by Jack Bechta
February 27, 02009
Last night, if you went to any NFL team office, you saw plenty of activity:
More cars in the parking lot than usual, pizzas being delivered, secretaries staying late and reporters hanging in plain sight or slouched stealthily in their cars staking out the facility.
WELCOME TO THE NFL’S MIDNIGHT MARKET!
In some of my most recent articles, I’ve made several references about team officials who play in the gray area of tampering, or just blatantly do it. What I didn’t mention is that there are a few teams that carry themselves to the letter of the law. These are the teams that literally make their first contact with player agents at 12:01 a.m. eastern time.
Although these teams may appear to have to play catch-up to the market, it doesn’t necessarily count them out. Any seasoned agent is going to take the call, listen to the offer and interest, then let the team know where the market stands at that moment. The agent says something like,”Hey, Bob, the market for player X is at $15 million in guarantees, with $24 million in the first three years and going higher, much higher.”
Now, the agent could actually be bluffing and setting the market or raising the market. Then the agent says, “Are you competitive at these numbers?” Then Bob might say, “Absolutely. What will it take to get it done in this conversation?” He says this because he knows that if the agent hangs up, he’s going to take the next team’s call or go back to the higher bidder and tell him the market is going higher. Some teams will ask the agent to keep them on hold for as long as it takes.
If a team is going after several free agents, it will incorporate a small army of front office people to manage the phones. As an agent, if the cap guy and/or the GM is the one calling you on the first day of free agency, it’s a good sign your client is a priority to that team. If you get somebody else, it could mean your client is option No. 2 or down the priority list.
Because we live in an age with multiple mass media outlets, including this one, there is actually immense competition for information. Therefore, teams are now playing things very close to the vest in free agency. About 10 years ago and beyond, everyone in the front office knew who the team was targeting. Today, it may be limited to the owner, GM, cap guy, and head coach. And in one case, just Al Davis!
THE MEDIA IS USED
When an agent wants to hype up the market for his client, he simply lets one of the ESPN or NFL Network reporters get through. These guys work their butts off at this time of year and they have very little time to confirm stories. So they’ll call agents and ask them where their player or players are headed. Are they close to a deal? Where is the market? What are the terms?
The agents who are looking for some leverage to increase the numbers may tell the reporter something like, “I have three teams interested at $7 million per year and Tampa is his next visit.” In reality, he may have one team interested at $6 million a year and Tampa is only interested at $5 million. Then all of a sudden, three minutes later there’s the agent’s message on TV for the rest of the league to hear. It works every time. (However, Adam, Mort, John and others are catching on.)
THE NEUTRAL VERIFIER
I was representing one of my first big free agents in the mid-1990s when I was first introduced to the neutral verifier.
As soon as the clock struck midnight, I received a call. A booty call? I’m not so lucky. It was Team A calling about my hot free agent. My client’s current team (Team B), in the same division, wanted him back as well. Team A made me a nice offer early in the morning, which I then forced Team B to match. However, Team B wanted to see the fax from Team A to make sure I was being honest with the numbers. I was certainly a bit offended. C’mon, an agent bluffing? No way. Anyway, Team B told me they were calling the neutral verifier to check on the offer. The neutral verifier is a league official in charge of verifying offers from other teams. However, the verifier does not disclose which team wants to check on the validity of the offer.
About two minutes later, I got a call from Team A saying, “The offer is off the table, but stay tuned. Goodbye.” So now I’m thinking, “What the hell just happened? Team A pulls the offer and Team B thinks I’m lying!” I felt like Rodney Dangerfield.
A few minutes later, Team B called and said, “We’re not raising our offer and we don’t think you have one from Team A.” Evidently the neutral verifier called Team A, which took its offer off the table before it picked up the line and told the verifier it had no offer at that moment. Then, a few minutes later, Team A called back and said, ”The offer is back on the table.” All this happened in less than five minutes, and it finally hit me what had occurred. My first thought was, “I’m being played.” Then my next thought was, “Brilliant move by Team A.”
So I convinced Team B that my offer was legit, and they stepped up and beat Team A’s deal.
Not too many teams use the verifier as frequently as you’d think because of moves liked the one Team A pulled. However, if they’re dealing with agents they don’t trust, the verifier will get a call. I assume he’s burning the midnight oil tonight along with everyone else.