Analysis: Football agent talk fills back pages

Coverage of David Beckham's move to Spanish club Real Madrid was typical of the early silly season, as football agents take advantage of empty back pages to promote their clients and themselves.

The gospel according to fictional sports agent Jerry McGuire is straightforward enough: 'I will not rest until I have you holding a Coke, wearing your own shoe, playing a Sega game featuring you, while singing your own song in a new commercial starring you, broadcast during a SuperBowl game that you are winning.'

Of course, the English Premiership is a million miles from Hollywood, and no self-respecting football agent would speak in such grandiose terms - at least, not without substituting 'FA Cup Final' for 'SuperBowl'.

A handful of clients, such as David Beckham, could merit this kind of attention - off the field alone Real Madrid's latest acquisition has enough allure to secure links with Adidas, Pepsi, Vodafone and Police sunglasses.

The US may recently have been underwhelmed by the charms of the England captain, but in the UK he remains capable of generating acres of news print on the sports pages, even while on holiday.

Although most players do not have Beckham's pulling power, UK agents stand to make fortunes through their cuts of deals in a game enriched to the tune of £1.3bn over the last three years by interest from BSkyB.

For agents, the two months when footballers don't actually play football represent an irritation rather than a well-earned break. The game may take June and July off, but the task of promoting their charges is unending.

And with plenty of editorial space available in the close season, the temptation for agents to get juicy (if unsubstantiated) speculation about their clients moving to a bigger club onto the sports pages must be overwhelming.

'I think that's a shallow way of looking at it,' insists Mark Brodie of Stellar Group, whose clients include Arsenal's Ashley Cole. 'I don't think any agent in their right mind would think "There isn't much going on, let's make something up for the papers".'

This will be disappointing to those who believe the professional carnage of TV's Footballers' Wives, where agents spend much of their time talking on their mobiles to tabloid journalists, is based on fact. But veteran football agent Eric Hall cheerfully admits to placing stories which are not, shall we say, the whole truth and nothing but.

Hall concedes that caution is required: 'You can do yourself more harm than good, but there are ways of using the press.' With the experience of a man who has looked after bruisers such as John Fashanu, he adds: 'I've been around showbusiness all my life. If I've got a football story to sell, I have personally got to get straight to the (sports) editor or one of the top writers. Never lie to the press. Tell the truth, but leave parts out.'

While Hall sniffs at the idea of hiring a PR company to handle media relations, they are not excluded from the process. One PRO says: 'Some people have the relationships with journalists, while others rely on their PROs to stir things up.' Daily Telegraph assistant sports editor Martin Smith confirms: 'There are a lot more PR people involved now (compared to a decade ago).'

Before moving to Stellar, Brodie worked in sports marketing and in PR with Biss Lancaster. 'Stellar recognised the need for more people in the PR sector to work with them,' he says. 'Clients are brands. People do use PROs, but it's not a huge role. If you target the right sector with the right person you can get results. By targeting sports desks alone, you're limiting your client.'

Beckham's PR for the Real deal was handled by SFX Sports Group, whose MD Jon Holmes was recently described by The Independent as 'one of the few respected agents'. They also received media advice from former Sun editor Stuart Higgins. Tony Stephens, the marketing man who has brokered Beckham's massive pay deals, was not available for comment, and SFX declined to speak on the record to PRWeek.

But SFX handles its own media relations on sports issues, while hiring The Outside Organisation to cover celebrity and entertainment matters for its clients. 'Statements would come from the agent, and we react to them,' says an Outside spokesperson. Other large agents with media-friendly clients are thought to have similar arrangements.

Playing the back pages is not limited to players or their PROs, of course.

As one football PRO says: 'Agents have relationships with journalists, just as individual players do.'

Agents certainly appear virtually unregulated. The Football Association is only interested in the activities of agents insofar as they impinge on the performance of the national team. People may question how this squares with its position as custodian of the game, but players have contracts with individual clubs, not with the FA.

And as Beckham's profile shows, the back pages are no longer the only game in town for footballers and their agents. Brodie says: 'Sports desks are the meat and bones of the industry. But the more interesting thing is (placing stories with) the news desk and entertainment people, that's where you get the real value.'

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