Secret Agents

Mr 10%

It’s a good time to be a rider agent. These figures work behind the scenes to negotiate contracts for their riders, arranging everything from the job in the first place to negotiating side deals, for example with a sunglasses or shoe supplier.

Why’s it so good right now? Well, first is that it’s been a particular busy transfer market, there are 14 teams applying for eight Pro Tour licences, a sign that new money is flowing into the sport and even if the budgets aren’t growing massively, it all means a lot of new employment contracts are being signed.

Second, there’s a trend for riders to tear-up contracts and jump to new teams. It’s not new but Bradley Wiggins’s example stands out, Team Sky bought him out of a contract with Slipstream Sports, aka Garmin. In another example, Bjarne Riis is letting Fabian Cancellara go, but only after the Swiss rider bought himself out of his contract… at a reputed cost of €3 million.

Agents of change
To operate in France an agent has to be licenced by the French federation but this is not the case in other countries, for example Alberto Contador’s business affairs are handled by his brother Fran, and a foreign agent can deal with a French rider and a French team. It need not be a matter for a shadow in the background either, the bigger names often use well known sports agencies, for example Fabian Cancellara uses IMG.

Family business
Another agency is the Italian sounding Azzurri Sports Management but in fact this is an Irish company run by Andrew McQuaid. If the name sounds familiar, then it should. Andrew is the son of Pat McQuaid. Now clearly a father can’t control his son’s job but it does through up a potential conflict of interest, for example a borderline UCI case to sanction a rider. Would a UCI commissaire think twice if they knew their decision could mean reduced income for Andrew McQuaid’s business?

Another potential headache is in Britain where The Face Partnership represents several riders but at the same time it is linked to Team Sky, handling the team’s public relations. Being paid by both rider and employer at the same time could give rise to an awkward situation.

Get an agent… but get a good one
A good agent has contacts and can place a useful rider in the right environment and also push for a good salary. After all most riders want to to train and race rather than negotiate and hire lawyers.

Any time money changes hands it’s normal people want transparency rather than an agent popping up to grab 10% of a rider’s salary. That’s why the French try the registration scheme. My advice to any rider would be to get a good agent who is recommended by fellow riders, don’t go with someone you know. And that a neo-pro doesn’t need an agent, just a lawyer to ensure their first contract is watertight.

Team Transfers
As I’ve pointed out, the business is fraught with conflicts of interest. It’s worth remembering that an agent is incentivised to churn a rider from one team to another, pocketing “arrangement” fees each time a rider jumps teams.

Looking to the future, I think more rules are needed here. Unlike some sports cycling doesn’t have an active transfer market where athletes under contract are bought and sold. But this is happening, we saw Swift and Wiggins last year; this year Cancellara is walking. I don’t have a problem with this, slavery has long since been abolished: a rider shouldn’t be compelled to work for an employer. Transfers are good for new sponsor coming into the sport and just allow more flexibility. But a framework for these moves would be useful, if not essential, to help teams, riders and sponsors come to a mutually beneficial agreement.

Agent Provocateur
What I do have a problem with though is when an agent tries to hawk a rider from team to team when the rider in question is happy in their existing team.The agent approaches a new team and says his rider could move for the right price… only he is not acting with the consent of his rider. Soon enough the rider gets notified of a potential contract with another team and happily moves because of the salary but this is only because the agent started the ball rolling.

Bjarne’s Tasmanian Devil

The Porte Case
Aussie talent Richie Porte is one of the revelations of the season. A surprise TT win in the Tour of Romandy got him a ride in the Giro where some strong riding plus a lucky break put him in the leader’s jersey for a few days and a high overall finish. He backed this up with a powerful ride in the Eneco. All as a neo-pro.

But like any starter in a pro team, he has a two year contract. The idea behind this is obvious, to allow a new rider time to grow and it also helps teams commit to investing in their new recruits. Only right now Richie Porte’s agent – none other than Andrew McQuaid – is agitating to place the rider in a new team for 2011. With Team Sky and the new Pegasus Team keen for a decent anglophone rider McQuaid can cash in, and Porte can expect a big pay rise too. The more this goes on, the more Porte will be destabilised. Saxo manager Bjarne Riis is getting exasperated by this and gone public. “He has a contract. He’s not leaving. It’s as simple as that and he knows this full well” says Riis in his typical terse style. “Richie’s manager is trying to provoke us, he’s trying to trap us. We told him Richie’s not for sale. But he keeps trying. I can understand a manager making enquiries but the moment he’s turned down he’s got to stop” insists Riis.

Riis goes onto say agents are getting out of control and are stirring up riders and the transfer market. As I say above rules are needed… but how quick will the UCI act given Andrew McQuaid stands to profit so much from an unregulated market?

  • I have to declare an interest here. I’m not an agent but I have helped a few riders with their contracts, advising them on the terms of their contracts and explaining the legalese into plain English and French. No money changes hands.

 EDIT: 1 October 2010 – days after writing this, the UCI have moved to monitor agents. You can read more about the new scheme here.

6 thoughts on “Secret Agents”

  1. Hey your really digging up these "conflict of interest" points. If I was a rider I'd probably have an agent but you need one on your side. The whole jobs market for pro cyclists would worry me as a rider, the need for a contract and the backroom dealings that go with it.

  2. An interesting point anonymous, it's like hiring "protection".

    In jargon, you'd say the jobs market sees a lot of "asymmetric information", with riders knowing much less about their value and who is recruiting than agents.

    A good agent will exploit this to the advantage of their rider but a bad one will just profit from this.

    As for the conflict of interest, it certainly exists. Us fans can't do much about it but knowing about these things is useful.

  3. I really appreciate your writing on this. A topic the likes of Velonews or Cyclingnews would never touch. You've really given me insight into the sport I love and have made it so much more interesting.

  4. Thanks Anonymous, it's great to get nice feedback.

    In actual fact the subject has been touched by Velonation: …although the piece mentions Porte and Riis by name but not Andrew McQuaid, the "cause" of the story. This despite an article about McQuaid recently:

    I missed the Velonation article about Andrew McQuaid, it was only when searching for a picture of him to accompany this article that I found it.

    As a blogger I can give opinion, something journalists on velonews and cyclingnews find harder. That's not to say they don't have opinions, they often have very strong views and know things that most fans don't… it's just a mix of libel law, editorial neutrality and commercial pressures dictate a particular style of reporting. That's understandable… but it's why The Inner Ring exists, I can float ideas and discuss topics that aren't normally mentioned.

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