Time to monitor player agents

The role of agents in shaping players' careers needs to be taken more seriously.

Tendulkar owes part of his financial success to his manager, the late Mark Mascarenhas.

Here’s an easy question for you - what’s the next best thing to being a professional cricketer in India today? The answer is just as easy - being a player agent. It’s like leading a cricketer’s life, without actually playing the sport, getting a slice of every commercial deal you negotiate on their behalf, the lifestyle, there’s power and there’s access - the all important perk of being in the business. As an agent, you get a first-hand insight into their lives, so much so that you become an integral element in their professional life. Also, you don't need an MBA degree or anything of that sort either. Surely, it’s an exciting profession and I’d imagine every cricket lover’s dream job, but there are serious issues too, a lot of grey areas that need to be ironed out for the business to function with a degree of regulation.

This is where the BCCI needs to be applauded for finally waking up and finally smelling the strong coffee, and taking baby steps in putting a system in place where these player agents are not just accredited by the organization, but their activities being monitored accordingly, especially given the legitimate earnings in cricket - both on and off the field. In doing so, there’s a slight admission on the board’s part, especially about its lax attitude towards player agents in the past and despite several episodes, which ranged from agent-induced greed to last year’s sting operation, they had chosen to look the other way.

Also, it is important to understand that the role of the player agent, as we know the term, has gone through various evolutions, quite parallel with how professional sport has itself evolved. In a global sporting scenario, the “agent” as we call him today, was at first a legal advisor, more on the lines of a contract lawyer, the person you would entrust the examination of a contract and seek advice on the terms. He then became a negotiator, the role gradually exceeding the purely advisory one it began. He now had the permission to negotiate the contract on the player’s behalf, and if need be, seek better terms from the party in concern.

In common terms, a middleman, who benefits financially or a chunk of the deal in exchange for his services. The modern day agent, while combining the two roles, is also a promoter, a guide and in some cases, a confidante. Apart from the legal and middleman roles, he’s today helping his client as a public relations expert, promoting his client everywhere - ensuring his reputation in the public eye is intact or bettered, and for his younger clients, he plays counsellor or even a career guide and in some cases, elder brother or father figure.

This is precisely why the agent accreditation system is an important and welcome initiative taken by the BCCI. While at first, it plans to implement the system for its contracted cricketers - the 20-odd players, it is imperative for the board to extend the scope of the system beyond them. The IPL, for whatever its worth, has emerged as an exciting prospect for first-class cricketers, and specifically age-group cricketers with the sheer lure of playing with or against their heroes, learning from what is considered an “international” environment etc, and this today, for these cricketers is a realistic ambition with a promise of a decent earning, while playing for India might remain a dream. This is precisely what fits into the agent narrative.

Five years ago, this wasn’t the situation - days when agents would dismiss first-class cricket matches as ones which “even a crow won’t come and watch” or “kaun dekhta hai yaar?” But today, they flock to these matches or swarm collectively, often competing against each other to lure and sign up a different type of clientele - seemingly low-key, with promises of bigger things. The promises range from as little as bat deals to a guaranteed contract with an IPL franchise, depending upon - quite obviously, the player’s ability or, the franchise’s demands. Indeed there’s nothing illegitimate about the business itself, but these domestic matches often become a theatre where greed is sold and the players, most of them being from humbler backgrounds, fall for it. There’s access and plenty of it, for domestic matches don’t see a lot of audiences and somewhere the BCCI needs to realize that it could or it may have become a haven for what we’d colloquially refer to as “shady characters” who’re preying for easy targets. Additionally, especially in cities or urban centres, these player agents are often visitors to age-group or even school and college-level matches and similar promises are made. Only, lesser in value (for eg: the promise of a trial with a franchise as opposed to a contract), but the intention, unfortunately the same.

At a macro-level, the board through its various state associations or an individual IPL franchise needs these agents too. And this is where the nexus gets slightly stronger. These agents often work together with an association, before an international match in that venue to help them out with in-stadia advertising, luring potential sponsors. The same for the IPL. In fact, one of the “bigger” franchises, has outsourced its sponsorship to an agency - which also manages a few of their cricketers. And incidentally or perhaps, unsurprisingly, a marquee player of that franchise endorses all those brands in individual capacity (unlike some “team” endorsements), which sponsor the franchise concerned.

From an observer point of view, I’d imagine there are two types of player agents in the business. One, whose association is based on greed and to an extent, exploiting the player’s image to advance his/her own interests and the other, who invests in his clients, and as they begin to mature, starts cashing in on their status. The latter is, quite easily, the better of the two options and more and more fringe cricketers opt for it. The ones who’re established prefer the first option, where they hand over their professional life to someone else, who not just is responsible for commercial deals, but slowly starts intruding into avenues like investments etc. A case in question is that of Ravindra Jadeja in 2009, who unfortunately violated his existing contract with a franchise and got banned from the IPL for discussing better terms with another franchise, a move allegedly triggered by his agent. The agent concerned had sold greed to the player by exploiting the loosely drafted IPL rules, and the player, for all his naiveté, bought into it and suffered. The agent was informally blacklisted by the BCCI as part of its prompt action, and typically, the board ignored the issue and believed everything else was kosher and above board.

The player-agent-board-media nexus is something that has been dogging Indian cricket for a while, at a pretty nascent level. The media, on its part has been silent about this issue, because of its dependence on these agencies for syndicated columns, or “exclusive” interviews. The board or the franchises, as mentioned earlier needs them for their commercial endeavours. The player, on his part is happy to take whatever comes his way and the agent is by far the biggest beneficiary in all of this. Another trend that has come through over the years in Indian cricket and player agents - when there’s an agency that contracts the captain of the team, it’s more or less likely that they end up signing his trusted lieutenants. It’s an ongoing trend, which quite obviously hasn’t been exposed - for whatever reasons, and crops up whenever there’s a dubious selection and eyebrows are raised for some time. Today, you have former players owning player-management or “mentoring” agencies, journalists who once upon a time were beneficiaries of this nexus, moving on to becoming player agents, and then there are casting directors in some cases.

I think the time has indeed come when the board puts in place a system that not just accredits or registers or licenses these agents, but monitors their activities, commercial or otherwise, because today, they’re an important part of the ecosystem - like it or not. South Africa woke up after the Hansie Cronje affair and put in place strict guidelines for agents, Pakistan did the same after the spot-fixing controversy involving their players, Australia and England have a system in place and there’s no reason why India shouldn’t either. While it might cause some discomfort for the agents, I think given the atmosphere that Indian cricket has to an extent created and now finds itself in, it’s only fair that their involvement should be made formal and regulated.