Q&A With Sports Agent Ryan Tollner
Ever wonder what it is like to be a sports agent?
Ryan Tollner is a founding partner of Rep1Sports agency, and is said to be one of the best agents in the field. Ryan represents athletes such as Leonard Davis and Ben Roethlisberger. A former quarterback for the Cal Berkeley Bears, Ryan Tollner explains what it is like to be a sports agent, and talks about his transition into becoming an agent. Below is a typed version of the interview.
Barash: As you know, it is not very common that you see sports agents on ESPN because most people focus on the athletes. So, what are some of the things you talk about with your athletes daily for those who don’t know?
Tollner: It depends on the time of year. So, if the athlete is in season, we are working through need related to their performance. From health issues to contract issues. Sometimes even marketing deals. And, other times just checking in to see if they are doing okay, or if they need anything. In the off-season, we work through their training, travel, marketing deals, and even contracts. So, it definitely varies between athlete and time of year.
Barash: When you are scouting a player, what kind of qualities do you look for both on and off the field or court?
Tollner: I think the longer you are a sports agent, the more you understand your profile athlete that you work best with. I have now done this for fifteen years, so we certainly have a tight profile of a guy that fits us best and that we fit best. For us, it starts with their level of ability to play the game, and you have to like the way they play the game. But, beyond that, we like a family oriented guy. We tend to represent a lot of faith-based athletes. Well-rounded guys in general. The ones you hope will stay out of trouble off of the field, but more importantly, will also have an interest in making a positive impact in people’s lives. Someone who utilizes the incredible opportunity to be a professional athlete by reaching to people who really look up to them.
Barash: Something that is a part of that is definitely sponsorships and advertisements. How do you decide whether something is a good or bad opportunity for a client?
Tollner: It starts with who the athlete is. You have to really know your athletes and what they stand for and what their interests are. The best marriage between an athlete and a corporation is one where the athlete truly believes in the product or the service, and likes the people behind the company. That is when you tend to see some really great relationships that can exist. On an agent’s end, we tell our clients that corporations want to affiliate with athletes who can connect with their costumer base. So, we need to raise the athlete’s profile in a positive way, so that people know who they are, but also what they stand for besides just a guy running around on a field. You want to know the athlete as a person. So, we use the Public Relations side of things to raise the profile, and then try to connect them with the corporations that best match their values.
Barash: Is it ever difficult to find a compromise between your best interest for a client and what they feel is best for them? How do you convince your clients that what you are saying is truly in their best interest?
Tollner: Absolutely. I think to be a great sports agent, you have to always be able to isolate each individual athlete and their needs. You can never put your own needs as an agent or an agency ahead of your clients. I think that is where a lot of people run into problems. Each player relies on our team for career advice and guidance. So, we have to evaluate opportunities that come along off the field with where the athlete is on the field. Is it a good time for the player to be doing endorsements? Does their performance on the field warrant these deals that are off the field? And, sometimes you can get an athlete that has an incredibly high profile, but they may not be performing very well, which can cause backlash from teammates and even fans. You don’t want an athlete too involved off the field and not performing on the field. So, we have to focus on their on-field performance first. If they light it up on the field, the opportunities will come off the field.
Barash: As far as your interest in this field… Back in college you were a quarterback for the Cal Bears. Many athletes stay in sport, but often as an announcer or broadcaster. Why did you decide to be a sports agent?
Tollner: I did not know that I wanted to be an agent when I was in college. I was really focused on school and sports, but I planned on going into the Investment/Banking field. I did that for a year after college, but football was in my blood. I really wanted to get back into the game somehow. Fortunately, my cousin was already in the agency industry, and he offered me an opportunity to join him and try to build a business together. But, I also thought about coaching, working for an NFL team as a scout and work my way up the chain, and going back to school and getting various degrees. I took a leap of faith with trying the agency business. What I found was a skill set that suited me. Serving as athletes mentor was natural to me. I was that way when I was younger. In college, I would help younger players understand the system or tutor them in school. So, this was kind of a natural fit. And, it also filled my fix for football. I get to attend a lot of games, and be an active role in athletes’ lives. Seeing athletes accomplish things on the field when I know what type of work has gone into it is really fulfilling.
Barash: Lastly, if someone wants to do exactly what you do now, what advice would you give him or her? What does it take to be a sports agent?
Tollner: Don’t sell short your education. Study hard in whatever undergraduate degree you choose. And, I don’t think your undergraduate degree is particularly relevant to this particular job. If you don’t have an immediate opportunity to enter the industry, consider going to law school. I think you learn such a valuable set of skills that can certainly benefit anyone that you represent in the future. Especially with contracts. From there, if you think that representing athletes is a field that would interest you, don’t be afraid to take any job in sports. They all seem to relate. And, they all give you a different perspective that can be of value to where you ultimately end up. Build yourself a sport based resume, and take on jobs and accumulate experience. Take on opportunities that you think will give you various options. And, start in college if you can. Work with some of the sports teams. Get to know the athletes, since our role is direct relationships with them. You need to be able to bond with an athlete. You need to be able to walk into an athlete’s home when they are discerning which agent to pick, and earn their trust against potentially 50-100 competitors. There is no manual for that. It is difficult to do. No class can teach you that. They are personal skills you have to develop. The more time you spend around athletes, the more comfortable you get with what their needs are.