NFL football averaged 67,000 fans per game last year according to sportingintelligence.com. Add in everyone watching on television and you have the most-watched domestic sport in the country.
The mystique of the larger-than-life players, who run faster, throw farther and seem to make humanly impossible catches is unmatched. From humble beginnings, it has grown to a multi-billion dollar industry.
NFL agent Matt Striegel (UND Law Class of 2006) works with roughly 15 pro football players, preparing them for life in the league.
I met Matt in Boulder, Colorado, on a gorgeous summer day. Walking into the offices of Ascent Sports & Entertainment, the 8x10 glossy photos of NFL players the firm represents lined the walls. Impressive, definitely, but not showy. The firm, and Matt, oozed understated confidence.
“We work to get clients ready for the [NFL] Combine, training, getting drafted using connections in league, keeping a player promoted to other teams if he gets cut,” he explained. “Technically, we’re hired to negotiate contracts but there are also endorsements, appearances, trading card deals, and apparel deals. And then, there are times where we get a call and a player needs support through personal or family issues. They are relying on us not just for the professional side but the things that get a person through life.”
When picturing what an NFL agent does, I can’t help but recall scenes from Jerry Maguire.
Striegel gave me a smile that indicated I was not the first person to mention it. “I was in a meeting with a top prospect out of Arizona a couple of years ago and at the end of the meeting his dad goes, ‘You know who you remind me of? Jerry Maguire. But, in a really good way,’” he laughed. “I really enjoy that movie there are a lot of scenes that are right on. Signing a player or going through tough times with a current client.”
Ascent Sports & Entertainment focuses on representing pro football players, and focuses even more on how those players are represented. “Our firm represents about 50 clients. We keep our numbers down and only sign about six rookies each year as a whole,” he said. “The one thing that sets us apart is our personal relationship. I’m in constant contact with players.” A point personified by how many times his phone rang while we talked.
“I’ve been through the whole process before, but for the new players, it’s their first time and you really only get one crack at getting into the NFL.”
A former college player himself, Striegel can relate to the game, to the training and what’s going on in the players’ minds. That perspective on day-to-day life in football has helped him. “You get really close,” he said. “I manage a player’s career from the moment he signs with me until his tenth or twelfth year in the NFL. It’s a business relationship but it turns into a friendship. You’re there through life – the journey that is making it in the NFL.”
Charly Martin, wide receiver for the Carolina Panthers, said Streigel is like a brother to him. “It’s a business relationship because it has to be – we both have jobs to do. But, at the same time, we lean on each other,” Martin told me over the phone. “You surround yourself with a good team because you go through a lot together. You develop a bond and Matt has defined that completely. ... He even came to my sister’s wedding. He’s my guy.”
Striegel’s Midwestern “niceness” and his work ethic serve him well, but the NFL is nothing if not competitive – meaning there is more to signing a player than a smile and warm disposition.
“There are 800 certified agents and about 250 drafted players each year. Anyone can do the numbers there,” Striegel said.
“We’re all competing for the same players. If a door doesn’t open, you have to make it open. You have to be aggressive in this business on every level. Yet, you can be a good, honest person with integrity and succeed very well. There are a lot of clients who want that.”
One such client is Matt Slauson, offensive guard for the New York Jets.
“Matt was very persistent,” Slauson said over the phone. “He called me probably once a week. I decided to interview Matt and Tom Mills. I brought them out and sat down with my family. It was an amazing fit.”
Matt’s first client was Marcus Thomas, a fifth-round draft pick for the San Diego Chargers from the University of Texas at El Paso.
That was 2008.
Only two years prior, Matt had graduated from UND and accepted a position with a law firm in downtown Denver. Instead of staying, though, he risked his livelihood and gave the NFL everything he had.
“I knew if I worked for Ascent where, even though I was paying my dues right away, I knew I could make it in the business. I was recruiting players on my own time. It was extremely busy, non-stop. I just didn’t look back when I took the step. Football is my passion. Law is my passion. Put those two together and this is my niche,” he smiled.
When he didn’t have a lot of connections, he had to make his own way, make his own phone calls and set up meetings to get in the business. That struggle makes the work he does now all the sweeter.
“It’s a great feeling when you have a player become a starter in the NFL and you know you’ve helped him get to that point. It’s like a brother achieving a goal that at times may have seemed impossible. They’ve sacrificed their whole lives for this.”
In some ways, you could say Matt has worked his whole life for his shot at the NFL, too.
At the same time, it’s almost bittersweet now to see the lockout and what it will mean for this year’s rookies. “Usually the rookies have all summer to earn their spots on the teams, but if the summer is shortened or OTAs (Organized Team Activities) aren’t happening at all the rookies will be hurt. They can’t learn the plays. They can’t show what they can do.”
As we walked to the elevator when our interview wrapped up, I realized how Matt was so good at his job. In the space of an hour he was open, forthcoming, funny, and genuinely interested – I almost felt like we became friends. Exactly the kind of person someone would want at their side to navigate the business of professional athletics.
contact the author:
Amanda Hvidsten Managing Editor, UND.edu The University of North Dakota Gustafson Hall, Room 201 3264 Campus Road, STOP 9021 Grand Forks, ND 58202 office: 701.777.3923 firstname.lastname@example.org