Steve Persia’s foray into representing professional athletes started with less than 140 characters, when he reached out to a University of Michigan offensive lineman. As Elliott Mealer pondered his next step in life, Persia offered the Wauseon product some food for thought.
Two days after the Wolverines lost to South Carolina in the Outback Bowl, the former Michigan offensive lineman entertained the idea of joining Teach for America or going to acting school.
Persia, a 2004 University of Toledo college of law graduate, was cultivating a new step in his legal career and presented Mealer another option by way of his Twitter account: the NFL.
Soon, the two connected and Persia offered to find Mealer an exhibition senior showcase bowl game to participate in, an immediate avenue for NFL exposure. Mealer played in the NFL Players Association Bowl in January.
“We didn’t know what Elliott was going to do,” said Persia, a Western New York native and a Clemson graduate who works for Roetzel and Andress in Cleveland. “But we had to meet and had to work to figure out his next step.”
Reaching out to Mealer was one of Persia’s first steps in representation. He passed the NFL Players Association’s agent certification exam in November and immediately sought out his first clients while balancing his responsibilities as a civil litigator and a parent of three children.
“What was kind of unique is that it seemed to me that he was starting out and looking for an opportunity,” said Mealer, who signed with the New Orleans Saints in April as an undrafted free agent. “It was the same situation for me. I was taking a chance at the NFL and we were looking for opportunities.”’
Persia seeks out professional football opportunities for five clients he represents, negotiates contracts and is a conduit of communication between the football player and the team that he plays for. In addition to Mealer, Persia represents former Kansas center Trevor Marrongelli, former Minnesota tight end John Rabe, former Texas running back D.J. Monroe, and former Kent State linebacker Luke Batton.
“Ideally, I’d like to get two or three guys a year to represent,” Persia said. “Part of my message to people is that I like to be able to provide the attention that might be lacking in a working relationship. In this business, which sometimes has a black eye, there is a place for an honest agent.”
Former Toledo law dean Phil Closius remembers a sports-law class assignment in which he would divide the class into two groups: One group would be prospective professional athletes, while the other group would be team representatives who drafted and negotiated with the athletes. Persia, Closius recalled, was in the former group, and watched how his students negotiated the terms of entry-level and high-draft-pick contracts, complete with bonuses and clauses.
“Students got serious and people would try to lowball and highball, but it gave Steve a focus for that desire he had, to get into that business,” said Closius, the dean of Toledo’s college of law from 1999 to 2005. “With Steve, once he did that, he enjoyed it and realized he was good at that. It stayed with him.”
But, Closius said, going into the field comes with little glamour, and there’s the basic principle of supply and demand.
“I tell people, you don’t want to depend on your bread and butter for this,” said Closius, who is now a law professor at the University of Baltimore and started the school’s Center for Sport and the Law. “It’s tough, because for a lot of people who want to get in, there aren’t many players, and there’s the butting of heads with other agents over players. It’s a costly endeavor, too. I think Steve is starting the right way. He’s taking undrafted guys with experience, and that’s how you build a practice.”
Still, Persia is finding that his initial foray into athlete representation is a far cry from Hollywood depictions of sports agents such as Jerry Maguire and Arliss Michaels. Persia likens negotiating contracts to negotiating legal settlements, and explained that pursuing clients comes with fierce competition, even in the case of Mealer, who wasn’t an easy sell for Persia, despite his unorthodox fashion of establishing communication.
It wasn’t until after Mealer met with a handful of potential agents that he chose Persia as his agent.
“There’s a challenge that comes with it,” Persia said. “You’re competing with agents who can simply throw money at a player and buy a signature, and say, ‘here’s $100,000 if you sign with me.’ I can’t do that, and I have to be honest with clients in that I’m starting out.”
Contact Rachel Lenzi at: firstname.lastname@example.org, 419-724-6510 or on Twitter @RLenziBlade.