Meet the men behind football's biggest deals
"TEN YEARS AHEAD?" Jonathan Barnett can't hide his disgust. "It's a fallacy. The U.S. is actually ten years behind us."
From his office in London, Barnett is scoffing at the notion that Americans are more sophisticated marketers. "They all walk around with their headphones because that's how they think an agent should look," he says. "But they're not at all good at building up their players."
Barnett is, objectively, very good. In 2013, he engineered Gareth Bale's record-breaking £86 million pound transfer from Tottenham Hotspur to Real Madrid. His stable includes some of world football's biggest stars. In a recent list of the highest-earning agents throughout sports, Forbes ranked him ninth. Britain's Telegraph newspaper calls him a "super-agent."
Now he's taking on America. Already, he has made a 12-city, 14-day swing through the NFL and picked up his first client. His plan is to get as many as 30 in the coming 18 months. "Give me two or three years," he says, "and we'll take on the NBA."
Barnett is expanding across the Atlantic because he sees opportunity. But he's also doing it because several American competitors, notably the Los Angeles-based agency Wasserman, have invaded his turf, amassing rosters of soccer talent that rival Barnett's own. "Nobody is surprised when Americans come here," he says, a note of petulance in his voice. "Why can't I go there and take them on a bit? I want to break into America big and have a real go at them."
Barnett's Stellar Group and Wasserman, which also runs its world football operations out of London, rank at the top of the most successful agencies in the sport. "Depending on the relationships you have, one of them is your first call if you need a player," says Ben Mansford, a rising star in football management who worked at Wasserman before serving as the chief executive of Leeds United and now Maccabi Tel Aviv. "The other one is likely your second."
Given the slightest opportunity, the two empires will bicker over whose realm extends further. "We're by far the largest soccer agency in the world," says Casey Wasserman, whose eponymous company represents hundreds of athletes across several dozen sports. "We are by far the biggest football agency," counters Barnett. "It's not even close. The biggest by a long way."
They're also opposites in almost every respect, starting with the way their executives dress. (Barnett and his Stellar colleagues: business elegant. Casey and his team: sporty casual.) Wasserman agents develop friendships with their players, obliterating the line between personal and professional ties. They're renowned for their willingness to jump on a plane bound for anywhere the sport is played, which is pretty much everywhere, to cement a deal.
Barnett wants little to do with his clients. He rarely even bothers to watch them play. "I'm not looking to be their best friend," he says. "I'm not going to their parties." And though Barnett owns his own plane, his travels are nearly always confined to Western Europe, where he visits teams in the top leagues two or three times a week.
"We would all prefer to stay in the safety of the civilized world," responds Wasserman's Neil Fewings, one of the company's senior agents. "But when an opportunity presents itself somewhere, you need to be able to go do it." So when Colin Kazim-Richards, a Wasserman client, was close to securing a move to one of the two biggest Turkish teams, Galatasaray, after playing for the other one, Fenerbahçe, Fewings didn't hesitate. He took off for Istanbul.
Signing a player who had so recently played for the local rival constituted a coup for Galatasaray. Everyone wanted the deal done. Still, negotiations proceeded at the pace of Mideast peace. Galatasaray's six owners, smoking furiously in a cramped hotel suite along the Bosporus, each had a personal agenda. "And each," Fewings says, "was determined to be heard."
Hours became days, Fewings says. The owners aligned and realigned. They argued with each other, then argued with Fewings. And they smoked. During some negotiations, smoking breaks are taken. During this one, Fewings finally insisted on non-smoking breaks to clear his head. It was awful, but epic in its way. And it cemented the relationship with Kazim-Richards. He has played for seven teams since, it should be noted: Every transfer was negotiated by Fewings.
Barnett sees no romance in such adventures. Whatever commission Wasserman earned on the deal, he makes clear, wouldn't have been worth his jet fuel. "I don't go to Turkey," he says.
IN AMERICA, sports agents are sometimes more respected by fans than the billionaires who own teams. A few have attained iconic status. They author books on ethical negotiating, or the Zen business doctrine of win-win.
In world football, agents have historically been regarded as profit-hungry shysters, down there in the muck with bookmakers, street hagglers and petty thieves. They'd no more write a book than paint a landscape. As the game has grown exponentially more lucrative over the past decade, their reputation has ... stayed pretty much the same. "Interfering money-grubbers who try to stimulate player movement for their own gain," is how Fewings describes the stereotype. "And," he hastens to add, not naming names, "there are many who do that."
Two years ago, the loose regulating of football agents around the world was abandoned entirely. Now you mail off a modest check, declare yourself an agent, and you're in business. "You get pulled into a meeting with a player's father, mother, sister and brother sitting at a table," says the managing director of one of England's best clubs. "It's five days of listening to, 'We're going to take him to the Ukraine.' And then the next day, 'Oh, wait, Manchester United just called us.' It's impossible."
In much of the world, football talent is often represented by the friends of friends, or a brother-in-law, or a sole proprietor who might make his living off a single player. Portugal's Jorge Mendes is probably the world's most famous agent, but much of his business comes from a few top clients, such as Cristiano Ronaldo and Jose Mourinho. Mino Raiola, whose commission on Paul Pogba's move from Juventus to Manchester last year was rumored to approach £40 million pounds, often works out of a kitchen in the Dutch city of Haarlem, where his family owns pizzerias.
"But those guys are fading out," Barnett says. "They're dying out and being replaced by the big corporations, and by smaller agencies like us that have become big. Fifteen years ago, if I went to a player and said, 'Here's a mobile phone,' he'd sign. Now most players are properly informed. They ask the right questions. They know what they want. And they want a bigger agency."
These days, many of the biggest have been structured to resemble their American rivals. None has perfected this more than Wasserman -- unsurprisingly, since the company really is American. "When you say you're an American company, it helps," says Fahri Ecvet, COO of Wasserman's world football business. "People look to America as representing how to do things the right way."
Wasserman maintains ongoing relationships with Microsoft, American Express, Pepsi and other brands with massive marketing budgets. It owns an entire company, called Laundry Service, that optimizes social media accounts as marketing tools. "They're set up to totally deliver for the client in every part of their life," says Mansford. "In doing so, they make themselves indispensable."
But there's another way of doing business as a football agent, one with roots in the traditional merchant class of North London. That's where Barnett, now 67, was raised as an Arsenal supporter. Barnett doesn't care about making himself indispensable. He insists that Stellar, which he owns with his partner, David Manasseh, has a marketing arm, but admits that he knows nothing about it.
What he does, and at a higher level than perhaps anyone else in sports, is negotiate major contracts with important clubs. "He knows exactly the value of his client," Mansford says. "Steller's strength is demanding what the client is worth, and then a touch more. And getting it."
THE STELLAR GROUP office is hidden behind an understated brown door in a posh part of central London, just off Hyde Park. It could be an investment firm, except for the photos of prominent players on the walls. Barnett wears a black suit and a white shirt with embroidered initials. He used to boast about the size of his yacht. Now it's the plane.
Wasserman agents prefer to remain under the radar. Not Barnett, whose fame drives his business. He's a star, and that attracts stars. When Barnett's son, Josh, began working with him four years ago, he still drove the same serviceable car he'd had at school. Barnett wouldn't allow it. "You have to look like you've had success as an agent, doesn't matter who you are," he told his son. "You can't go to someone and say, 'I'll look after you, I'll make you millions and millions,' and get into a Honda." Barnett bought him a Bentley convertible, which sits outside the office on Stanhope Place. "It took two weeks for me to convince my wife that wasn't a ridiculous thing to do for a 26-year-old," he says. "But perception is important."
Barnett was already approaching middle age when he left his family's casino business to work as an agent. He convinced Lennox Lewis to box professionally. Then he partnered with Manasseh, the son of a friend, and began representing cricketers. "We were the best at that in a short time," he says. "But there was no money." So he targeted English football, for the same reason that Willie Sutton robbed banks. He would approach established stars and ask to represent them. "They'd say, 'Who do you look after?' And I'd say, 'Nobody.' 'What do you know about football?' 'Nothing.' You're not going to get far with that."
Eventually, he realized that he needed to connect with players before anyone else did. He went to watch an England U-18 team play in Chesterfield, in the Derbyshire countryside. England was routed by Spain, but Barnett was the only agent there. He walked away with Ashley Cole, Ledley King and three or four others. And a business. "Now we're growing unbelievably," he says. "People are flocking to us. Let's just say we have a lot more than 600 players." Of those, he estimates, perhaps 95 percent signed before they turned 18. When Wasserman agent Dean Baker grumbles, "You used to be looking at the best 18- and 19-year-olds, but now you have to be looking at them at 14 and 15," he's referencing Stellar.
The heft of the Bale transfer, Barnett acknowledges, gave Stellar a major boost. In order to make it tolerable to Tottenham, the price needed to be stratospheric. "You have to leave the selling club with some credibility," he says. "You can't make them look stupid." Barnett's challenge was convincing Real Madrid to set a record. The final figure was reported in every newspaper, usually with Barnett's name. Since then, he says, "I can walk into any club in the world, I can see any young player, and they all know me."
When he's told that Casey Wasserman announced at MIT's Sports Analytics Conference that he ran the world's largest soccer agency, Barnett looks like he smelled a bad oyster. "I met him once," he says. "We didn't see eye to eye."
Wasserman is the grandson of Lew Wasserman, the agent and studio executive who reigned for decades as Hollywood's most powerful man. Casey didn't go into movies, but Lew's friendships with IMG's Mark McCormack, the NFL's Pete Rozelle and others gave him a running start in sports. One summer, he lived with Art Modell, who owned the Cleveland Browns. At 13, he flew to Hawaii to intern for the Pro Bowl under Roger Goodell, who was barely more than an intern himself.
At 24, Wasserman's grandfather supplied him with the capital to buy an arena football expansion team, the Los Angeles Avengers. In his early 40s today, he owns a company that claims to generate $200 million of annual revenue. In his spare time, he serves as the face of the Los Angeles Olympic bid. Though he acts anything but entitled, he's the type of privileged figure that has made Barnett feel insecure all his life.
More than a decade ago, Wasserman bought into world football by purchasing the SFX agency. "Somebody wondered whether we'd be interested in selling as well," Barnett says. A meeting was arranged. In Barnett's telling, Wasserman kept him waiting. Then he arrived in his office dressed casually and put his feet up on the table. "Never mind a tie," Barnett says. "He didn't have shoes."
Now Barnett pulls a fat binder from his desk. He drops it on a table like a trial lawyer presenting evidence. "These are our clients," he says. "I'm prepared to bet 5 million pounds that Wasserman is not bigger than we are. They're small. They really are small compared with us. I'm not being funny."
He points a finger. "Five million pounds," he says. "You can tell Casey."
THERE'S A LULL in the Bournemouth-Swansea game at Vitality Stadium when Neil Fewings finds a photo on his phone. "That's Danny Murphy," he says. And there's the former Liverpool midfielder, enjoying himself somewhere sunny. "We've become really good friends," Fewings says. "His daughter and my daughter. His wife and my wife. We holiday together."
Murphy hasn't played since 2013, but his relationship with Wasserman remains lucrative. Fewings did the deal that made him an analyst for the BBC football show "Match of the Day." Murphy's byline also appears on a column in the Evening Standard newspaper. "We write that," Fewings reveals.
In a pullover and trainers, Fewings is reserved but amiable. He doesn't so much represent players as serve as their consigliere, insinuating himself into their lives to an extent that would make Barnett shudder. "I've got five of my clients getting married this summer," he says. "One in Italy, one in Portugal, one in Holland. I'll be at all the weddings."
He can't imagine doing his job without attending games, often several in a weekend. He's in Bournemouth because he represents Arsenal's Jack Wilshere, who plays with the Cherries while on loan from the bigger club. He's there, too, for Swansea manager Paul Clement, another client. It's important for him to see them. It's important for them to know they've been seen.
Wasserman's agents operate as independent contractors, like stylists at a beauty salon. "Very meritocratic," Fewings says. "Eat what you kill." Several might attend the same game, each tending to his clients. Dean Baker is also there in the stands in Bournemouth. He handles Eddie Howe, the Cherries' manager, who has been rumored in recent years to be headed to Manchester United, Arsenal and even the English national team. As the game unfolds, Fewings points out a Swansea midfielder, a Bournemouth back and several substitutes: all Wasserman clients. The goalkeeper Lukasz Fabianski signed with the firm while he was with Legia Warsaw. Then he signed with Arsenal. Now he starts for Swansea. The route to success, Fewings says, is seldom a straight line.
"I'd never even heard of Mitra Kukar," Fewings says of the club that made an offer for Marcus Bent in 2011. Bent had played for 15 English teams over 17 years. By the end, his value had plummeted. But his name still held allure, at least in Indonesia. "I didn't even know there was an Indonesian League," Fewings says, but before long he was on a plane to East Kalimantan to negotiate one last payday for his client.
Fewings represents the standout Southampton fullback Virgil van Dijk, who will get a huge contract this summer from Liverpool, or Chelsea, or maybe Manchester City. While Fewings trolls for interest, Van Dijk is being advised by a team of specialists about off-the-field possibilities. "You walk around the building, 150 guys on one floor," Baker explains. "The cream of the crop in terms of legal, finance, sponsorship. All the different kinds of expertise a player will look for throughout his career. And they're in-house."
That all happens inside the company's Soho headquarters, which resembles a hip ad agency. COO Ecvet's office is command control. One afternoon, he watches the names of England's latest selection scroll past on the Sky Sports crawl. He calls out Wasserman clients as they appear: "Bertrand ... Clyne ... Henderson..." In the end, there are seven. "We're normally a third of anything," he says. "A third of the sport is normally us."
Still only 31, Ecvet was a music lawyer but grew bored. He started at Wasserman by solving a knotty legal problem as an intern. Now he's point man for world football, helping to access the parent company's resources for his agents. "When we show them a case study of what one of our American clients has done," he says, "they're very interested." When Swansea's Clement wanted to learn how American coaches and executives operated, Wasserman set him up with Billy Beane and Gregg Popovich. "The networks they have in the U.S. are amazing," Clement says. "There's always somebody who knows somebody."
Still, there's value in just showing up, shaking your client's hand, hearing his concerns. After Bournemouth beats Swansea, Baker is waiting for Howe upstairs in a carpeted lounge when his phone buzzes. Ryan Allsop has been Bournemouth property since 2013, but has played more games on loan in lower classifications than for Bournemouth itself. Baker's eyebrows lift. "I didn't even think he knew I was here," he says.
In the Wasserman ethos, every interaction with a client is an opportunity. That goes for someone named Ryan Allsop as much as for Eddie Howe. Baker answers the phone. Allsop appears at the top of the stairs. Twenty minutes later, with the stands now deserted and the corporate suites all but empty, they're still deep in conversation -- Allsop relating his troubles, Baker finding ways to solve them.
THERE'S A COMMOTION in the Stellar office. Josh Barnett is supposed to be interviewing job applicants, but he can't be found. "He runs a big part of this business," his father confides. "He's brilliant."
At 30, Josh already has established deep relationships with many of England's club executives. Still, his father isn't quite ready to pass the baton. He'll brag about spending the weekend sailing, but it's clear he'd rather run up to rainy Newcastle to negotiate a deal. "The thing that David Manasseh and I both have is great drive," he says. "We were two young agents when we started. Now we have a business that's bigger than a lot of football clubs."
That drive is another reason he's expanding into the NFL. "If you sit still in this business," he says, "you go backward." He already has negotiated his first NFL deal, moving the British-born offensive tackle Menelik Watson from the Raiders to the Broncos for more than $18 million. "I just took a guy and made him a lot more money than any other NFL agent could have," he says.
He's still talking about it when Josh appears in the doorway with an apology. Instantly, it's plain to see that the two have a special relationship. Before long, they're grinning like little boys. "I was concerned when he came in because I have a partner," he says. "I told David to look after him, that he'd report to David, and you know what happened? Now he's even closer to David than he is to me."
And perhaps that's the most important reason for Jonathan Barnett to come to America. By expanding overseas, he can keep working while letting his son build a business of his own. That way, nobody would ever think Josh hadn't earned his way. "I won't run it," Barnett says. "Joshua will do that. But I'll get a kick out of it."
He extends a hand toward the doorway, where his son had been standing moments before. "We'll show them how to do it," he says.