How to get into the sports industry: An interview with Anthony Joshua’s previous manager & former Fifa Licensed FA agent, James Cook.

It sounds like dream job territory, but how exactly do you get yourself a career in sport? We sit down with James Cook, A former Fifa and FA Licensed football agent who turned his talents to managing the likes of Anthony Joshua, and is now Stadia Solutions commercial partnerships manager, to get the inside track.

So how did you kick off your career in sport?

I played sport all throughout my time in school, mostly tennis, and I eventually got into golf. Through playing golf, I met a football agent who had his office at the golf club and offered to give me a job. I declined at the time, as I wanted to focus on sport, and ended up going off to uni to gain my law degree. Post degree, golf wasn’t turning out how I planned, so I decided to do a little work for him.

 However, I didn’t have the greatest experience as I was basically a glorified PA. There was no salary and I was earning 5% of his 5% which was nothing in reality, and the experience put me off both sport and the industry. A lot of people have asked me about getting into sport, and I usually warn them that you have to pretty much work for free at the start. You can’t really search for a job like an accountant or a lawyer would, that doesn’t exist. You have to build your own network.

As luck would have it I’d met a few football players while playing golf. I ended up playing a few games with one and he suggested a few people I should meet. One of those people was an agent who offered me a job, which I suppose was my first real step into the footballing world.

What did that first job involve?

I worked with the players. Scouted players, got to meet people at the clubs, and looked after clients day to day. I would also attempt to sign players and recruit them. The main aim was to set up meetings and get numbers with the hope you could eventually roll out the big boss and the player signs with you. From that point on I would manage them.

I became established in that role and decided to sit my Football Association (FA) agency exams. Those exams have a very low pass rate, and they were extremely hard, but I managed to pass them and from that point on I was then able to conduct player transfers. I could also work with the clubs and agree transfer fees and contracts.

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Do you think your law degree helped with that?

Yes, for sure. Although the FA contracts are pretty standard there’s a lot of paperwork. As well as the various contracts between yourself and the player, depending on how you structure the deal, you can have a separate deal between yourself and the club, the player and the club, dual representation deals and so on. The law degree definitely helped me with that side of things. I think besides NFL and baseball; football deals are the most complicated deals to get done. There’s no set way to do it, so the degree definitely helped me apply various scenarios to deals to get what I wanted for the client.

Where did you go from there?

I spent two years doing that. Initially the job was ok, but I wasn’t particularly enjoying the industry. It sounds a lot more glamorous than it actually is, and I wanted to try different sports. I was offered a job with a sports agency that wanted me to go in and set up a football division for them, and I would have the opportunity to work with other sports people. I went in recruiting young players from starter level, and my role evolved to the point where I was then given free rein to work with whichever sportspeople, from whatever industry I wanted to. I was lucky enough to work on a range of commercial deals, and look after talent including the likes of Anthony Joshua and Nicola Adams.

After a while I ended up doing business development across the whole of the business. It’s actually not too dissimilar from what I do now, going out and trying to grow the business and develop partnerships from all aspects.

I then moved to IMG, where I had a really similar role but specifically in golf. I was selling across all of their golf event platforms as well as their global talent. Again it involved a lot of relationship building. From there I went back into football for a short while, before turning my attention, skills and experience to working alongside the clubs with Stadia Solutions.

It’s an interesting pathway, so why did you choose to become a football agent?

I didn’t necessarily choose to do it. I loved sport and I’ve always been involved in it, but I’ve never been a massive football fan. When I was bit younger the lifestyle sounded glamorous, and you can obviously earn quite a bit of money from it, but it’s a pretty cut throat and murky world. I did quite like the fact that I was good at looking after people and making sure that things got done for them, but I also enjoyed negotiating deals. Even now when I’m negotiating an in-stadia media deal I get a little buzz when the deal gets over the line.

So what caused you to jump desks and make the switch from agent to working with the clubs?

I’d been wanting to do it for a while. I had a good understanding of the other side, working with players and the clubs. That side of the industry can also be very up and down; one week can be great but the next month can be awful. There’s a lot of pressure. Quite frankly I’d just had enough of it. So I thought given my experience, and the time I’d spent completing commercial deals with the likes of Marks & Spencers & Hyundai, that I could really bring something to the clubs. Now I feel I can go into clubs and have solid business conversations, whereas before I was almost going into every meeting having an argument.

What would you say where the pros and cons of your previous work, and what’s the biggest lesson you’ve learnt?

The big pro is that you do get to do some exciting and glamorous things. Sometimes you don’t realise when you’re doing it but I have done some really cool things. It’s quite rewarding when you build relationships with clients and they do well. When Anthony Joshua won gold at the Olympics it was probably one of the best feelings I’ve experienced. I also looked after a manager at Plymouth. They were in administration and likely to be relegated when he took over, but he kept them up. That was probably the most satisfactory day I’ve had, standing there with his family when he did that.

The cons can outweigh the pros, that’s why I moved on. There are a lot of unscrupulous people in the business and they can wear you down; interested in the money they earn, not the interests of the person. It’s not a 9 till 5 job; It’s non-stop, and it can take over your life.

The biggest lesson I’ve learnt is never say ‘no’ to a meeting. In sport, and I think in business, you’ve always got to make that effort, because every meeting you go to expands your network. Some meetings where I’ve not expected much have turned out to be some of the best things to happen to me.

For someone just leaving school, what do you suggest to do if you want a career in sport?

If you’re going to go to Uni you need to do a degree that shows you can deal with dates, timeframes and retaining information, so something like law or history. Courses like sports tourism or leisure aren’t necessarily what the job involves, I personally wouldn’t do that. The most important thing to do at Uni is to start building your network. Ask questions, try and have coffee with people and see if they’ll give you their time. There’s very few jobs available these days, and when they do come up its usually who you know, not what you know.  

In saying that, the two biggest football agents in the world (Mendes & Raiola) both started out as translators. Raiola used to work for his family pizza restaurant and tried to force his way in at his local club. He speaks 7 languages so he was eventually asked to work on a deal. I even know hairdressers who cut players hair and have ended up looking after them!

It should be said that there is no pre-defined route to working in sport. Building your network and knowledge base are key starting points. But if you can understand your own strengths, address your weaknesses and above all, put in the hard yards, then opportunities will undoubtedly present themselves.

Article by Jack Biss

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