The Future of Sports
It is said that great athletes make it look easy, and that is certainly the case with Joby Branion ’81. A super-agent to a roster of professional athletes in the NFL, MLB and NBA, Joby makes his work look easy, just as he did on the football field at Tabor, Duke University and the Washington Football Team. Today, as the founder and CEO of Vanguard Sports Group, Joby has negotiated over one billion dollars in deals and is responsible for the contract that made Von Miller of the Denver Broncos the highest-paid defensive player in NFL history. No one knows better than those who make it look easy, that real success is the result of relentless practice, preparation and passion.
In a business that relies so heavily on close, trusting personal relationships, things like social distancing and virtual meetings are actually anathema to the sports agent business model. Tabor Today caught up with Joby and asked if he’d share his thoughts on the future of sports in the COVID era, the impact of Black Lives Matter on professional sports, and some of the influences that Tabor continues to have on his personal and professional life.
Q: Given the shifting landscape of the college football season and the decision by many top players to opt out of the 2020 season, what are the prospects and uncertainties for players, agents and professional teams entering the 2021 NFL draft?
Everybody, and I mean everybody, is flying by the seat of their pants in 2020! No one alive has tried to play college and professional sports amid a dangerous pandemic. Athletes, families, coaches, colleges and professional leagues are all trying to navigate an uncharted path in an ever-changing wilderness.
Student and professional athletes have “opted out” due to preexisting medical conditions while others want to “sit this out” because the long-term impacts associated with coronavirus are still widely unknown. And with respect to college athletes, there’s an additional layer of institutional decision making about whether to play and under what conditions.
The NFL was thought to be in an advantageous position at the outset of the pandemic, which began its assault on the sports world on March 12. There was widespread optimism that there was plenty of time for the NFL to figure things out. It soon became clear that this pandemic was not going away anytime soon, and the realization that without widespread testing, contact tracing, social distancing and isolation, advances in therapeutics and eventually effective vaccines, even the NFL was going to be hit very hard. Each week that goes by brings a collective sigh of relief from players and their franchises—at least games are getting played.
But the loss of packed stadiums is obvious to the players on the fields in terms of ambiance and the team shareholders in terms of lost revenue (as much as $5.5 billion, reportedly). The revenue loss will certainly impact the salary cap for the 2021 season, and potentially another year after that.
Q: You work very closely with a number of professional athletes. I am sure it is variable, but can you give us some insight into the mindset of professional athletes right now?
As you might imagine, professional athletes are not a monolithic group. Every client and every family dynamic is different—different sports, different career stages, different personal circumstances and different goals and values. That said, all of them are experiencing heightened stress around the uncertainty of the future of their chosen professions. The catch is that they are all managing their stresses individually, and some better than others. I often tell our youngest and newest clients and their families that life is going to continue to happen to you, whether you’re a professional athlete or you work in an office building.
As a professional athlete, however, things may impact you very differently. Because pro careers are notoriously short, losing a year’s salary (opting out of the season, for example) can be daunting. Those who continue to play, are adjusting to a new normal as best they can. But, like most of us, they are very concerned about the uncertainty of the near future. And, while the pandemic is always at the front of their minds, many athletes are also deeply concerned about social injustices and, believe it or not, climate change. In the 25 years I have spent representing professional athletes, I have honestly never seen as much awareness and activism as I have witnessed in 2020.
Q: All the professional leagues are trying their best to retain fans, but viewership is down and attendance is at zero in most cities. Through the years, when some leagues went on strike, it took a few seasons to fully rebound. What do you see for professional sports in the next few years?
There’s a great deal of long-term optimism, generally. And why not? Many are saying things can’t get any worse than this. Practically speaking, sports have always been an incredibly resilient aspect of our society. Even if there are some dramatic losses in the next few months or years, I expect the major professional sport leagues to survive and thrive once again. I am more concerned about the traditional pipelines we have relied upon in the United States for our future pros, namely youth sports, high school sports, and college athletics. I believe the fallout from this crisis could have substantial, longer-term effects on each and every one of those conventional feeder systems.
Q: From Colin Kaepernick taking a knee to the Bucks starting a playoff walk-out, can you share some of your thoughts on the role professional sports have played in the Black Lives Matter movement, and vice versa?
Sports have always provided a fertile platform for athletes to protest. What appears to be happening in 2020, however, is that there has been much greater support throughout college athletics and professional sports for social, political and economic change. Instead of relying on only a handful of the highest-profile athletes, this movement extends from the field to the owner’s box to the leagues themselves. In the past, star athletes were able to leverage their notoriety to become lightning rods for awareness.
In 2020, the individual lightning rods have triggered full-fledged electrical storms of change rarely seen in this country. The test will be whether the messaging translates into tangible, permanent change. From my vantage point, it certainly appears that athletes and their many supporters have recognized the need to move beyond simple awareness and protest to actionable steps and achievable goals.
Today’s athletes are actively seeking and securing “action” among influencers. They have championed the opening of stadiums as makeshift polling stations, created “Chief Purpose Officers” in front offices, and persuaded ownership and officials to reevaluate policies and practices to achieve meaningful social progress.
Q: What are some of the lessons you took away from your Tabor experience that stay with you today, either professionally or personally?
While I would love to say every aspect and moment of my Tabor experience was enchanting, that was not the case. High school years are among the most difficult to navigate, especially without a supportive and nurturing home life. And my experience at TA was heavily influenced by the fact that I was not a boarding student. Sometimes just getting to and from campus was a challenge.
I also happened to be one of very few Black students at Tabor. In four years, I never played with another Black teammate on the football team. Even more jarring, I was the target of an explicit racial epithet scrawled on a bathroom wall in the Academic Center. I learned so much from the experiences, however, and I was fortunate to have coaches and teachers who truly cared about me as a human being, not just an athlete.
I stay in touch with some of them over 40 years later. Those men helped shape me and I wouldn’t have survived, let alone thrived, without their guidance as I was trying to figure out how to become a man. My experiences at Tabor, good and bad, have helped me become personally accountable, resilient, and fearless, while allowing me to commit professionally to “do right” by my clients as people, not just as athletes. Tabor is forever a part of my DNA and it is the people I encountered during my four years that make that so.