time finding success.
"A lot of people in the sports world are questioning the wisdom of Creative Artists spending all this money," said Liz Mullen, Sports Business Journal reporter.
"The difference is that Creative Artists' core business is representing talent and (President) Richard Lovett has done his due diligence, but only time will tell," Mullen said.
Regardless, as agents and talent firms change the sports and entertainment landscape, athletes like Alston have started to realize that their performance on Sundays is just part of their professional development.
"I plan on taking some acting classes in the off season," Alston said.
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