Iconic sports agent traces path to the top

By Zach Lowie, STAFF WRITER
On January 15, 2015

David Falk (left) spoke Wednesday evening at the Marshall Student Center Oval Theater about his experience as an agent representing Michael Jordan in the NBA. ORACLE PHOTO/SEBASTIAN CONTENTO

Sports agent great David Falk spoke Wednesday night in the Marshall Student Center Oval Theater to hundreds of people to close out the USF Sports and Entertainment Lecture Series, sponsored by Fox Sports Florida and Tampa Bay Lightning.

“This is a gentleman who’s really transformed an industry,” said Abe Madkour, an executive editor from Sports Business Journal/Sports Business Daily. “Someone like David only comes along once in a generation.” 

Falk established himself as one of the most influential basketball agents in NBA history, representing as many as 40 players at once during the prime of his career. Falk also oversaw the only NBA contract worth over $30 million for a single season. 

That milestone was the peak of Falk’s career-long representation of Michael Jordan, who signed the deal with the Chicago Bulls for the 1997-98 season. 

Falk spent much of the lecture explaining how he ended up making a name in the sports industry before big money was the name of the game.

After years of being underpaid, Falk negotiated a $33 million contract for Jordan — for that year alone — where he would lead the team to its sixth championship in Jordan’s career. 

Falk grew up in a middle-class home in New York where he lived with his family for most of his childhood. 

“I always knew I didn’t want to be an astronaut or a firefighter,” Falk said. “But my classmates said they could see me as a lawyer.” 

Entering George Washington University law school in 1975, Falk struggled to find an agency that would hire him even part-time to gain experience. 

Agencies seemed to only want someone with specific skills rather than Falk’s larger than life ambitions.

“All the interviewers would say ‘you’re a one man show,’” Falk said. “’We’re not hiring people with your minimal qualifications here.’” 

Falk soon found himself working at the one agency that would give him a shot, ProServ Inc. Though that shot only paid a $13,000 annual salary.

“I was making less than the secretaries,” Falk said. 

However, Falk had the inside track with University of North Carolina recruiting. The likes of James Worthy and Michael Jordan soon showed up at his door hoping to be represented.

 “(Michael Jordan) allowed me to tell him whatever I thought was right,” Falk said. “I would say ‘yes, you’re Michael Jordan but you can’t do this.’”

Outside of salary contracts, Falk has been a major part of endorsement deals, especially in personal shoe lines, such as Air Jordan. 

In a time when designer lines were the craze, Falk said he faced challenges getting approval for Jordan’s own line. 

“I couldn’t believe it,” Falk said. “Nike didn’t think that giving (Jordan) his own line was worth the risk of production just to flop in the stores. It was something that had never been done.” 

Nike and Falk agreed on $500,000 and a small cut of revenue, matching rival Adidas’ offer. 

Market experts predicted Air Jordan would produce a few million dollars in several years, but instead Nike made $130 million in sales in its first year on the shelves. Today, the deal is often considered the best marketing bargain for any major company in U.S. history. 

Falk went on to start his own company, Falk Associates Management Enterprises, where he changed the salary structure of the NBA during the late 90s and early 2000s, even negotiating more than $400 million in free agent contracts during a six-day period in 1998. 

In addition to Jordan’s contract, Falk headed the first $100 million contract in all of professional sports for Alonzo Mourning in 1996. Besides Jordan, Falk has represented more than 100 other NBA players throughout his time as a sports agent. 

“When I put my uniform on, my suit, I’m very competitive and very aggressive. Everyone assumes that that’s my attitude off the court, but that’s not the case at all,” Falk said. “Even though you have the ability to stomp on someone’s throat, you just don’t need to do that.”

Despite a lifetime of success, Falk has yet to retire and teaches at the David B. Falk College of Sport and Human Dynamics at Syracuse University.

“I try to tell my students at Syracuse that if you look at a pie chart in terms of sports revenue, an agent is the slimmest piece,” he said. “Don’t go into the agent business if you’re looking for financial success or stability.” 

Falk encouraged students to follow their dreams and never give up on what they want to do. 

“With my skill set, I don’t think I could be hired anywhere today,” Falk said. “Now these enormous companies are looking for specialists to work for them. You’ve got to find that specialty moving forward and run with it. I’ve always lived my life by the saying ‘always shoot for the stars and never settle for second best.’” 

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