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Home » Issue 1 (Summer 2015) » Project Articles » The relationship between sports agents and young professional football players and its potential impact on the player’s career

The relationship between sports agents and young professional football players and its potential impact on the player’s career

Author Names:  Igor Fijalkowski (BA (Hons) Sport Business Management) and Mike Green

 

Abstract

Since the late 1960s, the sports agents’ industry has experienced a turbulent growth. The rising importance of football player representation brought large numbers of newcomers to the market. This had a tremendous impact on players’ negotiations with football clubs, whose salaries have been steadily increasing. However, the prosperity of the market also attracted individuals whose primary goal was to make financial gain at the expense of the players involved. In the last decade the media has uncovered many unethical practices conducted by football agents which has resulted in negative publicity. Football agents have been little examined in the research which provides scope for future studies.  The existing research mainly focuses on agent responsibilities, communication with players and briefly describes the process of choosing a sports representative. Furthermore, previous research outlines the potential threats for players that come from having an agent but they do not provide a distinction between young talented and senior players. This study will investigate the relationship between young professional football players and sports agents from the athlete’s perspective. The researcher aims to identify players’ views on sports agents, recognise what determines their agent choice and analyse the nature of the relationship between both parties. This study used semi-structured interviews as an efficient qualitative method to capture participants’ experiences, feelings and thoughts. Taking into consideration the size of the project and the time frame a sample of 4 young Polish professional football players were chosen. Subsequently, data was transcribed and analysed using a thematic analysis approach. This is a useful tool to obtain meaningful results from the raw data. Four main themes were identified during the process: Perception and role of agent; Choosing an agent; Services provided; Relationship. The results indicate that agents are perceived as an integral part of the football industry. Furthermore, the study established that the process of choosing an agent is unique for every player as each individual has different expectations. Despite this some correspondence between athletes was observed. In addition, parents and teammates were recognised as the most influential figures in the process. Lastly, the study demonstrated that there is a relationship between the frequency of contact and closeness of the relationship between player and agent. Furthermore, that closeness has a reflection in the variety of services provided to an athlete. Agents are perceived as an integral part of the football industry. Their invaluable help allows players to have a clear focus on football. The type of player-agent relationship may have a strong impact on the longevity and the success rate of the partnership. Players need to be educated about the benefits of having a sports agent while staying vigilant to the potential threats of manipulation and deceit.

 

1.0 Introduction

Over the last decade, the sports industry has been one of the fastest growing markets (Collington and Sultan, 2014). Football is a universal sport that has the ability to gather large international audiences and appeals to all classes (Colantuoni, 2013). According to Deloitte (2014) the European football market was estimated as being worth €19.9 billion in 2012/2013. A constantly flourishing market attracts new sponsors who bring more money to the football clubs (Biscaia et al. 2014). However the increasing transfer fees and athlete salaries can also attract large numbers of sports agents hoping to make quick money (Neinman, 2007). Table 1 shows the increase in the number of transfers in the football industry from 1994-2011 and their associated value.

 

Table 1: The increase in the number of transfers in the football industry from 1994-2011 and their associated value (KEA European Affairs and The Centre of Law and Economics of Sport, 2013)

FijalkowskiTable1

Jon Holmes when asked about his job in an article in Sports Special Agent responded: ‘you have to have empathy and objectivity; you are a part-time marriage guidance counselor; a financial adviser; a nanny and a travel agent’ (Director, 2008 p31). According to Staudohar (2006) the origin of the sports agent profession dates back to the 1930s when the first occurrences of athlete representation were observed. However, the importance of sports agents began to be recognised in the 1960s and 1970s in the USA, where agents started to negotiate contract terms on behalf of the players in the NHL, NFL and NBA (Lipscomb and Titlebaum 2001; Mason and Slack; 2001). At the beginning agents focused only on representing players and satisfying their business needs (Staudohar, 2006). As a result the athlete’s position in negotiations was reinforced and the industry observed a sudden increase in players’ salaries (Neinman, 2007). Agents’ experience and expertise in the field allows them to objectively assess the potential of the client in order to ensure desirable contract terms (Rothstein, 2009). The scope of services expected from agents increased due to the rapid growth of the sport industry and increasing competition amongst sports agents (Rosner, 2004).

Although, a few decades ago the role of sports agents was marginal, athletes began to realise the benefits that formal representation can bring them (Oyoung, 2012). However, as the number of sports agents increased, the market has observed a growing influence of unlicensed agents and so called “dodgy agents” (Goffe, 2015). Their unethical practices have negatively impacted opinion on sports agents who have been described as the ‘scum of the earth’ (Rothstein, 2009 p30). Due to this the credibility of many sports agents was questioned (Sport bez Fikcji, 2013). Young football players are the group that are especially susceptible to agent manipulation and deceit, therefore a process of choosing the right agent should be conducted carefully, preferably with adult assistance (Lipscomb and Titlebaum, 2001). This is supported by Goffe (2015) who uses Africa as an example of a continent where every year thousands of young footballers are illegally transported to Europe with hopes of becoming professional football players. However, only a small number are lucky enough to sign contracts, whereas the rest are abandoned by agents and left on their own (Goffe, 2015). These examples of representation misconducts raise the question of how sport agents will be perceived by the future generations of football players.

Despite many negative examples of player-agent partnership, specialists claim that young talented athletes need an agent (Sport bez Fikcji, 2013; Oyoung, 2012). Formal representation can create new opportunities for a player and open new career pathways (Cafe Futbol, 2014). Lipscomb and Titlebaum (2001) turned attention to the younger generations of athletes. In the future, the value of the sport industry will continue to grow therefore the presence and cooperation of both agents and athletes is unavoidable. Athletes have to learn how to differentiate a money-driven ‘dodgy’ agent from a trustworthy individual with good intentions. Furthermore, Mason and Slack (2001; citing Jensen and Meckling, 1976) stated that the relationship between agent and athlete can be described using agency theory. It states that the principal (player) employs an agent (sports agent) to provide services on their behalf. Agents should be loyal towards their principal and avoid conflicts of interest (Rosner, 2004). Lipscomb and Titlebaum (2001) put mutual trust as the crucial factor to sustaining a successful relationship.

This study will try to discover the perceptions of young professional football players of sports agents and their work ethics. It will try to explore the reasons behind choosing a particular representative, delving into the uniqueness of the relationship between both parties and understanding how the relationship can impact players’ career development. This study aims to expand on existing knowledge in the field and hopefully add new information stimulating critical discussion around the topic. The aim of this study is to explore young players’ perspectives on the relationship with sports agents. Their expectations and the range of services that they would like to be provided with as well as their view on the agent’s role in the player’s career development will be explored.

The objectives of this study are to:

  • Analyse the players’ views on agents as important stakeholders of the football environment.
  • Establish what impacts the player’s decision on which agent they choose.
  • Evaluate whether players prefer to have a more personal or professional relationship with an agent.

 

2.0 Methodology

Methodology is a tool that contributes to the completion of a study by creating guidelines to gather and analyse data (Bean, 2011). According to Bean (2011) methodology is believed to be the foundation to the research design. Crotty (1998) recognises methodology and methods identification as a first step to establishing design of the research proposal. Furthermore, Harwell (2011; citing Crotty, 1998) emphasizes four elements when preparing a research design: what epistemology informs the research, the philosophical stance that underlines philosophy, methodology behind choice and use of methods; and lastly procedures and techniques used in the process to collect data.

Perception of the world is a factor that impacts on adoption of a research philosophy and reflects the researcher’s view on knowledge and its creation (Gratton and Jones, 2010). For the purpose of this study, a deep understanding of social inquiries in relation to research approaches and knowledge acquisition was developed in order to choose the most suitable methods to achieve accurate results (Holloway and Wheeler, 2002).

 

2.1 Research Philosophy

The philosophical stance adopted for this study was based around knowledge and the methods used to obtain it (Saunders, Lewis and Thornhill, 2012).  Due to that fact, an epistemological approach was selected. Epistemology is a study of the origins, nature and limits of human knowledge (Crotty, 1998). It identifies what types of knowledge are suitable and valid in relation to the study (Saunders, Lewis and Thornhill, 2012; Holloway and Wheeler, 2002; Crotty, 1998).

Crotty (1998: cited by McCann, 2006) recognised three alternative epistemologies: objectivism, constructionism and subjectivism. In order to address the issues and problems which the study aims to investigate, an individual has to choose an appropriate epistemological approach (Creswell, 2003; McCann, 2006). Unlike objectivism and subjectivism, constructionism’s view is that “reality is socially constructed” (Mertens, 1998, p11).  Participants’ experiences, opinions and perceptions play a major role in understanding how the player-agent relationship is constructed (McCann, 2006). Furthermore, construction of meaning changes depending on a person, as each individual has a different understanding of a phenomenon, therefore the study involves collecting data from many players to achieve a greater understanding of player–agent partnership. In addition, a constructionism approach requires a close connection between subject and object in a successful creation of a meaning (Crotty, 1998).

Constructionism epistemology was adopted for this research project as it best fits the reasoning for conducting the study and the problems it tries to address. Research involved interpretation of information derived from social interaction with participants, hence the researcher’s active involvement as an interviewer was integral to achieving the aims and objectives of the study (McCann, 2006).

 

2.2. Philosophical stance

According to Saunders, Lewis and Thornhill (2012) epistemology constitutes three main views: positivism, interpretivism and realism. Neither positivism nor realism can contribute to this study as both focus on scientific enquiry. Interpretivism stresses the importance of understanding how our role as social actors affects reality and the differences between humans (Saunders, Lewis and Thornhill, 2012). This is supported by Elsayed (2008) who explain that social reality is heavily impacted by people who shape and interpret that reality. In addition McCann (2006) recognises the need of human beings to communicate, which subsequently leads to the creation of the fabric of society and identification with society. This study required an analysis and understanding of relationships between football players and sports agents from the players’ point of view (Gratton and Jones, 2010). Using an interview method, data was collected and analysed in order to meet the objectives of the study. Players were encouraged to share their experiences and thoughts on their relationship with agents. As the interpretivist approach aims to capture and understand differences between humans, collected data aimed to provide the different perspectives of the players on their relationships with agents and their personal opinion on the sports agency problem. This aimed to allow the researcher to critically evaluate existing literature against the new findings. Thus, the interpretivism paradigm seems to be consistent with the research approach.

Choosing an interpretive constructionism stance requires application of inductive reasoning. This method allows for deeper understanding of a problem (Saunders, Lewis and Thornhill, 2012). It involves collecting data from individuals and conducting analysis of that data, which can then contribute to formulation of a theory or generalization about sports agents’ work (Cohen, Manion and Morris, 2007).

 

2.3 Research design

Researchers stress the importance of establishing research design at an early stage of the project as it allows the recognition of the key features of the study, which vary between quantitative, qualitative and mixed methods (Harwell, 2011).

For the purpose of this study a qualitative research design was adopted. Qualitative methods examine how individuals perceive the world, which is crucial to this study as the perception of football players on sports agents will be investigated (Bell, 2010). According to Lynch (2010, p69) the qualitative approach “can give a very humanistic and detailed understanding of a topic, something that a quantitative approach may sometimes lack.” Furthermore, both Gratton and Jones (2010) and Harwell (2011) exemplify that qualitative methods aim to capture feelings, thoughts and experiences of the participants. Capturing meanings has strong ties to the interpretivist approach mentioned previously. This also fits perfectly within the research design of this project as the nature of a relationship will be analyzed. Sharing experiences and thoughts about the sport agency problem allows for deeper understanding of the topic.

Denzin and Lincoln (2005) portray qualitative researchers as those who attempt to explore an area of interest in order to explain phenomenon by conceptualizing on knowledge disclosed by participants. Understanding of a topic is gained through a holistic perspective (Hancock, 2002). Information can be gathered using multiple methods, however for this study an interview method was adopted. Interviews offer an insightful analysis of social phenomena such as the relationship between a player and an agent based on responses disclosed by the interviewees.

 

2.4 Interviews

Interviews are face to face conversations that place value on an interaction between researcher and participants, resulting in the acquisition of in-depth information about an area of interest (Saunders, Lewis and Thornhill, 2012; Gratton and Jones, 2010). Interviews can be highly structured, semi-structured or unstructured (Hancock, 2002). Saunders, Lewis and Thornhill (2012) further categorize interviews into standardized and non-standardized.  This study focused on conducting semi-structured interviews with young, professional football players in Poland. The semi-structured approach is more flexible, hence this allowed discussion of some of the emerging topics in more detail and allowed the flow of the interview to be changed if needed (Kumar, 2011; Robson, 2011).

This study involved interviewing young professional football players from Poland. Interviews were conducted face to face and data was recorded on a Dictaphone. Interviewees were asked a set of open ended questions, allowing participants to elaborate on emerging topics by using prompts. The interview questions are listed in Table 2.

 

Table 2: Interview Questions

1. What is the first thing that comes to your mind when you hear the words ‘sports agent’? 13. What do you reckon is more important, a good personality and drive to succeed or good networks? Both?
2. Can a player risk not having an agent in the football world nowadays? 14. What is your opinion on the bad publicity that agents have got in the last decade?
3. Do you agree that young players are sometimes deceived by agents? 15. Would you rather choose a club in a less prestigious European league where you could play regularly or would you go to a strong European club risking sitting on the bench?
4. Agent: ruthless businessman or calm, sensible negotiator? 16. What is your view on the choices made by young Polish players who left Ekstraklasa in the last 2 years and now struggle to play regularly?
5. At what age should a player consider looking for an agent or do you believe that if a player is good enough an agent will notice a contact player himself? 17. Would you blame an agent for the wrong guidance if things didn’t go as you planned?
6. How did your first contact with a sports agent occur? 18. Do you think that players prefer to stay with one agent that they trust or look for better representation?
7. What convinced you that they were the right person to represent you? 19. Do you believe that agents should provide services beyond representing a player such as finance, accommodation, taxes?
8. Did anyone help you during the process of choosing an agent? Coach, Parents, Experienced football players? 20.  Is money the most important factor when choosing a club or does money not play a big role but instead the possibility of regular appearances is a decisive factor?
9. As a young player would you trust a young, not well-established agent? 21. Do you agree that agents should better communicate with their clients in order to better match future club choices to the actual players’ potential?
10. What qualities does an agent need to have in order to gain a players trust? 22. Individual agent or sport agency?
11. Is it difficult to deceive a player in order to make him an agent’s client? 23. How often do you talk to your agent?
12. Have you heard about situations like that in your football environment? 24. Big club/big money/bench or 10 minute appearances or smaller club/less money/ starting eleven every week?

 

2.5 Sampling method

Sampling in qualitative research focuses on recognizing groups of respondents whose knowledge and experiences can contribute towards achieving the objectives of a study (Gratton and Jones, 2010). Such a group is defined as a population. The identification of this is a fundamental step when choosing an appropriate sampling method (Saunders, Lewis and Thornhill, 2012). Sample size depends on a time that researcher has to complete a study (Bell, 2010).

Young professional Polish football players were the population of interest for this study. This was chosen due to accessibility of respondents to the researcher as well as the career situation of each player, which allowed the exploration of the player-agent relationship. Being limited by time (e.g. to transcribe and translate interviews) and the size of the project, the researcher decided to interview four players. Taking into account constraints and study design the researcher decided to adopt a convenience sampling method (Farrokhi, 2012). During the process of conducting the study the sampling method changed into a mixed method of convenient and purposeful sampling. Convenient sampling involves choosing the most accessible subjects, whereas purposeful sampling is a method of actively selecting a sample that can successfully address the research objectives (Marshall, 1996).

 

2.6 Validity and reliability

The data collection method should be examined against the plausibility of achieving validity and reliability (Bell, 2010). Researchers unanimously agree that enforcing validity and reliability within a study greatly improves its quality (Ali and Yusof, 2011; Silverman 2010; Golafshani, 2003). Gratton and Jones (2010) explain that it is difficult to adhere to validity and reliability concepts within qualitative studies. In order to achieve reliability, interviews should be conducted in the same environment, recorded with the permission of the participants and transcribed by the researcher in a short period of time (Gratton and Jones, 2010). Validity is problematic to address as it involves analysing transcripts. The researcher may affect what information participants will decide to disclose, however ensuring truthfulness and credibility of interviews is of the essence (Gratton and Jones, 2010). Lastly, Dean and Whyte (1978) state that informing participants about the confidentiality of interviews may positively affect the quality of data.

 

2.7 Data analysis

The researcher decided to employ an exploratory approach to the qualitative data analysis (Guest, MacQueen and Namey, 2012).  According to Holloway and Todres (2003; cited by Braun and Clarke, 2006 p4) ‘qualitative approaches are incredibly complex, diverse and nuanced’, therefore thematic analysis should be seen as a fundamental tool in qualitative data analysis (Braun and Clarke, 2006). Thematic analysis focuses on exploring collected data in order to discover implicit or explicit ideas (themes) within a text (Guest, MacQueen and Namey, 2012).  This content-driven approach requires the researcher to read data multiple times looking for key themes, patterns or ideas before analysis commences (Guest, MacQueen and Namey, 2012).

The flexibility of thematic analysis makes it a useful tool in obtaining meaningful results (Braun and Clarke, 2006). Guest, MacQueen and Namey (2012) claim that thematic analysis is the best method for capturing the complexities of meaning within textual data, despite claims against the reliability of this method. As interview transcripts were a source of emerging themes for this study there was very strong reasoning behind adopting thematic analysis in this research project.

 

2.8 Ethics

While conducting research, a top priority task is to assure participants that their personal details and emotional well-being will be protected (Altermatt, 2011). Therefore, participants were given an informed consent form, which explained the motivation behind the study and the aims and objectives. Confidentiality of participant names and information was ensured by anonymizing them as Player A, Player B, Player C and Player D. Every participant had a right to withdraw from the study until data analysis was completed without providing a reason (Robson, 2011). The researcher also committed to use an appropriate research methodology in order to achieve the most reliable results and avoid being biased (Kumar, 2011).

 

3.0 Results

Data in this section was collected through four interviews with young professional football players in Poland. Among the interviewed players were individuals who play in Polish Ekstraklasa. Some had already debuted for youth national teams whilst others had attended trials in respected Western European teams. Their rich football careers so far and relationship with agents were of high importance to this study. Interviews were conducted between 31st December 2014 and 7th January 2015 in Szczecin, Poland.  There were 4 main themes identified within a data, these are displayed in Table 3 below:

 

Table 3. Main themes identified within the data.

Theme Sub-theme Concepts
Perception and role of an agent Opinion on agents Young vs. experienced agents, bad publicity of agents in the last decade, unethical behaviour of agents, what are general duties of the sport agent, general opinion on agents
Young agents
Agent’s publicity
Choosing an agent Traits of a good agent What agent should do to gain player’s trust, how the relationship is established, what is expected from an agent, desirable character traits, what it takes to be an agent.  What steps an agent has to take in order to sign a player
Approaching player
First contact with  an agent
Services provided Social media How social media affects perception of a player, is it important for a player?  What services should an agent provide player with?  How the agreement between both sides is established?
Agent responsibilities
Relationship Expectations What are the player’s expectations towards an agent?  How the agent and player communicate?  How often do they communicate?  What makes a good trustworthy agent?  What does the current relationship with agent look like?
Relationship & characteristics
What makes a good agent

 

3.1 Players’ views on agents as important stakeholders of the football environment

Participants expressed mixed feelings about sports agents and their work in the football environment when asked about their thoughts on the profession. For example, Player C had faced negative experiences with his agent in the past and described agents as both beneficial and destructive. Player D said that agents are associated with manipulating players and being ‘sneaky’, whereas, Player A and B associated agents with a person that takes care of a football player and helps them enter into senior football.

Player A: ‘Well, a person that takes care of me. Takes care of my business …’

Player B: ‘ … person that takes care of a player’.

‘ … a person who assists player to step into football world’.

Player C: ‘ … a person that can help a lot but at the same time can do a lot of damage’.

Player D: ‘trickster’; ‘should provide a player with guidance throughout his career’

 

All the players expressed confidence that in the early stages of a career a player needed to have an agent as the benefits that come from having an agent are irreplaceable. Participants agreed that having someone who takes care of negotiations and non-football related matters allows the player to have a clear head and focus on playing football.  The players realised that there is a negative approach from the media and football environment in Poland towards agents, and furthermore they articulated that there are strong and credible arguments behind those opinions. Yet, participants expressed the belief that not all agents are ‘bad’ and it is important to make a distinction between both types.

 

Player A: “In early days I thought that you can afford not having an agent”

Player D: “ … (agent) can offer a lot of help and take care of negotiations”

Player B: ‘In Poland players think that agent is not of a great importance’

Player C: ‘we cannot be biased and say that all of them are bad’; ‘it seems like there are less so called ‘good’ agents which creates bad publicity’

 

3.2 Establish what impacts the player’s decision on which agent they choose

Results show that the process of choosing an agent differs among individuals and that players look for specific traits. Decisions are made based on the impressions that agents make on footballers. However, all the participants agreed that an agent should be the person to reach out to the player not the other way around. Therefore, talent and good performances should get an agent’s attention and encourage them to contact a young prospect.

Player A: ‘he has to show credibility”

Player B: ‘surprised me with honesty and open-mindedness”

Player C: ‘Agents spot and contact player themselves.’

Player D: ‘It is more of a gut feeling (choosing an agent)’

 

Parents and teammates were identified as influential figures during the decision making process. Parents were often visited by the agents to discuss plans for the player’s future. Furthermore, teammates were recognised as an important source of feedback about agents’ reputation.

Player C: ‘Afterwards he came to my house, spoke to my parents…’

Player A: ‘Agent wanted to see my parents and speak with them…’

Player B: ‘I was introduced to my current agent by another football player’

 

Even though the players had not experienced deceit and manipulation in the early stages of their relationships with their future agents, they admitted that they are aware of those practices and had heard about such situations from other football players.

Player B: ‘they use psychological manipulation’

Player C: ‘those experienced and established agents try to impress individuals with players they already represent or their networks, who they know and what they achieved.’

 

Furthermore, players stressed the importance of a long term career plan that agents should have in mind. Players expressed concerns due to the fact that very often they are treated as products or assets not as partners. In addition, experienced agents are believed to have an advantage over young individuals as they have networks and useful skills that are crucial in this profession.

Player C: ‘Agent should have long term career plan for a footballer’

Player D: ‘It is hard to find an agent that has a long term plan for a player’

Player A: ‘the older the agent is and the more networks he has, the more credible he seems in the player’s eyes.’

 

3.3 Evaluate whether players prefer to have a more personal or professional relationship with an agent

Players explained that agents who showed an interest in the player’s on and off field activities provided the foundation for building future relationships. The usual routine involved watching players and giving them feedback after the game. Meeting and talking to the parents was another important element. Agents of some players showed more initiative than others which involved sending books or video materials, supplements or providing a player with football boots. Participant A mentioned psychological tests that he was asked to complete. They influenced his perception of an agent and make him pursue the individual to sign a contract.

Player B: ‘He surprised me with books or movies that he used to send me in order to make me feel more confident’; ‘when we started our relationship, he would provide me with a pair of boots if I needed one’

Player D: ‘His approach, willingness to help and interest in me as a person and a football player.’

 

Contact of Players C and D with their agent/lawyer was sporadic with one or two meetings a month. Furthermore, they explained that services provided by their agents are focused on negotiations with clubs. Participant D mentioned the possibility of having extra sessions with physiotherapists if needed which would be provided by an agent, however he also specifically said ‘I don’t need babysitting’. Player C had encountered negative experiences with his first agent who manipulated him, therefore now he is working with a lawyer who has been working with his family for a long time.

Player C: ‘One or two times a month’

Player D: ‘I can call my agent 24/7’; ‘I don’t need babysitting’; ‘We meet once a month’

 

Conversely, Players A and B contact their agents on a regular basis and noted that services provided by the agents are more diversified such as creating social media profiles, sending supplements and regularly coming to see matches. Player B highlighted how thanks to his agent he managed to establish an endorsement deal with Nike. On top of that, their agents offered them extra sessions with nutritionists and physiotherapists if needed.

Player B: ‘ My agent is so direct that he can call me at 3 am whether I would like to go swimming with him in the morning (laugh).’

Player A: ‘We speak regularly. Usually every other day.’; ‘When he has an offer for me we speak 24/7 (…) at those times you can tell that he cares about me.

 

4.0 Discussion

4.1 Players’ views on agents as important stakeholders of the football environment

The findings of this study corresponds with previous research which describes the actions of modern agents as underhanded (Neville, 2013; Neinman, 2007), leading to negative perceptions of the sports agent profession. The participants’ negative experiences with sports agents and shared stories of their teammates reinforced a view of agents being seen as manipulative and deceptive individuals. However, literature on agents and the results of this study suggest that practices of agents have not changed dramatically in the last decade. Instead the expanding reach of media has managed to expose details of ‘dirty’ negotiations and methods used to influence players’ decisions in more depth than previously occurred. It allowed people to access information which was unavailable to the public earlier. In addition, the research outcomes suggest that the industry may observe a decline in the number of ‘good agents’, affecting the general opinion.  This idea has a strong relationship with Rothstein’s (2009) study which focused on the increasing number of sport agents as a result of the growth of the European football market. Consequently, fierce competition among agents (Rosner, 2004) may lead to displacement of ‘good agents’ in favour of more ‘sneaky’ individuals.

However, this study also provided a strong indication that sports agents, despite examples of unethical conduct, still play a vital role in the industry by providing services for the footballers (Oyoung, 2012). This includes providing guidance for the young players to step into senior football and taking care of football related matters (Rothstein, 2009) which were recognised as the most important duties of sports agents towards their clients. Furthermore, the study revealed that players at initial stages of their career wrongfully underestimate the role of the sports agent only to realise the importance and help a representative can offer in the following years. This supports the view of Mason and Slack (2001) that young talented players need to acknowledge and utilise the assistance that an agent can offer. Hence, it shows that young talents should be made aware of the benefits available to them through professional representation at youth academy levels. Education about sports agents may reduce the potential risks of signing with the wrong person as well as change the perception of youths who initially view agents as unnecessary. Football clubs put time and effort in to train athletes however they often become victims of the sports agents’ practices. Raising awareness about sports agents among young footballers and their parents could act as a protection mechanism against unethical agent conducts. Certainly this could have a significant value to the future generations of players as FIFA changes the agency regulations this year allowing large numbers of new ‘intermediaries’ to enter the market with many certainly having dishonest intentions (Goffe, 2015).

The literature on agents displays both negative (Rosner, 2004; Lipscomb and Titlebaum, 2001) and positive (Oyoung, 2012, Neinman, 2007) impacts within the football industry. Whereas the media mostly focuses on the manipulative nature of sports agents and represents an opinionated approach towards the subject matter (Neville, 2013; Karlsen, 2013), results of the study indicate that the media exaggerate the negative publicity relating to agents. Players expressed dissatisfaction with media sources being unfair towards agents by ‘lumping them together’ and making negative generalisations. However, agents were given a lot of credit for taking care of players’ football related matters which allowed them to have a clear focus on football.  Thus, participants showed awareness of a major role that agents play in representing a player (Mason and Slack, 2001), while staying vigilant to the potential threats.

The results indicate that the players understand the complexity of the sports agent profession, where they have to provide various services to the clients (Neinman, 2007) while being cautious about other agents (Oyoung, 2012) who might try to steal their clients. FIFA, by introducing new regulations, will greater un-regulate an already highly un-regulated industry creating opportunities for everyone to pursue players which poses a greater threat to the existing agents (Goffe, 2015). This reinforces the view that agents may be pushed into unethical actions in order to stay in business or retain clients (Rothstein, 2009). However, it does not specify that those actions are directed towards football players. Therefore, it can be assumed that some agents are pushed to unethical conduct in order to achieve goals without negatively impacting their relationship with a player. This raises a question, whether fierce competition between agents can be used as an excuse to use manipulation or deceit to achieve set objectives. Money seems to be a prime motivator and driver in the industry (Neville, 2013). The results support this view as often agents, as well as players, may be blinded by attractive financial offers which lead to irrational behaviours. However, a distinction between young and senior players has to be made. Senior players pursue money to ensure financial stability for their families and football retirement, whereas young players expressed no interest in money in the early stages of the career, picking regular appearances as a priority instead.

 

4.2 Establish what impacts the player’s decision on which agent they choose

The process of choosing an agent is a crucial step for young professional football players (Lipscomb and Titlebaum, 2001). The study revealed that each player has their own way of approaching this problem, although common practices of conducting the process are observable. All the participants described desirable character traits that an agent should have, out of which a mix can be produced. Honesty, open-mindedness, altruism, go-ahead attitude and credibility were strongly articulated as desirable during interviews. Therefore, players do have expectations of agents, although they admitted that these expectations are not always met as there is no one universal set of traits that makes a good agent. As a result it can be assumed that young talents may prefer a representative with certain characteristics. However, as long as services are delivered to expected standards and there is mutual trust, players seem to be flexible about this issue. Conversely, the findings have revealed that players often lack experience in making rational and good judgments. This leads to the choices being made based on ‘gut feeling’. Relying on intuition could be one of the major reasons for selection of the wrong agents and further disappointments (Goffe, 2015). Although players may lack experience, they know how they want to be treated. The money in football (Neville, 2013; Goffe 2015) has created a cultural change where agents treat athletes as products. However, players want to be recognised as partners and they expect agents to have a long term career plan. This indicates that, despite a young age, players showed maturity by seeking someone who could offer stability both on and off the pitch in the long term.

In order for the interaction to take place contact between both parties is required. Unlike in other sports where athletes sometimes pursue agents (Lipscomb and Titlebaum 2001; Mason and Slack, 2001), interviews have shown that in football an agent is expected to contact a player. Good performances and talent should be the factors that draw attention encouraging this first move (Rothstein, 2009). This can be seen as a promising sign for their future career as agents know when they spot a gifted individual, therefore time and money spent on a player are expected to bring a return on this investment. In most cases contact is initiated after football events where an agent has an opportunity to observe a player. These include league games, international events or reaching out through other players. Furthermore, introduction of the new FIFA regulations (Goffe, 2015) may possibly increase the number of talent seekers during the games and youth international tournaments. As a result fierce competition could magnify and elicit unlawful business practices.

After spotting a player, agents initiate contact with parents who become an important element of negotiations (Lipscomb and Titlebaum, 2001). Literature reports that parents act as advisors who help their children make the right choice. However, the study proved that the role of the parents is much more complex. Firstly, they indeed act as guides for young athletes who seek advice due to their lack of experience. Secondly, parents are used by the agents as leverage in negotiations as by gaining the trust of the parents this increases their chances of signing a player. Lastly, two players stated that they did not consult their parents about agents and made their own independent choices. Therefore, the role of parents in the process may be dependent upon the personality of the player or their relationship with their mother and father.

Making independent choices can increase a player’s vulnerability to unlawful behaviour and manipulation (Sport bez fikcji, 2013). Furthermore, agents take advantage of these players by offering various types of incentives (Mason and Slack, 2001). Interviewees reinforced this view by providing examples of how agents tried to impress them or their friends. These included boasting about important people they knew or inviting players to expensive restaurants. Experienced agents hold greater power and resources which can be used to persuade young athletes (Stec, 2014). This view seems to be strongly embedded in the players’ minds as they have stated that ‘stagers’ know the industry comprehensively and have much more to offer, whereas young inexperienced agents may have potential, drive and good intentions (Poli, Rossi and Besson, 2012) but this is not enough in this industry where networks and experience are the factors that determine success. Conversely, Player C who had negative experiences with an agent in the past suggested that he would give a chance to a young agent if he could meet the athlete’s expectations. Therefore, even though experienced agents have an advantage, an exposure to unethical conduct may change a player’s perception in favour of newcomers.

 

4.3 Evaluate whether players prefer to have a more personal or professional relationship with an agent

The agent relationship is based on delivering business related services (Staudohar, 2006; Oyoung, 2012), however some partnerships go beyond this notion demonstrating more personal features (Rhodes et al, 2006; DuBois and Neville, 1997). Findings of this study indicate that players indeed have either a professional or personal relationship with an agent. Interestingly however, a pattern between the frequency of contact between both parties and the type of relationship can be observed. For instance, two players who contact their agents once or twice a month stated that services provided by their representatives do not go beyond traditional etiquette. Player D stated that he does not need a babysitter, which contradicts Rosner’s (2004) view that athletes nowadays require a lot of guidance, counselling and babysitting. Conversely, Player C’s previous negative experiences might be the reason for his limited trust towards the agents. This discouraged the athlete from other sports agents and led to professional collaboration with a lawyer, who has been working closely with his family for years. Accordingly, this confirms that an agent-player relationship is built over a long period of time and requires primarily mutual trust (Ryzin, 2014; Carter and Hart, 2010; Schultheiss and Esbroeck, 2009).

In contrast, other participants who contact their agents every other day reported that services provided by their agents are more diversified and the relationship is highly personal. Player B was provided with an endorsement deal with Nike (Oyoung, 2012) but the agent has also shown an interest in his emotional well-being and self-confidence (Café Futbol, 2014; Rhodes et al, 2006) by sending motivational videos or books. Similarly, Player C described the practices of his agent who at the beginning provided him with psychological tests, which he was profoundly impressed with. This indicates that studies on relationships in sponsorship (Farrelly and Quester, 2005; Farrelly and Quester, 2003) or customer relationship management (Payne and Frow, 2006; Wirtz and Lihotzky, 2003) can expand an agent’s knowledge about the game by giving them a competitive edge over the other ‘business’ people who neglect those notions. In addition, investigating the psychology of the youth within mentoring literature (Ryzin, 2014; Rhodes and DuBois, 2008) can provide an understanding of how athletes think, therefore improving communication between both parties.

Furthermore, Player C explained that his agent takes care of him by sending supplements or making sure that he is well rested for trials or important games. Moreover, results display that the frequency of meetings does affect the relationship type between two parties, however closeness (Rhodes and DuBois, 2008) and type of contact are also of high importance. Players with purely professional relationships met or called agents solely to discuss football progress and business matters, whereas players with more personal relationships had agents coming to watch their games regularly. In fact, mutual interests were discovered to expand conversations beyond business related matters. Subsequently Player B highlighted: ‘ My agent is so direct that he can call me at 3 am whether I would like to go swimming with him in the morning’ which reinforces the personal relationship notion as it shows that both parties treat each other not only as partners but also as friends.

In addition, the findings indicate that differences between personal and professional relationships may occur due to the length of the partnership. Participants in long term relationships have described more personal ties to the agents, whereas players in relationships for shorter periods of time have reported purely professional connections. Therefore, it can be argued that young athletes require time to start to fully trust an agent and feel comfortable around them. Conversely, agents have an important role in this process by acting as a partner not a businessman. Relationships can bring great benefits to both parties only if mutual trust and respect is in place (Lipscomb and Titlebaum, 2001). Lastly, the study supports a view that the personality of an athlete plays a huge role in determining the player-agent relationship (Asendorpf, 2002). It is the responsibility of the agent to treat each player as a unique individual with different needs and expectations requiring effort in the form of time, money or emotional investment. Becoming aware of the relationship notion within other business areas or subjects such as sponsorship (Farrelly, Quester and Burton, 2006; Farrelly and Quester, 2005), mentoring (Ryzin, 2014; Rhodes and DuBois, 2008) or costumer relationship (Payne and Frow, 2006; Wirtz and Lihotzky, 2003) can offer a deeper understanding of the interactions between the player and the agent. Gathering that knowledge will not only provide a positive impression to a footballer but it will also indicate that an agent is ready and willing to fully engage his time and efforts into a player. Therefore, it can be assumed that a personal relationship should be the aim of both agent and player as it brings both parties closer, which can positively impact on the success rate and longevity of the relationship.

 

4.4 Limitations

This study focused on identifying how sports agents are perceived by young professional football players, however, the sample size consisted of only four participants. To produce more accurate and valid results, the sample size would have to be larger. Furthermore, sampling method should be purposeful (Farrokhi, 2012). The reliability and validity of the study would also be increased if all of the participants were not familiar to the researcher. This could prevent potential bias allowing for new distinct information to be obtained. The experience of the researcher in conducting interviews was also a limitation in itself.

 

4.5 Recommendations for further research

During the analysis process an interesting additional theme came to the surface: club changing process. This theme allows the exploration of agent-player cooperation in the transfer process. Consequently, it gives an opportunity to discover how agents meet player expectations and identify the importance of communication.

The aim of the study was to focus on players’ perspective on agents work. However conducting interviews with both players and agents could enrich the findings by exploring the views and experiences from both sides leading to new meaningful results.

In addition, this study was conducted before the changes in the regulations of football agents will be implemented (Goffe, 2015). Therefore, rerunning this study in a few years’ time, when ‘intermediaries’ will have come to the industry and possibly bring changes to player-agent relationships will be of interest.

 

5.0 Conclusion and Applications

The objectives of the research project were to analyse the players’ views on agents as important stakeholders of the football environment, establish what impacts the player’s decision on which agent they choose and evaluate whether players prefer to have more personal or professional relationship with an agent.

The study explored the notion of player – agent relationship. Players confirmed that within the industry there are plenty of individuals who conduct unethical practices, therefore strong reasoning behind the negative publicity in the media can be observed. Conversely, young footballers expressed appreciation for the agent’s role in a football environment as they provide a wide range of services, which allow players to have a clear head and focus on football. The study findings revealed a lack of knowledge and experience amongst players who underestimated the role of the agents in the early stages of the career. Accordingly, players should be provided with knowledge from football clubs or informed parents to enable them to recognise the importance of the sport representatives and benefits they have to offer.

The process of choosing an agent is complex and diversified. Each player may approach the problem from a different perspective yet common practices were observed. Athletes tend to look for particular character traits which they believe a good agent should have. However, due to their lack of experience very often these decisions are made based on ‘gut feeling’. In addition, the study shows that parents and teammates have a strong influence on the decision making process by giving advice or recommendations. Furthermore, young footballers indicated that experienced agents have more credibility and have a greater chance of signing talent than inexperienced ones. Networks and knowledge about the industry are seen by the players as desirable factors that can benefit their future careers.

In addition, the study revealed that there is a close link between the frequency of contact and the type of relationship between both parties. Players, who frequently met their agents tended to have more personal relationships and those relationships involved more diversified services and showed signs of friendship. However, athletes who met their representatives sporadically had professionally oriented relationships, where interaction was limited to football related matters so the services provided fitted within traditional agent etiquette. To conclude, the study reinforced a view that personality plays a major role in establishing the player-agent relationship. Each athlete has different expectations of an agent’s work that can determine his choice and shape the relationship.

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