I have seen the athlete agent business go through many transformations over the past ¼ century.

I have survived through the big agency buy outs. I have plowed through the shift in importance from playing contracts to marketing contracts. I have ridden the wave of building brands for athletes. I have seen the transition of fans of teams to fans of players.

To date, the biggest revolution in sports to me has been the explosion of social media. It has permeated every aspect of sports and entertainment, and it is somewhat hard to imagine the experience of being a fan without it.

Just 5 years ago brands would ask what an athlete’s Q-Score[i] was to determine whether or not they would be a good spokesman. Now brands just ask me for our client’s Facebook post reach stats.

When I was a kid, the extent of athlete interaction was limited to three things:

  1. What you read in the news or heard from the local sportscaster in the last 6 minutes of the new broadcast
  2. Joining a fan club, which consisted of me writing a heartfelt letter in my best penmanship to my idol (in this case Thurman Munson). That letter I am sure was tossed in the garbage without being read by Thurman’s assistant (or a Yankees employee) but not before they got my address. 6 – 8 weeks of religious mailbox checking, and sure enough I would get a letter back from “Thurman” with a signed photo and a small index card proving my membership to his fan club.
  3. Waiting outside a stadium for 2 – 3 hours after a game to try and get something signed

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That was it. The main focus of what you knew about players were their stats.

Now you can get a viral movement going with millions of followers to induce Derek Jeter to take you to your prom, or to do something useful like raising millions for ALS. Fans literally ask their heroes direct questions and in many cases actually get an answer. Not in 6-8 weeks, but immediately. They can see what the star eats, where they live, what movies they like, and what cool toys all those millions are buying them. You get a peek behind that curtain and see glimpses of the storied life of famous people in ways no one ever imagined.

The flipside is that celebrities can now activate their fan base in a very targeted and efficient manner. They can sell 23,000 tickets to a charity softball game, like our man Richard Sherman did, or they can get fans to vote for them to grace the cover of Madden Football like another client Barry Sanders did.

This direct and instant connecting between fans and the stars has redefined the role of celebrity in the world and even more so has given the general public their first unfiltered look at their heroes.

So what does it all mean? For those of us who saw this coming we built digital platforms for our clients that allow us to help them disseminate content that moves people. That educates them about causes. That inspires them to take action. And brands are all in.

This is the fine line you dance. It has to be authentic to the client’s brand. Once you get too commercial, it’s a wrap. Fans sniff it out and they lose interest. If there is no commercial element, then the client can’t monetize his digital platform and in essence it just becomes media with a very good inside track.

Here is what I think are some good ground rules.

  1. Keep the content to 80% fan based and 20% brand based on average
  2. Always link commercial posts to giveaways or added value for the followers
  3. Host Q&A’s on a regular basis to keep fans engaged
  4. Post selfies and other pics so fans know it is really you
  5. Openly support your local teams outside the sport you play in
  6. Post non-sports information that not only lets your fans get a better picture of who you are as a person, but also widens your appeal
  7. Be topical. Respond to current events.
  8. Think about what you would have wanted to know about your heroes when you were a kid… Every athlete started as a fan!

Bottom line… The social media generation is here to stay and to be relevant to fans (and to brands), athletes have to get on the train!

[i] Just by the fact that you are reading this footnote proves my point. Q-Scores were the standard of how celebrity appeal was determined by brands for the longest time. It is a blended average of a celebrity’s reach, likeability, exposure ect.


By J.B. Bernstein  (@JBBERNSTEIN)

“Jon Hamm is playing me in a Disney movie about my life” is a quote I never would have expected to be coming out of my mouth!

Although that is not where this story starts, defying all reason, it is actually true.

Jon Hamm is playing me in the May – 2014 worldwide release of Disney’s Million Dollar Arm movie.

   JB and Jon Hamm


May 23, 2013

So many great ventures are born in serendipity, and nothing could be truer for the Million Dollar Arm.

I am a sports marketing agent, fortunate enough to work with some of the biggest names: Barry Sanders, Barry Bonds, Curtis Martin, and Emmitt Smith. Huge names, trailblazers in their own right.

However, for many years, I had been thinking about the most important question any self-respecting sports agent can ever ask himself…  WHERE IS MY YAO MING?

Yao was a phenomenon who sat at the pinnacle of worldwide sports marketing for a decade.  He opened up the largest market in the world to basketball in a way that had never been achieved before, and he made an estimated $1 billion dollars over his career from his playing contract, marketing, and licensing.

I thought about how lucky my agency would be if we could find a guy like that, and dreamed about the amount of commissions that could be generated.

(So here is Hint #1 – If you are going to try and come up with an idea, focus on the most successful case known in that industry)

Once you realize that finding Yao is not an easy task, the question quickly becomes “Can we recreate the Yao Phenomena in another format?”  So that starts you thinking, what are the components that made Yao so massively successful?

 (Hint #2 Make sure you understand all the elements responsible for the success you are trying to replicate)

  1. Yao was the first athlete from China to succeed in major Pro Team sports in the USA
  2. His success tapped into the nationalistic pride of Chinese people
  3. Even a small penetration of the 2+ billion person market would yield an enormous amount of potential new fans/customers
  4. The networks to monetize a pro sports venture already existed in China, specifically in broadcasting, sponsorship, licensed merchandise, and other sports revenue streams

So if I could just figure out a way to recreate all that, we would be in business.

This is where I believe idea generation can be learned.  If you accept (like I do) that an idea is the galvanization of previously unconnected pieces of information in your mind resulting from some “Eureka Moment”.

(Hint #3– Eureka moments are all around us… the only way you can see them is to have all these seemingly unrelated elements in your head BEFORE they hit.)

Here is what I mean.  My “Eureka Moment” for the Million Dollar Arm came when I saw a cricket bowler throw a pitch on a bounce at 160 KPH (or around 100 MPH).

Here are all the previously unconnected thoughts in my head prior to that moment that relate to “Project Yao 2”.

  1. China was out – no matter which athlete you found from China to succeed in the USA, they will never be as big as Yao.
  2. The only other country with over 1 Billion people is India and the broadcast, marketing, and merchandise licensing infrastructures are in place.
  3. Everyone plays cricket in India, yet prior to 2007 there were only about 20 spots on the national team, and no pro league.
  4. India has over 200 million men between the ages of 15-29 that are not really being scouted for any sport – if there were no pro sports leagues or college sports programs in India scouting talent, then it follows that natural superstar athletes like like Nolan Ryan and Willie Mays would have been selling cars or working for Pepsi in regular jobs like the rest of us.
  5. The best way to find undiscovered talent over a wide geographic area was to conduct a reality TV contest similar to American Idol.
  6. The old adage, “Give me a guy who can throw hard naturally and I will teach him how to pitch.”

Then it just came to me – find pitchers using a TV reality show in India.

Like most people, you probably think that idea sounds out of the blue and frankly a little crazy.  You are not alone.  I was told that by many industry experts and friends at the time. All it takes is just one person to believe. Luckily I found two partners who were already looking into international talent development and also had their eyes on India. Thus my million dollar idea turned into the Million Dollar Arm.

We are now in the contest’s 3rd season and proudly partnered with MLB International.

Rinku Singh, the winner of the first contest is still pitching, working his way up through the Pittsburgh Pirates minor league system.

Disney must have had its own Eureka moment. And brought Jon Hamm along.

To see how it all turns out, you will have to check out the movie or read the book next spring.

No Back Up Plan Is A Plan To Fail…

By J.B. Bernstein – @JBBERNSTEIN

Everything was in place to celebrate NFL history.  The dominoes were all lined up perfectly and I was just waiting for the first one to topple, starting a beautiful chain reaction.  Here’s the catch…  The first domino did not fall.  In fact, it evaporated into thin air leaving me with a slew of dominoes to clean up.

At the end of the 1998 NFL season, Barry sanders was coming off another Pro Bowl year.  With 15,269 career rushing yards, he was just 1,458 yards shy of the NFL’s  All-Time rushing record held at the time by the great, Walter Payton.  In the 1999 season, Barry was an absolute lock to break it.

As Barry’s marketing agent, I had been working for over a 3 years in preparation for this milestone.  We created a “Run for the Record” program complete with a special commemorative logo.  We signed up sponsors, Barry had shot ads, and all the licensed merchandise had been approved. We had the track laid out so perfectly we were poised to just coast through this historic moment maximizing every possible revenue stream.

Three days before 1999 training camp was to start, Barry called to let me know he was done. Done with football.  He just did not have the desire to play anymore.  It was devastating on so many levels.

3 million Wheaties boxes were on shelf the day he announced his retirement… They said “Fueling Barry Sanders Run For The Record”.

As his friend, I was crushed because I knew his love of playing the game was gone.  As his marketing agent, I was equally devastated, but in my field, you always need to be prepared for the worst.  Even as Barry faxed his resignation letter to the Wichita Eagle newspaper, I was already putting my back up plan into action.

Be proactive.

We were proactive with sponsors and licensees. This was not news I wanted them to hear on Sports Center.  I MADE PERSONAL CALLS TO EACH AND EVERY ONE OF THEM – THEY WERE THE FIRST TO KNOW.  My message was clear.  “We will figure out a way to help them get a return on their invest in Barry and the record through other programming.”

Make them feel as if their brand is the only one that matters.


wheaties pre          wheaties post

If you can’t give them what they paid for, what can you give them?

Obviously, I was not the only one who thought Barry breaking the record was going to be a sure thing.  We had 8 brands involved as sponsors and had struck a special deal with the NFL to help celebrate the record.  Since we could not give these valued partners the record, we had to figure out what could give them that they could calculate in the ROI (return on investment) equations (short of giving refunds).  In our case, we had:

  • Appearances
  • Signatures
  • PR
  • Base Brand Merchandise Rights
  • Community Impact

What you say is probably more important than what you do

Be the first to place the message you want the media to report. In PR, what is said first is what people believe to be true.  If you let others beat you to market with messaging during times of controversy, then you will be on the defensive and being on the defensive always comes off as contrived.

Make the statement to allay speculation and snuff out far-fetched conspiracy theories.

Remember your audience(s).  In our case, we had, the NFL, the Lions, corporate partners, media, and of course the fans.  We had to anticipate what each group was thinking and carefully craft a release that made sure each group heard what they needed to hear.

The key was that we had a plan in place for what would happen if the milestone we had sold (the rushing record celebration) disappeared.

When it was all said and done, Barry and I were able to work with everyone and find creative ways to fulfill the agreements that were in place to the satisfaction of all our partners.

The Barry Sanders “Run For the Record” Wheaties Box was one of their fastest sellers as collectors clambered for what they perceived as very limited “Error” box.

It was still sports history, just with some crisis management spun into a different type of sports history.


Seven Figure Selling (Part 1)

By J.B. Bernstein – @JBBERNSTEIN

I have always felt that being a salesperson is the hardest job out there.  It takes a special kind of person who can think fast on their feet, be an expert in many business categories, and most importantly, be impervious to rejection.

Selling goods and services that are priced over $1,000,000.00 is almost impossible.   If I can use an analogy here…   Being a good salesman is like being the champion at your golf club.  Being a good seven figure salesman is like being Tiger Woods.

Buyers in this exclusive “Seven Figure” market are very limited and fall into two groups:

  • C-Level Corporate officers – CEO, CFO, CMO, ect.
  • Ultra High Net Worth Individuals (UHNWI) – People who have a net worth in excess of $25,000,000.00

Two factors that are unique to this category, that make closing sales very difficult, of course, revolve around price.

  1. Price is in INVERSE proportion to the size of the buying market.  That is to say that the higher the price, the less people there are that can afford to buy.
  2. Price is in DIRECT proportion to the complexity and customization of the sale.  That is to say that the higher the price, the more the customer expects a very specific and customized product/service.

Another unique dynamic of seven figure selling is that the salesman is not likely to be able to afford the products they sell.  Take for instance the salesman who sells private jets or mega-yachts.  They might have a small boat or plane, but probably will never have that Embraer Lineage 1000 or a Hinckley 180 foot yacht.  The salesman does not run in the same social and business circles that their customers do, and in many ways is looked down on by the customer (even if it is subconscious).


In this seven part series, I will cover some of the main challenges intrinsic to this top tier of sales, complete with some interesting case studies from my career that show ways to circumnavigate these hurdles.

When I was a kid I got fortune cookie that said, “The greatest pleasure in life is doing things people say you can’t do.”  It has been my experience that nothing could be truer.

Seven Figure Selling (Part 2)

By J.B. Bernstein – @JBBERNSTEIN

There are six key challenges that you face when trying to sell in the seven figure arena.


Part 2 of this series focuses on the Target Market Size challenge.

As with all the challenges you will face as a salesperson, I have found creativity is the key to overcoming them.

I mentioned in part 1 of the series that the target market size is in INVERSE proportion to the price of the offering.  So if your price is north of a million dollars, implicitly the market is tiny.

There are a few obvious ways to maximize sales here.

To Increase your share of the existing market


To bring new customers to the category


None of these are easy.

When it comes to super high end products and services, it is hard to wrestle customers from competitors.  In many cases their wealth is generational, and they will continue use the brands that they grew up with.  In essence you have to convince them that a brand they are happy with is not as good a choice for them as your brand.  You can see how difficult that might be.

In terms of bringing new customers into the category, that is even tougher.  In order to bring new seven figure customers in, you need to find people who have just come into money, or you need to find people who can afford your brand, but have opted not to buy it.  Obviously, if someone can afford to drop a million dollars on a product or service and they have decided, for whatever reason, that they don’t need it, it will be difficult to change their mind.

That is why I say you have to think about your target creatively.  Many of the high end sales organizations realized that one way to sell a million dollar product was to spread the purchase across more than one customer.  If it was hard to find one person to pay a million dollars for something, could you find 100 people that would pay $10,000.00 each and could you make a model to keep them all happy.
The private jet market created just that structure in their owner share programs, card programs, and charter programs.

High end resorts applied the time share concept to their properties.

Heck, you can even lease a Rolls Royce.

Back in 2004 the thought hit me, how could we apply that to an athlete that was expecting to make at least a million dollars on a deal?

In sports marketing there are always more super star athletes than there are seven figure deals.  So I started thinking about how we could look at our target market differently to get my client the value he deserved without having to go to a massive corporation like Pepsi or Master Card.  That is how the BONDS-AROD Holiday Celebration was born.

Bonds Arod 2004Website Information and pics 047

We created an amazing 2 day event with Barry and Alex.  The first day they hosted an amazing dinner reception that was limited to just 100 people.  All attendees got to see exclusive highlights, got to be part of unique Q&A with the players emceed by Michael Kaye, got a gift bag valued at $4,000.00, got an amazing feast, and every person in the room got to spend 5 minutes 1 on 1 with Barry and Alex.  The second day was a very unique signing hosted by Jay-Z’s 40-40 club, unlike any signing I have ever seen.  Basically, there was a party going on downstairs, and we brought people upstairs in small groups where they got a signature and picture with Barry and then with Alex.

I can’t divulge specific numbers, but suffice it to say that we were able to create a fee and workload for the athletes that were similar to what they would have gotten if they had done a big national ad campaign with a fortune 500 company.

Creativity played a critical role for us in terms of how we thought about our target, and in the end, that creativity allowed us to close the deal.

Seven Figure Selling (Part 3)

by J.B. Bernstein @JBBERNSTEIN

Part three of this series on Seven Figure Selling focuses on Purchase Motivation.

Let’s face it; if you don’t understand the buyer’s purchase motivation, you are at a huge disadvantage out of the gate.  What is worse, in the old days, a buyer would lay out (often in painstaking detail) their purchase motivation(s).

In today’s market, especially the seven figure market, it has become the salesman’s responsibility to extract that purchase motivation.  These buyers are so pressed for time, they don’t have the luxury of regaling the salesman with long stories that have led them down the path to considering a seven figure purchase.

As a salesman, you need to extract that purchase motivation by looking at market conditions, the competitive framework, the buyer’s purchase history, and the buyer’s current personal situation.  Are they downsizing or upsizing?  Has some significant event in their life changed their thoughts about their personal needs?  Has a new competitor (or new model) come into the market place?  A salesman needs to almost intuitively know these things and has to customize the sales pitch so that the buyer has the feeling that you have somehow read his mind.

Back in the mid 90’s, I had the honor of being able to represent the 2 greatest running backs in the NFL… Emmitt Smith and Barry Sanders.  During the 9 years their careers overlapped, they won 8 NFL rushing titles (4 each).  Emmitt had an enormous national roster of marketing partnerships with blue chip brands in almost every category.  Barry should have had the same type of roster, but was somehow pigeon-holed into a “Regional Celebrity”.

One day, I was speaking with a friend of mine who was the head of marketing for a major NFL sponsor that also had a deal with Emmitt.  At some point, the conversation turned to Barry.  In essence I asked him what I could do to change this regional perception amongst guys like him.  What he told me changed the outcome of Barry’s impact as marketer in a way that still endures today – 15 years after he left the game.

He told me that I need to find a way to take three challenges marketers think about when Barry’s name came up for marketing opportunities:

  1. As superstar he did not transcend his market
  2. He seemed boring
  3. The Detroit Lions stunk

I was extracting purchase motivations from the buyer, and I immediately went to work on repositioning Barry to proactively address these three perceptions.

Transcend the market – I argued that Barry was universally loved like no other player.  If you were a Bears fan for example, you loved Barry.  You did not have animosity toward him like you would LT who could put your QB out for a season.  Barry was great, because when your team played the Lions, he would break a few great runs, but ultimately more times than not, your team would win the game.  I was able to illustrate that Barry was less polarizing than any other player in the league.

He seemed boring – We repositioned this as a positive.  Barry was not boring.  Barry was an even keeled superstar who would never get in trouble.  Back then, player off-field behavior was a growing concern.  Today it is probably one of the biggest concerns for marketers when choosing a spokesman.

The Lions Stunk – They did, and there was not much I could say to argue that point.  That being said, I did figure out a way to turn this into a positive for Barry.  Marketers like to plan in advance, and by the 4th game of the season, I could basically guarantee them that Barry would be available for their post season marketing efforts.  This was a guarantee that most NFL superstars could not give.

Once we pounded the pavement with this proactive mantra, the proverbially flood gates opened up.

Barry became one of the most marketed NFL players in history.  In 2013 – a decade and half after he left the game, that same positioning continues to fuel him as a preferred choice of NFL sponsors.  He has national deals with Pepsi, Nissan, EA Sports, Verizon, The Pro Football Hall of Fame, as well as licensed merchandise deals, with companies like Upper Deck, Nike, Highland Mint, Topps, Panini, Mitchell & Ness, and others.

madden winPicture1nissan bsi 2013

For Barry, understanding purchase motivation ensured that his off-field legacy would be congruent with his on-field legendary status.

Seven Figure Selling (Part 4)

by J.B. Bernstein @JBBERNSTEIN

Part 4 in this series will cover the challenge of finding common ground with an Ultra-High Net Worth Individual or C-Level executive.

I always like to say that I am the poorest rich guy in the room.  By most standards I would be considered well off, but unfortunately for me, every client, every customer, basically everyone I know makes me look poor in comparison.

This is the case for most seven figure salespeople.  They make a great a living and if they are like me, they appreciate every penny.  I am so grateful to have this job, there is not a day that goes by that I don’t thank the employment gods for smiling down on me and blessing me with the opportunities I have.  That being said, the people we sell to and the circles we move around in order to make these sales is a whole other universe.

I mentioned in Part 1 of the series that a seven figures salesperson is in the unique position of not being able to afford the products or services they sell.   There is such a huge gap in income, lifestyle, resources, and power between the salesman and customer in this market that it is almost impossible to find common ground.

Think about how you establish relationships in your daily life.  You try to find experiences that you share in order to create bonds and build trust.  When you are sitting across from the CEO of a fortune 500 company like Exxon, where the guy makes around $125,000.00 an hour, you are going to be hard pressed to find experiences you both share.

The other factor working against you is that fact that these Ultra-High Net Worth individuals and corporate executives are constantly being solicited.  No matter where they are, no matter what they are doing, as soon as someone finds out who they are, they almost immediately barraged.

It is almost like an athlete going out in public.  A person sees Michael Jordan on the street, and they figure this is their one chance to get a signature from him.  It does not matter if MJ’s in a hurry, or with his kids…  most people will take their shot.

It is the same for these powerful businessmen.  You could be at your kid’s little league game talking to the guy next to you just as normal as can be.  Until you realize that it is the guy who started Twitter, or Charles Schwab’s grandson, and you immediately see this as your chance to get a break.  Pitch your idea.  Ask for investment.  Even ask for job.

So what happens, is that like celebrities, these captains of industry constantly have their guard up.   That coupled with the gap in lifestyle makes finding common ground the toughest thing a seven figure salesman has to do.

In my experience the only way to find common ground is through expertise.  Most Seven Figure buyers make a practice of surrounding themselves with experts, especially in the areas where they are not specialists.  The only thing I have of value from the perspective of one of these buyers is that I am in expert in sports business.  My common ground is that I can help them.

As an example, I think back to the historic deal we structured to monetize Emmitt Smith pursuit of the NFL’s all-time rushing record.  We had to craft a deal between four groups that all would qualify as extreme seven figure buyers.

  1. The Cowboys & The Jones Family – One of the greatest sports franchises in the world run by a businessman whose success is astounding
  2. The NFL – A $9,000,000,000.00+ industry, and clearly the most successful pro sports league in the USA
  3. The NFL Players Association – A group that is responsible for safeguarding the interests of every pro football player.
  4. Emmitt Smith – Statistically the most successful running back in NFL history both on and off the field

Four hugely successful and powerful entities.  All are used to being in control.  All are used to being able to maximize their businesses without any outside help.

Yet we were able to craft a deal that allowed Emmitt to take the lead on sponsorship and merchandising of this record, based solely on our expertise in milestone marketing. zone90402 RWH ROP v2ERWH_logo_highres

That framework has served as the standard for these type of career player records ever since.