Joby Branion (J.D./MBA ’95) studied law and management at UCLA, then began a career in transactional law. An old college buddy tipped him off to an opportunity to meet and possibly work with legendary sports agent Leigh Steinberg, who inspired the character Tom Cruise portrayed in Jerry Maguire. Branion joined Steinberg’s firm and later he founded Athletes First in 2001. That company ultimately was ranked by Forbes #2 on their Most Valuable NFL Agency list in 2014. Branion is the founder of Vanguard Sports Group, a company created “based upon the principle that agents have deep obligations to fulfill to their clients — to support, to guide, to counsel and, ultimately, to empower each individual throughout every phase of their careers. These obligations extend well beyond the traditional negotiation of contracts for a fee.” Vanguard’s clients include the Denver Broncos’ Von Miller, who was named the Most Valuable Player in the 2016 Super Bowl.
Q: How did you switch from a career as an entertainment lawyer and executive to representing athletes as a sports agent?
I went to law school and business school while at UCLA and then I started practicing law right there in Westwood at a multifaceted firm that did litigation and transactional work. I was on the transactional side doing both general corporate stuff and some entertainment stuff. The reality is that while I was compensated very well, I just didn’t feel the intrinsic reward out of my day-to-day job. After a year, I got a call from my old college roommate who happened to also be a UCLA law graduate and he knew someone who was looking to hire somebody to help represent professional athletes. That person ended up being Leigh Steinberg, and Leigh was, at the time, at the top of his game. He had Steve Young, Warren Moon, Troy Aikman, Bruce Smith, Derrick Thomas — along with a significant baseball practice.
I did some research into Leigh and got an idea of the things that he stood for: primarily making clients understand that they’re role models whether they like it or not. He drove home the importance of giving back to the community that shaped their lives and it just seemed to me to be more of a real commitment to the person as opposed to just the athlete. So, I went and had a few interviews and then decided to cast my lot in that direction.
Q: Would you please describe your role, your job, as a sports agent?
If you were going to ask six different agents, you might get six different responses.
The basic common denominator is we’re responsible for negotiating playing contracts. We are an extension of the client with respect to negotiation with their teams, or with the team that they end up signing a playing contract with. At a bare minimum that’s what an agent is, and different agents go from there and expand out differently.
Over the years, I’ve learned a lot and I can honestly say that working with Leigh at the top of the food chain for those first five or so years of my career taught me about the different roles that the agent does play, the different roles that an agent can play. I learned what worked and then I left and co-founded Athletes First, which has become one of the most powerful football representation groups in the business. Again, I learned a lot by building that company from scratch to where it is today and then two years ago starting my own firm.
I wear multiple hats. I am clearly the agent with respect to negotiating contracts, whether it’s playing contracts, marketing deals, endorsement deals and so on. I am also the primary guide for the players throughout their professional career, because it’s not just about negotiating deals, it’s about trying to position yourself into situations where you can be successful. The best offer financially isn’t always the best direction for the player, depending on what the player’s strong suit is, depending on what their talents are, depending on where they are in their careers. It’s not just about chasing the dollar, it’s about chasing the fit, the opportunity to continue to succeed.
I have always believed that this whole professional athlete thing is nothing but a big transition in your life. I tell all of my clients, “Retirement is batting a thousand.” Even if you’re fortunate enough to play for 15 years, you’re still only going to be 37 or 38 when you change directions dramatically in your life. And if you’re not prepared for that then you’re going to have problems.
I try to make these young men understand right from the beginning this thing isn’t going to last forever, this is a transition from a college campus into the pros as a rookie. There’s a transition from rookie to veteran, there’s a transition from veteran to the end of your career as well, and it’s my view that the agent’s role ought to be that of a confidant and consigliere, someone who is going to give real honest feedback and guidance on and off the field throughout the career.
I have three young boys myself. If any of them happen to be good enough to be professional athletes, how would I want them represented, how would I want them treated, what services would I want them to have, what resources would I want at their disposal and what types of people would I want around them? That’s what I’ve tried to create with Vanguard. I would not want my son lied too, I would not want my son told that he’s the greatest thing in the world when in fact there are many things he needs to improve on. That’s sort of a disrespectful way to represent someone and, unfortunately, that is more common than anything, not only in my business, but with a lot of people that surround these young men during their professional years. I think anybody that’s good at this job looks at those players as human beings who are transitioning from professional athlete to the rest of their lives. I want them all to get to the end of their careers with their education, with a Rolodex of relationships and some experiences that put them in a position to be able to be ready to transition on to the rest of their lives, which will hopefully be another 50-plus years without ever wearing a shoulder pad and helmets.
Q: What lessons still inform your work or life from your UCLA days?
Business school really help me understand that there will always be other people out there that will have talents stronger than yours, and I learned how to do things in group settings. I could, I paired myself with folks that had strengths where I had weakness and I could complement their weakness with my strengths.
One thing that is different from general law school experience versus a business school experience is that in law school there is a hyper-fixation just on grades as the sole marker for success. In business school most students have already gone out in the real world and then come back to school. So they had a chance to identify different criteria for success. There’s project success, there is relationship success, there are all these different ways you can succeed that have nothing to do with getting a grade on an exam. There are a lot of other ways to find success and there are team successes, not just individual success. I really feel like that all sort of got galvanized during my experience at Anderson, I have a lot of relationships that I still maintain to this day from the experiences I had at Anderson.
Q: How do you recruit clients? How do you separate your company from your competitors?
I think we’re unique in the space because the focus is truly on empowering the client. You empower clients by educating them, by being honest and having the clients understand that this is, again, just part of the transition into the rest of your life.
What we do differently is provide a real holistic approach to representation. We understand the importance of embracing the individual athlete as a potential brand; every single athlete is a brand, and branding is very different than marketing. Marketing is a component of branding, endorsements are a component of branding, but you’ve got to incorporate public relations, you’ve got to incorporate your charitable efforts, you’ve got to make it fit who you are.
We aren’t so big that we can’t focus on each individual client in the way that they deserve and we have real professionals who have experienced success in public relations, not just somebody who was an intern who is now our PR director. We have people that understand PR strategizing proactively and reactively, we have marketing professionals who have been successful at marketing and endorsements and negotiating those deals and being creative with those deals as opposed to people who, again, are interns who now have a title director of marketing but have really never done anything other than work in one place.
We have success coaching available for our clients with a psychologist who understands the special stresses that high-profile athletes encounter during their careers, sometimes the result of a crisis.
Your personal life and your professional life as sn athlete are inextricably entwined and to pretend that they’re not is a problem. So everything that impacts your personal life extends into your professional performance, and you are paid to perform. We surround our players with real professionals who stay in their lanes, who treat our clients the way we’d want our own kids to be treated, who them the best possible information and guidance throughout their careers, which most agents don’t do.
We also reinvest in our clients in ways that other agents don’t do. We’ll pay for things like off-season training, not just leading into the draft (which almost everybody does), but that second year, that third year. Why? Because when you get to that next deal you’ll have more value.
In this business now there’s a lot of fee cutting, a lot of agents just slash their fees to try and entice clients to come with them. I’m not going to cut my fees, I’m going to earn my fees; and for football it’s only three percent, basketball and baseball are four or five percent, and anyone that’s doing their job, if they’re not adding at least three to four to five percent of value, you probably don’t want them anyway. You get what you pay for. Anybody that’s cutting their fees by definition is now cutting back on the resources they have available to apply in representing you. So, I guess that’s sort of my elevator pitch. We’re going to treat you very differently than everybody else.