For several years, attorney Bret Adams has helped his clients make money.
Since 1984, the Ohio University and Capital University Law School graduate has represented coaches, media personalities and artists in employment contract negotiations. His clients include Milwaukee Bucks coach George Karl, University of Cincinnati basketball coach Bob Huggins and ONN’s Doug Lessells.
Adams says he lucked into his practice.
“There’s two ways to get into this business,” he says. “You can toil away at a large sports agency and work your way up, or get lucky like I did and find a client and go from there.”
He recently joined forces with the Columbus office of Buckingham, Doolittle & Burroughs LLP, forming the firm’s Entertainment and Sports Law Services Division with other attorneys, but he still maintains his own practice.
“BDB had enough counsel that I thought the partnership would work,” says Adams.
He can now refer his clients to BDB when they are in need of legal work — such as for estate planning — that is outside his realm of expertise.
Adams enjoys his work primarily because it takes him around the globe.
“My work has taken me to Europe, Asia and South America — all directly as a result of the people I represented in sports history,” he says.
His biggest challenge? Keeping clients’ expectations realistic. “Agents can build expectations so high they can’t be met,” Adams says.
Smart Business talked with Adams about the challenges and rewards of his practice and issues in the industry.
What is the most challenging aspect of negotiating contracts for your clients?
The most challenging aspect is dealing with the expectations of my clients. Sometimes negotiating with the client is more difficult than the other side.
Most athletes and coaches that I represent have been treated differently than traditional legal clients, and their expectations are higher. Mentally, because of the way they’re treated — like they are the greatest player or coach on the planet — the monetary awards may not be what they expected.
What is the most enjoyable aspect of your work?
Unlike traditional lawyers, my practice has taken me around the world. I also enjoy working with my clients.
My coaching clients are more emotional, insecure and paranoid than most clients by nature of the business. Coaches are hired to be fired — they’re always looking over their shoulder to see what the next opportunity will be.
Today I represent more coaches than entertainers. I started representing athletes about 20 years ago and developed a nice practice that expanded to coaches. In the coaching field, there is much more stability, and now they make a tremendous amount of money. And frankly, coaches are much more mature than a 22-year-old.
In this business who you represent is important. A lot of it has to do with media attention. I’ve been fortunate enough to represent high-profile, newsworthy people — people whose names are recognized — so I’ve received more than my fair share of media attention by representing them.
What was the toughest contract to negotiate and why?
Sometimes the lesser profile coaches or up-and-coming coaches are more difficult to negotiate because they don’t have any leverage.
For example, Terry Stotts is the new head coach of the Atlanta Hawks [NBA basketball team]. The previous head coach was fired in December, and Stotts was elevated to the head coach position and wanted an increase in salary. It is his first head coaching opportunity, and he is thankful for it, but he knows he can’t demand the world as far as salary goes.
It will get easier after he has a proven track record.
How long does it take to negotiate a contract?
It depends on the situation. Some local entertainment or media figures can take longer than a $500,000 job in the NBA; it depends on the adversary and the client. It also depends on the bargaining position of the client.
It can take as little as a few hours up to many months. It depends on what each side wants from the other.
Lawyers that do what I do are typically lone wolves — you can’t develop a practice within the confines of a large law firm because of the firm’s billing expectations. I’ve had various firms solicit me over the years, wanting me to develop a sports and entertainment practice as part of their firms.
I thought BDB had enough counsel and saw it would work on an “of counsel” basis. I can utilize their resources and do my own practice. Before, if a Chris Spielman had estate planning or other issues that weren’t in my area, I referred him elsewhere. Now I can provide those services through BDB.
Do you feel there should be caps set on how much sports figures earn?
Yes, I am a big believer in salary caps and fiscal restraint. I am a business lawyer as much as any attorney.
High salaries are not the result of agents, but the system. Teams and owners buy success, which makes it unfair. High salaries are also a result of team owners not being able to control their spending.
Sports team owners do not run teams like the businesses that made them successful. If we had a true salary cap, it would protect owners from themselves and we would have fiscal restraint. Maybe then we wouldn’t be paying $150 to see an NFL or NBA game for a great seat.
What are the differences between the services you offer and those of an agent representing the same talent pool?
What I do is vastly different than what an agent does. Lawyers can directly negotiate the contract and provide legal advice and services. An agent still needs to have the contract reviewed by a lawyer.
Non-lawyers can solicit clients, lawyers cannot. I can’t call a player when he is eligible and say, ‘I did $10 million in contracts last year, I can represent you.’ An agent can.
Do you think contracts offered sports and entertainment professionals will change in the future?
I think there’s a deflation happening right now in professional sports. There are too many options for teen-agers now — they have the Internet, video games, youth soccer.
We’re not seeing the same type of interest in basketball and football. Kids are growing up in an Internet world, not a sports world. Plus the proliferation of teams and leagues — there’s just not enough money to go around.
We’re not going to see a $7 million salary like George Karl earns. The average head coaching salary in the NBA two years ago was $3 million to $4 million. The most recent hires of younger coaches are at $1 million, which is still a lot of money.
And it’s not only coaches that are affected. I see it in the NBA free agents signed. There are very good players out there that are not making the money they would’ve made three years ago. How to reach: Bret A. Adams Esquire, (614) 227-4278 or www.bretadams.com; Buckingham, Doolittle & Burroughs LLP, (614) 221-8448 or www.bdblaw.com