The Score: Kelley Drye Snags NFL Stars with Agent Hires
Earlier this month, Adisa Bakari left his role as president of the sports and entertainment practice at Dow Lohnes to join Kelley Drye & Warren.
Joining Bakari at Kelley Drye is Jeffery Whitney, the former vice president of Dow Lohnes’s sports group, which represents roughly 35 players in the National Football League, several coaches and media and entertainment personalities, and 60 professional boxers. All of those clients will now join Kelley Drye in Washington, D.C., where native son Bakari built Dow Lohnes’s sports group from the ground up.
Bakari, who played defensive back in college at Delaware State, realized early on that his gridiron career wouldn’t include playing in the NFL on Sundays.
While doing executive compensation work as a summer associate at Dow Lohnes in 1997, he wondered why professional athletes didn’t seek out the same level of representation as high-level business executives. Himself a man of humble beginnings, Bakari knew that most young men with designs of playing pro ball were unlikely to recognize their need for legal counsel.
He broached the subject of creating a sports and entertainment group at Dow Lohnes that would offer the same contract negotiation and employee benefits expertise to prospective pro athletes as other high net worth individuals. The firm agreed and Bakari inked his first client in former NFL receiver Zamir Cobb, who he says grew up watching Bakari play high school ball in northwest Washington, D.C.
A decade later, Bakari’s client list now includes NFL stars such as Antoine Bethea, Maurice Jones-Drew, and Matt Forte, as well as promising rookies like Le’Veon Bell. A zealous advocate for his clients in sometimes contentious contract negotiations, Bakari believes that the future of the sports agent business will be at large Am Law 200 firms.
"Many athletes today suffer from inadequate representation," Bakari says. "Athletic careers can be short, especially in the NFL, where retirement can come by the time a player reaches his early 30s. It’s important early on that they become well-rounded business people."
Bakari reels off statistics showing that 80 percent of NFL players find themselves broke three years after retirement. The NFL, which took in nearly $10 billion in revenue during its last fiscal year and has billion-dollar television broadcast contracts with a handful of networks, will spend roughly 50 percent of its earnings on player benefits under the terms of a collective bargaining agreement it signed with players in 2011. That deal came after a nearly five-month labor lockout, before which Bakari helped Bethea ink a new contract with the Indianapolis Colts.
The contracts of NFL players are not guaranteed, so Bakari knows his clients have to maximize their earnings potential. "We need more Magic Johnsons and Roger Staubachs," he says, citing two former star athletes whose business successes have in many ways surpassed their athletic achievements.
Bakari admits that he has a vested interest in his clients doing well long-term, rather than flaming out after a quick career in the NFL. Even after Bethea, Jones-Drew, and Forte hang up their spikes, Bakari plans on being their lawyer for any other business needs his clients might have.