Female agents a rarity in team sports
As women continue to make overall advancements in the sports world, their progress as agents is slow.
When quarterback Doug Flutie needed new representation four years ago, the agent was handpicked. And the agent delivered immediately, negotiating what eventually became the richest deal ever for a backup quarterback. By all accounts, Flutie had the best "man" for the job.
"I never thought about gender," said Flutie, who rejoined the New England Patriots for a second stint this offseason. "I don't know if she's the first, but I know that there aren't many female sports agents out there."
Kristen Kuliga is a rarity in NFL circles. Known as "Doug's girl" to her competitors, Kuliga is the only female agent working with active NFL players, according to Athelia Doggette of the NFL Players Association. Out of the approximately 1,150 NFLPA registered agents, only 30 are women.
|“||I can trust her. She's not shady, out to cut corners or makes promises that can't get delivered. She's up front, honest and has more integrity then a lot of [people] in this business.”|
|—Doug Flutie on agent Kristen Kuliga|
After being certified in 2001, Kuliga negotiated Flutie's $33 million contract with the San Diego Chargers following his release from the Buffalo Bills. The subsequent restructuring of the deal over the next four years made Flutie the NFL's highest-paid backup quarterback.
While women are seemingly making tremendous strides in sports as athletes, broadcasters, marketing representatives and financial experts, female sports agents remain rare.
One of the boys
Kuliga is the president and CEO of K Sports & Entertainment LLC. She has an impressive roster, including Kansas City Chiefs running back Omar Easy, Miami Dolphins safety Chris Akins and Oakland Raiders running back J.R. Redmond.
"Early on, when I had gotten my certification and gotten Doug's contract," Kuliga said, "there was another agent in the business who said to me in conversation, 'Well, you know, none of my clients would want a woman as an agent. And I don't know why you are pursuing that end of the business when you are so successful on the marketing end.'
"That sparked me to really develop that part of the business, because I hate being told that I can't do something especially if it's solely because of the fact that I [am] a female."
Last year, her firm joined Paid Inc., a web-hosting and e-business service representing star athletes and celebrities. Paid Inc. CEO Greg Rotman decided to partner with Kuliga because she is well-respected in the industry. In a room full of general managers, she's treated as "one of the guys."
Eleven years ago, after she finished law school, Kuliga interned at Woolf Associates, a sports management and marketing firm. She worked in a variety of capacities helping in arbitration cases, assisting agents in contract negotiations and coordinating marketing deals for some athletes. In six years, Kuliga held positions as a general counsel and as vice president of athlete marketing. She also handled the marketing exposure and assisted Jack Mula with the contracts for Flutie. When Mula left the firm to work for the Patriots, Flutie asked Kuliga if she would get her certification and handle his contracts going forward.
"I can trust her. She's not shady, out to cut corners or makes promises that can't get delivered," Flutie said. "She's up front, honest and has more integrity then a lot of [people] in this business.
"She's a normal agent, not like other guys who want to be the Jerry Maguire in the room, where they want to act [like] what they believe is an agent," he said. Instead of role-playing to get attention, she gets the job done.
Nurture vs. competitive nature
Women are no less competitive as agents, and they don't need to bully their way to get a good deal. Rather than be adversarial in order to close a $40 million contract, agent Molly Fletcher stresses the importance of building relationships.
Fletcher, senior vice president of client representation at Career Sports and Entertainment, is one of four women certified among the 400 agents in Major League Baseball. She believes that reputation is the most important attribute at the negotiating table.
"Our philosophy is that players and coaches have to play for the community and for the team, and it's important that everybody feels good about the situation and that everybody wins," adds Fletcher.
Molly negotiates contracts, appearances, endorsements and sponsorships for athletes, coaches and broadcasters. Some of the company's clients include New York Knicks coach Isiah Thomas, Michael Barrett of the Chicago Cubs, Mark DeRosa of the Texas Rangers and the PGA's Franklin Langham.
Fletcher doesn't see herself as being different than other agents when it's time to cut a deal. Negotiations are pretty much the same at any level. However, if she is seen as different, she embraces the uniqueness.
All agents are out for the best deals for their clients, but adding a little finesse and taking the edge off of an intense situation is a positive attribute.
"As a former athlete, I am aggressive enough to negotiate contracts but as a woman, you have an inherent nurturing ability, and I think those things cross over very well," said Fletcher, who played tennis at Michigan State. "Quite frankly, negotiating contracts is a small part of what our company does for our clients. Ninety percent of the package is managing their lives once those contracts are done.
"As a woman, wife and mother, I understand the stresses on these guys, [their wives] and their world and beyond the field or the course. We represent the entire family."
The visible gender difference can open the door to new opportunities. But the door can easily be shut as well. Women sports agents are considered among the toughest in their league. Often, they have to set themselves apart from their male cohorts.
"As a woman, when you are sitting in front of baseball players [or] 45-year-old multimillion-dollar coaches, it's important to establish credibility and for them to understand that you are knowledgeable about their business and understand their world," Fletcher said.
"You've got to operate in life with respect, class and no boundaries. I don't see boundaries and I don't understand the word can't."
Olympic beach volleyball bronze medalist Elaine Young describes her agent, Sue Rodin, as a tough negotiator. As a female athlete, it's important to her to have a female representative.
"With men, when they negotiate, they are seen as hard negotiators, but women negotiating are often called bitches. I think that [stereotype] is changing as more women get into the business," Young said.
Rodin distinguishes herself through her 20 years of marketing experience. She creates new business models to promote a positive image for the athlete as well as the interested companies. She has successfully secured endorsements such as Young's sponsorship with Nautica and Oakley as well as WNBA star Swin Cash's work with Nike. She also has increased the athletes' visibility through nationwide speaking programs for youth. Rodin represents up-and-coming U.S. women's soccer midfielder Shannon Boxx and Vonetta Flowers, the first African-American to win a gold medal in the Winter Olympics.
"I think women need to be as marketable, and have the [same] financial opportunities, as their male counterparts," Rodin said. "It's a cause, and women's sports are ready to explode and [reach] a new level."
Young is quite happy that Rodin, president of Stars and Strategies sports marketing firm, is well received by the Association of Volleyball Players. Young says Rodin is the only female agent in the AVP and that Rodin is fair, respected and doesn't have an ego. Young doesn't have to deal with any headaches regarding her agent's reputation.
But female agents still are dealing with an age-old perception. The lack of visibility creates stereotypes that cause people to question women's motives in a male-dominated business.
"There's a perception out there that women would only want to be in this part of the business to meet an athlete for a relationship other than a professional one," said Kuliga, who's married. "The way that stereotype changes is by a woman being in the business demonstrating that they have no desire for that aspect of the athlete relationship, and the only aspect is to represent them in a professional manner with their team or endorsement."
"It's been quite interesting from the beginning," agent Sharon Creer said. "The locker-room camaraderie that male agents have is quite different for myself. When I'm pursuing a client, a lot of male agents can just go into the locker room. I would normally have to wait outside the door or in the green room."
|“||The most disappointing as a female agent is probably a couple of potential recruits who they or their family had dismissed me right away because of the fact that I was a woman instead of listening to what I had to say.”|
In her early years, Creer remembers often being mistaken for an athlete's sister or girlfriend at events or team tryouts. When she explained she was there on business, she found that many coaches were surprised by the notion of male players having a female agent. If it wasn't in their words, it showed on the expression on their faces.
Now, Creer is seen as a negotiator with a 100-percent placement track record. What sets her apart is her experience with the overseas markets. She receives numerous calls around the globe during and after seasons.
"In representing clients, you have to sell your clients, and in that you have to sell yourself," Creer said. "I'm good at knowing the objectives of the team and how my player can fit into that system."
Creer runs her own sports management company. Her clients include Tiffani Johnson and Toccara Williams, both of the WNBA, and former NBA star Darryl Dawkins.
Taking a chance
All any female agent wants is for an athlete to take a chance on her, just as she is extending herself for the athletes she represents.
Kuliga said she has encountered disappointing situations as a female agent, such as when "a couple of potential recruits ... dismissed me right away because of the fact that I was a woman, instead of listening to what I had to say."
"It never came down to a female/male situation, but what she could do for me and whichever agent wanted me the most," Cain said. "She had the best plan. And she wanted me more than any other agent.
"Kristen is smart. She sent her information to coach Mark Whipple, who at the time was the head coach at the University of Massachusetts. After my senior season, his recommendation of her meant a lot to me. In December of 2003, no other agent went through my head coach and everyone was trying to go through me."
Coming right out of college, Cain didn't have the funds for training, and Kuliga offered to help by absorbing the costs. That offer proved to the rookie that the agent had his best interests in mind.
The transition from collegiate to professional sports can be daunting to a young player. Similarly, Creer recognizes the vulnerability of college athletes. Most of her clients are recent graduates, and she makes it a personal goal in her business to help them make the transition from college to their pro careers and beyond.
Pro athletes are looking not only for the best deal but also for agencies to provide myriad unconventional marketing opportunities. As more women become agents, companies and clients can only benefit. The few women agents today take every business deal with athletes (and their families), coaches and general managers seriously. Not only can female agents secure best-ever monetary deals like Flutie's, but they also look at the needs of the players' family and ties to the community.
The frontier of the agent's world is wide open for women. And despite the lack of a level playing field, these female agents, who are considered role models, are changing the industry.
Eleanor Hong is a Page 3 editor for ESPN.com.
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