Q&A With Octagon's Andy Ross
by Will Stewart, TechSideline.com, 7/21/05
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About a year and a half ago, we were contacted by Andy Ross, who works for the Octagon Agency representing football players. Out of the blue, Andy asked if we were interested in doing a "rookie diary" with a new client at Octagon, the recently-graduated Nathaniel Adibi. We jumped on the chance, following Adibi through the NFL Combine, pro workouts, the NFL Draft, his early experiences with the Steelers, and being waived and resigned a few times by a couple different teams.

(Adibi, last we heard, had signed with the Indianapolis Colts practice squad. Which reminds us, we need to call him. But we digress…)

Recently, Andy worked a similar "rookie diary" deal for us with Bryan Randall, despite the fact that Randall is not represented by Octagon.

(Which reminds us, Steelers training camp starts soon, and we need to call Randall and see what he's been up to in Atlanta the last month or so. But we digress…)

So we've dealt with Andy Ross quite a bit over the last 18 months or so, and we've been intrigued. I think that we all have a certain image of sports agents. Perhaps we think that they're shady guys who hang around in the dark, preying on naive athletes. Or they're sleaze bags in Armani suits who argue over whether their client should make $15.4 million dollars or $15.5 million next season. Or they're willing to scream "Show me the money!" over the phone to pampered athletes, Jerry Maguire-style.

Andy's different from those images. He's more down-to-earth, not a wheeler-dealer type. He would never yell "show me the money," and he once told me, "I only wear suits to weddings and funerals." Plus, he's one of us, a Virginia Tech grad. So I decided that at some point, when things were slow during the summer, I would call him up for some Q&A about himself and his business, for something a little different.

Okay, I never called him up, but I did send him some questions via email, and he took the time to type up the answers. Here's our '"interview."

TSL: Give me your bio: where you're from, where you went to high school, when you went to VT, what you majored in, etc.

Andy Ross: I grew up in a couple places, northern VA and the Outer Banks (Corolla, NC). I went to high school at George C. Marshall in Falls Church, VA (same school as former Hokie Nick Sorenson). I went to VT in 1995 to study business, specifically Marketing, and graduated in 1999. When I first got to Tech, I walked onto the wrestling team. After a year and a half, I realized that my future was not in wrestling and became a full time intern with the Virginia Tech athletic department, working for Peg Morse and Tim East.

TSL: Tell me what you re currently doing at Octagon, and what you plan on doing long term.

Andy Ross: Getting into this business is extremely difficult. I had to have a new job created and work for peanuts just to prove myself. When I entered the athlete representation side of the business, I worked for five divisions (golf, hockey, football, basketball, and baseball). This gave me an opportunity to meet a number of players and expand my network of connections across the country.

This was my break, and I took advantage of it. I tripled my quota and excelled most in football. This led me to work full time in football. My duties include marketing, PR, daily client servicing, and contract negotiation. Of course I don't do everything on my own. Octagon Football is successful because we all work as a team. Each player has his point person, but the whole team works for him behind the scene.

TSL: Who are some of the clients you work with?

Andy Ross:

  • Emmitt Smith, RB Dallas Cowboys (future HOF and all time rushing leader)
  • Quentin Jammer, CB Chargers (1st round, 5th pick in 2001)
  • Nathaniel Adibi, LB/DE Colts (5th round pick in 2004)
  • Shaun Phillips, LB Chargers (4th round pick in 2004)
  • Nathan Vasher, CB Bears (4th round 2004)
  • Adam Terry, OL Ravens (2nd round 2005)
  • Marlin Jackson, CB Colts (1st round 2005)
  • Marcus Trufant, CB Seahawks (1st round 2003)
  • Rashean Mathis, CB Jaguars (2nd round 2003)
  • Ashley Lelie, WR Broncos (1st round 2003)
  • Michael Phelps (Olympic Gold medalist - Athens)
  • Jeanette Lee, The Black Widow (#1 women's billiards player)

TSL: What made you decide you wanted to be a sports agent?

I actually didn't know I wanted to become an agent at first. In 1995 I took a sports marketing class in high school. I had an incredible teacher in Paul Wardinski. Without him I never would have gotten into the business. During his class an internship opportunity arose at Advantage International (now Octagon). After a week of preparing my resume and cover letter, I went to send it over to them. They had already filled the position. However, being stubborn, I went over to the office and asked for senior VP Tom George.

They tried to get me to leave by making me wait to see him. Over two hours passed, and finally he came out. I told him I wanted the job and I'd work for free. He asked for my cover letter and resume and left. About ten minutes went by, and his assistant came out and said, "I'm not sure what you said to him, but he said to be here next Monday." I've been with them ever since.

Once I started the internship, my first job was to create the Grant Hill Fan Club. It was amazing, and right then I realized this was the business for me.

TSL: I thought all agents were lawyers. How can you become an agent without being a lawyer?

Andy Ross: No [you don't have to be a lawyer]. There is more than just understanding contracts to be an agent. Being an agent is about having the necessary skills to assist your client with whatever needs they have. If a client hurts his hip, we make sure we understand everything there is about the surgery. When a client is traded to a new city, we make sure we know the ins and outs to the city. To be a good agent, you can't just do the contract and be done with the client (some agents just are hired to do the contract and nothing else). To be a GREAT agent, you need all the intangibles.

Experience plays a huge role in becoming an agent. Players must be careful of the street agent. Players make an enormous amount of money now (the league minimum is 230K) which has driven a number of bad eggs into the business. If a player's agent doesn't have strong relationships within NFL circles, the agent might have the wrong information, which in turn might lead to a bad decision. Always remember, the player is like the CEO of their own company. As CEO, the player wants to have the best people around him to make the best decision. One unqualified person could lead to a bad decision that could destroy a career.

TSL: Sports agents have this sleazy, out-for-a-buck, show-me-the-money image. What's the reality? Why are sports agents in the business they're in?

Andy Ross: Like anything, money drives bad people to this industry. There are a number of great agents out there. Many people think all agents hate each other. [But] I talk to a number of agents all the time. There are bad agents out there who give gifts and things of that nature. I always believe if an agent is cheating the system and putting a player's career in jeopardy to get him, is that really the person you want handling your career? Also, a number of agents bash other agents. I never do. If you bash someone else, it means you are insecure in your own abilities. If you present yourself the right way, you won't get all the clients, but you will be respected within the agent community.

I do see the slick-backed agents and laugh sometimes. People are who they are. I was always told it is better to be respected than admired. The first words of advice when I got in the business were, Remember, you represent celebrities, YOU ARE NOT THE CELEBRITY. Too many agents want to be the celebrity.

I don't know why agents are in the business, but I do know why I am in it. This is a sales-oriented business. You sell yourself to get the client and then you sell your client to get the deals. Add to it the excitement of sports and you have sports marketing. There are amazing highs of being in the business, but it isn't all gravy. All our clients know I'm available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. It can be taxing on your lifestyle, but I knew that going into the business.

TSL: When an agent is representing a client, and the agent/client are holding out for $10 million a year instead of $9 million, it looks greedy. What's really going on there? What's the justification, when everyone knows that $9 million a year is plenty?

Andy Ross: I agree, what is the difference between 9 and 10 million. Anyone can live on that type of money, right? Always remember though, the media might not have all the facts. Sometimes agents give the wrong information to the media, sometimes it is the team.

The best thing for an agent to do is keep dialogue and be fair. That is how deals get done. Deals are different between rookies and veterans. With rookies in the later rounds you have a sort of slotting (not exactly though). Being an early round pick requires creativity (i.e. the option bonus concept Octagon invented - now almost all contracts are done on this theory). As for veterans, you have more choices. You can test free agency or try and get a fair deal done while you are restricted. Obviously, getting to free agency can be a risk, because of the fear of injury by playing that extra year. At the end of the day, it is the player's choice. As the agent, you must present all scenarios.

TSL: When you're recruiting a player, how do you establish a relationship with the player? What do you look for, or think about, or present that makes you stand out from any of the other agencies/agents?

Andy Ross: Most people are shocked when they find out an agent is talking to a current player. They always say, Isn't that illegal? The rule states that you CANNOT give anything of value to a player or anyone associated with a player (i.e. family, player's advisor). The thing to remember is this is a relationship business. You must know everything about your player. I talk to all my clients 4-5 times per week. The reason I do this is to update them as to what is going on and see how they are doing.

I believe we stand out because we are set up to be a powerful firm that has contacts across the country and around the world, but at the same time has the relationships with our clients that players might associate with a boutique firm. I can say that all of our drafted clients last year got a free cell phone, free furniture (should they choose to have it), and one-off appearances even before they stepped on the football field. We run camps for our clients, set up scholarships, set up travel, vacations, and credit. We also form relationships at all the top restaurants and clubs across the country. At the end of the day we are a full service agency. Whether you are the top pick in the draft or and undrafted player, you get the same top of the line service.

TSL: Did the fact that you're a VT grad influence Octagon's decision to hire you? Is it possible Octagon thought that with all the NFL-type talent coming out of Virginia Tech now, that an agent/recruiter with a VT background would be more effective?

Andy Ross: Some people might think that, but it had nothing to do with it. I've been here prior to my VT days. I believe I was hired because I have some of the necessary skills to be a successful agent. I've seen a number of people come and go in this business over the years. When recruiting [VT players for Octagon], my VT background helps because I am familiar with the surroundings. People that go to Tech understand the family atmosphere of the school, and because of that I will always recruit there!

I'm proud of my accomplishments so far. There a number of people I need to thank, especially my parents for their support. One reason it is so tough is because the barrier of entry. This business weeds out people. To start off you must pay your dues. In the beginning I lived in a friend's living room for a year and a half while I worked a second full time job just to pay my rent. I believe in making goals and sticking to them. Success is never handed to you, you must work to get there.

TSL: Do you focus specifically on recruiting VT, or do you recruit other schools as well? How much of your time is spent on VT athletes vs. athletes from other schools?

Andy Ross: I recruit where I see a fit with players. It is always better to recruit a player that is high in both character and ethics. Thankfully we aren't a firm that only focuses on numbers. We are given the ability to recruit the right guys.

TSL: When you contact a VT athlete/football player, does your VT background give you any advantages? Has it ever been a positive, or do the players not really care?

Andy Ross: Like I mentioned earlier, it gives me a familiarity with the guys, but doesn't ever close the deal. It is the skills your firm has that gets the player.

TSL: What does it mean to the NFL that a player comes from VT? What have the pros come to expect from former VT players?

Andy Ross: I would say VT has created a tremendous reputation around the league. Being one of the top teams in the country like VT means that scouts are going to look at you (they might go to the game to see another player, but if you have a great game, it will be noticed). Visibility is huge in college football. Every year there is a Division II player that steps up in the draft, but you always wonder what if the kid had gone to a big school like Tech. He would have been seen more and more each week.

VT has developed a reputation for tough and intelligent players. As long as they keep working hard, their reputation will keep getting better. Hopefully they have a national championship coming their way.

TSL: How often do you see players switch agents?

Andy Ross: I do see a number of players switch. Many agents will say whatever they can to get the player but then don't come through on their promises (hoping the player forgets). If I was a player, I'd be angry too. You are only as good as your word. Most agents don't have the resources a bigger firm does, because they don't have the time to get them.

TSL: So you classify Octagon as a larger firm. What is the difference between a firm like Octagon and the smaller firms?

Andy Ross: I see the industry moving towards bigger firms. Remember, if you are a one or two person shop, you'll have to do everything (PR, marketing, client servicing, HR, and recruiting) by yourself. Unfortunately, there isn't enough time in the day. I can only imagine how tough that is. I know many solo agents, and they are good people that work hard. I respect that. I'm just saying it's difficult.

TSL: What's the craziest deal you've done? (Other than rookie diaries for TSL, ha-ha)

Andy Ross: I've done a bunch of marketing deals over the years, but I got a guy steak and lobster delivered to his house each week.

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