NEW ORLEANS — Back and forth they went, both sides snapping off data points and counterpoints in a careful effort to leverage whatever they had. They were so into the task at hand that neither the thunderclaps from outside nor the 10-minute warning could interrupt their banter. They were teams of law students from Chapman and Villanova universities, they were representing an NFL team and an agent, respectively, and they had to get a contract done for defensive end Ziggy Ansah. They were running out of time.
In the waning minutes, the deal the two sides finally reached—four years, $17.5 million fully guaranteed, with a $16.5 million signing bonus and a $58.5 million max value—represented significant compromises for both parties, given where they had started. But which side “won” this negotiation? And how do you determine the winner? Even the five judges—professionals who either do this kind of bargaining for a living, or are uniquely qualified to understand it on a granular level—had difficulty making a decision.
“I’m kind of conflicted,” one of the judges said during deliberations, where there was serious talk of calling it a draw. Eventually, a decision was reached, with Chapman—the NFL team—narrowly winning by a 3-2 vote.
“When we say close, it was extremely close,” one of the judges, overthecap.com founder Jason Fitzgerald, told the competitors afterward. “That was the best finals round that we’ve had.”
I write about the NFL, and about NFL contracts, all the time. But until last weekend, I had never seen what an actual bargaining session looks like. Which is why I jumped at the chance to fly down here for the Professional Football Negotiation Competition, which was created and hosted by Tulane University’s Sports Law program. (Full disclosure: The lure of New Orleans certainly helped; I made sure to get my fill of gulf oysters, gumbo, and crawfish étoufée. And I might have had a drink or three during my two-night stay. [Fuller disclosure: I paid for my own expenses, but did enjoy Tulane’s complimentary coffee and croissants, plus lunch, plus an open bar on Friday night.])
The competition, now in its fourth year, is a unique opportunity for the next generation of NFL contract negotiators and agents to dive into the deep end of bargaining dynamics. It’s also an excellent chance to get to meet actual NFL front-office personnel and agents—which was part of the motivation behind doing it, according to the competition’s creator, Tampa Bay Buccaneers football administration assistant and Tulane Sports Law grad A.J. Stevens.
“Part of it was we just wanted to create a networking event to get the judges like we had to come to Tulane and to New Orleans, and give us an excuse to network with them,” Stevens said. “And part of it was because we just were really interested in the actual negotiation process and Tulane had the baseball arbitration competition, which had been running for a couple of years. And so a group of us from my class just really wanted to create something that was kind of the equivalent to that, but football.”
In May 2014, at the end of his 1L year, Stevens hashed out some ideas in a bar at a sports lawyers conference in Chicago along with Ari Nissim, a Tulane Sports Law alumnus and former New York Jets director of football administration who now works as an agent at Roc Nation Sports, where he counts among his clients Los Angeles Rams running back Todd Gurley.
That summer, Stevens and two of his classmates, Scott Champagne and Harrison Smith, spitballed a structure for developing a competition. By the following spring, they were up and running. The competition consisted of six teams—all from Tulane—with Nissim, an agent named Jeff Guerriero, and Tulane Sports Law director Gabe Feldman all sitting in as judges.
By the next year, thanks to word of mouth and a social media push, some 20 teams from all over the country wanted in. And the judges’ pool had expanded to include Fitzgerald, whose site is a clearinghouse for contract data and analysis, in addition to several contract administrators from actual NFL teams. The league has a notorious reputation for secrecy, but Stevens said NFL people were surprisingly receptive to his requests to participate.
Organizers chose the weekend between the conference championship games and the Super Bowl because most NFL contract personnel spend the early part of the week at the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala., which is an easy two-hour drive from New Orleans.
“A lot of those [people] are also kind of contract nerds who just love the salary-cap aspect of it, so there was a lot of interest,” Stevens said. Hell yeah. In all seriousness, this was my kind of weekend in New Orleans. *pushes eyeglasses up bridge of nose*
By last year, 32 teams were involved. This year there were 36, and most were white dudes, though there were a fair number of women and people of color, which perhaps bodes well for a somewhat diversified future of NFL contract negotiators, agents, and GMs. There also were 16 judges, including Stevens, Feldman, Fitzgerald, several agents, former agent J.I. Halsell, and reps from a number of other NFL teams:
- Jacqueline Davidson (director of football administration, Jets)
- Bryce Johnston (football administration coordinator, Philadelphia Eagles)
- Nick Sabella (football administration coordinator, Chicago Bears)
- Brandon Shore (senior director of football administration, Miami Dolphins)
- Greg Castillo (scouting assistant, New Orleans Saints)
- Ryan Feder (football technology analyst, Green Bay Packers)
- Khai Harley (vice president of football administration, Saints)
After one of the judges dropped out, I was asked to judge two competitions during the early rounds, though I had help from Castillo and an agent named Tate Martin—and I needed it.
The first day of the competition, Friday, Jan. 26, was for pool play, with each team of two players (some had three, but only two could be active participants) having to bargain for deals for real-life pending free agents: Dolphins wideout Jarvis Landry, Rams cornerback Trumaine Johnson, and Saints quarterback Drew Brees. Each team knew in advance whether it was on the team or agent side, and could prepare accordingly.
Each bargaining session lasted exactly 45 minutes, beginning with handshake introductions across a table. A deal was expected to be reached, though the sides would be still be judged even if a contract couldn’t be agreed upon. Each side had a list of objectives—drawn up by current Tulane Sports Law students—they had to hit, be it a certain threshold of guaranteed money, a three-year cash flow, a minimum max length, or certain bonus parameters. Everything was done to adhere to the league’s collective bargaining agreement with the players union. Points were awarded based on whether these objectives were met, though judges were also encouraged to award discretionary points based on style, substance, and negotiating prowess. Both sides were also incentivized into getting a deal done, as opposed to steamrolling their opponents—this is a learning exercise, after all. After each competition, the judges excused the participants to do their scoring before bringing each side back separately to give them their feedback.
“You’re never going to get that in a classroom,” said Jason Kaner, a 2L from runner-up Villanova who had won the competition last year.
Each side came armed with whatever prepared data they could muster: player/position comparisons based on age and performance, contract details, statistics, salary-cap implications, injury history, scheme fits—everything was on the table. The best participants were invariably the best prepared, in addition to being the most capable of leveraging their position. All participants used laptops equipped with spreadsheets that calculated a lot of the data and populated whether each objective was being met as offers and counteroffers were bandied back and forth. On one hand, this makes the competition slightly different from a real-life negotiation, because the competitors know exactly what their targets are. On the other hand, real-life negotiators are working with instructions from their bosses or clients.
One example came from Shore, the Dolphins’ senior director of football administration, when he spoke about last year’s extension talks with wideout Kenny Stills. Shore said that in evaluating their player comps, the Dolphins didn’t want to go above the five-year, $40 million deal (with $20 million guaranteed) Marvin Jones had signed with the Detroit Lions the year before. Miami wound up signing Stills to a four-year, $32 million contract (with $18.95 million in guarantees)—firmly in the range of what Jones got.
But Shore also noted that negotiations can be colored by totally unforeseen dynamics. Shore said the Dolphins had a high opinion of Stills on and off the field, and that when owner Stephen Ross met with Stills’s agent last year at the Super Bowl, Ross let it slip that “Kenny’s going to be a Dolphin.”
“That drives up the price,” Shore told the students.
Spencer Shain, a 3L from Chapman, the winning team, had taken part in the competition last year and better prepared himself this time by cooking up some additional Excel formulas to help do calculations on the fly.
“That actually really helped,” Shain said.
At a reception Friday night, the participants learned which eight teams advanced to Saturday’s quarterfinals, which involved doing a contract for Seattle Seahawks tight end Jimmy Graham. The participants knew ahead of time they’d have Graham (and which side they’d represent) if they advanced, and that Saints safety Kenny Vaccaro and Lions defensive end Ziggy Ansah would be the deals they’d have to do for the semifinals and finals, respectively. But they didn’t know which side they’d be representing for the semis and finals until they got an email around 10:30 p.m. Friday. That led to a lot of late-night cramming, though I did note that none of the students scheduled to compete the next day had gone particularly hard at the open bar. (The same cannot be said for some of the judges. Or for me.)
It was fascinating to see how detailed these negotiations could get, how creative the contract structures could become, and how the most minute factoid could sway the course of the talks. I watched as one side neglected to present a counteroffer right away and thus had to work off their opponent’s numbers for much of the time. One session involved too much banter about stats, which left precious little time to bargain. The judges were often gentle and encouraging with their assessments, and almost always passed along some fine point of reference one of the sides missed that could have created some room for leverage.
Sabella, the Bears’ negotiator, cautioned one team against using grades from Pro Football Focus, which are subjective. Sabella told another group not to emphasize what they were giving up, and to avoid making a concession without demanding something in return. One of the negotiations I judged along with Castillo was for Brees. Both Castillo and I picked up on the obvious player comp that neither side brought up: Tom Brady. But we saw it differently. Castillo thought the team side could have leveraged Brady as an example of an aging quarterback who’s willing to play for less than market value. I saw Brady as an aging quarterback still capable of playing at a high level. Shows what I know: When I asked the agent side why they didn’t bring up Brady, they said they feared the team side would have immediately referenced Brady’s willingness to play for less money. Good thing I had Castillo to help me judge that one. We gave that competition to the agent side.
During another competition involving Brees, Fitzgerald was the judge. Separately, he told both sides that neither picked up on the fact that the two-year deal Brees just completed was a bridge to whatever might come next. The agent side could have used this to leverage more from the team up-front, while the team side could have used this to keep any future deal short. Nearly every negotiating session seemed to include endless possibilities like this.
The objectives, which were designed to keep the process moving toward a deal, sometimes had a way of tripping teams up. One agent side, which fared pretty well otherwise, tried to meet the objective of $14 million in average per year (APY) for Johnson but got talked into settling for a $6 million option bonus in Year 3. The problem with an expensive option bonus like that, for a player who would be 30 at that point, is that it essentially guarantees that player will be cut before the option kicks in. A signing bonus, which can be payable up front and which allows the team to spread out the cap hit, would have been the wiser course of action.
“People kind of might end up—I’m not saying that they get confused, but sometimes people might end up fighting over stuff that—it doesn’t necessarily translate to how it really goes,” Kaner said.
In the finals, Chapman U. opened with a lowball team-side offer for Ansah (three years, $24 million, $8 million signing bonus), with Villanova asking for an elite-level deal (five years, $76 million, $20 million signing bonus) based on Ansah’s production as a pass rusher.
As the negotiation played out, it seemed like Chapman was giving up more ground—but they also had significant ground to concede, because of where they started.
“We knew that we had room to give and used it to our advantage,” said Chapman’s Jared Silverstone, another 3L.
Still: Their position moved all the way from $8 million to $16.5 million on the signing bonus. “I was convinced we lost,” Silverstone said. “110 percent.” And even though both sides began so far apart, neither tried to use any kind of nuclear option, which the Jets’ Davidson later told them would have been a determining factor for her: The franchise tag from the team side, or a threat to simply hit the market from the agent side.
Here again, though, this might have been a function of the time constraints and the pressure to get a deal done in the interests of the competition, to say nothing of having had to barrel through six detailed negotiations in a span of two days.
“They have the ability in the real world to walk away for a couple of days, and to come back and say, ‘Look, this is where we left off,’” Silverstone said. “We didn’t have that option.”
As a learning experience, however, the competition—and the feedback from the pros themselves—meant everything.
“They send you a brief and they send you all these materials,” Kaner said, “but until you actually get into the negotiation there’s no way to really know what to expect.”
I learned how tricky and delicate these contract talks can be, but also how adept the pros like the judges are at zeroing in on the smallest of details, or the precise moment to pounce. Oh, to be a fly on the wall for a real-life negotiation.