By: Adam White, @FOSAdam
Front Office Sports is proud to have sat down with Jeff Fannell, President of Jeff Fannell and Associates. Jeff is an alumnus of St. Johns University where he received both his Bachelor’s degree and his Juris Doctor. A former assistant general counsel for the MLBPA and a former Deputy LL.M. Program Director for International and Comparative Sports Law at St. Johns University, he has over 30 years of experience in the sports law field. Jeff was gracious enough to offer up his insight on the direction sports law is headed, why you must ask yourself “what does sports mean to me” before you decide to make it a career and how crucial it is to reach out to people in the industry for advice.
How did you get your start in sports?
Jeff was very straightforward with his description of his previous positions and how much knowledge he gained and how all of this helped him get to where he is today. “I had a few internships as an undergrad. In law school, I interned with the MLBPA. Being around the business side of sports, really helped me understand how the work got done and how you had to keep your fandom in check, or you would not be successful.” Jeff says he “realized early on that if you’re going to work in this industry, specifically on the players’ side like I am currently, you can’t be a fan of the players. You have to realize they are coming to you for help.” He was also able to offer up a word of wisdom that many people tend to forget when he said, “Players are looking for someone who is professional and have their best interests at heart. Athletes are very good at sizing competition up so they size you up as a professional. You must be able to establish a relationship and create trust.”
What is the average day like for you?
Not sounding one bit tired, Jeff rattled off how busy he was and gave us a true glimpse into the effort you must put into this industry to succeed. “Currently, we are in the middle of
salary arbitration. It is our busiest time of year. We are on the phones with agents, we have been busy doing statistical analysis that could help agents in their negotiations and then we will be preparing for actual arbitration hearings. It is a grind as we are working seven days a week, which makes it hard to take time off.”
Why did you choose to pursue a career in the law side of the sports industry?
Like many of us, Jeff had the dream of being a professional sports superstar, but after that dream ended he knew he wanted to make a difference in the industry in another way. “I was lucky to have doors open through the MLBPA. I knew that I wanted to work in sports since high school; the question was how would I get there? I grew up in a union household so, in a way, working for a union was a way for me to honor my upbringing. As I started to look at the landscape early on, I noticed that there were a lot of labor disputes in sports and it seemed to me that that would be a great way to get into sports.”
Being a part of sports law for so long, what changes have you seen, where do you think the presence of law and sports is headed in the future?
Through his many years of experience and success, Jeff was able to shed some light on to the ever-changing landscape of law in sports in a very unique way. “One of the changes I have seen is that the industry has gotten more complicated. This has created more opportunity in the industry for lawyers and people who are well versed in statistics. The field of advanced metrics has really taken off and that’s important because those metrics are becoming such a big part of the game. I remember a time when OPS in baseball was something no one really knew about and now it’s an accepted statistic. We’re seeing the same things with a stat like WAR (Wins Above Replacement), which just shows you much the game has changed.”
He went on to point out how much the games are growing economically. “The growing economics of the games is another big change, which is evident with the enormous TV deals we have seen recently. It shows that the industry as a whole is very healthy.”
He also pointed to the consolidation of agencies as a major talking point and a thing to watch for in the future. “Not too long ago you could have had a one or two man company and be successful representing players, but I think those days are fading away. It’s now the large agencies like Relativity and CAA that are taking over because they can truly offer a wide array of services that their clients demand.”
What are some tips you have for people who are trying to become successful in the sports industry?
Jeff could not stress enough that new professionals must sit back and consider their decision before jumping into the industry. “Really think it through. What does wanting to work in sports really mean to you? Are you ready for the commitment it is going to take? I think a lot of people like to watch the games, but what they don’t realize is that you may not get to watch the games because you’re working. In addition, most of the games are at night or on the weekend and not many people like to work then.” He also warned that no matter how well you do in college, you must stay humble. “You have to be prepared to make sacrifices. A lot of organizations operate like the teams on the field in which there is some preference given to veterans. If you are coming into an organization as a “rookie,” it doesn’t matter if you’re the best person at your job, you also have to be the most humble. You have to be willing to do whatever is necessary to get the job done.”
Can you speak about mentors? Would you encourage today’s students to have mentors?
Jeff was very adamant about this subject as he urged new professionals to take on mentors. “I think it is critical to have mentors. None of us gets to where we are going without someone giving us a helping hand. Somewhere along the line we are going to need someone to put in a good word for us or to make a phone call or a recommendation; we all need that. I think it is critical to have someone who you can bounce ideas off of and someone who you can have an open relationship with where you can ask them about everything.” Jeff was also adamant in wanting to let people know that if you need help or advice you should seek it because “There are many successful people who have a genuine desire to help the next generation. That’s why I would encourage younger people to reach out to people in the industry. People in the industry are more than willing to help because they know that they didn’t get where they are today without another person’s help. Send an email, seek to connect on LinkedIn, because people in our industry are a lot more gracious with their time than some may think.” Not only was he adamant about mentors, but also he was adamant about a commitment to life long learning, saying, “If you ever stop thinking that you don’t need help or that you can stop learning, that is when you fall behind, because in this industry you can’t afford to do either.”
“Work hard and be prepared to put in your time because nothing is going to be handed to you. I think the most important thing you have to ask is ‘What does sports mean to me?’ For many people who want to break into the industry, they have to think more broadly about sports and look at all of the options such as soccer, lacrosse and others. Also, it is important to think about sports not only at the professional level, but also at the college level and inter-scholastic level. Finally, if you say to yourself, ‘I’m going to work in sports.’ how you define that is what is going to determine how broad of a net you’re going to cast when you are looking for that first position.”