In 2005, as a newly certified sports agent, Kelli Masters went to her first NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis.
A week-long exhibition of top athletes’ talents for NFL scouts, the combine is an annual gathering of who’s who in the NFL – collegiate draft hopefuls, coaches, managers and sports agents – “the entire NFL world stuffed into six square blocks of ego and testosterone” in Masters’ words.
It was also where Kelli Masters first glimpsed the challenge she had ahead of her as a female sports agent.
She remembers going to a seminar required of all agents, and noticing there were “basically 900 men and just me. I [was] feeling a little outnumbered, but I [thought], ‘This is great, I love a challenge. I don’t care if they wonder why I’m here.’”
Then a male sports agent representing one of the higher-projected draft picks saw her standing outside of the seminar, and walked over. After asking her who she was and if she had any clients (she did have her first client at the time), he chuckled and said, “I’m just going to help you out here, honey.”
He proceeded to lecture Masters on why she would never make it in the industry, why women didn’t belong in a man’s world of sports agents, why she would never be respected, and why she was wasting her time.
“I finally said, ‘Are you done? Because let me tell you respectfully why you’re completely wrong and I do belong here,” Masters said. “You don’t know me, and you don’t know what I’m capable of. This is my calling, this is where I’m supposed to be, I am going to be successful, and you’re going to have to watch out for me.”
Taken aback by Masters’ response, the agent handed her his card and told her to call him anytime. Though they became friends, it was one example of the exclusive attitude Masters and other female sports agents face.
“I think a lot of my strength came from just being anchored and knowing that I was where God wanted me to be,” Masters said. “I was able to stand up to what was being said to me, and no matter what people think or perceive or say, none of that matters and none of that should take us off of what God has called us to do.”
Masters formed her own sports agency, KMM Sports, and has since represented dozens of high-profile athletes in the NFL and other arenas. In 2010, Masters became the first female sports agent to represent a first-round draft pick.
The Path of Most Resistance
For Masters and fellow NFL agent Tamika Cheatham, who owns the sports agency 413 Sports and Entertainment, being a sports agent isn’t just a career; it’s a passionate calling in the midst of adversity. Of the 794 certified sports agents in the NFL in 2016, only 41 are female. Finding success in an industry where 95 percent of the competition is men hasn’t been easy, since becoming a sports agent is a tough road to begin with.
“To be honest with you, if you’re a smart person, you’re probably better off doing something else,” said Jason Belzer, founder of the sports agency GAME, Inc., and an agent for coaches, in an interview with Elite Daily. “I mean that with the best intentions only because it’s a very cutthroat business. You have a lot of very smart people that end up failing.”
A sports agent’s life is a whirlwind of legal work, travel and constant communication with clients. As practicing attorneys (Cheatham is also a judge), both Masters and Cheatham handle legal cases in addition to their work as sports agents. Many of their weekends are spent on the road meeting athletes and going to games (“The first few years that I did this, I was never home,” Cheatham says), and Masters estimates she makes and answers 60-100 phone calls a day, and dozens more emails and texts.
Much like a good football team, agents’ careers are a balance of offense and defense. Offensively, they meet and recruit athletes to represent, navigate them through the draft process, and negotiate contracts.
On the defensive side, agents must advocate for their clients’ pay and welfare, and shield them from exploitative offers, the media and other unscrupulous agents trying to lure them with money and commercial endorsements. There’s an unfortunate amount of truth to many sports agents having devious reputations.
“One of my clients was undrafted and no one wanted him. And then when he had a great game all of these huge agents were coming after him and contacting him,” Cheatham said. “Agents aren’t supposed to be soliciting your client, but they were definitely soliciting him and offering him money. At the time he stuck with me, because I had stuck with him when no one else wanted him.”
Though illegal, it’s not uncommon for agents to pay collegiate athletes in order to represent them, lie to their clients, or exaggerate what they can offer athletes.
Athletes’ perceptions of women in an all-male sport can be another stumbling block.
“Some people will say, ‘Well, you’ve never played the game before.’ They think that in order to be an agent, you have to have played football,” Cheatham said. “But I know how to negotiate a contract, I’m an attorney, I’m a judge and I have 28 years of that experience.”
Indeed, both women are renowned in the legal world. Cheatham was the first African American chief prosecutor in Arizona, and Masters has argued cases in front of the Supreme Court, and has been named one of the best lawyers in America four years in a row.
Masters also identifies with her players in understanding the pressure and emptiness that can come from a life fixated on performance. Formerly Miss Oklahoma and a national and world champion baton twirler, Masters reached a breaking point in her early 20s. Despite achieving all of her goals, she was miserable.
“Growing up I said I was a Christian, but my god was achievement. It was earning the accolades and the respect of other people,” Masters said. “Whether it was trying to please my parents or my coaches, I was such a driven young woman to be the best athlete, the best student, the best leader, the best performer, and my value became wrapped up in accomplishment. And as we all know as believers, that’s empty. Filling up the need in your life for God with anything but God is is ultimately not fulfilling.”
Her unhappiness led her to call a former baton twirling teacher, who was also a believer. Masters gave her life to Christ, and her faith permeates into the lives of the athletes she represents.
“(Football) is such a huge part of their lives and I want to help them see themselves in Christ, as someone who is is destined for greatness – not just as a football player, but in life and as a leader and in the future as a husband and father,” Masters said.
For Cheatham, her company is named after Philippians 4:13, her favorite Bible verse. Even her Bible reflects her love for God and sports; it’s bound in the nubby brown vulcanized rubber that that encases most footballs. The “NFL” on the cover has a different meaning, though: New Found Life.
Ultimately, both Masters and Cheatham seek to show their clients the life change they’ve discovered in Christ. They also seek to pass it along.
“I love mentoring and praying with my players; above all else that’s my favorite thing (in my job),” Masters said. “It’s helping each of my players see that they are more than just what they do, and I think that’s important for all of us.”
Editor’s Note: This article is featured in the September 2017 edition of Sports Spectrum Magazine. To receive the magazine and become a member of the Sports Spectrum family, click the membership button at the top of the page