Robinson: Ex-super agent sounds off
Ralph Cindrich of Pittsburgh was a super agent who showed star clients such as Bill Fralic and Herschel Walker the money -- the real big money – long before anyone heard of the fictitious movie character Jerry Maguire.
At his peak, Cindrich represented 80 NFL players, including many top linemen. He once negotiated two of the top three contracts in the league during the same offseason. He was renowned as a rugged negotiator who wasn't above warning a team known for doling out penurious contracts to not even think about drafting a client.
Cindrich has scaled back business in recent years, branching into international sports law and serving as an expert witness whose hourly fee starts in four figures. But he still has six NFL clients, and he has strong opinions about the business of football, as is evidenced dozens of times daily on his active Twitter account.
He especially dislikes much of what he sees in college sports, especially with what he calls the hypocrisy of an NCAA that negotiates an $11 billion men's basketball tournament TV rights package but prohibits players from accepting a vending machine Coke from an agent.
At the same time, Cindrich said, colleges look the other way when boosters -- wink, wink, nod, nod -- stuff $500 bills in the palms of prominent college athletes.
“The (illegal) dollars are just monstrous,” Cindrich said. “I can't imagine the old-time coaches coming back -- Woody Hayes or even Bear Bryant -- and seeing players getting the cash that we all know big-time goes on. ... These guys are great athletes, but many of them come from impoverished backgrounds and they need money.”
Cindrich knows of more rule-skirting, too. He believes most of the top 75 players who will enter the NFL Draft in April chose their agents long ago -- many before the start of the season – in violation of NCAA rules. Commonly, the terms are agreed to verbally but aren't formalized on paper until it is legal.
“The players are decided. They've met (with agents) in the spring and summer. …. And the really bad part is the money part, where guys got money” – a policy he said he refused to follow.
Once the draft ends, Cindrich said, those same agents will immediately start working on the next draft class.
“Agents are out there contacting all of the upcoming seniors and anybody else is will be a junior who could possibly turn (pro) and is rated very well,” he said. “And that's the sticking point with the NCAA and why they try to nail agents -- they (the NCAA) have an investment in the players and they try to protect that investment by maintaining amateur eligibility.”
Cindrich hated the recruiting -- “I wasn't the best recruiter, and I didn't lay out money,” he said -- and it was one reason the man who once headed mega-agency IMG's football division scaled back his business to only longstanding clients and referrals.
However, recruiting isn't limited -- especially at this time of the year -- to college players. Many NFL players are nearing the end of their contracts, and some are looking for new representation as the season winds down and their free agency period approaches.
And those free agency discussions, Cindrich said, occur well in advance.
As an agent of a veteran player, Cindrich said, “You are putting together (contract) numbers, talking with the club and you're probably in conversations -- even though you're not supposed to be -- with officials of other clubs about your client, in passing.”
“When you talk with guys (NFL executives), what do you talk about? Football,” Cindrich said. “How's this guy doing, how's that guy doing? That sort of thing. Sometimes you get a feel early from a club whether your guy will even get an offer. If you know it won't be with his current club, you ask, 'Where did his (former) coaches go? They're with the Jets? The Colts? So you go to them.”
Cindrich said being a football agent isn't necessarily as lucrative as fans might believe. The maximum fee an agent can charge is 3 percent; for a restricted free agent, it's 2 percent, and that's only for money paid that season, not the total value of a contract. And many agents undercut that price to get more business; hundreds of agents certified with the NFLPA don't have a single client.
And many agents lose money on a player's first contract because he must spend $25,000-$30,000 up front to send clients to pre-career training centers. If a player leaves for another agent after that first contract is up, the original agent pockets zero of the next deal.
Baseball agents, he said, generally do better than NFL agents because MLB contracts often are much bigger and are guaranteed.
“The agent business is a very, very difficult racket to break into,” Cindrich said. “You have to be well-heeled to sustain out there. And I'm telling you I never did it (paid players). I operated by the book. ... I've been blessed. I'm in a good situation and I've done well in this business. I just don't like a lot of what I see going on.”
Alan Robinson is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.