We spoke with Jim Tanner, the founder and president of Tandem Sports and Entertainment Agency, about the NCAA bribe scandal rocking the agent business right now.
Tanner, whose list of clients included NBA legend Tim Duncan and Ray Allen, currently represents players around the league including Jeremy Lin as well as rookies Jarrett Allen and Justin Jackson. He tells us about his career in the industry and a lot more.
Tell me about your background before you founded the Tandem Sports agency in 2013.
Jim Tanner: I’ve been a sports agent since 1997 and I’ve been an attorney since I graduated law school in 1993. I was a corporate attorney at Skadden Arps for four years, where I was working in mergers-and-acquisitions. I loved it and thought it was a great foundation but didn’t see myself practicing as a corporate lawyer for the rest of my life.
Then I had the opportunity to work for one of the top litigation law firms with Williams & Connolly. They represented Grant Hill and then around the time that I joined, Tim Duncan became a client as well. I was there from 1997 until 2013 and became a partner there and ran their sports practice.
What are you looking for in potential clients? What are the players are looking for?
JT: We’re looking for great players, obviously, but also great people. That’s something we’ve defined Tandem. You want to work with guys who understand and want to follow advice and maximize their careers. We’re also looking for people that have a great support structure around them so we can be a part of that.
I think the players are looking for integrity. When a client hires us, they know we’re going to represent their best interest in everything that we do. They’re also looking for personal attention and they’re made to feel very important by us. With someone like Duncan, he’s obviously lower-maintenance than some. The key is to give him all the attention he wants and then give the next client all the attention that he wants. You have to treat them like individuals and get to know what they want to provide the best service. Some demand more than others but we personalize and specialize based on the client.
Describe the biggest changes you’ve noticed in your 20 years as a sports agent.
JT: When I first started doing this, I saw a wave of consolidations so smaller agencies joined into bigger agencies. Then, you saw it go back the other way where it was more about the boutique agencies. That’s been a bit of a pendulum. But what I’ve seen the most, as highlighted by what was happening with the FBI recently, is more stories about decisions based on illegal practices that include illegal payments to players or family members or AAU coaches. That has dominated a lot of the most recent agency selections.
But that’s not a victimless crime. The players sometimes have no idea that money is exchanging hands and that player can never be certain of the motives of an agent or how hard that agent is going to fight for them or how loyal that agent is going to be to them.
Some may say players should be paid anyways and argue that they’re giving them the money they deserve. What are your thoughts on this?
JT: When players don’t know someone around them is being paid on their behalf, there is a huge gap in trust. This can extend deeper into other decisions that impact the player. And if you’re being represented by an agent who paid an influencer of yours – whether or not you were informed – who is the agent really working for? As soon as those unethical behaviors begin, the agent/player relationship is tainted and as a result, I don’t think a player can ever be sure the agent is 100 percent working toward what’s best for the client.
Explain what separates and honest agency from one that is dishonest in this space.
JT: We follow the rules, laws and regulations. It’s illegal to offer inducements so we avoid that at all costs and don’t participate in that game that’s being played. We avoid conflicts of interest and put their interests ahead of ours. That’s why there’s generally such a bad reputation. There are ethical agents and professional agents that tend to do things the right way but as a whole, the industry is painted very negatively.
I don’t take joy in seeing people go down. It saddens me to see people I know and consider friends caught up in this. I feel bad for them and their families.
Do you have predictions for changes that you think will come from the FBI investigation?
JT: The whole system needs scrutiny. I see a potential for the agent industry to be disrupted. I hope people change their way of doing things. I hope players and families reset how they select agents and go more towards selecting on the merits of the agent to identify the best, most qualified agent for that particular player. I’d like to see more college coaches get involved.
When I first started, they would have someone from the business school and the law school participate with the players. I’d like to see more schools go back to that and have more of the compliance office involved in the selection process. The biggest mistake programs can make is to keep all agents away. I think the best way to address it is to invite agents in at certain times and bring everything into the light. Schools will sometimes keep everyone away until the end of the year but that keeps away agents that are inclined to follow the rules while it opens the door for agents who are not.
You mentioned disruption in the agent industry. Can you expand on this?
JT: Companies are always looking for ways to disrupt their industry to attract consumers and position the company positively. Think about the way Airbnb has disrupted the hotel industry and what Uber has done to the taxi industry. In the agent industry, this disruption is coming from third parties – namely the FBI and the U.S. Attorney.
With greater scrutiny on corruption and unethical practices in the agent industry, I’m hopeful that big changes are coming. This is an opportunity for players and their families to have a more open, honest and professional agent selection process than ever before. It’s something everyone here at Tandem is already doing, and I believe it can go a long way for the players and preparing them for the next level.
Some of your clients have played in the G League. Could that replace one-and-done?
JT: The whole one-and-done system in the NCAA needs to be eliminated, I don’t think that’s been successful. I’d like to see significant reform. The developmental league has gotten better every year. I think the salaries need to come up even more even though they recently raised them. I’m very optimistic about the future of the league.
But I tend to like the baseball model. It doesn’t prevent a player who’s good enough to be in the NBA out of high school from doing that. But if you make a commitment to go to college, you’re required to stay for a particular amount of time.
You studied under then-professor Barack Obama. Could he have a role in the NBA?
JT: I could certainly see him doing that. He loves basketball. Not only did I have him as a professor, but I remember playing pickup games with him at the University of Chicago. He’s always loved the game. I could see him being involved in the sport either as an owner or something else.