The International Basketball Federation – FIBA – is the governing body for international basketball competition. Outside of the NBA, international transfer of basketball players to professional leagues recognized by FIBA is governed by the FIBA guidelines that regulate certified player’s agents. In March 2015, Jonathan Rego became India’s first FIBA certified player’s agent. Team Ekalavyas’ Vishnu Ravi Shankar caught up with Rego following his historic achievement, for a detailed chat about what it takes to become a FIBA agent, the opportunities available to Indian basketball players and his future plans on promotion of Indian basketball. Listen in to the audio recording and read the text of the interview below.
Tell us about your background and professional experience before becoming a FIBA agent.
I have been working in sports events operations for the past 7 years in India – since 2008. I was initially with a company called Globosport and then I moved to a company called CAA KWAN. With both these companies, I was essentially involved with managing sports events operations. During my stints in both companies, the large account was the NBA account in India. So, I have been privileged to be part of every NBA event [in India] from 2008 to 2013. Then in 2014, I was given the opportunity to move into a similar and slightly larger operations role with Mumbai City FC in the ISL [Indian Super League]. I took that opportunity and currently, as we speak, I manage stadium operations with the Mumbai City FC.
As a FIBA agent, what are you certified to do and what powers and responsibilities do you have?
To break it down in very simple terms, any professional contract that is signed in the world of basketball has to have an agent attached to it. The only league that has a bit of a leeway with this [rule] is the NBA, because the NBA or the American basketball scenario has its own set of laws for becoming an agent, which are obviously vetted by FIBA. But NBA has their own laws. So, FIBA agents for example cannot sign or cannot be part of an NBA contract because he has to be an NBA agent separately for that. But outside that, essentially any professional contract that is signed between a player and a club has to have a FIBA agent attached to it. The reason being, FIBA agents like myself are trained to make sure the contract is airtight, protects the interests of both the player and the club and makes sure that the contract is not in violation of any FIBA general statutes, laws, rules or regulations. So, simply put, a FIBA agent helps the club and player understand that their contract is not in violation of any of FIBA rules, laws or regulations. A FIBA agent normally works from the point of view of players, but FIBA agents can also work from the point of view of clubs. Largely though, the default setting is where a FIBA agent signs players and then helps them seek professional contracts with professional clubs.
What is the preparation that you had to go through to write this exam? What do they test you on in this exam and what is the knowledge that you require?
So, FIBA makes the process fairly simple. They’ve got their general statutes, which are divided in 4 different books. The third book is what they essentially test you on. The third book deals with rules, regulations and laws regarding player transfer, player nationality and FIBA agent duties and scope and laws and sanctions regarding any of these 3 aspects. The preparation material is available on the FIBA website. You need to by-heart Book III, which is more of a pamphlet and it is around 40-50 pages long. The test is two-pronged – you have to go through an objective type exam, which is about 45 minutes where they ask you 25 questions and you need to get 18 right. The other part is where they interview you personally to see whether you have some understanding of the game, which then obviously helps them make sure that they’ve got the right candidate in place. The examination process is not too hard, to be honest. There are a few formalities to complete that FIBA guides you through. You also need to be in good standing in your own country/ city. You need to get a police clearance, which needs to be no more than around 6 weeks old. All this information is available on the FIBA website. So, there is not ambiguity in the process.
Few people who wrote the exam and became certified FIBA agents along with you have been former professional players or coaches. Is this a pre-requisite? What kind of background do FIBA agents usually have?
What is key in becoming an agent is relationships in the basketball world. I actually met one of the people who wrote the exam who was a journalist in the Turkish sports league. His work had given him the opportunity to build relationships in the basketball fraternity. Before he even became an agent itself, he started helping players and clubs connect. Players would call him and ask if he knew a particular club and clubs would call him about players. So, he would help make that connection, but effectively he could not charge commission off it and he couldn’t be a part of the contract. So over a period of time, he realized that since this is something that he is doing anyway, he might as well make it official and also earn some money off it. So, the key is that you need to have relationships. Obviously if you are a player or a coach in a league in Europe, you obviously build those relationships over a period of time. One of the gentlemen who wrote the exam with me was a former player who played for 16 years in the Spanish league with the same club. Obviously, if he played for that long, he has ‘x’ number of relationships which would give him an advantage over anyone else. That being said, you don’t necessarily need to be only a player or a coach, but you definitely need to have the relationships in the industry. If you look at my case, I am neither a coach, a player nor a sports journalist. But I have worked in the sports industry in India enough to confidently say that I have enough relationships in the basketball fraternity to take advantage of being a FIBA agent, which is essentially helping Indian players get professional contracts either when the professional league starts in India or with European teams abroad.
Which basketball markets are you targeting? Which basketball leagues do you think Indian players have a chance to play in?
So, I should be honest in saying that my aim for the next 6-8 months is to build relationships in the European markets. As a matter of fact, I travelled to Barcelona to meet the Chief Operations Officer and Director of Business Development of the Euroleague. The reason I met them was that I wanted to start building those relationships in the European markets for Indian players to play. From what I understand and from my sources and my experience of having watched and played basketball over 15 years is that Indian players right now, born in India, cannot make the cut to the NBA. Possibly the NBA Development League, but that is currently way too competitive because everybody, no matter where he comes from, be it China, Australia, Russia, Japan, Thailand, India, wherever it is – if you’re a basketball player and you’re serious about it, you want to play for the NBA. So, that pool is massive right now. For me, it did not make sense to try to pitch for an Indian player to crack the NBA. What would be more realistic is for an Indian player to crack the European market. Even for the European market, very established high-level basketball [leagues] like [in] Spain or Italy may not be on the cards. I’m looking at small leagues (ideally Division II and Division III) leagues, even in Spain for that matter. They are constantly looking for international players. Honestly speaking, I can’t tell you specifically which markets I’m going to be targeting. I’m targeting the entire European market. But I’m going to ideally target Division II and III clubs, because that’s where I believe Indian talent can thrive. I can obviously go after Division I clubs, but I don’t want an Indian player to travel to a Division I club and for whatsoever reason, sit on the bench. That does not help my cause nor does it help the cause of the player nor does it help the cause of what I want to primarily develop – Indian basketball. It’ll be a great story if an Indian player gets signed by FC Barcelona’s basketball team, which is the top team currently in Europe. But if he’s the 12th man or if he’s bench warming, it makes no sense for me. My key is to get Indian players playing time on European teams. So, if that means getting the players on Division II and III teams, so be it. So, over the next 6 months, I’m going to be working closely with European teams to get Indian players the opportunity to play and get on court.
What about other Asian countries like China and Japan? Do you think there are opportunities there for Indian players as well?
Yes, there are opportunities there, but the problem with a lot of these Asian leagues is that they are very focused on homegrown talent. I’m not saying the European leagues aren’t – they’re just as focused on homegrown talent – but they are more flexible to receiving international players. Whereas, for example, a market that is very interesting is the Philippines. Indian players can definitely crack the Philippines league. The problem though is that Filipinos are very community oriented. Secondly, basketball is their national sport. Point 3, they are ridiculously passionate about the game. So, for them, it makes sense to have more Filipino players because they can tap into the market that already exists in the Philippines. Because as a country they are so passionate about the game, the moment you sign one Filipino player, his entire family, entourage, his friends and social circle become a part of the team or the management. So, their interest in finding an Indian player will be comparatively less as compared to a European Division II or III [club] signing an Indian player. It’s almost a similar situation in China. China has a huge focus on international talent. They also sign stars, but they would rather invest money in an international star who is either American or European and who is already an established player, than signing an Indian player and see him come up. For them, that’s not the focus. Their focus is filling the seats. If they can find an Indian talent who can fill their seats, they will pick them up, but I don’t see that happening realistically over the next 3-5 years.
For me it’s very simple – when I sign the contract with the team, I want to get guarantee that the kid they are signing will get playing time. By playing time, I mean, if he’s not in the starting 5, I am willing to accept a 6th or 7th man [role]. Unless the money is great, I don’t need to see the necessity for an Indian player to sign for anything less than that. For instance, the Turkish league is one of the richest paying European basketball leagues. Even if you are a 12th man there, you make a significant amount of money. If that is a driving force for the player, I obviously need to have the player’s interests at heart. The idea of developing basketball [in India] is my dream, but that may not be synonymous with the dream of the Indian player. For him, he may just wants to play professional basketball and take care of his family, financially. Either the playing time needs to be great or the money needs to be something we cannot turn down – money being the secondary point. If the contract does not tick off either one of these two boxes, then I don’t see the point in signing that contract.
Going back to the leagues, outside of the NBA, what are the leagues that have the best quality of basketball, in your opinion?
Obviously, the Spanish league is insanely competitive and extremely talented. You have the German league and the Italian league – obviously, these are the usual suspects. But what I found out over the course of my research is that the Turkish league is also quite competitive simply because the Turkish teams pay their players handsomely. So what then happens is that they attract talent who want to make more money as well. The Turkish league, over a period of time, because of these things, has gotten competitive. But all of the large European countries – Spain, Germany, Italy, France – have extremely competitive leagues. If you have to put your finger on one of them to be the most competitive, I would say Spain. As a matter of fact, even Russia and other eastern European countries have extremely competitive leagues as well. The reason that Spain tops all of them is that (a) they are just as competitive, if not more, (b) they pay extremely well, (c) the lifestyle is really good in Spain, the standard of living is far higher and its more cosmopolitan than an eastern European country or even a country like Germany. Spain is a little more upscale and metropolitan. Spain tops the list because it crosses off a lot of these boxes.
Coming to the Indian players, have you narrowed down on a list? Are there any particular players that you’re looking at to push abroad?
Yes, I have a list of about 18-20 players that I have shortlisted. But for me to take any names on the record right now will be a little too premature. As an agent, I am still understanding how the landscape works. This is unchartered territory – nobody has ever explored this in India. So, I’m not comfortable with taking the names of players I’ve shortlisted as of now. I don’t want to put out a player’s name on Ekalavyas and create an expectation that may not materialize. What I can tell you is that I’m not going for players who are 25-26 and above. I’m looking for younger players that have the potential to develop and are hitting their peak slowly. Ideally, I would like to avoid taking players who are past their peak, because it’s going to be that much harder for me to get them a professional contract. If I go to a team with a 20 or 21 year old with promise as opposed to a 26 year old who is established, they would rather work with a 20-21 year old who they can groom if they have to.
I’m assuming that you’ll be looking at players from a really young age – even teenagers who have the potential to develop.
For signing contracts, the player needs to be 18 and above. Effectively, I’m looking at kids between the ages of 18 and 26. That being said, one of the angles that I’m obviously going to be open to is to have these kids get into NCAA* schools. The issue there is that if a kid who is applying to an NCAA school has an agent, then he or she automatically becomes ineligible to play Division I NCAA basketball. Certain Division II schools also follow that. Division I is a strict no-no and an automatic ineligibility. If it’s a player who I know, before I sign the contract, is interested in pursuing an NCAA Division I or II college, then I want to make sure that I don’t do anything to jeopardize that. I may have a verbal agreement with the player saying that I will help you out in whatever way I can and guide you in getting that admission. But I will be doing this as a well-wisher, without wanting anything in return. However, there will be an understanding that if you do make it big, I would like to pitch to be your agent. Obviously, if you’re playing in NCAA basketball, hundreds of agents will approach you. Everybody wants to find the next Satnam Singh or the next Sim Bhullar. If you’re not interested in the NCAA and if you want to work on your game and pursue a pro-playing contract in Europe or the USA, then I can sign the contract with you if you are 18 or above. That being said, there are a couple of young kids on my list who are 16-17 years old. But I’d like to get involved from an advisory perspective right now so that when they do turn 18 and/ or when they decide to turn pro, I can probably sign them to an agent contract and help them to sign a pro contract down the line.
*National Collegiate Athletic Association, USA
How do FIBA agents earn their revenue?
A FIBA agent can earn a maximum of 10% of commission on a professional contract.
FIBA agents are required to pay a yearly membership of around 1,000 Swiss Francs to FIBA. Do you think that you’ll sign enough players to sustain your business well enough to manage this yearly membership fee?
I definitely think that. I don’t see the membership fee to a problem, to be honest. Apart from the commission earned on the contract, because of my previous experience in India with Globosport and CAA KWAN, I also know that there are other commercial opportunities that a player can take advantage of, whether it is appearances at events or endorsements. It may not be high billers like cricketers or footballers get, but smaller endorsements. The key is to figure out what my minimum viable amount should be. Effectively, I need to cover up the cost of the FIBA membership fee, which is around Rs. 60,000-70,000 a year and probably a few administrative expenses, totaling to around Rs. 1.5 lakhs a year. There are also times when FIBA might call you for a refresher course. It may be year-on-year or once in 2 years. It all depends on when FIBA restructures the statutes that govern FIBA agents. So, if there is no conference that year, then Rs. 60,000 to Rs. 1,00,000 is what the expenses might be, but if there is a conference, then probably Rs. 1 lakh to Rs. 1.5 lakhs is what I’m looking at. I’m also working on a consultancy basis with Mumbai City FC. Therefore, I can cover up that expense. The first year, I may not be able to make any money, but over the years by building relationships, I think the math will eventually work out. I don’t see that being a problem. To give you some perspective, I was talking to a bunch of agents who are already on the scene and they told me that players can earn about 5,000-6,000 euros per month (around Rs. 3 lakhs per month). It’s around Rs. 12-13 lakhs a year. So if I’m making 10% a year, that would be 1.2 lakhs and my basic expenses would be covered.
If you look at it from a simple mathematics perspective, the membership fee would be around Rs. 5,500 per month. I’ve been fortunate to have been working from a very young age. Simply put, I’m Indian and I have ‘x’ amount of savings. Even if it takes me 2 years to do it, I know this thing will eventually pay off 2 years down the line. The idea is to invest in myself. Worst case scenario, I’ll invest maybe Rs. 1.5 lakhs over 2 years and then reap the benefits down the line.
Coming to the incentives for the players, if a player gets into a Division III league in a European country, are the incentives there good enough for them to leave their current job with a public sector undertaking in India, where the player avails a fixed salary per month and plays basketball all year round? Also, given the adjustments that the player would have to make in a foreign country, would it be worth it?
To answer your question, not all leagues are equal. There are a few players who are making an absolute pittance in Europe. I’m talking about salaries like 500-600 dollars a month for 6 months a year, which is nothing especially if you’re living in a European country. My policy is very simple – if it doesn’t make both financial and playing-time sense, then I’m not signing the contract. Like I mentioned earlier, it needs to make sense on at least one of two counts. That’s a decision I leave up to the player. Take the example of Amrit Man – if he goes to a European team – if the money is not great, but he’s getting enough playing time, I’ll leave the decision up to him. While my job is to help them, my job is also to allow them to make their own decisions and assist them in any way possible. So if any Indian player that I sign decides that they’re fine with sacrificing a little bit of money for an experience to play in Europe and ‘x’ amount of playing time, then I’ll leave the decision up to them. It will be my duty to tell them what is in their best interests based on my previous dealings with clubs, but the decision is theirs. My job as a FIBA agent is more of a facilitator than a dictator with regards to their career.
Also to add, with my research I found that 90% of the international players have the basics added into their contracts. What I mean by basics is that you definitely have a place to stay and ideally, it is a flat, which is paid for by the team, outside of the salary you get. Then depending on the level of the player or the kind of commercial arrangement teams have with their partners, the player can also get a car. For example, if the player is really good and the team wants to retain him, they may throw in a car as an incentive. Obviously, to and fro the game, there is a team bus. But sometimes, certain teams have tie-ups with car companies. The car companies provide these players cars at fractional costs. For example, you can get anywhere between 40-60% off on the car. That’s an incentive players can take advantage of. But a flat to the players themselves is a guarantee and a must on the contracts, especially for an international player. The flat is in his name for however long his season is and then it depends on whether he continues with the team or moves on to another place.
Coming back to answer your question more specifically – no, the incentives are always not too great. If someone is making around Rs. 40,000-50,000 a month with Indian Overseas Bank, for example, which is around 800 dollars a month, and he can make this money throughout the year for 12 months (around 10,000 dollars a year), I’m not going to ask him to shift for 1,000 dollars a month for 6 months or 6,000 dollars a year. I’m sure he will work out the math. But, if he is a young player and he wants the exposure and he believes that someday he can make that 6,000 into 100,000 or 150,000 dollars by playing in Europe and getting better and possibly being recruited by a better team, then that’s a decision that he’ll have to take at the end of the day.
Apart from the pro-playing contract related to playing in basketball leagues, you also mentioned appearances and endorsements. Do FIBA agents earn a cut out of that as well?
That is not something that is going to be part of the FIBA contract. Essentially, I’m going to be signing 2 contracts with each player. My ideal situation is that I’ll be playing 2 roles with a basketball player. I’ll be his FIBA agent where I will help and guide him and facilitate professional playing contracts. The second [role] is that I’m going to be his commercial manager, where I’ll help him exploit commercial opportunities through endorsements, appearances, motivational talks or whatever he can possibly get. There are going to be two separate contracts individual of each other. Just because I sign a player as a FIBA agent, I’m not going to force anybody to sign a commercial agreement with me as well. FIBA doesn’t have any ruling on this, because it’s none of their business. They make it very clear – it’s not our business what kind of commercial value you bring to and facilitate for the player. For us, all that matters is the professional playing contracts.