In 1988, Ellen Zavian was the first female attorney/agent to represent NFL players. For 10 years, Ellen played with the ‘big boys’ and represented over 40 NFL players. She has also represented the members of the 1996 US Women’s soccer and softball teams in contract negotiations with their governing bodies, professional skateboarders in negotiations with ESPN & NBC for the X-Games & Gravity games, respectively, and held the title of Commissioner for the Central Atlantic Collegiate Conference (NCAA Div. II).
Although Ellen no longer represents NFL players, she has a lot to say about the sports agent business, in the NFL in specific. Her Game Life’s Emily Cohen asked Ellen, who has called herself “Not Jerry Maguire,” to show her the money in an interview just after the 2012 NFL Draft.
HGL: Ellen, you were the first female agent to represent NFL players and you did that very successfully for a number of years. What made you give that up?
Ellen: I did that for 22 years and I was done babysitting, so I thought I should do some new things that were challenging, more exciting, more precedent-setting, so I represented athletes collectively – I represented the U.S. women’s softball team and soccer team (USWNT) collectively, and then I represented extreme athletes collectively. I did that for about six years.
HGL: You moved from representing men to representing women. Was that different?
Ellen: I would say in the beginning, yes, because the women athletes are typically going from more middle-class families to staying middle class because their salaries are not going to be very high. The same holds true for most of the extreme (or action-sport) athletes. A lot more of the NFL players, at least for me, went from very poor upbringing to all of a sudden very wealthy.
HGL: Aside from the economics, which is a very interesting point, what else was different when you represented women?
Ellen: The women athletes knew how to write a check, organize their lives, had a college degree, knew how to function; they didn’t have a school system catering to their every need – doing their schedule, telling them what to wear, and so on. In contrast, an elite male athlete has every second of the day planned out almost from the point they’re discovered in high school on. They’re just not exposed to it, so you have to start bringing them into the process.
HGL: And would you say that most agents help their clients through this? There are so many cases of famous male athletes who have not grown up and haven’t learned to manage their new-found wealth, etc.
Ellen: When you’re told that you’re an elite in a particular field – for this case, let’s use the NFL, for example – you make the assumption that you’re efficient in all fields. Because people have been telling you you’re great since you were eight years old, why should you believe otherwise? A lot of these players don’t have off-season jobs to build their resume, but the players that do succeed much more after their career.
HGL: Which client do you consider your greatest success story and why?
Ellen: There’s no single client to whom I would point. I would say the clients who finished school and worked in the off-season were able to learn from myself and the people who surrounded them how to function in their lives beyond football and made the transition best — and they are the most successful.
HGL: When you were still representing NFL players, you were competing with well-respected, big name agents, such as Leigh Steinberg and Bob Wolf. Did any of them take you under their wing and ‘show you the ropes,’ per se?
Ellen: I was much their junior but I learned a great deal from them. There were several agents that helped me. I worked for an agent named Brett Senior and I very much still respect him. There’s another guy that was also very good to me, Jack Mills, and he’s a long-time agent.
There are two things, I think, that helped me be successful as a woman in a man’s world. First of all, I think at the time I was the only person that left the NFL Players Association and became an agent, so I had knowledge of the internal workings of the Players Association and I knew a lot of the agents
HGL: So you already had relationships with them?
Ellen: Yes. I provided them research and data because there was no computer system. So they would have to call me and say ‘I’ve got the 32nd pick in the draft, running back, how deep is this team going? What have they paid in the last 3 years?’ We didn’t have computers so I would go into the filing system, compile the data and then call them back.
It’s very, very different from today.
And then I lived through the period when the NFL players went on strike and I got to know a lot of the agents because they were very supportive of the strike. My relationship was very different than someone who didn’t work within the NFLPA so there weren’t many agents I couldn’t call.
HGL: What advice would you give to a woman who wanted to get into being an agent in today’s world?
Ellen: I don’t think this industry is any different than any other. You have to be an over-achiever, be thick-skinned, have knowledge beyond your competitors, and surround yourself with the right network.
HGL: Do you think that your legal background proved very valuable when you became a sports agent?
Ellen: For me, it levels the playing field once you’re an attorney. There’s very little room for someone to say, ‘You don’t belong here.’ Because most of the successful agents are attorneys, you want to remove any type of barrier or excuse that someone may come up with. Being an attorney levels the field automatically.
HGL: In the article on your website, you mention not putting yourself in any situation that could be misconstrued. I think a lot of women want to believe that they are 100% equal, want to believe that people will look at them as equal, and it doesn’t always happen.
Ellen: Right. You can’t go downstairs to the hotel bar – there’s none of that. I didn’t do it and I don’t recommend it. There are things you can control and things you can’t control. Don’t put yourself in a situation where there are things you can’t control.
HGL: I think that’s really important for young women to hear. What else do you recommend?
Ellen: Learn the game. If you look at football, 80 percent of players don’t have a degree. If they can figure out how to play the sport, my guess is you can figure out the rules too. There’s a 4-3 defense and a 3-4 defense; how hard is that? There’s a power side, a strong side and a weak side. I don’t get the complications.
Let me tell you a quick story. When I was in high school, I was a cheerleader because Title IX wasn’t in force and I didn’t have other sports to take up – we didn’t have a women’s soccer team or equivalent teams. So when I was a cheerleader, they would always put me next to the captain so I could tell the captain what was going on in the field – when it was defense, when it was offense, when it was 2nd down, when it was 3rd down. I wouldn’t say that made the difference but what did make the difference was my friends were the players and when we talked about the game, I definitely spoke differently about the game than the rest of the cheerleaders.
HGL: What NFL players do you like to watch, from a skill perspective?
Ellen: I think it’s important to understand the game before you start latching onto a particular player. If you can appreciate the game and the athletes’ unique ability, I think the sport will be more appreciated as players come and go. But your focus staying on the sport itself will have a much more long-lasting effect. I respect my players’ passion and dedication as much as they respected my passion and dedication. I much more focused on their level of dedication and passion to their particular field – i.e., being an athlete – than the team they were associated with (because my players changed teams) and the position they played (because my players changed positions).
The people that I really respect in the field are some trainers; I have some friends that are fantastic trainers. They know the ins and outs of the muscles, they are on top of new technology, they’re on top of new training techniques, new stretching and core muscle techniques. I guess it’s the people behind the scenes that don’t get attention than the athletes themselves. The people keeping the players on the field and keeping them healthy are almost more important than the players themselves.