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Neil Stratton, President, Inside the League, NFL/CFL Consulting

July 13, 2012

Neil Stratton, President, Inside the League, NFL/CFL Consulting

First, can you let readers know how you got started as a consultant for college and pro football and how you started Inside the League?

In the late 90’s, I had a buddy who wanted to be the next Mel Kiper Jr. We started a print draft publication in the time when the Internet was just starting to explode, and it lasted about four years. At about Year three, it was easy to see there was too much competition out there to make money with the business model, so I had started looking around for Plan B. At the Senior Bowl one year, I started to meet agents who made it clear there was no publication specifically for them. At the time, there were about 1,500 agents registered by the NFLPA (there are around half that now due to a rule change instituted about eight years ago). It looked like a ready-made, easy-to-reach market.

At any rate, when I launched ITL, it was half about draft evaluation (mock drafts, rankings, etc.), and half about the industry and the stuff it has become today. However, after I returned from my stint as Executive Director of the ’08 Hula Bowl and relaunched ITL, my wife urged me to make it unique and just focus on the things no one else was doing, which was the football business, insider-type stuff. It was the right move.

How has having played football in college (U.S. Naval Academy in ’88) helped you in this role as a consultant?

I think anyone could do what I do if they are willing to take a chance and work hard, regardless of whether they played college football. However, I will say that it gives me credibility when I meet a coach, player, agent, or anyone in the industry and I can tell them that I know what it’s like to be a player, even if it was a LONG time ago, and I was far from a star. The blood, sweat and tears that every player sheds from the bonds that link people in this industry, and what gives it the camaraderie that glues people to this business and to each other.

In working with agents, what have you found to be the key attributes that make up a top-tier agent?

Persistence, plain and simple. And money, of course. You HAVE to have resources given how the business model has changed so drastically in the last 5-7 years. That’s where I feel ITL gives its clients an edge – we are out there actively trying to help our clients make good business decisions and spend their money wisely, while simultaneously bringing them discounts on hotel stays, training, or whatever. And we’re always, always accessible.

But at the end of the day, I always tell my clients that if you’re not willing to get the door slammed in your face or the phone slammed on you, or if you’re not willing to stand outside the locker room in the rain to get five minutes with a player, or you’re not willing to drive four or five hours one way to make a contact some night when you have to be up at 7 a.m. the next day, then you should think long and hard about being in this business. You’ll have to pay your dues, just like in any other business, even if you’ve been very successful in another line of work. There’s a misperception that the NFLPA helps its licensed contract advisors by providing them contact info, tips, information, discounts or whatever. Nothing could be further from the truth. It’s Dodge City out there.

What are the biggest misperceptions you find players have when entering the NFL as rookies?

There are several, so I’m going to approach this question during the period between the end of college play and the draft.

The biggest and most recent one is that once your eligibility is over, and it’s time to focus on the draft, you deserve expert-level combine training along with a stipend, signing bonus or some other form of subsidy from your agent. There is an incredible sense of entitlement that has been bred among college players in the last 3-4 years. If you’re not rated in the top 100 for a draft – in other words, expected to go in the first three rounds – good representation and good entitlements become an either/or proposition; it’s hard to find both if you’re a late-rounder.

The other is that all players who start for some period of time at a Division I school are entitled to a 3-4 year NFL career. Playing in college, even playing well, offers absolutely no guarantees. No one deserves anything, and the NFL doesn’t award camp invites based on what someone wrote on the Internet. There is no guaranteed happy ending. That’s why, though it’s a cliché, education and getting a degree are critical. There’s nothing more heartbreaking than seeing players hanging around some indoor league into their late 20s/early 30s.

The third is that if you don’t make the NFL, it’s somebody’s fault, and most likely your agent’s. There are literally thousands of players each year that are very, very good college players, but that doesn’t make you an NFL player, or even an NFL prospect. Sometimes, you just aren’t good enough. There’s no shame in that. I know it’s never easy to let go of a dream, but sometimes part of being a grownup is knowing when it’s time to move on.

What are the most common mistakes you see agents make with clients and the teams they negotiate with, and how do you help them overcome those mistakes?

The first that many agents make is that once you sign a player, he’ll automatically get invited to an all-star game, then he’ll automatically get evaluated in March by an NFL scout, and if he’s not drafted, he’ll automatically get a camp invite.

If you’re an agent, there’s no time for waiting. You have to be spring-loaded at all times and take nothing for granted. Once you get him signed, start finding out how he can get into an all-star game and who you need to talk to on his behalf, especially if he’s a guy who’s on the bubble to get drafted. You should even start cultivating game contacts as soon as you get certified.

Once that’s resolved, find out about pro days. I usually advise my clients that if they are considering signing a player from a small school and don’t know if they will have a pro day or not, don’t sign them. Bottom line, if you don’t work out for a scout who gets your 40 time, etc., it’s almost like you don’t exist. Schools can no longer just take for granted that they will have a well-attended pro day, and many, many schools that are not Division I-A don’t get scouts to come to their workouts (and some don’t even schedule one). Trying to get a small-school kid into a Division I-A workout is a serious uphill battle anymore. Schools are wary of giving a player from another school a chance at a job one of their players might otherwise fill. Finally, as they go through the spring, they should be cultivating scouts (we maintain a list of who to contact and how on our site) because sometimes those relationships wind up making the difference on getting a kid into a camp. They need to leverage those relationships when it comes time to get kids into camps.

With so much discussion on how players handle their post-NFL careers and lives and the difficulties they have in doing so at times, how do you work with your clients to ensure players have a healthy mindset entering their post-NFL years, and how do you go about doing so?

It’s tricky. Earlier this year, I approached a financial planner who’d been a longtime client and asked him if it would serve his clients if I put together a kind of post-career seminar to give players tips on how to succeed. He basically said it was no use, because it’s so hard to get players to understand how fragile their careers are, and either they get it or they don’t. It’s kind of the nature of the business. You better believe you’re invincible or pretty soon you won’t have the edge, the confidence, the attitude that you need. Start talking about the end, and pretty soon it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Obviously, at the end of the day, the answer is education, but you can talk all you want; if people don’t want to listen, it won’t matter. I don’t mean to sound fatalistic about things, but addressing this issue is something I’m always thinking about, and I still have no answers. The NFL has developed several seminars and programs to answer this question, and for the most part, they are under-attended.

How do you go about helping players selecting the right marketing/endorsement opportunities? How do you know when the fit is right?

The difficulty here is in realizing how few marketing opportunities there are for NFL players. Because players are hidden behind a facemask, getting these dollars isn’t easy, and if you don’t score touchdowns (i.e., QB, wide receiver, running back), it becomes even harder to get marketing dollars. Agents are always being asked why they can’t get marketing opportunities, and the truth is that for more players, these chances are rare beyond the occasional appearance at a trading card show, or chance to get a free car lease from a local dealership in return for tickets and an appearance in a newspaper ad. If you’re rated in the top 100 players in a draft class, you’ll have no problem getting an apparel/shoe deal, trading card deal and maybe an autograph signing in your college town, but after that you really have to prove yourself to get anything significant once you’re a veteran. If you really get established in a city, and your team has success, you may be able to land a weekly radio gig or whatever. But beyond that, the general rule is that you should take whatever you can get, because opportunities are rare.

You work with combine preparation specialists. How would you address concerns that the combine rather than a player’s on-field play is becoming too important in a player’s pre-draft evaluation, and is there concern that the pre-combine preparation can help give a “false read” on a player’s ability?

Everyone loves to talk about the workout warriors in the mid-00s that were overdrafted due to their triangle numbers, the Mitch Marrows of the world and the Mike Mamulas, but that’s because the NFL allows that to happen. There’s a good argument to be made that the combine prep industry creates athletes, not football players, but you have to understand that the trend in scouting departments is to ask your area scouts to bring back facts only, and the real evaluation will be made by a handful of top executives at the team headquarters. This is done, partly, so teams can contain the costs of their scouting departments by paying low-level guys pennies. At any rate, when you become that dependent on facts, on measurables, it’s only natural that these numbers would rise in significance.

I remember Charley Casserly used to tell players at the Shrine Game in the early 00’s that 80 percent of their draft ‘grade’ was complete when they walked off the field after their last college game, then 10 percent was the all-star game and 10 percent was their pro day/combine. I wonder if all teams subscribe to that formula anymore. So measurables have become bigger, and therefore combine prep specialists have become more important. You combat that by stressing that film study has to be the deciding factor, and making sure every scout knows that, and by trusting your scouts’ opinions.

One thing that has really become true the last few years is that there’s a ‘lottery’ mentality when it comes to the sixth and seventh round for many teams. They consider these picks as less meaningful, so they roll the dice on players who blow up their respective pro days, gambling that if the kid is a great pure athlete he can be made into a good football player. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, but that’s part of what makes the NFL draft so fascinating. When you find a kid 6-6, 360 with magic feet, it matters less that he couldn’t stay on the field due to injuries, or had off-field issues, or just doesn’t like football.

From your perspective, what are some of the biggest misperceptions fans have of the role of agents in sports? How do you dispel those?

It’s a myth fed by many – but not all – coaches and schools that all agents are evil. SOME agents are evil, but not all. Not by a long shot. Also, I’m going to say something that’s not popular but still true: if most elite student-athletes didn’t have their hands out, there would be fewer agents around that would put something in them. If you’re a highly rated player, you have a set of expectations that allows these unscrupulous agents to operate. These players are kids, and they make mistakes, and I get that, but there’s still good and evil out there, and many of these young men are very skilled at taking advantage of people.

The other thing to understand is that the rank-and-file fan has no idea how agents and agencies work, and how that side of the business works, and couldn’t care less, anyway, so it’s really easy to paint with a wide brush. I understand that; part of what makes my job so addictive is that I’ve been doing this for a decade and I still learn stuff all the time. I know a lot of people want to believe in the purity of athletics, especially at the college level, but it’s hard to call anyone playing Division I-A college football an amateur, because they’re getting some kind of inducement to play. A scholarship isn’t the same as a wad of cash handed to someone under the table, and I get that, but these guys aren’t playing strictly for the love of the game. Every college athlete I’ve ever been around harbored NFL dreams, and there’s nothing wrong with that. By and large, agents just provide a means for achieving that dream.

With more and more of players’ personal lives – especially legal issues – becoming public, how do you help prepare players to protect themselves from these situations and has that become a bigger part of your player preparation?

It’s hard to impress upon a young man how the Internet, and social media, are forever, but it’s something most agents try to do anyway. You read the Twitter posts of some players, and it almost makes you cringe. It’s the same for the voice mail answers they leave on their phones, and a number of other things. There are so many places where a young man’s throwaway line, post made in frustration, impulse action, or whatever else becomes what everyone judges you by, so as an agent you have to be proactive and try to choose clients who understand that. The truly elite athletes can do whatever they want to, and I guess that will always be true, but if you are a bubble NFL roster type, you just can’t do that. Unfortunately, I think that’s something that’s going to be learned through trial and error more than education. Some young men are going to have to really mess up, and on a national scale, for some athletes to finally get it, and that’s a shame.

Have you worked with any Steelers/Steelers front office personnel – directly or indirectly? If so, how does the team go about it’s negotiations and how are the different from other teams?

I haven’t had a lot of dealings with them. The one thing I will say is that they have had rare success in melding the coaching staff and front office into one mind when it comes to evaluation. Given how the Steelers handle things, rarely handing out big contracts and relying on the draft to replenish its roster regularly, you have to hand it to them for how seamlessly they’ve been able to do it year after year, especially after the exit of one of the most successful head coaches of the 00s. Tomlin and Colbert deserve a lot of credit not just for their success, but for their willingness to work together. No Jerry-Jimmy kinds of blowups. That’s unique.

Any last thoughts for readers?

If you don’t already read Bo Marchionte at www.college2pro.com, you’re making a big mistake. He regularly covers the Steelers, and it’s amazing what kind of a work ethic he has. He will run through walls to do a good job. He also interviews nearly every player leading into the draft every spring, and it’s incredible all the names he compiles. Check him out. He’s going to do big things.

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