Players entering the NFL these days aren’t just savvy about improving their athletic craft — many are forward-thinkers when it comes to business and personal brands too.
One man who knows this world well is veteran NFL agent Tommy Sims, who took a recent leap of faith in his career by joining VaynerSports — a new entrant in the sports agency landscape founded by digital marketing experts Gary and AJ Vaynerchuk.
A certain trailblazing approach attracted Sims, who is hoping to leverage the Vaynerchuk way as well as his background as an ex-player to help redefine the NFL agent experience. After all, building relationships and mentoring others is why Sims entered the sports agent business in the first place.
A DIFFERENT PATH
Becoming an NFL agent was not exactly Point A to Point B for Sims. The playing field, the business world, and advising young athletes were all stops along the way. But, they wound up becoming important stops.
Sims, a former team captain and four-year starter at the University of Tennessee, was a senior on the 1986 Sugar Bowl team that took down the previously undefeated and second-ranked Miami Hurricanes, coached by Jimmy Johnson. His time in Knoxville overlapped with legendary players such as Packers and Eagles Hall of Famer Reggie White, Cowboys defensive standout Bill Bates, Bears wide receiver Willie Gault, and Raiders linebacker and current general manager Reggie McKenzie.
He was then selected in the seventh round of the 1986 NFL Draft by the Indianapolis Colts (at a time when there were 12 rounds). Life in the NFL, however, was not as kind to Sims. He became a rookie starter for the Colts in 1986 as the team endured a difficult 0-13 start to the season, and ultimately saw his professional career derailed after tearing up his knee that same year.
Undaunted, he turned his attention to a career in business, and ventured into corporate America for over a decade. After working in medical device sales that involved items such as pacemakers and metallic stents, in addition to coaching youth football on the side, Sims, a man of faith, found his calling through impacting young men in the game of football that walked the same path he had years ago.
Initially, Sims started out as an independent contractor in the sports agency world.
“Corporate America as a day job, agent by night.”
One of his most notable early accomplishments came in helping to recruit one of the most famous players to hail from Georgia in the last 20 years: former Georgia Tech and Detroit Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson.
Living in the same town as Johnson and sharing the same church, Sims was able to build a relationship with the wide receiver’s family and helped pave the way for Calvin to sign with agent Bus Cook, for whom he worked, in 2007.
Sims ultimately joined the Allegiant Athletic Agency (A3) of Knoxville, Tenn. and rose to the position of Executive Vice President of Football Operations. There, he also worked on the contract analyst team and negotiated over $200 million worth of contracts including those of defensive end/linebacker Quinton Coples with the Jets, running back C.J. Spiller with the Saints, and wide receiver/return specialist Dwayne Harris with the Giants.
Through expertise in structuring contracts and payout structure, challenging default language, and working to maximize guaranteed dollars, Sims garnered success for clients in the practice. Additionally, his work helped to achieve the full value of the draft slot taking into account the Collective Bargaining Agreement’s “25 percent increase rule” — preventing more than a 25 percent increase in successive years of a rookie contract including incentives.
After several years at the agency, Sims left the established A3 Athletics in 2017 to stay ahead of the game and offer more to his clients. That move brought him to VaynerSports.
A DIFFERENT AGENCY
“I want to be one of the good guys in the industry and introduce as many kids as I can to what I consider the Rockefellers of business right now.”
The Vaynerchuk brothers founded VaynerSports in 2016 from their investment in the sports agency Symmetry. They then turned to Sims last year to help build the firm and establish its place in the business.
Accomplished entrepreneurs, brothers Gary and AJ Vaynerchuk have become legends in the areas of digital marketing and social media. Initially growing their family wine business to impressive heights, the two founded VaynerMedia and began consulting Fortune 500 companies as a premier digital agency.
After entering and disrupting the digital media landscape, the Vaynerchuk passion (often seen in social media as New York Jets superfans) turned to sports with VaynerSports. Their goal for the agency: Improve the level of service beyond what any athlete has experienced in the industry thus far.
AJ Vaynerchuk noted in a 2017 interview with Forbes that the top issue he was hearing with agents was “… far too often an agent disappears after the contract gets done.”
VaynerSports is about building a lasting business relationship with clients — a core value Sims finds to be effective and straightforward: “The modern day agency for the modern day athlete.”
“Most agencies were set up 30 years ago,” Sims said. “Their mindset is traditional, training the athlete, and less concerned with building their brand for post-career. Kids coming out of school have their own logos and trademarks now with 70,000 followers — they’re thinking differently and are more aware of the business side of football.”
DIFFERENTIATORS IN RESULTS
The target clients for VaynerSports are players who want to focus on building a career after their playing days are done as a “business partner for life.” The agency also prides itself on taking a unique approach per player in building their brand and garnering endorsement opportunities.
Several clients have already seen the benefits of this approach. Robert Nkemdiche, defensive tackle of the Arizona Cardinals, joined VaynerSports without any endorsements and no real business relationships. Sims and VaynerSports worked to rebrand him and his image upon joining the agency. Fans learned he was musically inclined, and they played to his strengths as an extrovert in business opportunities.
Want more content like this? Subscribe to our daily newsletter!
Athletes such as Geronimo Allison of the Packers, Braxton Miller of the Texans, and Derrick Morgan of the Titans followed suit after feeling over-promised and under-delivered. Morgan, who is pursuing his MBA, understands the power of business and has founded Huddle Ventures and invests in technology companies.
This year’s NFL Draft also proved successful for Sims and VaynerSports on the client front. Cornerback Kevin King was drafted at the top of the second round last year by Green Bay; Sims once again delivered another second-round cornerback to the Packers in University of Iowa star Josh Jackson. Another cornerback, D.J. Reed of Maryland, was selected by San Francisco in the fourth round.
Jackson has already signed on with one of Gary Vaynerchuk’s clients, as the Hawaiian Isles Kona Coffee Co. proudly welcomed the prospect.
“Gary (Vaynerchuk) is the secret sauce with his reach into the entrepreneur space.”
Sims pointed out, “His reach is much greater than the average marketer.”
All told, the agency has generated six figures worth of marketing deals including partnerships, endorsement dollars, and even equity in companies for clients.
The football side of the relationship is where Sims offers a unique vantage point for VaynerSports. Speaking the language and understanding what the players go through has been a benefit, so has helping clients navigate the realities of the NFL as a business itself.
“(I’m) pretty familiar with skill sets needed to be successful, and what the NFL looks for. Stay in my lane, recruit a position I understand from the X’s and O’s and skill standpoint.”
“I can dive a little deeper than a regular agent with value-added service on and off the field — helping clients work the locker room and understand politics. All NFL players were star athletes going back to high school. There are a lot of egos in the locker room. There are 53 CEOs in there.”
While players entering the league may know more about business and branding, there’s still a lot they can learn from representation to help ensure their success in capitalizing on every opportunity on and off the field.