INDIANAPOLIS — “This is already a degrading experience.”
I had just arrived and hadn’t yet said hello before a beat reporter who covers an NFC East team greeted me with those words. It was approximately 8:30 a.m.
We were standing in a hallway on the first floor of the Indiana Convention Center, just outside of the open doors to a ballroom. Inside that ballroom, the NFL Players Association’s annual meeting for certified contract advisors, more commonly known as agents, was about to begin. But the real action, as always, was out in that hallway, where dozens of reporters spent most of the morning waiting around as agents wandered in and out of the meeting.
“Dumbest day of the year,” a reporter who covers an AFC East team told me.
It can be dumb, and it can be degrading. But it’s also a necessary part of the job for some reporters who cover the NFL these days. Reporting, after all, is ugly. The agents’ meeting, which includes presentations from the NFLPA on a wide variety of topics including health and safety, benefits, rules and discipline, and a legal department report, among others—is timed to coincide with the scouting combine, which takes place across the street at the stadium. The combine is more than just an opportunity for front-office personnel, coaches, and scouts to watch draft prospects work out in shorts. It’s also a gigantic NFL convention. For reporters, information is currency. And winning even the smallest transactional battles against both direct competitors and national scoop hounds with gigantic social media followings can make the entire week worth it.
Free agency is less than two weeks away, and even though teams aren’t allowed to negotiate with agents who represent players on opposing teams until March 12, it’s an open secret that those talks are taking place all week in hotel lobbies and restaurants all over downtown Indy. Those negotiations demand secrecy—no one wants to be accused of tampering, because tampering doesn’t happen, OK?—and this tiptoeing means reporters hungry for scoops sometimes have to rely on the agents. Sure, it’s possible to reach an agent by email, phone, or texting, and most reporters can count a number of agents as sources. But because the agents are getting bombarded at this time of year—and because an agent might not know a reporter or trust him or her well enough to respond at all, let alone confide anything—a more direct approach is sometimes in order. This is especially true of some of the biggest agents in the sport—Tom Condon, Jimmy Sexton—who are virtually impossible to reach for most reporters.
“This is where you got to go to get him,” that AFC East reporter said.
Every agent is required to show up in person here to at least check in. So staking out the meeting can be a useful way to pigeonhole an agent to try to shake something loose, be it by simply making an introduction, exchanging contact info, or coming right out and asking direct questions. It can get awkward.
I used to cover the Jets, and I’ve done my time outside the agents’ meeting. In 2014, the first time I staked it out, nearly all of the reporters present were those on the Jets, Eagles, Giants, and Patriots beats. The numbers seem to grow each year, as more reporters get wise to the access opportunity the meeting presents. This year, by my count, reporters who cover 15 to 20 teams—most of them local beat writers from around the country, since nearly all of the big-time scoop hounds are already very well-sourced—were puttering around outside this morning’s meeting. When a reporter spots an agent worth approaching—assuming he or she recognizes him in the first place, an altogether different challenge—that reporter only has a brief moment to move in, and hope no one else gets there first.
Reporters often don’t fear talking to an agent with their competitors in such close proximity because it’s generally understood that another reporter’s space is to be respected in a situation like this. Some reporters know some agents—and nearly all agents are men—quite well, so there can be plenty of bro-hugs and back-slaps. But it’s not uncommon to see an agent stopping to chat with one reporter and escaping after 30 seconds or so, only to be stopped again a few steps later by someone else. It’s the ugliest version of speed dating imaginable.
“The toughest thing about this is you’ve got to remember a) who they are; b) who they rep; and c) what you want to ask them in a span of a few seconds,” the NFC East reporter said.
The most in-demand agent at this year’s meeting was Mike McCartney, who reps Kirk Cousins, a quarterback who stands to get paid once he hits the market in two weeks. McCartney, other reporters told me, arrived shortly before 8:30 a.m. and was one of the first agents to check in. But he didn’t stay for the meeting, instead turning to immediately leave, telling one reporter, “I’m going to get mobbed.” Another reporter walked with him down the hall. He succeeded in getting McCartney’s phone number. There’s no way to know yet, but that reporter might wind up being the week’s biggest winner.