The Hollywood Merger That Could Reshape Soccer’s Transfer Market

LONDON — Everything about the deal seemed to connote vastness. Most obviously, there were the figures: The merger created a company with a combined value of an estimated $5 billion. There was the language, too. A “landmark,” according to Variety. “Seismic,” The Los Angeles Business Journal said.

In this case, though, time is the best way to gauge scale. It was in September last year when word filtered out of Los Angeles that two of the world’s biggest talent agencies, Creative Artists Agency and ICM Partners, had decided to join forces, but it was not until June that the union was given the green light.

The nine-month delay could be attributed to antitrust investigators combing through the deal, trying to establish whether the unified agency would wield too much power. The Justice Department and the Federal Trade Commission reportedly cast an eye over the prospective merger.

The central concern was the potential impact on Hollywood from having two of its most influential agencies become one market-dominating behemoth, and what that might mean for the industry. The Screen Actors Guild, for one, expressed concerns that its members might be “disadvantaged” by the deal.

At no point did anyone feel the need to mention soccer. It is there, though, where the deal’s impact might be felt most keenly.

Both CAA and ICM have, in the last three years, expanded into soccer. In 2019, CAA acquired Base Soccer, one of Britain’s biggest sports agencies, with more than 300 professional clients. A year later, ICM completed a deal to buy the even-bigger Stellar Group, in what was thought to be the most expensive acquisition in the company’s history.

For years, Base and Stellar have been powerhouses — Stellar, the largest agency in the sport, represents more than 800 clients — but they have also been rivals, and not always cordial ones. But as soon as the Justice Department signed off on CAA’s acquisition of ICM, they became teammates.

That has ramifications, of course, for the firms, the agents who staff them and the players whom they call clients — including stars like Gareth Bale, Jack Grealish and Eduardo Camavinga. But the scale of the combined venture may also have a profound effect on the delicate power balance in the fraught, lucrative player trading business which acts as the financial engine for the most popular sport in the world.

Poetic License

Erkut Sogut, an experienced agent, has written a novel about the sometimes sordid industry in which he works.Credit…Gualter Fatia/Getty Images

There is one element of Erkut Sogut’s debut novel that, he admits, belongs squarely in the realm of fantasy. Soccer is not, he wants to emphasize, actually controlled by a cabal of superagents who will resort to anything — sabotage, match-fixing, kidnapping, murder — to keep the game and its riches in their vise.

Everything else, he maintains, is real. More than that, in fact: The plot of his book, “Deadline,” a thriller set against the backdrop of soccer’s transfer market, is drawn from firsthand experience. Sogut has spent 15 years as an agent, and he is best known for his longstanding association with Mesut Özil, the onetime Arsenal, Real Madrid and Germany playmaker. It is a world, he said, that does not demand a great deal of poetic license.

The portrait of the industry he paints is not a flattering one. His characters are, by and large, hucksters and vultures, charlatans and sharks, operating in a sport rife with corruption and addled with cronyism. It is, though, intrinsically familiar: Soccer has grown accustomed to the depiction of agents as puppet masters in sharp suits and designer sunglasses, wielding ultimate influence over the fates of players and teams.

That image, though, the one that suffuses Sogut’s novel, does not quite capture the reality of the industry as it stands now. The likes of Jorge Mendes — consigliere to Cristiano Ronaldo and José Mourinho — may be cast as rainmakers possessed of sufficient clout to bend the whole market to their will, but they increasingly seem like the exception, rather than the rule. The world of agents is in convulsion, soccer’s latest battleground between new money and old hands.

Though FIFA’s controversial decision, in 2015, to deregulate the industry opened the doors to any family member or friend who wanted to sign up to represent a player — a move that turned a chaotic and irrevocably murky world into a “complete free-for-all,” as one agent put it — the most significant new entrants in recent years have not been cowboy operators hoping to make a quick buck but established corporations panning for new fortunes.

That market now includes not only CAA — which first entered soccer by handling the commercial deals of Mendes’s stable of stars — and ICM, but also the California-based sports agency Wasserman. The latter established a beachhead in English soccer in 2006, but has expanded rapidly in the last two years, acquiring another British agency, Key Sports, and the Spanish firm Top Value, as well as opening a German office.

The appeal is no mystery. According to FIFA, agents and intermediaries made more than $500 million in commissions last year alone. In 117 deals, those paydays ran to more than $1 million. Even that seems like small change in comparison to, say, the deal that sent Erling Haaland to Manchester City this summer: His representatives are reported to have earned somewhere in the region of $40 million simply for delivering his signature.

Those sorts of figures are difficult to resist. “Football is the No. 1 sport in the world,” said Jonathan Barnett, a co-founder of Stellar. “If you want to be a major sports agency, you have to be involved.”

The deal that sent Erling Haaland to Manchester City paid off handsomely for him and his representatives.Credit…Craig Brough/Reuters

The Benefits of Scale

Plenty of people have offered to buy Andy Evans’s business in the last few years. There have been inquiries from other soccer agencies and from firms that have never worked in soccer. There have been talks with several companies in Britain and at least one from the United States. None of the approaches, in Evans’s view, have felt quite right.

Sometimes the finances have not added up. Sometimes Evans has not been sold on exactly what a new owner had planned for World in Motion, the agency he founded a quarter century ago. Mostly, though, he has not been inclined to sell at all. “I’ve been running it for a long time,” Evans said. “I’m not especially inclined to not run it.”

The client list he has established is an impressive one — it includes Aaron Ramsdale, the Arsenal goalkeeper, and the England defender Conor Coady — but Evans has never had any desire to operate at the sort of scale of Base and Stellar. That was a conscious choice: He has long believed there was an advantage in being a David.

He is conscious, though, that the arrival of the corporations, and in particular the merger between CAA and ICM, could start to alter that equation.

Whenever he pitches a prospective client, Evans finds that the first question is always the same. “It is always, ‘Who else do you represent?’” he said. “Players want to know that more than anything else. They know that if you don’t know anyone, you can’t get anything done. People just wouldn’t pick up the phone.”

That gives the monolith that has emerged from the union of CAA and ICM — and, as a result, between Base and Stellar — an almost unassailable advantage. Neither firm expects to lose any soccer agents as a result of the merger; the intention is to grow the client list rather than shrink it. The answer to the question “Who else do you represent?” might as well be “everyone.”

“It has been a huge advantage in terms of commercial, marketing, organization,” Barnett said earlier this year, before the merger had been approved by the Justice Department, but he was adamant that even becoming part of ICM had been “fantastic” for both his staff and his clients. The impact of joining forces with CAA could be only greater still.

Heavy Lifting

Michael Yormark in 2013. He joined Roc Nation a year later.Credit…Omar Vega/Invision/AP

Michael Yormark, with his cut-glass jaw and his close-cropped hair, does not seem the sort to be easily intimidated. A veteran agent, he has spent the last six years steering the expansion of Jay-Z’s Roc Nation label into international sports, painstakingly building out a roster of clients that started, by accident, with Jérôme Boateng and has since grown to include the Belgian star Romelu Lukaku and the Chelsea defender Reece James.

Yormark might then have been expected to greet the prospect of a colossal new rival on his turf with something sandwiched between reluctance and dread. Instead, in an interview at Roc’s London headquarters, he seemed genuinely enthusiastic. “That deal is great for us,” he said.

His logic is straightforward. Roc Nation’s pitch to prospective clients is based on what Yormark described as a “360-degree service,” one that focuses as much, or more, on meeting their aspirations away from the field than on negotiating new contracts or arranging money-spinning transfers. The label keeps its client list small by design.

“The heavy lifting is in helping build a brand, a platform, whatever they want to do,” Yormark said. That is not possible, his company contends, with a client list numbering in the hundreds. “It would be hard to do what we do with 150 clients,” said Alan Redmond, Roc Nation’s head of football. “It would be impossible if we had 400.”

Inside CAA, those concerns are airily dismissed. Executives believe that the company’s scale belies its flexibility. The example often cited is the N.B.A. player Zion Williamson of the New Orleans Pelicans.

Williamson, when selecting his representation, made clear that he wanted a “boutique” feel, precisely the kind of treatment that Roc Nation has made its hallmark. To win his signature, CAA pivoted. Williamson and his family, one CAA executive said, have two points of contact at the agency, no more. The fact that those representatives are merely a tiny part of a giant company is hidden from view.

There are others, though, who worry that the type of representation players might receive is far from the most significant consequence of the merger.

While the arrival of corporations — with shareholders and workplace cultures and public images to worry about — may hint at an encroaching professionalization in what has traditionally been the kind of lawless industry Sogut’s novel depicts, it also exposes players to the possibility that their futures will be determined by a greater need to bolster a parent company’s bottom line.

“If you have an agent who is under pressure to move you early because it is the best thing for the agency, it can compromise a career,” as one veteran agent put it.

That has always been a risk for players, of course. They have always been vulnerable to their careers being shaped by their agents’ interests outweighing their own. It is that tension that makes the world of agency such a rich, compelling setting for a thriller, for example. There have always been sharks in the water. The only thing that has changed is the size of the fish.

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