SB Nation

Greg Jordan | August 30, 2013

The Anti-Monetizer

An interview with legendary sports agent Ron Shapiro on what makes a great owner, why Jay-Z won't succeed, and how he could've changed A-Rod for the better

They speak a funny idiom, these boys from business school rushing around our world like crazed electrons.

Take Mr. Nathan Hubbard, ex-CEO of Tickemaster now seeing dollar signs in tweets at Twitter. who told CNBC, "I have spent the last bunch of years monetizing that passion and electricity of the live moment and as a result am a believer in the power of situational or serendipitous content."

I first heard the word "monetize" in public discourse several years ago at an annual ideas forum that sports agent Ron Shapiro hosts at his farm outside Baltimore. We were lined up for a group photo, and one tieless but well be-suited monetizer leaned toward another in the row behind me and whispered, "I can't wait to see how Shapiro is going to monetize this one!"

Ron Shapiro is the anti-monetizer who just happens to make his clients their due payment along the way.

I knew, having known Shapiro for years, that this certain businessman, his b-school jargon jarring on a beautiful and thought provoking fall day, didn't belong in the picture. That perchance he had come to, as they say, merely to network. For Ron Shapiro is the anti-monetizer who just happens to make his clients their due payment along the way.

You might say, if you are a skeptic, that, at worst, he monetizes generosity and goodwill. If you are a total fan, which I am, you would say he treats clients as a human being, wishing them a flourishing life on the field or at work but also at home and inside their skin and head.

Meet the man who almost represented A-Rod but instead settled for Joe Mauer, Cal, Jr., and numerous other Hall of Famers; who has some quirky views on athletes, the role of sports in society, and the meaning of success; and who, quietly, works with more championship teams in MLB, the NFL, and the NBA than any other monetizer in the sports industry.

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You represented some of the top players in the history of baseball - Kirby Puckett, Cal Ripken, Jr., Brooks Robinson, Joe Mauer - and yet you seem to be winding down your sports agentry business. Now you advise teams - the Spurs, the Ravens, the Thunder and the Magic among them. What is this line of work about?

This is a chance to look at the big picture for someone else and help them achieve sales goals, contract negotiation goals and personnel goals. That is extremely satisfying. The transition is natural. While I focused on being a sports agent I created the Shapiro Negotiations Institute initially to teach negotiations skills to corporations. It was only natural to then reverse it - to offer the training and consulting services that we do in the traditional corporate world to the sports world.

How are the Spurs and Ravens ownership and management similar? As a fan, I think they're classier than most. But in terms of the nitty-gritty inside stuff how do they compare? And what makes them consistently good as organizations?

The reason we perceive good ownership as rare is that the flamboyance of some owners gets headlines.

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They have great owners and great implementers and the owners allow the implementers to do just that. The Ravens, Steve Bisciotti is as good an owner as there is in making sure the organization has the resources to be the best. Training facilities, personnel, anything that enhances the experiences of players, coaches and fans - he spends on it. Ozzie Newsome is as good as they get in terms of running the player side. John Harbaugh, the same. Bisciotti lets them do it - 100 percent. The most important thing is the owner lets the implementers do their work without interference. The Spurs are the mirror image. I'd say that is the fundamental distinction - the owner who controls the finances and resources lets the front office do what it has to do to create the best possible team. Peter Holt with the Spurs lets R.C. Buford and Gregg Popovich do that in the same way as Ozzie and Harbaugh.

This is not as rare as it seems anymore; the model has taken hold. The Cardinals, the Giants, the Indians, the 49ers - you see that happening in every league. The reason we perceive good ownership as rare is that the flamboyance of some owners gets headlines because journalists don't want to write about stuff that isn't dramatic.

And you almost had four rings had the Spurs won, right? What do you do with all the hardware?

They are stored away, I certainly don't wear them regularly - they're very big and heavy. But they are wonderful mementos and fun to take them out every once in a while and share with kids, let them feel the joy of the accomplishment and what went into them. Let them put it on and feel that charge.

You were an accidental agent in a way - called in to help out Brooks Robinson with his finances after you finished a gig as securities commissioner for the State of Maryland. The business sure has changed a whole lot since then in terms of its services, its ethics and its prominence. Would you become a sports agent today?

That's a great question. I get anywhere from 20 to 30 emails a month from high school students - high school, college, graduate school, law school - who want to become a sports agent. They ask for my advice. I tell them almost uniformly it's not something I would encourage someone to do today. All of them have a passion for sports and you don't fulfill it, so much money and so little regulation in the business that you can build a client base and lose it just as quickly people pouncing on clients with promises of unrealistic returns. Some - Arn Tellum, Casey Close, Tom Condon - they do a heck of a job, usually big agencies. But few people get those opportunities. The chance for success and satisfaction is limited.

And now Jay-Z?

I'll tell you what I think after I observe him for a while. His initial play - to make athletes feel like celebrities and accumulate those trappings - undermines sports careers and especially undermines a satisfying life afterwards. Celebrity is an illusion - if that is what he is peddling it will pop.

Celebrity is an illusion - if that is what he is peddling it will pop.

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Many years ago you came very close to being Alex Rodriguez's agent before he selected Scott Boras? How might things have turned out differently?

With Alex I could foresee that if he were shaped by the wrong value system that he might well fall into the trap of narcissism unhappiness. He certainly earned as much as anyone in history of sport, yet was so ill-suited for that success. He is always engaging in so many self-defeating acts. David Brooks wrote a terrific column in The New York Times about how Alex chose an agent who pushed the money - early on that the seed was planted for what appears to be destroying him at this point. I like to believe that my partner Michael Mass and I could have made a difference in his life.

You recently returned from a trip to Israel and (Palestine?). Why did you go?

Because of my involvement in sports, I realize that the stars dominate what we hear about sports, but sports are the most interesting to me at the grassroots, youth level. I have worked as chairman and in other roles for Peace Players International for a decade, and one of their most successful programs brings Arab and Jewish kids in Israel together with sports programs as the transformational vehicle. We went to see firsthand what they're up to.

What did you notice had changed in Israel and Palestine on this trip?

The atmosphere had both improved and worsened. Extremists in both camps made for sharper lines between Jews and Arabs - checkpoints, paperwork, the physical walls and the much more noticeable sense of fear and distrust. At the same time, on this visit, I witnessed more attempts to reach across the divide, a real growth of peace-oriented organizations like Peace Players. So many good groups are getting started. So, officially, more division, but, at the street level, an unlikely and hopeful coming together.

What is Peace Players doing there?

Peace Players takes the most fertile group for bridge building, young children who don't yet follow the lines to that old Broadway song "You've Got to Be Taught" to hate! It gives them - Arabs and Jews on the same court - a basketball and lets the common denominator of sports, coupled with some great facilitating by the PPI group leaders - again, both Arabs and Jews - bring them together. From age 5 on up, they start to engage each other on the court instead of throwing stones and epithets at each other. It's not a twice a year camp, it is an ongoing, year-round program with a multicultural and conflict resolution educational component. Sports are a great way to attract kids. It's not Arabs versus Jews, it's Arabs and Jews versus Arabs and Jews on the courts and Arabs and Jews alongside each other eating ice cream afterward. PPI does similar things in Northern Ireland, South Africa and Cyprus.

What were some of the moving moments you witnessed there in terms of sports bringing these kids together?

The most surprising and impressive thing was seeing preschoolers going out on the court together with basketballs almost as big as they were, 4- and 5-year-olds who just enjoyed playing together and hopefully were learning that they could not only play together, but also live in peace together. My most moving moment was seeing PPI's Leadership Development teenagers - kids who had been in the program for several years or more - and the real friendships they, Jews and Arabs, forged between themselves as the graduate into leadership roles. Many of the leaders come up through the program, and they maintain that lovely blindness to identity and race.

You're a Jewish guy from Philadelphia. How did that go over when you visited the Arab communities?

From our first dinner with an Arab family at an Arab village in Jerusalem to visiting a high ranking Palestinian Authority leader in Ramallah, it was never an issue. Not even my being from Philadelphia.

Really the most instructive moment for me took place in Ramallah, in the Cabinet room of the Palestinian Authority. Behind me was a photograph of Yasser Arafat. I sat across the table from a high Palestinian government official. She was very interested in our program, supportive of it. An extraordinary person. I was so moved by her that when our meeting finished I looked across the table at her and said, "I am sitting next to my Jewish American granddaughter" - Kate, and two of my children, Laura and Herb and my friend Michael Maas, joined me on the trip - "who was bat mitzvahed last year. As a grandfather" I said, "I hope she can find role models like you." It was a very emotional moment for all of us.

And then you ended up in Northern Ireland a few months later?

My wife and I were on a cruise headed from London to Dublin to the Faroe Islands and then on to Greenland and across the Atlantic. A storm hit. The captain decided to detour from the Islands to Belfast - where Peace Players has another great program - PPI-Northern Ireland.

What similarities did you see in Belfast?

Though it has appeared more peaceful there recently, the divide is still wide and powerful. Catholics and Protestants often still view each other with the same jaundiced eye I witnessed in the interactions between Arabs and Jews. What brought this home to me immediately was the so called "Peace Wall" that went through neighborhoods in Belfast. We weren't in an ancient city divided by towering walls like Jerusalem, but we were struck by this massive wall winding its way through the different parts of row house neighborhoods with Catholics on one side and Protestants on the other.

Shapiro_mediumRon Shapiro

Watching him interact with kids and politicians alike shows how stars can use their power to help make a difference.

And your take away?

Sports produce some influential people, and I'm thrilled that one of the all-time rugby greats, Trevor Ringland, has allied himself with PPI-NI. We spent some time with Trevor, who also happens to be a lawyer and a gentle giant - the Cal Ripken of rugby. Trevor is a real backbone of Peace Players in Northern Ireland. He won the Arthur Ashe Courage Award at the ESPYs. Watching him interact with kids and politicians alike shows how stars can use their power to help make a difference, in this case bridge divides. And the PPI team in Northern Ireland reflected the same wonderful sense of commitment of their counterparts in the Middle East.

Do you encourage that, giving back, particularly to youth, in the athletes you represent?

Look, sports figures have power in our culture, a lot of it. But I insist that everyone has to give back. My problem is we overemphasize the whole sports thing. Athletes can be part of a mentoring it, but not at the center of it all. Peace Players is full of everyday heroes, each one of these instructors are totally dedicated to a controversial part their society. Everyone excited about sports, but it's not about sports stars. It's about human stars.

What athlete that you have represented had the most powerful effect on kids?

I don't want to answer that. I'm always pushing against this idea of athletes being the sole role models for kids. The emphasis is wrong.

If you were the commissioner of one of the major sports leagues, and you went crazy one night and decided to devote 25 percent of the league's profit to social programs, how would you structure that investment?

Wow, that would be a lot! I'd do all kinds of things - first divide half bewteen Peace Players and Mentor, Inc., an advocacy organization for mentoring programs for at risk kids, of which my son David is CEO. Seriously, the answer is simple. You've got to focus on kids. For better or worse, sports has this incredible power over kids. But kids are also the only constituency completely open to change mentoring, real mentoring. I'd set up a fund to encourage long-term mentoring by athletes - not just stars, but high school kids mentoring younger children - and set up mechanisms to ensure that the individual relationship lasts long term, not just for the duration of an ad with a catchy song following a team on a bus to go play with kids. When we teach, we learn. It comes back around. And I've seen many athletes change because of that effect.

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About the Author

Gregjordan

Greg Jordan's most recent book was Safe at Home, a biography of Willie Mays Aikens, the fallen slugger who became the face of mandatory minimum sentencing reform. His screenplay about the first circumnavigation of the globe was recently optioned by Mono Films in Spain. He is at work on a book about the troubles in Juarez, Mexico.

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