Chris Strauss, USA TODAY Sports
It took one Instagram photo to shake up the sports industry.
The morning after April Fools' Day, Jay-Z's entertainment company, Roc Nation, posted a picture of the rapper-turned-mogul signing New York Yankees star Robinson Cano to a contract as the first client of his newly announced full-service sports management company, Roc Nation Sports. Partnering with established sports representatives Creative Artists Agency, the joke appeared to be on other agents, who suddenly faced the prospect of losing clients to one of the biggest entertainers in the world, a tastemaker whose particular brand of cool has minted money for associated clothing lines, nightclubs, beer brands, record labels and fellow artists.
Jay-Z, aka Shawn Carter, once rapped that "I'm not a businessman, I'm a business, man." If his latest vision succeeds, the branding opportunities provided by Roc Nation could very well give his clients the capability to say the same thing, something that scares his newest competitors.
"Agents are going to be terrified of Jay-Z," Maxx Sports & Entertainment founder and former NFL player agent Mark Lepselter told USA TODAY Sports. "He'll be a legitimate threat."
While the principals behind Roc Nation Sports continue to remain secretive about their long-term strategy, details have started to emerge about the roster of talent the company is assembling, as well as the partnership with CAA. Wednesday, New York Jets rookie quarterback Geno Smith announced that he had hired Roc Nation Sports as his representative. Smith joins Cano, New York Giants receiver Victor Cruz and the Tulsa Shock's Skylar Diggins, the third overall pick in last month's WNBA draft. If the perks of signing with Roc Nation Sports weren't clear to other potential clients, the company and Diggins made sure to tweet out photos of her Notre Dame graduation gift from Jay-Z, a new white Mercedes.
Renowned baseball agent Scott Boras, whom Cano fired in order to sign with Roc Nation and CAA's Brodie Van Wagenen, is critical of the whole endeavor.
"To suggest that somebody is going to walk off the street and say, 'I am a fan, I enjoy sports, so I can do this,' is no different than somebody watching the Discovery channel and saying, 'I'm a fan of medicine, I like surgery, so I'll start operating on people,'" Boras told USA TODAY Sports. "This is a profession. It's a different environment. If you're not singularly committed to this game, it's a very ugly song."
Boras' criticism might be valid when it comes to representing veteran Major League Baseball or NFL players looking to solely increase the dollar value of their next contracts. But that is going to be a tough argument to make to rookies or younger players trying to make a name for themselves off the field.
"It's the rock-star thing," said former NFL all-pro Trevor Pryce, who started a record label and sold several television scripts while playing for the Denver Broncos and the Baltimore Ravens. "I'd say probably 70% of all athletes in America would sign with Jay-Z. It has nothing to do with business.
"If you're one of his guys, it affords you a lot of opportunity to do things off the field. If you're James Harrison, none of that appeals to you. 'I'm a football player and this is what I do, and I'm not worried about going to nobody's stupid-ass party. None of that is of any use to me.' But If you're a good-looking 21-year-old Notre Dame graduate girl with a supermodel build and cute face, absolutely."
Baltimore Ravens cornerback Corey Graham agrees.
"Jay-Z is Jay-Z," Graham said. "He's done so much in that rap industry, and he's got a lot going on outside of rap. He's a businessman. He does a great job. I could see a lot of guys going to him. He's just an unbelievable businessman."
Since the announcement of Roc Nation Sports, there have been the inevitable comparisons to rapper Master P's foray into the sports agent business in 1999. The New Orleans musician represented Heisman Trophy winner Ricky Williams in his dealings with the New Orleans Saints, as the rookie signed an incentive-laden seven-year deal that is seen as one of the worst in history for a pro athlete.
ESPN analyst and former NFL player agent Andrew Brandt represented Williams before the running back dropped him to sign with Master P. He sees Jay-Z becoming a formidable presence in the industry.
"Master P was not affiliated with experienced and sophisticated agents, therefore the Ricky Williams (deal) was not done well, and that caused problems for him," Brandt said. "In this case, Jay-Z is not going to be the one poring over contract language and dealing with structure of a contract. Ricky was turned on, as I'm sure a lot of athletes will be with Jay-Z, by the opportunity to enter markets beyond football: entertainment, music, music productions, all those kind of things. That's hard to compete against."
While the company is in its early stages, Jay-Z seems to be following the model of building a stable of athletes much like another icon-turned-entrepreneur did. Nike's Jordan apparel brand selected a team of marketable personalities from various sports (Russell Westbrook, CC Sabathia and Andre Johnson, for example) who seem to exude a similar cachet as the brand's namesake.
Indeed, many players rushed to Jay-Z after the announcement expressing interest in signing on, according to a person close to the agency who spoke to USA TODAY Sports on the condition of anonymity because player procurement details are confidential. Nearly all of the players were turned away, as Roc Nation Sports is taking a more selective approach, the person said.
"Jay-Z is a pretty private guy, and I think that helps that sort of exclusive-club feeling that he's going out and hand-selecting those athletes and he wants to make them feel special, and that's his M.O.," said Matt Delzell, managing director of The Marketing Arm. Delzell works in his agency's senior celebrity endorsement group and has negotiated hundreds of deals for brands and clients. "But he's there to make money. He wants to make his athletes money; it's just a slightly different approach at the beginning."
Just how that will be done and how Jay-Z's involvement will mesh with existing league rules regarding agents remains to be seen. Before signing Smith, Roc Nation Sports hired relative unknown attorney Kimberly Miale, whom Smith chose as his contract agent. Jay-Z is not certified by the NFL Players Association, so Miale, who has not responded to multiple calls and e-mails from USA TODAY Sports, will have to represent Smith in negotiations with the Jets.
Agents have been furious with Jay-Z's role in recruiting Smith and Cruz, pointing to the NFLPA's "runner rule," which was put in place last year. The rule dictates that only certified agents can recruit players.
But a person informed of discussions between CAA and the NFLPA told USA TODAY Sports the agency checked with the union before CAA's Tom Condon signed Cruz. The person, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the NFLPA hasn't addressed the issue publicly, said the union told Condon that Jay-Z wasn't a runner in this case because of a longstanding relationship between the parties. It remains to be seen whether the NFLPA takes issue with Jay-Z's recruitment of Smith. The union did not reply to inquiries seeking comment.
Jay-Z sold his small percentage of ownership shares in the Brooklyn Nets last month in order to free up the company to sign prospective NBA clients. While his counsel might be valuable in urging Cano, who is set to become a free agent at the end of the season, to remain in pinstripes, it is Van Wagenen who will be sitting at the negotiating table with teams.
Seth Jones, likely to become the first African-American player picked first overall in the NHL draft, has been mentioned as one of the next potential signees with Roc Nation Sports. He's represented by CAA agent Pat Brisson, who counts Sidney Crosby and Patrick Kane among his clients and emphasizes that Jones is only exploring possible opportunities with Roc Nation.
"I'm not going to change (agents) any time soon. I hope to stay with (Brisson) for a long time," Jones said. "But people got confused about what Jay-Z would do if I was to sign with him; he'd just handle my marketing, and that's it. He wouldn't be my agent. He wouldn't talk to general managers in the NHL and sign deals for me."
Lepselter sees Jay-Z best using his clout to get prospective athletes in the door, then leaving the contract and endorsement negotiations to representatives at CAA or the people behind the scenes at Roc Nation.
"He'll be the face (of Roc Nation), the Mariano Rivera of closers," Lepselter said.
Are agents concerned about the company poaching their clients? That depends on whom you talk to.
"I never worry about that (cherry picking), because if a kid wants to talk to another agent, then either I'm not doing a good job or he's not as loyal as I think he is," said Joe Linta, whose client, Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco, signed a then-record six-year, $120.6 million deal in February.
"Hey look, do I worry about my wife cheating on me? I may not be the best agent, and I'm not the best-looking guy. But I'm not worried about my wife cheating on me. And I'm not worried about my players cheating on me, either."
Brandt doesn't buy it.
"Everyone's worried about their clients; everyone's protecting their clients," he said. " But if Jay-Z becomes a factor, there's going to be even more worry about that, especially if there's a buzz around him in the locker room, the other players or friends are talking about him. That's when you worry as an agent."
Now that the initial Roc Nation Sports roster is taking shape, how will individual athletes maximize their involvement with the company? It's no coincidence New York-centric Jay-Z chose Big Apple-based athletes as his first three clients. But how successful the company is in branding Diggins could measure how much of an impact it can have in and beyond the sports world.
"Jay-Z's looking at this as entertainment first, sports second," Pryce said. "It's great for the WNBA and women's sports in general. I have two daughters, and they are tennis players. That's great that someone like him would sign someone like her. She's been the apple of the hip-hop community's eye for a long time. She's good looking, she's young, Lil Wayne wants to marry her. All those things come into play when you think about signing athletes to your company. Are you going to get rich negotiating her $125,000-a-year contract? No, you're going to get rich making her a spokeswoman for H&M. That's the power he has."