(this is an ongoing series of personal reviews of ESPN film’s newly released documentaries. See here for some previous discussions).
ESPN Film’s latest documentary, by excellent film maker Morgan Spurlock (of Super Size Me fame), discusses sports agents and their role in the sports industry. It is an excellent documentary and vaults into the upper echelon of the films that have been part of the original 30-for-30 series, in this person’s opinion. Spurlock touches on the agent process for non superstars, talks to some big-name agents about corruption and problems in the industry, analyzes why agents exist and their role in professional sports, and takes a look at how sports agents (specifically David Falk) have enabled athletes to go from, well, athletes to world-known figures by virtue of negotiated advertising and sponsorship contracts.
The documentary first followed a smaller sports agency (ETL) as he recruited lower level football prospects, giving a pretty interesting viewpoint into the business of smaller-time agents not named Scott Boras or Drew Rosenhaus. The cutthroat-ness of the industry came through loud and clear as one of ETL’s clients freely ditched the signing agent for a larger company after he had been drafted, despite ETL having nursed the player through the process and invested thousands of dollars in his draft preparation. There’s no regulation, and seemingly no ethics, in the representation contracts that are signed and broken as easily as junior high school students date and then break up.
The interview with Michael Jordan super-agent David Falk was indeed eye-opening, if only because most of us now take sports commercials, Nike, Gatorade and Under Armour for granted. In the early 80s, there was no such sports commercial market. Falk and Jordan invented the genre and made each other rich and filthy rich in the process. There was a telling quote; Nike expected to sell 3 million pairs of Air Jordan sneakers in the first two years. They sold 150m instead.
Spurlock also talked about shadiness on the agent’s side, interviewing Josh Luchs, the former sports agent who disclosed years of shady practices in an eye-opening Sports Illustrated article in October of last year. In typical Spurlock fashion, he took Luchs back to the “scene of the crime,” and Luchs showed how easy it remains to this day for agents to have access to players for recruiting. I’m not sure what point he was making, proving that access to a public university campus is rather easy, but the intent was to Luch’s often repeated point about how the Ncaa and schools have done little to address the issues that Luchs himself admitted to.
For me, the salient point in the documentary was a quote towards the end of the piece, after discussing all the shadiness. David Falk, when prompted, basically said that (i’m paraphrasing) “He didn’t see how it was possible to get started in the sports agent business without giving payments to athletes.” That line appeared just before a commercial break and I audibly said, “Wow” to myself upon hearing it. To have one of the most clean-cut agents in the business basically admit that rule breaking is nearly a requirement to break into the business was alternatively shocking and amazingly honest to hear.
I don’t think this documentary was powerful enough to actually cause its subjects to change their behaviors (McDonalds changed their menu options and decreased the sizes of their drinks and french-fry packages not long after the film embarassed the restaurant chain). But it was an interesting watch into an industry that we often only see when a pro athlete has done something reprehensible.