Jackie MacMullan talked about reasons for her retirement on the Bill Simmons Podcast and pointed out that for the first few decades of her career, she barely knew who was representing a player. Nowadays, she explained, you can’t even try to get an interview or a comment without dealing with someone’s agent/agency. These dynamics behind the scenes are the most underappreciated element of NBA free agency – they have a major impact on the moves that change the landscape of the league.
When Thanasis Antetokounmpo gets a contract extension with the Bucks, or when Zoran Dragić got a contract with the Heat, we all understood what that’s about. A little nepotism to satisfy your max player is the cost of doing business. But there is another conflict of interest in the NBA, one that we rarely think about, and it makes a major impact on the Association. I’ve often wondered about these machinations, and then Ethan Strauss decided to explain why he left the Athletic. Strauss explained his drive and interest moved away from day-to-day coverage of the NBA to the big picture stuff, and he started with a bang – corruption in sports media.
“Even if I don’t take it as seriously as malfeasance in our politics or financial institutions, sports corruption still has an impact on coverage, and I dislike how much of the game behind the game is shielded from readers. For example, Creative Artists Agency (CAA) happens to represent key media personalities at ESPN NBA, which was by design, and accomplished with the subtlety and tact of the Red Wedding. When you combine that nugget with knowledge of CAA’s influence over the New York Knicks (GM Leon Rose is a former CAA superagent, coach Tom Thibodeau is a CAA client), ESPN’s reports of Zion Williamson (CAA client) having an interest in joining the Knicks gets put in a different light. The way it’s presented to the consumer is the mere reporting on a rising star in New Orleans wanting to play in New York. You’re not supposed to know that ESPN wants this to happen because ESPN is CAA and CAA is ESPN, which means that CAA is the Knicks, meaning that the Knicks are ESPN. You’re not supposed to know that this factors heavily into why New Orleans is shit out of luck, gumbo and jazz music be damned. In many ways, the agencies run the NBA. The media that they use to execute their messaging is making the principals seem peripheral. So often, the story of a trade or free agency signing is told absent mention of its true author.”Ethan Strauss
The best way to determine if Giannis was staying with the Bucks was to monitor Bam Adebayo‘s contract situation. If Adebayo signs with the Heat, you know Giannis is staying with the Bucks. Why? Signing Bam would make it impossible for the Heat to get Giannis – so if they signed Bam, it must’ve meant they know they can’t get Antetokounmpo. How do we know that? Well, Giannis and Bam have the same agent.
While tampering rules prevent Pat Riley from talking about Giannis with anyone except the Bucks’ front office, it’s well within the rules to call Alex Saratsis (Bam’s and Giannis’ agent) and ask about Bam’s contract and point out the Heat are holding until the Giannis situation develops. All that is necessary at that point is for Saratsis to tell Riley something like, “you should go ahead and sign Bam,” and that’s exactly what happened. Here’s Saratsis’ rebuttal of that theory, and I’ll let you decide what’s more likely.
“I can tell you that honestly,” says Saratsis. “‘Oh, well Bam signed, they must know something.’ They knew nothing. And I made sure. Agents do this all the time: You leverage one guy for another. And I never do that. It’s good to have information, but I would never talk Giannis’s business with Miami, and I would never talk about Miami’s business with any other team. You don’t leverage one guy for another.”Alex Saratsis, Complex
If you followed Free Agency just a bit more than turning on notifications for Woj and Shams, this concept is not news. Agents represent multiple stars with multiple teams can leverage their influence in a lot of ways. That’s the reality of the business (and why tampering rules are an illusion).
But Straus opened up another line of inquiry that hasn’t been talked about at all – the media side. If you got a feeling certain reporters always cover certain teams more favorably or not, now you know what to look for. Sports reporting has, like almost any reporting nowadays, become very quid-pro-quo. If that means you have to ask a few questions about someone’s new tequila to get an interview, I guess we can live with that.
But when the guy who established CAA’s NBA department becomes the Knicks GM, his former agency represents opinion-makers on the NBA’s media partner, and suddenly Zion loves MSG – that’s a bit more than a tequila plug. Can we eliminate this? Probably not. But a short “This story covers XYZ clients, I am also represented by XYZ,” would be a nice start.