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January 4, 2010 at 5:58 PM

Interview with John Shinn, Player Agent

John Shinn is the owner and principal of Nine Sports Management, LLC, a sports agency representing baseball players, including several Red Sox prospects. As a sports agent and a licensed-attorney, John presently represents numerous major league and minor league players nationwide, at the same time serving as an advisor for several amateur players. I had the chance to sit down with John over the holidays to gain insight into the what exactly an agent/advisor does on a day-to-day basis. Special thanks to John for taking the time to answer my questions.

Mike Andrews: How did you become an agent? What is your background?
John Shinn: Growing up, I played baseball - high school travel ball. I also played in college, but I wasn’t a very good player. I never thought about becoming an agent, I always just wanted to be an attorney. I went to law school, and a lot of my friends who I grew up playing ball with started asking questions related to their representation - they seemed very unhappy with the agents they had signed with. During law school, I found an agency through a family friend of mine, and I became my friends’ agent through the agency - so I just kind of fell into the business. Like I said, I had always wanted to be a litigator - I guess I read too many John Grisham books, but in the end I just wanted to take care of my friends. I stayed with the agency through law school and then a little while afterward.

: How long have you been an agent? What is your current status?

JS: I’ve been an agent since 2003, so about six or seven years. Soon after I graduated law school I decided to go out on my own and open my own agency. There were no hard feelings with my old agency, there was just a certain way I wanted to do business, and I thought the best way to do that was to set up my own shop, which I did in 2005.

MA: What are some of the benefits of having a law degree and being an attorney when getting into the business of being an agent?
JS: The Andy Oliver case last year really showed the differences between attorney agents and non-attorney agents. The one thing in this business is that there can be a lot of unethical things that go on behind the scenes. But attorney agents can attest to this, we're held to a different standard - the ethical rules and regulations of our respective bars mean there are certain things we can't do that non-attorney agents might be able to get away with. Besides the educational background, and while a lot of the law in the baseball industry is really boilerplate, law school teaches you how to read the Collective Bargaining Agreement, to read contracts - that’s what you’re trained to do. While I continue working as an attorney separate from my agency, that gives me the background to be able to interpret clauses, take care of grievances, arbitration, or worker's comp cases. For the most part, while anybody can negotiate a contract, I feel that attorneys are better suited to know what actually makes it into that contract, and to interpret the clauses and terms.

MA: In general, how do agents recruit players to represent?
JS: Just like any business, the best way to get clients is through word of mouth. How I go about recruiting new clients is usually through established pipelines or connections that I already have. I have established relationships with certain schools through players, scouts, and coaches that I know, and I meet a lot of people through those relationships. In my old agency, I did a lot of cold calling, sending out informational brochures to players and parents. Now, it’s mostly gotten to the point where I don’t need to do that, as a lot of my business comes from referrals.

I typically go after college players, and there are certain programs that usually have certain kinds of players - while I obviously want to get the highest-ranked players, character means a lot to me. I don’t want to be someone’s agent for just a year; I want to be his agent for the rest of his career. I like to represent players that have the same values that I have, the same views on life, and I enjoy working with certain programs because I know they continue to develop those types of players.

MA: So you’re essentially talking about recruiting amateur players, right?
JS: Right. Most highly-regarded minor league players are already represented by agents, so the recruiting process typically takes place with players a year or two before they’re draft eligible - whether that's in high school or early in their college careers.

MA: But you prefer college players?
JS: I do. I think the rigors of professional baseball are tough enough as it is, to make a little bit of money but to be away from home, to always be on the road, to play 140 games a year in the minors - you’re basically gone eight months out of the year. I think very few 18-20 year olds can handle that, which ends up in a lot more hand holding, almost being a surrogate father. While I want to grow with the player, this is a business relationship, and there should be equal give and take. When it comes down to it, I want to deal with adults who are taking a vested interest in their own professional careers. I don’t rule out high school players altogether, I just think it takes a rare personality to be really professional at that age. I have had high school players in the past, and most of the time you end up dealing directly with parents rather than looking at what the player actually wants. I’m not saying that parents shouldn’t be involved, as they often are involved at the college level as well, but with college players, parents will typically defer to the players' life decisions.

Once these players sign a professional contract, they’re employees of their respective organizations. I’ve dealt with situations in the past where a parent gets very involved and ends up calling the organization all the time, and I think that can be frustrating for the front office and for the agents as well. Look at it this way - if you’re working at a regular non-baseball job, it just wouldn’t be very professional if a parent was calling human resources all the time. In my experience, the parents of college players just seem to have a better understanding of when and when not to interject themselves into that employer-employee relationship.

MA: Can you briefly discuss the differences between being an agent and being an advisor?
The NCAA allows student-athletes to have "advisors." An advisor can give information to the player and to his family about the opportunities that may await him in the draft. As an advisor, I can't contact teams directly or negotiate with teams on a player's behalf, but I can provide information to the player on his fair market value, where he might be drafted, what he could potentially earn as a professional, what kind of bonus to expect, and then help the family balance whatever factors it deems important to help decide if it's the right decision for that player to leave school early. It's basically just providing advice and counsel to help the player and his family make a well-informed decision.

MA: How many players do you represent, and how many players does a typical agent represent?
It varies a lot. Me, I work full time as an attorney in addition to my firm. My firm represents sixteen players in total, and I personally represent thirteen of those players. I feel like fifteen is about right for me, but I'll make time for my players no matter what it takes. I’m generally on the phone or texting with each of my players at least every three days. If I have too many clients, I may not be able to provide that level of personal relationship. I don’t believe in the factory approach, which a lot of agents take, which just involves signing as many players as possible and hoping that one or two make it. I also stick solely to baseball, which a lot of agents don’t do.

MA: What are the differences in representing major league players and minor league players?
JS: The great thing about representing major league players is that they’re also represented by one of the most powerful unions in the country. The Union is very protective of their rights. When you have a major league player, there’s a lot more assistance and guidance from the Union with things such a salary disputes or grievances. With minor league players, there’s really no assistance at all. With major league players, it can also be easier for things such as endorsements, where companies seek out the players rather than the other way around.

MA: What types of services do agents generally provide for clients?
JS: With "advisees", as I discussed earlier, it’s a lot about information gathering and providing advice regarding the draft. But there’s also helping out with pre-draft workouts, helping to decide what workouts to go to. That decision can be tough as players have to pay their own way and often several teams will invite a player to different workouts on the same day in different parts of the country. So there are decisions to be made as to what organizations might be a better fit for each player. I'll sit down with the family and talk about which workout might be most beneficial for the player. With professional players, I'll negotiate their contracts, seek out endorsements for them, and handle minor legal matters.

MA: In your opinion, what are the most important traits of a good baseball agent?
JS: Being prepared, competent, honest, and willing to share all information, not just the good news. I always tell my players that if it's good news, I'll be the first one to tell you, and if it's bad news, I'll be the first one to tell you. Ultimately, it’s the player’s life, so you have to share all information and viewpoints available to allow that player to make the right decisions. There are some phone calls I don’t enjoy having, but I do it, because if I don’t it’s a disservice to the player. They should never be kept in the dark about things. I never tell a player he’s more than he is, because if I create a false sense of who he is, it's just not fair to the player.

MA: Have you ever lost a player to another agent, and is that considered par for the course in the industry?
JS: I’ve never lost a client that I had from the get go, from the draft, but I have lost a couple players that I picked up into their pro careers. In the past, I’ve picked up players that have been through two or three agents before, and I generally find that players who switch agents a lot are the types of players that are never going to be content with their representation, always thinking the grass is greener. Either way, when you lose a player - and I haven’t lost many - it hurts, and unfortunately it is kind of commonplace in the industry. But it’s the same in a lot of other industries. As an attorney, if a client is not happy with my work, they’ll find other representation. All that I can do is work to the best of my abilities.

MA: Can you take us through the calendar and tell us what you have to do over the course of certain times of the year?
JS: In the fall, maybe even August through December, I’m usually making a push recruiting for the next year's draft class and working with my advisees. When spring training comes around, I turn my attention to my professional players, but I also travel to meet with almost all of my advisees and pro players in the spring. I often spend April and May helping my advisees gear up for the draft. I’m also working on endorsements for my pro players throughout the course of the year, which can include endorsements for gear, car dealerships, apparel, energy drinks, and things like that. Legal matters can happen year round, as I've helped my clients with things such as incorporation and trademark registrations. I’m also constantly recruiting. Even now, I’m starting to recruit for the 2011 draft, talking to college freshmen and sophomores. Professional recruiting can also happen year round, as I could receive a call for a pro player looking for representation at any time. If a player hears of my services through word of mouth, through some of my players, they may contact me and I could fly out to meet with them to see if it's a fit. All in all, I travel a lot. Almost every weekend I’m somewhere, whether it be on a recruiting trip or meeting with my current players. In addition to having a regular job here in town, it can be a challenging career. But I enjoy every minute of it.