Originally Published in USA TODAY
April 6, 2007
Hotshot Hollywood talent agency Creative Artists Agency (CAA) is now playing ball with the big guys on an entirely different field.
The agency, home to such A-list movie stars as Tom Cruise, Tom Hanks, Brad Pitt and Nicole Kidman, a year ago opened CAA Sports with the hopes of breaking into the lucrative world of professional sports.
A year later, the agency has become, by most accounts, the top sports agency in the business, counting among its 380-plus clients such top athletes as Eli and Peyton Manning, Derek Jeter, Ryan Howard, Alan Iverson, Oscar de la Joya, Tony Hawk and David Beckham.
The lure is quite simple, really, says one veteran Hollywood publicist: “All these sports guys want to be movie stars.”
Even if those dreams don’t necessarily come true, she adds, “What better way to at least feel like a star than with the top Hollywood agency?”
CAA Sports’ Hollywood cache certainly has helped the agency rocket to the top in terms of high-profile stars—and high-profile agents, including Tom Condon and Ben Dogra in football and Casey Close in baseball. CAA Football now represents the five most recent NFL MVPs and 15 of this year’s NFL Pro Bowl players; CAA Baseball represents numerous All-Stars and more than 40 first-round draft picks since 1999.
The lines between Hollywood and sports celebrity have been blurring for years. Back in the early days of the movie business, you had swimming champs Buster Crabbe (“Flash Gordon”) and Johnny Weissmuller (“Tarzan”), not to mention former USC football player Marion Morrison, better known as John Wayne. More recently came O.K. Simpson, Jim Brown, Fred Dryer and, of course, The Rock.
But these days, the crossover is ramping up. Professional athletes hang out with movie stars and date movie stars; Derek Jeter alone has been spotted with the likes of Jessica Alba, Jessica Biel and Scarlett Johansson. And more and more seem to be seeking to transition from the playing field to the movie screen, such as ex-NBA star Rick Fox.
It’s no surprise, then, that starry-eyed athletes would want to align themselves with a Hollywood talent agency rather than a traditional sports agent.
But CAA Sports is not just about turning star athletes into movie stars. In fact, that’s far down on the agency’s agenda. Instead, CAA Sports prides itself on offering its clients a full spectrum of services. Each press release announcing a new signing notes the new CAA Sports client “will enjoy the extensive resources of the entire agency, from film, television, music, licensing and endorsements to marketing, speakers, broadcasting, philanthropy and video games.”
“They are multi-tasking,” says basketball superstar LeBron James. “They’re not just in the sports world, they are into movies and a lot of other ventures, so at the end of the day it’s going to be great. CAA is going to definitely impact my marketing, impact my business and impact a lot of things we do.”
Fellow NBA heavyweight Richard Hamilton agrees. “They’ve got so many opportunities, and I think it’s a great thing.”
He concedes, however, that he has yet to seize any of the opportunities CAA Sports may provide him with.
“Actually, it just happened, so it’s all new for everybody,” he says.
All new, indeed. While CAA Sports officially hung out its shingle last year, it wasn’t until this year’s Super Bowl that it had something of a public coming out, in the form of a gala party that attracted such Hollywood insiders as Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes, Billy Bob Thornton and Alec Baldwin.
Around the same time, the agency announced it had recruited a troika of celebrated sports deal-makers to lead its sports division: Howard Nuchow, former president of Mandalay Sports; Fox Sports Networks EVP David Rone; and Michael Levine, former president of Van Wagner Sports Group.
CAA has gotten many of its big-name sports players by hiring their original agents, who then continue to work for CAA Sports, representing their old clients. Thus, the agency is something of a confederation. Among the big-time sports agents who now operate the CAA Sports banner:
• Casey Close, the top baseball agent who used to head veteran sports agency IMG’s baseball division. When he joined CAA Sports in April 2006, he brought along more than 70 major and minor league players, including Derek Jeter, Derrek Lee and Richie Sexson. Shortly after he joined CAA Sports, he snagged Ryan Howard.
• Tom Condon, who used to head IMG’s football division. When he and longtime partner Ken Kramer were hired by CAA Sports, also in April 2006, they brought along such star players as Peyton and Eli Manning, LaDanian Tomlinson, Chris Simms, Drew Brees, Chad Pennington and Marvin Harrison, among others. Over the last nine years, Condon and Kramer have represented 35 first-round draft picks in the NFL Draft. Condon also represents Gene Upshaw, executive director of the NFL Players Union.
• Ben Dogra and Jim Steiner, former comanagers of the SFX Football Division. The pair came aboard last July and brought into the fold such top NFL players as Shaun Alexander, Cadillac Williams, Chris Chambers, Mike Alstott and Damien Woody. In a statement issued by CAA at the time, Dogra called working under the umbrella of the uber-agency “an opportunity like no other. The access, relationships and expertise at the agency offer limitless resources we can now bring to bear for our players.”
• Top-flight hockey agents Pat Brisson and J.P. Barry joined a month later, in August 2006, creating CAA Hockey. Formerly comanaging directors of IMG Hockey, the two brought to their new agency Sidney Crosby, the National Hockey League’s leading scorer, as well as such other top players as Daniel Briere, Erik Johnson, Jaromir Jagr, Sergei Fedorov and Joe Thornton.
• Leon Rose, the attorney and sports agent for NBA greats Alan Iverson and LeBron James, among others. Rose came aboard just last February to head CAA Sports’ basketball representation division, and in addition to Iverson and James he brought to the agency Andrea Bargnani, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2006 NBA draft, and Richard Hamilton, one of the league’s top-scoring guards.
CAA Sports may not be all about Hollywood, but the Hollywood connection certainly helps. The agency helped negotiate the $250 million deal that brought soccer superstar David Beckham to the Los Angeles Galaxy for five years, and word in Hollywood is that longtime CAA client Tom Cruise personally phoned Beckham and urged him to come to L.A. when his current deal with Real Madrid expires June 30.
How do other, dedicated sports agents compete? Short answer: They don’t.
“They are huge,” says John Caplin, director of marketing and player relations with the National Sports Agency, which reps such NFL players as the Miami Dolphins’ Kevin Carter and Ellis Hobbs, the starting quarterback for the New England Patriots.
“We’re always in the top 25 or so, and we do have some of the higher paid guys, but we don’t get many first-round draft picks,” Caplin says. “CAA, on the other hand, they don’t want anything outside the first or second round. And they’re elite enough that they can be as selective as the players, which is a luxury not many of us get. But there’s really no hard feelings.”
Brice Miller of Complete Sports Management, is a bit more critical. The vast resources of CAA Sports, along with its Hollywood cache, makes it impossible for smaller agents such as himself to compete, he says, particularly among star players with dreams of taking their careers beyond the playing field.
“CAA is just bringing a lot of resources and other media/entertainment assets to their clients,” he says. “But in terms of fundamental necessities that a player needs from an agent, they are not doing anything else that a good agent can’t do.”
Unfortunately, Miller adds, “you can be the greatest agent in the world, but if you can’t get clients because of the type of competition CAA brings, you will never be able to really prove your worth. The more opportunities players give agents to represent them, the more chances an agent has to show he can become a great agent.
“And this becomes hard to do when companies like CAA can swoop in and steal a lot of clients because of their resources and Hollywood flare.”