OPERATION CLEANUP – CLASSIC
AGENTS AREN’T 007, BUT THEY’RE A SECRET NONETHELESS
The next time you watch one of those ESPN fight cards, keep in mind that an independent, unlicensed operative has likely played a very key part in what you’re seeing on the screen. Not that it’s necessarily a bad thing. Meet the “booking agent”
Posted July 15, 2003
Most boxing fans have a rough idea of what the promoter does; what a manager does; perhaps even what a matchmaker does. If you read “Operation Cleanup: A Blueprint for Boxing Reform” you got a pretty good background on what these people are supposed to do.
But there is one function outside the boxing ring that is little-known to the average fan, yet plays a very prominent role in most boxing promotions. It’s that of the BOOKING AGENT.
In the entertainment industry, generally an agent will be exclusive for his client, depending on what kind of activity the “performer” is undertaking. These agents will get their percentage regardless of whether they were critical in making a deal, or whether they in fact pursued the opportunity.
In boxing, it’s a lot different. A booking agent in boxing very rarely has any kind of written deal with a fighter; he operates almost exclusively on a freelance basis. And to collect a fee, whether it be from a promoter or the fighter himself, he had better be very instrumental in putting that fight together.
Here is basically how the booking agent is injected into the process – a promoter has a show where he needs, for instance, a 175-pounder to fight one of the “house” fighters in a main event or semi-windup. The matchmaker, working for that promoter, may or may not be able to get someone himself, simply by pounding the phones. But if it looks like getting an opponent may become problematic, or the matchmaker is consumed with other time-consuming tasks, or if he’s just plain lazy, he’ll place a call to an agent, or several agents.
The agent is someone who has extensive contacts, and can pull up a number of possible opponents who may be “right” for that particular fight. So he will begin going through that list, calling the managers he knows, or fighters directly, inquiring as to availability, and presenting purse offers.
Arrangements vary when it comes to the fee a booking agent is going to receive when securing an opponent for a card. And that will have some bearing on what a fighter is offered for a bout.
Let’s illustrate. The matchmaker calls the agent and may ask him for a certain type of fighter. He gives the date, the opponent, may specify something like “no southpaws” or “no runners”, and may tell him, “there’s $5000 available”. There’s a little bit of code in that – what the matchmaker is really saying to the agent is that, as long as the total figure doesn’t exceed $5000, he can go and make the fighter any kind of offer he wants; i.e., he can grab whatever amount of “side money” he can, WITHIN LIMITS of course.
A promoter is usually not going to be amenable to paying a fighter $2000 with the agent getting $3000. It’s not that the promoter has such an objection to the agent’s level of greed, but he might rationalize that if the fighter is willing to take a fight for that little money, the $5000 total figure is something that can be substantially reduced so he can save something. Everyone’s a little greedy, but everyone’s cheap, too.
Instead, customarily in this situation, the agent may offer the fighter $4000 or $4500 for a purse (plus a pre-determined allocation of plane tickets or travel expenses), with the remainder to be paid him on the side, by the promoter, in the form of a “booking fee” – a sum that is more or less confidential between the promoter and the agent. Of course, what I mean by that is, the fighter doesn’t know anything about it. The general feeling is that if a fighter is content with the purse that was offered, the amount of side money is immaterial.
Sometimes there’s not a lot of money available for an opponent, or perhaps the matchmaker wants a certain quality of opponent that mandates he get the entire purse figure. So he may give the agent the opportunity to book the fighter, but at the same time may tell him he’s got to get his money directly from the fighter.
And that brings us into another area – what would be considered “reasonable” compensation for the agent in a deal like this. It is a generally-accepted standard in the industry that the agent collect a 10% commission from the fighter when he books him into a match.
Often, the agent will also receive his “side fee” from the promoter in lieu of taking a commission from the fighter.
In some cases, however, the agent will collect from both ends.
This can happen for a variety of reasons. Greed, naturally, could be one of them. Another is that sometimes the fighter gets suspicious when the agent doesn’t ask him for his 10%, and starts to wonder how much the agent is “scalping” for himself, a circumstance that can potentially create some problems. Although some people feel this is unethical and should be illegal, a lot of agents simply feel that they are perfectly and legitimately entitled to receive compensation from both ends. We’ll expand on that in a few minutes.
Booking agents perform an essential function in the day-to-day operations of boxing; indeed, there is rarely a show conducted in this country where the promoter hasn’t utilized the services of a booking agent to some extent.
Yet, in the vast majority of states, booking agents are not required to be licensed, and their activities often go unnoticed because they operate somewhat “off the radar screen”, so to speak. Only the true boxing “insider” really understands what a booking agent does, so it is almost understandable that this issue has hardly been dealt with on a regulatory level.
And when it IS dealt with, it’s been incorrect.
As outlined in the Professional Boxer Safety Act, the role of booking agent apparently is mutually inclusive with that of a manager:
“The term “manager” means a person who receives compensation for service AS AN AGENT or representative of a boxer.”
And that particular position would seem to be reinforced and clarified in the proposed Professional Boxing Amendments Act:
“The term `manager’ means a person who, under contract, agreement, or other arrangement with a boxer, undertakes to control or administer, directly or indirectly, a boxing-related matter on behalf of that boxer, INCLUDING A PERSON WHO IS A BOOKING AGENT for a boxer.”
This is wrong, for more than one reason. First of all, the booking agent is NOT a manager, and in fact has no fiduciary duty to a fighter. So you can’t equate what he does with that of a manager. While he does indeed receive compensation from a fighter, it’s for a different service entirely.
And the expanded designation of the booking agent in the Professional Boxing Amendments Act doesn’t fit, because I’m not so sure the agent is performing a function “on behalf of” a fighter. Inasmuch as it’s true that the agent deals almost exclusively with opponent-types and therefore presents opportunities for financial benefit rather than career advancement (that’s the manager’s job), he may in fact be acting more “on behalf of” the promoter. After all, in the vast majority of cases, it’s the promoter looking for an opponent by which to advance his own fighter’s career.
In truth, though, the agent is working for neither party. In fact, he’s the closest thing we have in this business to a true “broker”. That’s why I would lean toward the opinion that taking a fee from both ends should be perfectly acceptable and legal, with conditions.
Since they indeed have such an important and “hands-on” function, often contributing greatly to the success or failure of a boxing show, and are compensated by a promoter, fighter, or both, as a direct result of a fight, I see no reason why they shouldn’t be required to have a license, though I certainly think that license should be in a completely separate category.
Licensure would accomplish certain definable objectives:
a) It would protect the fighter from having excessive monies taken out of his purse figure – before the fact – by a promoter who must pay a “side fee” to a booking agent. Remember, most of the time, when a promoter has to pay a booking agent, he is not ADDING to the budget for his show. Rather, he is taking money that would otherwise be allocated to the fighter and giving it to the agent. This may be legal and it may be ethical, but it certainly should become subject to disclosure. And it would seem to me that such disclosure is consistent with the spirit of the Professional Boxer Safety Act and the Ali Act.
b) It would protect the agent, should he be unable to collect his 10% commission fee from a fighter, in the event of a dispute. This happens quite often, and in fact, it’s another one of the reasons agents collect from promoters as well; if they get “stiffed” on one end, they can collect on the other. You have to remember – bookings are frequently done on short notice; many times there is very little or no opportunity to get something down on paper between the fighter and the agent. Fighters often get summoned on short notice, and besides, the only time the agent deals with paper is when he’s making sure his “client” gets the contract from the promoter. In situations where there’s a beef, ideally the agent could appeal to a commission, which would then undertake an investigation of the matter.
c) It would serve to oversee the practice of taking money from both the fighter and promoter, by setting up certain restrictions as to that kind of activity. Agents should be allowed to extract fees from both fighter and promoter, but perhaps only when the fighter acknowledges it, and approves of it.
One other thing to keep in mind – some operatives in the boxing industry only book fighters, so to leave them unlicensed would allow an entire group of people who have a direct relationship with fights and fighters to go unchecked.
However, most booking agents are also matchmakers; and sometimes even managers. Since their functions in these capacities generally yield opportunities to book certain fighters simply because they have acquired numerous “contacts” during the normal course of doing business, it is not necessarily a conflict of interest for them to be wearing “different hats” at different times, so long as the functions of booking agent and manager, for example, are not performed contemporaneously with regard to the same event.
In other words, a manager, who is already getting a percentage of a fighter’s purse, should not be permitted to also collect a booking fee from the fighter or a services fee from the promoter. And a matchmaker should not be permitted to collect fees from fighters he is using on a show on which he is licensed and hired to perform matchmaking duties.
That’s another reason it’s imperative to recognize and classify booking agents separately.