What makes a successful rider agent? How the peloton’s big deals are negotiated
The sport of cycling is a multi-million euro industry with a myriad of deals done each year. Many are between teams and their backers, of course, but the contract market is also a very active place of discussion and negotiation.
This is particularly so at this point of the season, with the period during and after the Tour de France being the time when many agreements are reached.
Riders and teams aside, another very important cog in that particular area are the rider agents. Their responsibility is to best represent their clients and help them to find the perfect fit for their talents and ambitions. That fit is not just about cash; there are many other considerations which need to be kept in mind in order to achieve a successful outcome.
CyclingTips spoke to three agents about their roles, their approach and what they do and don’t believe rider representatives should do when sealing deals.
Jason Bakker, Signature Sport:
A former competitive cricketer who studied sports management and marketing during his playing career, Jason Bakker is different to the two other agents CyclingTips spoke to as he began working in cycling without having an in-depth knowledge of the sport.
However what he did have was a lot of sports administration experience plus knowledge acquired from establishing his own management and marketing company. This plus his ability to see things differently as a cycling outsider led to Cadel Evans taking him on in 2009, and the duo began working successfully together.
Bakker was managing Evans when the Australian won the 2011 Tour de France and helped him forge many contracts and deals.
He said he has – deliberately – a small but select group of riders on his books. These include Evans, who has retired but is still involved in cycling, as well as current professionals Simon Clarke, Caleb Ewan, Robert Power and Brenton Jones.
“At this point in time, I have regular contact with teams and building relationships,” he said, explaining what happens during this period of the season. “That’s either for the now, for the guys like Simon Clarke who are out of contract now, and also for the future as well.
“At the moment there is a lot of talking, a lot of brainstorming, a lot of waiting. Sometimes you can drive the negotiations, depending on who the rider is, and other times the teams drive it. It all depends on where you are in the market.
“Right now there is a bit of uncertainty around. There is uncertainty in terms of riders transfers, as there are always a handful of big names who are on the move or who are considering it. They are always the ones who shape the market.
“This can have a big effect until those deals are locked away. Richie Porte has done that now and, potentially, Kwiatkowski too. But there are still quite a few up in the air and these can dictate the uncertainty. There is also other uncertainty in relation to the future of teams, or even in terms of them waiting for funding from their backers.”
Bakker said that several factors are considered when deciding whether or not a rider will sign for a certain team. That squad’s future is one; riders may decide not to sign for teams that are only guaranteed to be in place for one more season, although he said that sometimes they may opt to sign anyway. These decisions are made on a case-by-case basis.
Then, of course, there is the question of what is offered.
“As regards the financial side of things, it’s obviously important in any deal. You, me, the riders all have commitments, financial commitments and obligations and whatever. So while a rider personally might settle for something, you might have commitments that don’t allow you to settle for it.
“It really depends on the circumstances of the rider and what you are looking for in the deal.
“That in turn can be down to the various different times in your career. Earlier in your career money may not be the main priority, but the pendulum swings a bit later. Towards the end of your career, when you are trying to shore up your future, it might come into sharper focus.
“At the end of the day, you have got an obligation to your family and your future, and the career lifespan of cyclists and athletes is not long.
“That said, I have never, ever felt that fame or fortune motivated Cadel at all. He is not stupid, he is not naïve about the fortune part. I think the security and being set for as long as possible in his life and for his son and whatever is important, but I think Cadel was always motivated by just getting the best out of himself as a rider and being the best as he could be.”
Bakker said that Clarke is another rider who looks beyond the usual factors of contract length and value.
“Simon is pretty discerning person…he thinks a lot about the sport, he is quite a big thinker about cycling and the role he plays on teams.
“He is the sort of guy who has got the most out of himself. He is not just going to look at it from a term and financials perspective, he is going to look at it from a number of different perspectives.”
What’s crucial to his role, he says, is building relationships with teams and others in the sport.
“It’s a function of your job. I think life is about relationships and I guess if you don’t have relationships with teams, it is hard to do business with people.
“It is a bit of a year-long thing… Okay, you don’t ring up people or email people or contact people just to say hello and have nothing to say, but it is important to have mutually-respectful relationships.”
Ken Sommer, Corso:
After studying international business studies and completing a masters’ degree, Ken Sommer looked into setting up a cycling team with sponsorship he had attracted. Deciding this was not enough to sustain a squad, he brought the backer to the then-new Cervélo Test Team and ran the sponsorship department and marketing there.
After that team folded he helped set up the Leopard Trek team, then went into becoming a rider agent. Sommer established Corso with former Cervélo pro Joao Correia and together they represent a range of clients, including Gerald Ciolek, Laurens ten Dam, Linus Gerdemann, Tao Geoghegan Hart, Rick Zabel, Jens Voigt and Evelyn Stevens.
“It is not like in soccer where you have these big professional agencies,” Sommer told CyclingTips, speaking about the area he works in. “The market is very fragmented and to the most extent not very professional. I mean, there are a lot of good agents, but there are a lot of people out there that I think are not doing it 100 percent professionally. That is why we said, okay, let’s try this.”
Sommer said that some of the first riders who came on board did so because they were not happy with their relationships with their existing agents. The theme of relationships is something that seems important to him; he said that feeling a personal connection between agent and rider is crucial as there must be a good fit for their dealings to work.
Sommer and Correia have a large number of young riders on board, believing it is important to start building that connection early in a career and then let it grow. He said that it is important that there is trust and that the rider will allow the agent to get on with things.
“If you are in the Tour de France or Tour of Austria or Tour of Denmark and you have in your head, ‘okay I need to call this team, I need to call that team,’ it is not good. So, we take a load off their shoulders. We give them security. They know that we do everything we can to get them deals for the upcoming year or years that they are happy with.”
As much as Sommer emphasises the importance of the right dynamic between rider and agent, he also says this applies to rider and team.
“That is the most important thing. We start this early on,” he states. “We really believe that it is important that we find a team that fits to the rider.
“To do that, we look at the rider. We ask him what is important for him. Is he a rider that wants to talk to the sports director every day, or maybe every month. Does he want to be bothered at all?
“We take into account the personality of the rider, his goals and his ambitions. Then we draw up a list of which teams could fit. Once the whole carousel starts the teams tell us what they are looking for.
“It could be the case that we have five or six riders who fit the description. Other times we tell the teams, okay, it was nice chatting, but we can’t help you this year. And vice versa. That happens also.”
Sommer echoes Bakker in saying that personal relationships within the sport are crucial to the agent being able to do his job. That’s not simply between agent and team owner; it’s also important to get on with the sporting directors and others.
Once a contract is being negotiated, he believes one principle is paramount. “For us – and this is something we tell the teams – it is about complete transparency in the process. I am not going to go to a team and send out random info about riders. We ask them what they want and if there is some kind of overlap with what we can offer them, we start talking. Then obviously we try to push the riders as hard as we can.”
Many factors are important in placing a rider. Interestingly, he plays down the importance of salary early on in a career.
“For young guys, for our neo-pros, we tell the teams the first contract is not about money at all. We have had some instances were we went with maybe the third or fourth highest offer for a rider because it is just the right team.
“If someone has the potential to be a big rider, the big contracts will come four, five, six, maybe seven years later. That is when it counts.”
Jamie Barlow, Trinity Sports Management:
Jamie Barlow competed at an underage and junior level and, after working in the area of marketing and business, decided to return to his passion and handed in his notice the day after Chris Froome won the 2013 Tour. At the time he said he wasn’t sure how to translate his interest into a career, but felt he had to take a gamble in order to fend off the temptation to remain in a confortable, decently-paid job.
The Irishman joined up with compatriot Andrew McQuaid, who had set up the Trinity Sports Management company and who represented some of the biggest names in the sport. McQuaid is director of the company while Barlow is working as a rider agent.
According to Barlow, that the company has been able to capitalise on the explosion in interest in British cycling, partly through its riders becoming involved in corporate events.
He said that he primarily works with younger riders, valuing their enthusiasm and passion, but also crosses over with McQuaid in relation to some of the established professionals such as Nicolas Roche.
For Barlow, McQuaid and others in the company, the first priority is ensuring a best-fit approach. This begins with making sure the rider and Trinity Sports Management fit well together prior to starting to work together, and later to ensure a good mesh with teams.
“Our duty of care has to be to the rider. You have to find a team that you feel a rider will be able to develop in, particularly for the younger rider. It sounds ridiculously obvious, but some riders can just get dumped into teams and forgotten about if they get injured or if they don’t get results. We try to avoid that.
“It is not a case of going to a team that throws the most cash at a rider. You have to look outside of that, you have to look at what are the ambitions of the team, what are the ambitions of the actual rider. Does he still want to win races? Is he content working for a GC rider, or the Classics squad?
“Those and other factors need to be considered. Some riders won’t fit into particular teams, for whatever reason. It is not in our interests to put a rider into a team just for financial benefit. That is a short-term focus and you can lose your credibility very quickly if you are short-sighted and just look at the financial side of things.”
The company represents some highly-regarded riders in cycling, including the Australians Richie Porte, Simon Gerrans and Rohan Dennis, the Americans Taylor Phinney and Joe Dombrowski, the Belgian Philippe Gilbert, the Britons Steve Cummings, Ian Stannard, Simon Yates and Irish duo Nicolas Roche and Sam Bennett.
“Each different rider has different characteristics,” said Barlow, explaining how the process of fitting a rider to a squad is achieved. “It depends on what the team is looking for. Are they looking for a sprinter, a lead-out rider? A climber, a GC guy?
“Some teams will maybe look for a British rider or an American rider, depending on the bike sponsor or the partner. There are loads of different facets and angles. So each team has a different aim in terms of what they are looking for each season.
“The talks tend to be done around the time of the Tour. Obviously it is a stressful time for all of the teams, but come the second rest day of the Tour, you do find a lot of the deals are well underway or else pretty much shaped at that stage.
“It is no secret that the teams will sign the big riders and the big deals first, and then it filters down the chain until you get down to the domestique-level rider.”
Porte is clearly one of the top names in the peloton, particularly after a strong early season which saw him win the Australian time trial championships, two stages plus the overall in Paris-Nice, the Volta a Catalunya and a stage plus the overall in the Giro del Trentino.
While his bid to win the Giro d’Italia unravelled due to injury, he is seen as a potential Grand Tour winner.
“For Richie, he is a stage in his career where he got an opportunity to lead for a Grand Tour with BMC,” Barlow said, explaining how the deal came about. He said that working with Allan Peiper and racing alongside fellow Tasmanian Campbell Flakemore were attractions.
“Plain and simple, he got a good opportunity to try some something different and left Sky in the best possible way, helping them to win the Tour de France.
“I think the move just ticked a lot of boxes for Richie and where he is at in his career. We have no doubt he will add to his palmares with BMC in 2016.”
Dos and don’ts:
Speaking to Bakker, Sommer and Barlow, some fundamentals emerged. These include:
Consider the rider the most important part of the equation.
Consider the bigger picture in terms of an overall career trajectory and placing the competitor in the best possible scenario
Adapt a transparent approach. Be honest and straightforward.
Fixate on salary to the detriment of other aspects.
Seek to place riders without considering how such deals will play out longer-term.
Burn bridges with teams; relationships are important and careers are long, both for riders and agents.
Mislead team owners by leaking information to the media or inflating the amount of interest there is in a rider.