How Tom Condon Transformed the Role of NFL Player Agent (and Negotiated Some of the Biggest Deals in Football History)
Tom Condon went from pro football player to lawyer to sports agent… and in the process revolutionized the career prospects for professional athletes.
Tom Condon (center) with clients Eli and Peyton Manning. CREDIT: Courtesy Tom Condon
In sports talent slang, I'm just a guy. I'm not elite. I'm not a superstar. I'm just a guy.
Yet it's clear he's done his research when we get on the phone. He knows my book. He can talk about certain things I've written.
Which is all you really need to know about Tom Condon, one of the most powerful -- and widely respected -- agents in the National Football League. He's negotiated countless contracts. Represents stars like Drew Brees, Peyton Manning, Matt Ryan, Matthew Stafford, and J.J. Watt. And just last year, as the head of CAA's football division, his group represented 11 out of 32 first-round selections the NFL draft.
How did Tom reshape the role of NFL agent? How has he negotiated some of the largest deals in NFL history? How has he thrived for decades in such a highly competitive profession?
He's insightful, thoughtful, forward-thinking, and always thoroughly prepared -- even for a conversation with someone who is just a guy.
You made the transition from player to agent -- and even negotiated a contract or two while you were an active player. How did you pull that off?
You putting it that way makes me realize that after I got drafted in 1974... I've never had any employment outside the NFL. (Laughs.)
I did two contracts while I was still a player. The first was when I was drafted by Kansas City. I didn't have an agent; at the time, not having an agent wasn't unusual. After a workout (Hall of Fame) coach Hank Stram offered me a contract, a $14,000 base salary and a $2,000 signing bonus, and said, "What do you think about that?"
I mustered up all of my courage and said, "Gee, coach, it doesn't sound that good."
Remember, I'm a 21 year-old kid talking to a guy who has won Super Bowls. (Laughs.)
He said, "It doesn't?" He opened up a binder and asked what round I had been drafted in. I said, "Tenth." He paged through the book, slammed it shut, and said, "Well, we've never had a tenth-round draft pick make the football team. So I just offered you $2,000 for a summer job."
I thought for a second and remembered he was big on family. So I said, "My dad is a lawyer and I can't sign a contract without letting him look at it. That would be disrespectful to him."
He thought for a second and said, "Yes, son, go ahead and do that."
That was pretty smooth.
Especially for a 21 year-old. (Laughs.)
At the time, the old WFL was still in existence. I had been drafted by the Boston Bulls and they offered me a $32,000 guaranteed contract.
So I called Coach Stram and told him I was going to play for the WFL and a guaranteed contract. He said, "What's it going to take to sign you? Let's start with the signing bonus."
I was completely unprepared. I said, "Um, $10,000."
He said, "Okay." Then he said, "What about the salary?"
$20,000 popped in my head, but for some reason I said, "Um... $18,000. No, I mean $20,000."
He said, "I heard you say $18,000, and you're done."
And that was my first negotiation. (Laughs.)
You also put together a contract for a teammate while you were still playing.
Near the end of my playing career, my locker mate was Art Still. Art was a fabulous player. I had been president of NFL Players Association (NFLPA), had been on the collective bargaining team... and Art said, "Hey, why don't you do my contract?"
I said, "Arthur, I'm sitting next to you here in the locker room. How am I going to do that?"
He said, "Look, you do all that other stuff... just figure it out."
I had a friend from law school who was just starting out as an agent. I wrote everything up and he took it to the GM.
How did that go?
Exceptionally well. The numbers escape me, but I know we exceeded our goal in terms of the contract. I thought, "Hmm, this agent thing is a pretty easy deal." (Laughs.)
But of course there is more to being an agent than just negotiating contracts. I called Art and said, "Arthur, we got the deal. You're now the highest paid defensive end in all of football. Get ready for camp tomorrow."
He said, "Tommy, that's great... but you know how hot it is in Liberty, Missouri. (It was often over 100 degrees in the summertime.) Go back in and ask for more money."
I said, "Arthur, do me a favor. Come up here to training camp. I'm here. We'll talk about it." I knew once he got to training camp he would never leave.
Sure enough, he shows up and because everybody loves him, because he's such a good guy... as soon as he came in the place went crazy. And that was the end of that."
Along the way you were also earning a law degree.
I didn't stop playing until 1985, but I passed the bar in 1981.
That's an interesting story. Marv Levy (who later coached the Buffalo Bills to four straight Super Bowls) was our head coach. I loved Marv. Great guy. Bright guy. I had to ask Marv to leave training camp for two days so I could take the bar exam.
Keep in mind that in those days a member of your immediate family could pass away and they still wouldn't let you leave.
Marv said, "Is this a contract ploy?" I said, "No, I just want to take the Missouri bar exam."
He said, "Oh. Sure. Go ahead." I think it helped that Marv had an MBA. (Laughs.)
The collective bargaining agreement expired around the same time. I was on the NFLPA executive committee and the negotiating team, so I got to participate both as an elected representative and as a lawyer.
Those were invaluable experiences. I didn't have a master plan to play football, become a lawyer, and become an agent -- I thought I'd end up practicing law back home with my dad.
You didn't have a plan... but you were willing to seize opportunities.
Working with Art Still made me think. So did working on the collective bargaining agreement. And then I was elected president of the NFLPA from 1984 to 1986, and had the good sense to nominate Gene Upshaw as the Executive Director. He was elected unanimously.
So then Gene said, "I want you to negotiate my contract."
I said, "Negotiate with whom?" He said, "The executive committee."
I said, "You want me negotiate your contract with the committee that I'm the president of?" (Laughs.)
So I did. And I represented him for the next 25 years.
After football you became an agent. That's an incredibly competitive field. How did you manage to land clients and build a business?
First, let's take a step back. I was not physically gifted. I went to an all-male high school that had a huge football reputation. Early on I couldn't even make the team. I didn't play until my senior year. Then I walked on at Boston College.
So you were right on the money when you said I didn't have a great plan. I was just moving forward, and just like you write about in your book, every time I had a little success, I got motivated and eager for more.
That approach led to some natural advantages. I had played in the NFL for 12 years. I was a lawyer. I had been the President of the NFLPA. I represented the Executive Director and was Vice Chair of the NFL pension fund. So at the end of that time I had a reasonable expectation that I could go out, with no real agent experience, and make a presentation to a payer and have some chance of success.
Business picked up... but still.
So then I thought about how I could really take advantage of having been a player. I thought about the five hurdles players face going into the draft face: Senior Bowl, Combine, Pro Day, individual workouts, and team visits.
Five major hurdles -- and no one was really preparing for any of them. Sure, they were at school working out... but their eligibility was exhausted and their coaches had moved on to focus on next year's team.
So you came up with the idea of building a training facility and a program.
Yes, but it wasn't quite that easy.
At the time, conventional wisdom said football players couldn't be marketed: Joe Montana and Herschel Walker were pretty much it. No one but IMG was doing any player marketing.
So IMG approached me about doing that. I said, "I'l be happy to take over the football division... but I need a commitment that you will fund a training program for players. And hire some marketing people."
I knew about the marketing aspect, but not so much because I was familiar with Joe or Herschel. That came from sitting in a locker room when a shoe company salesmen walked through with bags of shoes and gear... and grown men would jump up like it was Black Friday.
I thought, "What I've learned today is that players like free stuff." (Laughs.)
In terms of marketing, you were thinking on two levels. Getting a player endorsement deals is obviously good for the player. Yet it's also a good calling card for your services as an agent. But before we talk about that, tell me more about the training program.
When I joined IMG and took over the football division, we started the training facility in Bradenton, Florida. Mark Verstegen ran the operation. We put a strength training program in place as well as a program to improve linear and multi-directional movement.
I was surprised by the results. Early on we had three players who were graded as late first round, maybe second or third round picks... and all three went in the first round. They performed extremely well.
So every year we worked to improve the program. We brought in a nutritionist to increase or decrease player body weight and to improve body fat percentages. We brought in an Olympic sprinting coach. We had Michael Johnson, the great gold medalist, training our guys. One year three of our rookies ran a 4.3 second 40 yard-dash in the Combine.
And we just kept building. For example, when we brought in the nutritionist that was fantastic... except the food didn't taste so good. So we realized we needed a chef. (Laughs.)
We hired soft tissue specialists. We brought in people to help our players prepare for the Wonderlic Personality test, and for team interviews.
All of those steps really changed the business. And the clients came pouring in.
That's because you weren't just sitting in a living room making promises; you could lay out a complete program and show real results.
Speaking of programs -- let's talk player marketing.
The idea behind our player marketing efforts was simple. An executive at IMG had said, "We can't make any money on these guys."
I said, "You're doing it with Joe and Herschel... but let's say all we want to do is break even on marketing."
Like how free shipping works for online retail.
Exactly. If we do things to make the players money off the field... even if we're not generating a huge profit for our organization, we will still build loyalty. Other players will be jealous and want to come to us. And it will help us position our clients for what comes after football.
So I did that for 15 years with IMG. Then Mark McCormick passed away and the company was sold.
As I looked at our industry, I realized the perception of the players had completely changed. Fifteen years ago no one believed you could market players. Now everyone wanted them. They are celebrities.
I thought, "If our guys have gone from pro athletes to celebrities, then what if I looked at the companies that handle celebrities?"
I interviewed four different groups and was blown away by CAA (Creative Arts Agency). They believed the most important thing is not what you do... but what you do to help your coworkers. They were preaching to my choir.
So for the last 13 years I've headed up the football division of CAA.
You've transformed the role of agent. What you see as your job? And how do you define success, for clients and for you?
My job is simple: To take care of my player. That's also how I define success.
I feel the same way about clients as I did about teammates. The loyalty, the availability, the determination to step up in tough situations... it's the same way I felt about the guys I played with.
It all starts with a conversation with the player. What are your goals? Where do you see yourself on your next contract? How long you want to play? What are your goals off the field while you're a player? What are your aspirations when football is over?
Where do you feel you add your biggest value?
We've been very fortunate: We did the first $20 million guaranteed contract, the first $30 million guaranteed contract, the first $40, $50, $60, $90, the first $100 million guaranteed contract.... and we've had the highest-paid player in every single position on the field.
Face it. Everyone is concerned with how much money they will make. And they should be: They're risking their bodies and their heads.
In return, they want financial security. My number one job is helping them get there.
Financial security certainly results from their player contracts, but also from helping them generate marketing dollars, and from what they will do when they're finished with football.
That was the great thing about CAA: As I looked at all the things they had to offer, whether it was broadcasting, speaking, their book division, video games, movies, music, TV...
I went to New Orleans for a Monday night game to see Drew break all those records, and Payton was doing a great tribute to him on TV, and Jason Witten walked out of the broadcast booth....
It was like a Tom Condon player family reunion.
Which also raises an interesting point. You represent players, but you have to work closely with teams. How do you maintain those relationships without shortchanging your clients?
That's a great point. We do repeat business with 32 outlets, so to speak, representing both players and coaches. Our relationships with general managers, executives, and owners are very important to us.
But at the same time, you always do what is best for your client.
The best way to describe the approach is that whenever we enter a business situation with a member of team management, we make sure we're totally prepared. They appreciate that preparation.
Also keep in mind the fact we have so many quality clients. That helps in terms of building and maintaining relationships.
Plus, I know the people on the other side of the table have a job to do. So we treat them with respect. We're straightforward and honest and do the hard work to make sure we're as prepared as we can possibly be. They deserve that from us.
Ultimately, you're both trying to get to a place that makes sense.
Maybe what makes sense is that your guy will be the highest paid player in the league. When a player produces at a high level, when a player helps you win... it makes sense to ask for elite compensation.
Since winning is the yardstick, that should mean a team is happy to pay elite players elite compensation.
Well, you can't say they're happy to pay... but they understand. (Laughs.)
The best players are intelligent, have great character, and have a real passion for the game. It goes without saying they must be talented... but my experience is that smart guys, who are good guys, who love to play and like to work... those are the people who play at a high level, and for a long time.
They're the kind of player every team wants -- whether it's football, or any other business.
Put together a team of smart people, with good character, who have a passion for what they do, and are willing to work extremely hard... and I'll show you a great team.