Switching pitch: the rise of the boutique tennis agency

Two agents at the forefront of tennis's boutique agency trend discuss their bespoke management set-ups, why small is the new big in the business of talent representation, and how a personal touch goes a long way.

Switching pitch: the rise of the boutique tennis agency

Over the past several years, the business of tennis representation has been defined by the emergence of a new wave of boutique agencies. Though there remain the global powerhouses - the likes of IMG and Octagon chief among them - a handful of smaller firms built around a stable of select player clients have come to the fore, each of them intent on bringing a more individualised approach to talent management.

Looking back, the boutique set-up is nothing new in tennis. Veteran agent Patricio Apey, for instance, founded ACE Group International way back in 2001 having spent 14 years at ProServ, the pioneering precursor to Octagon. But the trend towards bespoke agencies has noticeably gathered pace since 2012, the year when Roger Federer and his long-time agent Tony Godsick left IMG before establishing Team8 Global, their Ohio-based management company that now represents the likes of Grigor Dimitrov and Juan Martín del Potro, as well as Federer himself.

Shortly after Federer stepped out alone, his arch rival and IMG stablemate Rafael Nadal followed suit, joining his agent Carlos Costa in creating a new company that would manage athletes across a range of sports. Then in 2013, soon after claiming his first Wimbledon title, Andy Murray and his manager Simon Fuller set up 77 Management, a London-based entity that would work to capitalise on the Briton’s newfound national hero status, not to mention his increasingly diversified business interests.

Taken together, these moves suggested a collective shift in thinking among three of tennis’s highly marketable ‘golden generation'. Their profiles were such that they were all earning millions of dollars in endorsement income each year, and the realisation was that the kind of big-agency management set-up that had served them well earlier in their careers was no longer required to fully exploit their commercial appeal.

For these household names, going boutique was about cashing in on the moment and cementing a legacy - a way of making post-career plans whilst helping to develop those of future generations. By curating their own management set-ups, they became the focus of the attention rather than one client among many, and it is fair to presume they stood to benefit financially from more favourable commission structures.

But the boutique trend has not been driven exclusively by the most sought-after stars - and certainly not by players alone. In any sport, athletes and agents develop close personal relationships: when one moves the other tends to follow, and in tennis there are plenty of entrepreneurial agents with career goals of their own.

Small is the new big

For years, representatives at larger agencies have touted their international scale, their broad range of services and their far-reaching sales networks as differentiating factors for why players are better off working with them. That argument is still used as the basis for their client pitches today, and indeed it continues to serve them well.

As the most powerful management company and tournament promoter in tennis, IMG represents scores of leading players on both the men’s and women’s tours. In the last few years, the likes of Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Nick Kyrgios, Jack Sock, Petra Kvitova and Belinda Bencic have all been added to an IMG stable that includes big-name stars like Novak Djokovic, Kei Nishikori, Maria Sharapova and Serena Williams. In fact, Djokovic signed with IMG in December 2012, the then-world number one representing a major coup for the company just as the departing Federer and Nadal were making plans to move elsewhere.

IMG's scale is such that agents at the company have often spoken of putting "the IMG machine" to work. Max Eisenbud, Sharapova’s long-time representative, has regularly talked up the value of having IMG’s expansive network, including an academy in Florida and modelling and fashion divisions, to call upon. Speaking to SportsPro in 2014, Oli Van Lindonk, the agent of Nishikori and others, explained how aggregation was what made IMG powerful in the eyes of its late founder, Mark McCormack.

Still, there are those who question the true value of larger agencies and their networks, especially in today’s much-changed media landscape. Among them is Sam Duvall, an American agent who left his role as vice president of tennis at another prominent management company, Lagardère Sports and Entertainment, in October of 2015 to set up his Cleveland-based boutique firm, Topnotch Management, the following January.

“It’s tricky,” says Duvall, whose firm represents the likes of John Isner, Steve Johnson and Jeremy Chardy. “The bigger agencies will obviously pitch for talent and they’re talking about how they’ve got an office in China and an office in Europe and an office in South America - it’s a very global nature. That’s all true but as it relates to marketing and selling tennis clients, those offices are usually not tennis-specific offices, nor do they have people there who are experts in tennis.

“Not to say that they can’t leverage some sales support, but at the end of the day if a bigger company has an office in Beijing but that office is focused on events or stuff outside of tennis, what is their incentive to provide sales support for a player who, frankly, might not be a priority for that particular region or office?”

Lawrence Frankopan agrees. Like Duvall, the Englishman left Lagardère to set up his own boutique agency, establishing the London-based StarWing Sports in late 2011. From an initial stable of just three clients the company has grown to boast a portfolio of 11, including three-time Grand Slam champion Stan Wawrinka, French stars Gaël Monfils and Kristina Mladenovic, and retired greats Chris Evert and Goran Ivanisevic.

I wanted to build something small and manageable, a place where all our clients know each other or know of each other.

“I saw a gap in the market,” says Frankopan, whose resumé also includes a ten-year stint at IMG. “I really felt that there was no huge value that IMG and Lagardère were bringing to my clients.

“I wanted to build something small and manageable, a place where all our clients know each other or know of each other. I also wanted all my clients to know how many clients were in StarWing, and the idea of actually thinking outside the box. We pride ourselves on turning over every stone.”

It is perhaps unsurprising that both Duvall and Frankopan see boutique agencies as the future of talent representation, but that is to say nothing of the risks involved in going it alone. Forgoing the comforts that come with an established corporation and a guaranteed salary can be daunting even for the most enterprising of agents, not least since it requires them to approach their profession with a startup mentality.

“I was nervous that I wouldn't have a business card that had an international stamp on it, where people will listen to me or do business with me,” recalls Frankopan. “Nobody knew who StarWing was, and to this day our brand isn't necessarily that important. What is important is the brand of our clients.

“Things change. Instead of business class you’re flying economy, and maybe you go to fewer tournaments, but at the end of the day there is money to be made. Fortune favours the brave.”

Though he ultimately decided he and his clients were better off elsewhere, Frankopan still speaks highly of his former employers. He says he and his peers in the athlete representation business should be “thankful” to such pioneering “visionaries”, and having been “brought up with the IMG model” of “family, unity, everyone leveraging on everyone else”, he explains how he has sought to instil the same ethos at StarWing.

“I personally believe the individual is most important,” he adds. “I’ve always thought that. I think Mark McCormack was very much a believer of that. Without doubt, the strength of your agency is the people who work for you, which sounds a bit David Brent but it’s true.

“The agency is not going to go the extra mile, the agency is not going to create the strategic plan. It’s going to be the individual. I’ve never had an out-of-office.

“I wouldn't necessarily say that a bigger agency will dominate again - I just don’t see that happening, not because I’m a boutique agent myself. I just think these days, with social media, you can be on call 24/7 with your clients. You don’t need an office in Japan to do business in Japan. Times are changing.”

Sam Duvall left Lagardère in late 2015 to create Topnotch Management, whose stable of clients includes America's John Isner (above).

Redefining boutique

Duvall left a restructuring Lagardère around the time the agency fired its former head of tennis, John Tobias, in late 2015 - a move that sparked an exodus of players and representatives, many of whom jumped ship to Lagardère’s existing and emerging competitors, including Topnotch. Asked if there was any animosity surrounding his departure, Duvall says he parted ways on good terms. In fact, he initially remained partners with the company, working on certain client accounts and sharing in commissions.

“There was a lot of change in the tennis division [at Lagardère] and I always wanted to do my own thing,” he reflects. “I think they were disappointed that I left but I also think that they were rooting for me. I’m really glad it was an amicable thing.”

Since stepping out alone, Duvall has sought to develop and diversify his business, which has grown to comprise a workforce of ten spread across the United States. Most of Topnotch’s tennis clients were represented by Duvall at Lagardère, but the company also manages a handful of golfers and boasts a tourism and experience offering through Grand Slam Tennis Tours, a Vermont-based hospitality travel company founded by Duvall’s business partner, Andrew Chmura.

Now, Duvall says his company is probably already among the largest management firms in tennis going on “number and globality of clients”. Such growth is testament to Duvall’s reputation and connections, but it also begs the question: at what point does an agency outgrow its boutique status? It is perhaps a moot point, but it is clear that the brains behind these more modest set-ups harbour big ambitions.

“If you ask a lot of boutique agencies: would they like to grow and become a bigger agency? I think all of them would say yes,” suggests Duvall. “A lot of times we use the boutique name as part of our pitches because it’s just where we are as this stage of our company. Look, I have aspirations to grow and be a bigger company. But right now we are for sure boutique, so that’s the narrative that we frame.

“Most of the clients that we currently have were with me at Lagardère so they’ve seen both sides of it. I think, from their perspective, there’s been absolutely zero difference in their management, whether that’s me using the resources of a larger agency like Lagardère or going out and finding local partners.”

Our business model is different. We don’t have a big rights division to subsidise us. Every client for us needs to make money, and that’s just how it is.

Duvall points to the case of Caroline Garcia, a Topnotch client who finished this season ranked eight in the world after a breakout year on the WTA Tour. To manage Garcia’s off-court interests effectively, Duvall says he calls upon the services of “a partner and affiliated Topnotch agent” who helps out from a PR, sales and marketing perspective in her native France. “Those are the types of things that we would have to do moving forward if we want to manage this type of talent,” he adds.

Echoing Duvall, Frankopan insists that no two clients are the same and that the work of an agent must ultimately be guided by the unique requirements and profile of each individual player.

To illustrate his point, he says StarWing has demonstrated its competency having done “a solid job” leveraging Wawrinka’s Grand Slam successes, both in Switzerland and overseas, through new endorsements with brands such as Yonex, Evian, D.Hedral and London Capital Group (LCG). But he also notes the behind the scenes work his firm is doing for its lesser-known clients such as Kyle Edmund, the British youngster who was formerly on the books at Octagon and IMG before joining StarWing in early September.

Having recently secured a multi-million dollar endorsement deal with Nike for his newest client - a deal he describes as “amazing” - Frankopan explains how he is formulating a strategy that will draw upon the reach of other stakeholders, including the All England Club, to help build Edmund’s profile in the UK, first and foremost.

“Every single client needs a completely different strategic plan,” he says. “I don’t think there’s a huge amount of science to it but there is a process.”

According to Frankopan, the key for any smaller management company lies in thinking big while acting boutique. In many cases that involves playing to one’s strengths whilst knowing when it makes sense to draw on external resources.

“Our business model is different,” he says. “We don’t have a big rights division to subsidise us. Every client for us needs to make money, and that’s just how it is.”

Lawrence Frankopan (front in picture) says StarWing has done "a solid job" leveraging star client Stan Wawrinka's Grand Slam successes.

Getting creative

As in any sport, conflicts of interest abound in tennis. Management agencies often double as tournament promoters, while agents are free to take on roles as tournament directors. Having those dual responsibilities invariably puts agents in a difficult position, sandwiched between the competing interests of players who want bigger purses and the need to keep tournament prize money at sustainable levels.

It is a challenge faced by agencies large and small - IMG, for instance, owns several tournaments across both tours, including the Miami and Rio Opens, and has been known to build new events using its own clients at discounted rates, while Frankopan himself has first-hand experience of the issues at hand. As well as running StarWing, he serves as the tournament director of the Croatia Open, an ATP World Tour 250 event his firm organises and markets in tandem with its local owner.

“We live in a world in tennis that is a sea of conflicts of interest,” accepts Frankopan. “Some might say that is controversial but it’s just how the tennis world has come to be."

Like Federer and Godsick’s Team8, which spearheaded the creation of September’s inaugural Laver Cup team tournament in Prague alongside other tennis industry stakeholders, both Topnotch and StarWing have come to see events as both an attractive growth market and an opportunity to bolster their clients' earning potential.

Duvall says he is personally exploring more opportunities in the events space having tested the waters with a three-day, “The Boodles-style” tournament in Stowe, Vermont prior to this year’s US Open. Dubbed the Stowe Mountain Lodge Classic, August’s exhibition event featured rising American stars Jared Donaldson and Frances Tiafoe alongside established names like Tommy Haas, Jeremy Chardy and Vasek Pospisil.

“Our model here is we’re focusing on tennis and golf, player management, tourism and experiences with Grand Slam Tennis Tours, and we’ve recently announced Topnotch Golf Tours - we’re doing a trip to The Masters - and then events,” explains Duvall. “From my side it’s not simply a management company. Management is obviously a key piece and it’s my background, but I want it to open up doors and grow revenue in other areas.

“I think there could be conflicts of interest, depending on how it’s structured. I think you’ve got to be careful with that. Are you doing the best thing for your clients or are you pushing your clients to play in your own events because it’s better for the event? The events are probably going to be making more money than 95 per cent of your clients anyway. There are some challenges in doing the right thing for both.”

Nevertheless, Duvall says the management and events businesses go hand in hand, and the ability to offer opportunities on both fronts can be a key differentiator for boutique agencies when pitching clients.

“It’s something that we get to recruit against,” he adds. “If I go to a young player who is looking to sign with a management company and I’m up against Octagon or IMG, a lot of times they’re guaranteeing wildcards and things like that - stuff that I can’t do. It makes boutique agencies like us or Lawrence’s and others get more creative on how we’re recruiting our talent.”

Adds Frankopan: "I love the fact that I can put on two hats and see how either I can be a better agent or, from the other side, how I can be a better tournament director. It makes me understand that it’s not always about take, take, take.”