Does asking for a raise or haggling over the price of a car stress you out? Then imagine hammering out multimillion dollar deals for professional athletes. That’s just a day in the life of Justin Schulman, partner at Athletes First, an agency that represents pros like Kyle Van Noy, Sterling Shepard, Kai Forbath and Aaron Rodgers.
We talked to Schulman about what really goes down behind closed doors during high-stakes contract talks—and how we can slay our own everyday negotiations.
Being a sports agent seems like a dream job. What does it entail?
We represent the player on and off the field. We’re doing contract negotiations, but we also help with dealings with the team: injuries, personal issues and transactions, like getting cut or signing. We handle media, endorsements and marketing opportunities, too.
How did you land the role?
My first job was with the NBA league office and management training program. After a year, I worked at the WNBA when that launched in 1997… then I got an MBA. I looked for jobs and read an article about Athletes First. I reached out to them… [and] highlighted my startup experience with the WNBA, and they hired me to run financial operations.
Once I got here, 15 years ago, I started participating in contract negotiations because I had a numbers background. A couple of years later, I became a licensed agent.
What determines how much an NFL player can make?
Quarterbacks are generally the highest paid; in no other team sport does one person control the game or have as much impact. Defensive backs, wide receivers and linebackers are also at the top of the market, whereas safeties and running backs have become devalued over the years. It also depends on the team.
How do you make your case for a client to get a certain salary?
We do research on player performance vis-a-vis other players, and analyze the market in terms of contracts and what other players are making. We also project how a player’s past performance will translate into the future.
We want the player and team to feel good, so it really is about finding common ground. Teams may have a certain structure they need to adhere to, and in exchange will give you something that’s important to you. For example, if a team doesn’t want to give a big signing bonus, you can agree to a larger base salary or [guaranteed] bonus in year two.
Studies have shown that people negotiate more successfully when they're advocating for someone else. Have you found that to be true?
It can be easier to negotiate on behalf of someone else because you’re taking personal emotions out of it, [which can] cloud your judgment and sour the tone. If you are negotiating for yourself—say, for a raise—you should be able to support your argument with statistics and examples. Having a factual basis can take the emotion out of it.
In a negotiation, do you throw out the first offer or artfully skirt the question until the other side gives a number?
It’s always easier to receive the first offer, but you need to be ready for both situations. I have no problem making an offer—it’s a matter of doing your research and knowing the market, having strength in your convictions and preparing a fact-based argument.
I’d take a similar approach to a regular salary negotiation and have comparables in mind. It would be great if the company mentioned a number first, but part of their interview process might be asking about salary expectations. Discuss range and say, “I know this is the range that people in this position get paid. Is this the type of salary I can expect?” You don’t want to sell yourself short, so shoot slightly higher than you expect—without being outrageous—and see what happens.
After 13 years in the business, what are the top negotiating tips you’ve picked up that anyone can practice?
Listen closely and find out what’s important to the other side. Remember that it may not be about dollars, but structure, philosophies and pressure points. Everyone has different opinions and perspectives—even if you’re looking at the same numbers.
Then find a creative solution. For example, if you’re negotiating with a prospective employer and can’t get the salary you want, [ask for] full benefits. You might end up earning $95,000 instead of $100,000, but if they’ll cover your premiums, that could equal $10,000 a year.
Lastly, don’t be afraid to walk away from a deal if you’re not comfortable with it.
What's the best financial advice you’ve ever gotten?
My parents ran their own business and their big thing was do something you love and be your own boss. I knew I wanted to work in sports. And since I’m one of the owners of the company, I call my own shots. I leave early a couple days a week to coach my kids because that’s important to me. I couldn’t do that if I had to clock in every day.