1. Home » News » This American ex-pro hopes to change how agents operate

This American ex-pro hopes to change how agents operate

Caleb and Alex Fairly are seated in a suburban Salt Lake City Starbucks across from the parents of their newest client, Neilson Powless. Nearby, a handful of cycling fans chat about the upcoming Tour of Utah stage, unaware that the future of the next great American cyclist is being planned at the adjacent table.

Jack and Jeanette Powless are concerned. During the previous day’s stage, Neilson suffered four mechanicals before the peloton even reached the base of the day’s climb up Mount Nebo. He was able to claw his way back to a 12-man group of riders near the front but finished 3:57 down to stage winner Lachlan Morton and his Axeon Hagens Berman teammate Adrien Costa.

Alex Fairly assures the Powless family that the flub will not hurt Neilson’s standing within professional cycling’s fickle labor market.

“Neilson has plenty of time to show his value,” Alex says.

Caleb sits silently, listening to his father offer assurances. Just four months ago, Caleb retired from his own professional cycling career to launch an agency alongside his father, who is one of the country’s most powerful insurance brokers in the sports and entertainment world. The Fairlys reason that Caleb’s cycling knowledge, when matched with Alex’s business experience, will create a business that can thrive in cycling’s unpredictable market for athlete representation.

Finally, Caleb speaks.

“We had a phone call and [Neilson] sounded frustrated,” Caleb says. “I told him, ‘Dude, you’re perfect. If you were as good as Costa today, I’d be worried. I’d rather you be that good at [the Tour de] l’Avenir.’”

A top finish at that famed French U23 race is part of the Fairlys’ grand plan for Powless’s professional career. The 20-year-old will stay with Axeon in the American domestic scene for another year and build his confidence at the smaller events before stepping into the big leagues.

The strategy is in stark contrast to plans presented by other agents, who hounded the Powless family after Neilson won the best young rider award at the Amgen Tour of California. Jeanette Powless says the men promised immediate pay- days and WorldTour contracts if Neilson agreed to jump headfirst into the WorldTour.

“We weren’t prepared for that,” Jeanette says. “It was chaos.”

The Fairlys avoided the feeding frenzy. They reached out to the Powless family, offering their help if Neilson ever wanted to talk about his career.

“They were very hands off — there was no pressure,” Neilson would later say of the interaction. “Compared to the others it was a more calming vibe.”

The mellow approach — as well as the conservative plan for Neilson’s development — is just one way in which Caleb and Alex Fairly hope to upend the market for rider representation. More than 100 licensed agents currently work in pro cycling, negotiating contracts with teams and sponsors. Operating away from the limelight, these men do their work in hotel lobbies and cafes, and on long-distance conference calls. Their payment is a 10 percent commission on each deal.

The marketplace is imperfect, and top-heavy. A handful of powerful agents controls the majority of pro riders. Star athletes receive preferential treatment, while working-class riders receive less attention. And the frustrating structure of contracts and team expectations limits how an agent can function.

That’s where the Fairlys believe they can do better.

“In general, there’s just a lack of sophistication and understanding,” Caleb says. “And [agents] deal with these critical points of a rider that could have a lasting impact on how their world works.”

Neilson Powless is relying on the Fairly Group to guide his blossoming career. Photo: Casey B. Gibson | www.cbgphoto.com
Neilson Powless is relying on the Fairly Group to guide his blossoming career. Photo: Casey B. Gibson | www.cbgphoto.com

AMERICAN POPULAR CULTURE has delivered a rich portrait of sports agents, thanks in part to film “Jerry McGuire,” the HBO series “Ballers,” and the public exploits of MLB super-agent Scott Boras.

In cycling, rider agents fill a vaguely similar role, but with several important variances. Show me the money? Hardly. The WorldTour’s minimum salary is around $40,000 per year, and few top-end riders earn more than $1 million, which means an agent’s take wouldn’t even register in the worlds of pro football or baseball. Riders can also forget about lucrative personal endorsements, since team sponsorships regularly supersede individual deals.

Finally, cycling’s transfer market is static compared to baseball or soccer. Teams cannot trade riders for one another; so cycling agents do not focus on transfer opportunities. “We are nothing different than a lawyer or an accountant,” says Martijn Berkhout of the Amsterdam-based SEG Group, which represents Bauke Mollema and Sep Vanmarcke, among others. “In football there is a transfer market, so you are always searching for that golden ticket. In cycling it is about the contract.”

It wasn’t always this way. In fact, agents are a relatively new piece of the cycling marketplace. Through the 1980s, most professional riders negotiated their own salaries, or enlisted a family lawyer or accountant to peruse a contract before signing. Only the sport’s marquee riders enlisted the help of professional agents with experience in soccer, skiing, or other sports.

BMC manager Jim Ochowicz, who operated the 7-Eleven team in the 1980s, says only two riders on his squad had agents: Davis Phinney and Steve Bauer. “I encouraged all of my guys to at least have a lawyer read their contract before signing,” Ochowicz says, “because I had a lawyer reading my contract.”

In the early to mid-1990s more professional riders began enlisting the help of agents to not just oversee contracts but to network with team managers for jobs. Cycling-specific agencies began to pop up, and by the mid 2000s, only a handful of professional riders negotiated their own contracts.

Baden Cooke, who won the 2003 green jersey at the Tour de France, says he was one of the few riders who acted as his own agent. After four years, however, he eventually hired representation. “Representing yourself is easy when you’re going good on the bike,” says Cooke, who now operates his own agency. “When you need a manager is when you’re going shit — that’s when most guys figure out they need one.”

The agent market continues to expand. Where riders traditionally worked only with agents of similar nationalities, they are now starting to branch out as the agency system becomes more global. And agents now sign riders when they are in the junior or U23 ranks, promising to help them gain entrée into the sport’s upper echelon.

On paper, an agent’s job appears relatively straightforward. They network with teams to figure out which squad is hiring, and then pitch their riders to team managers. Next, they negotiate a salary and help a rider understand a contract. Finally, they help a rider decide whether or not to sign. Some agents also manage riders’ individual finances, from balancing checkbooks to paying bills. Most agents, at some point, also act as a career coach and personal confidant.

“If the rider is not performing, that makes our job very complicated,” Berkhout says. “If you have a star of cycling, then your job is to take the maximum for that guy, and you cannot make mistakes.”

According to most agents interviewed for this story, salary talks are the easiest part of the job. For marquee riders, the contracts get markedly richer than the team’s initial offer, depending on an agent’s negotiating strengths. But for mid- to low-tier riders, the price rarely fluctuates more than $10,000. “It’s fairly well-known how much [a rider] is worth,” Ochowicz says.

THE RELATIVELY STREAMLINED WORKLOADS of cyclists’ agents allow them take on more clients than they would in other sports, which they have to do, as the sport’s smaller contracts force them to make up the difference in volume. Thus, cycling’s representation landscape looks like an upside down pyramid. At the top are the select few who represent dozens of riders, including the stars of the sport. Belgium’s Cielo Sport Image represents Tom Boonen, Greg Van Avermaet, and 70 or so other riders. Irish agent Andrew McQuaid’s Trinity Sports Management works with Taylor Phinney, Richie Porte, among others, and Italy’s Carera brothers, Alessandro and Johnny, represent Vincenzo Nibali and many more.

“By representing a lot of riders, we know exactly what’s going on in the marketplace,” says Dries Smets, of Cielo Sports. “We know what teams want, and they tell us, because we represent the important riders. As a bigger agency we have lawyers, contract specialists, and others to focus on our athletes.”

At latest count, the UCI has registered 116 rider agents to work within pro cycling. There are an uncounted number of other agents who operate in the sport without UCI accreditation. That means most agencies are individuals or boutique firms who work with small groups of riders.

But bigger doesn’t always mean better, as larger firms present their own problems. The primary complaint is that they focus their attention on marquee riders, while neglecting low- to mid-level riders. Agents will reach out to a rider during contract season, but do little to no work during the rest of the year. Riders complain about the treatment in private, but shy away from making public complaints, fearing a backlash from agents. “It’s like a tax that you have to pay to be in the sport,” says one rider who formerly worked with a big agency. “Everybody just kind of agrees to it.”

The negotiating tactics of the larger firms are also a topic of contention, especially for lower-tier riders. According to agents and team managers, some of the big agencies simply hand a team director a list of clients, and then ask the director if any are of interest. There are also plenty of allegations of agents offering package deals — a manager agrees to take multiple riders from the same agent at a discounted price.

“Athletes think their agent has their best interests in mind, and it turns out they’re doing backroom deals. You hear this stuff every year,” says João Correia of Corso Sports Marketing, an agency he co-founded after retiring from pro racing in 2010. “Athletes get less money because you’re placing four other guys on the same team, and the agent is never going to tell them.”

Smets shrugs off the complaints as erroneous. He says the bigger agencies like Cielo employ multiple junior agents and employees to work with riders, so nobody should feel neglected. Package deals occasionally occur, but only with the largest riders in the sport, who sometimes ask for teammates, personal mechanics, or soigneurs to be included in a deal.

Smets says his company rejects package deals on principle. “We’ve had cases where a rider asks to bring a friend — we have asked the team in that case, but we never push it,” Smets says. “We look at the rider and optimize the position.”

Caleb Fairly is moving on from his pro racing career, but he won't be leaving the cycling community. Photo: Tim De Waele | TDWsport.com (File).
Caleb Fairly is moving on from his pro racing career, but he won’t be leaving the cycling community. Photo: Tim De Waele | TDWsport.com (File).

CALEB FAIRLY SAYS HIS interactions with agents during his career ranged from disappointing to downright maddening. He doesn’t divulge which agents represented him during his career, but says he worked with both large and small agencies. “My experience ended up being similar each time,” Fairly says.

Fairly’s single UCI victory came at the 2011 Tour of the Battenkill, where he dropped Floyd Landis en route to the win. A podium finish at that year’s Giro di Toscana showed that he had the intuition and legs to compete in European races. His pro career included stints with the Garmin – Transitions development team, HTC – High Road, Spidertech, Garmin – Sharp, and finally Giant – Alpecin.

Like most domestiques, Fairly often found himself hunting for a job. During those periods, he says, his agents routinely kept him in the dark, misled him, or failed to live up to their promises. Often, the agents told him nobody wanted to hire him. “These guys would do the contract and then you don’t hear from them,” Fairly says. “There’s no service or communication beyond that. It was a low level of follow-through.”

Fairly says that on multiple occasions, he and his father sidestepped his agents entirely, reaching out to teams themselves to secure a job. Sometimes they discovered that the agent had never even contacted the team on Caleb’s behalf. On one occasion, Caleb says his agent told him the team wasn’t interested in him. After reaching out to the team director, Caleb learned that the agent had simply promoted a different rider to the team.

In every instance, the agent was upset that Caleb and Alex had taken matters into their own hands. After years of this pattern, Caleb decided he could do better. His father says the experiences weighed heavily on his son, who wanted to simply focus on racing and training. So when Caleb told his father in 2014 that he planned to someday launch an agent business, Alex says it made sense. “I had seen [Caleb] be so frustrated with the level of representation and this passion welling up in him over the years,” Alex says. “I was surprised he hadn’t gone this route sooner.”

Caleb says his vision for the business focused on righting the wrongs he had experienced. A rider deserved to have consistent communication with his agent, not just emails and text messages during contract time. A rider deserved a contract that allowed for personal ownership of image and data rights, which could create opportunities for more individual sponsorships. And a rider deserved an agent who was, at times, willing to push back on cycling’s antiquated commercial arrangements. Offering that level of support, however, would limit the number of clients. Caleb capped it at 10.

“They didn’t promise me the moon. They just asked me to consider looking at cycling in a new way.”
– Andrew Talansky

Caleb chose his father as a business partner for both emotional and pragmatic reasons. Alex Fairly is president of the Fairly Group, one of the world’s largest insurance companies in the sports and entertainment world. Its clients include the National Football League, Major League Baseball, the National Hockey League, and Major League Soccer, and even Paramount Studios. “There is some business nuance I can help Caleb along with,” Alex says. “I have a 25-year history of negotiating deals.”

In May the Fairlys launched Fairly Sports Consulting, with Caleb as its president. The company is a subsidiary of the Fairly Group, meaning the parent company’s resources in contract negotiation, sports marketing, and even legal advice are all available to Caleb’s company. Currently, both Caleb and Alex are partners, but Alex envisions his role diminishing in the future.

After its launch, Caleb began building his portfolio. Their first client was German sprinter John Degenkolb, a former teammate on Giant – Alpecin. In July, news circulated that Degenkolb would join Trek – Segafredo in 2017 for an undisclosed sum of money.

The Fairlys’ other early singing was American rider Andrew Talansky, another former teammate. Talansky says he and his wife had developed a friendship with Caleb and his wife in Girona, their adopted European hometown, and the two riders often found themselves complaining about the sport’s commercial side.

After his disappointing 2015 campaign, which saw him finish 11th at the Tour de France after several months of illness, Talansky says he wanted to rethink his emotional and commercial approach to cycling. One day, he hopped on a call with Caleb and Alex to talk about his options.

Like Caleb, Talansky says his previous agents frustrated him. His primary complaint was the inability to transform his strong results into personal endorsements. After winning the Critérium du Dauphiné in 2014, for example, Talansky says he assumed the result would bring in more sponsor cash. It didn’t.

“It showed me that I was woefully underprepared to capitalize on those opportunities,” Talansky says. “[The agents] I worked with said they were doing the best job they could. The problem is, their best job wasn’t good enough.”

Talansky says he was immediately impressed by Alex Fairly’s broad knowledge of sports business, and Caleb’s perspective on cycling. Like the Powless family, Talansky says the Fairlys did not pressure him to sign with them. Instead, they just kept the conversation going.

“They didn’t promise me the moon,” Talansky says. “They just asked me to consider looking at [cycling] in a new way.”

TALANSKY’S QUEST FOR OUTSIDE sponsorship highlights the sport’s most frustrating commercial hurdle for cyclists: image and data rights. Like other professional athletes, a pro rider has the potential to be a walking billboard for sponsorships. But when he joins a team, he signs away these rights to the squad, meaning the team controls the majority of his potential sponsor opportunities. Thus, a rider has limited opportunities to sign personal endorsements.

“Riders should not be left out of the discussion about such an important topic,” Caleb Fairly says. “Up to now, they aren’t even allowed at the table.”

In cycling, the various sponsorships — bike, apparel, helmets, components, and title sponsorships — fund the team. Riders are unable to sign endorsement deals for any of those products. Often times, larger personal endorsements are unavailable because they conflict with a team sponsor. Let’s say an agent for a rider on Team Movistar signs a lucrative personal sponsorship with Volkswagen. Sorry, Movistar already has a team deal with Volvo.

Historically, riders have been given some leeway to seek out small deals with sunglasses brands, shoe manufacturers, and local or regional banks or insurance companies. For a typical professional, however, these deals rarely pay more than $10,000 apiece. Beyond that, however, most riders must subscribe to the team’s requests for rights.

“There are a few athletes who can dictate the market — Lance, Contador, Sagan,” Correia says. “Everybody else has a contract that is pretty standard.”

Even the UCI’s traditional contract for remunerated riders includes a clause regarding personal endorsements: “The Rider may not, for the duration of the present contract, ride for any other team or advertise for any other sponsors than those belonging to the UCI Team [name of team],” it reads.

Both Caleb and Alex Fairly say they want to loosen image rights restrictions for their riders, to open up more opportunities for personal endorsements. They say they have a plan for developing more opportunities to monetize these rights, but they decline to provide details.

Their plan, however, starts with inking marquee riders to give them the clout to push for change.

“A rider’s personal data is his, and the fact that it should be fiercely protected is a topic that desperately needs a champion,” Caleb says. “We intend to be a voice for all riders related to this issue.”

Other agents also see image rights as a new frontier that is open for negotiation. Michael T. Spencer, the vice president for action and Olympic sports for Wasserman Media Group — which is a major agency in the NBA, Major League Baseball, and international soccer — says he would like to see cycling adopt a motocross-style model, where the teams split rights with the rider. In that sport, agents often carve out sponsorship opportunities from the team. “It starts with taking rights back from the teams — right now they control almost everything,” Spencer says. “We’re trying to break down a few barriers.”

Whether team managers will surrender the image rights is yet to be seen. Ochowicz said he’s never been asked to forfeit image rights during a rider negotiation. He believes riders should focus on training and racing, rather than on inking sponsorships. “A rider is getting paid to race his bike, not sell soap,” Ochowicz says.

“A rider’s personal data is his, and the fact that it should be fiercly protected is a topic that desperately needs a champion.”
– Caleb Fairly

Agents interviewed for this story expressed doubt for the Fairly’s plan to negotiate image rights. Some agents admitted that they rarely, if ever, attempted to wrestle the rights away during the contract negotiation. A team’s control of the rights is simply a part of cycling’s business structure. The primary focus is the salary, after all.

Smets, who says American riders are often more focused on image rights and endorsements than their European counterparts, says he has pushed back on team managers for image rights, but that often meant sacrificing salary. “If you’re going to push for [image rights] for a no-name rider and you don’t end up selling the sponsorship, then it has been useless,” Smets says. “You realize that the [image rights] are the only assets that the team has to sell.”

Caleb Fairly says he’s happy that other agents don’t push for image rights for their clients. After all, this could become a selling point for his business. “That’s why riders feel underrepresented,” Fairly says. “The agents think they are asking for too much.”

THE SECOND REST DAY of the Tour de France is where an agent’s months of work are transformed into either a paycheck or heartbreak. Every year, the sport’s power brokers meet in the lobby of an undisclosed hotel in France. Agents mingle with team managers in short, 15-minute mini meetings. Jobs are on the line, so the mood of the room is friendly, but tense.

Baden Cooke says that during this day, he crosses paths with former managers, his ex-agents, former teammates, and other men he has known for years. Cycling is a small sport, after all.

“It’s like musical chairs with people you know,” Cooke says. “You’re kind of rivals with these guys, but you have respect for them because you have history with everybody.”

Since January, a typical agent has worked as a detective, peering into the inner workings of professional teams through a variety of channels. Ex-teammates, former mechanics, friends, sponsor liaisons — anyone with knowledge of which riders will return, which riders will leave, and how many jobs will be open.

Now, at the Tour de France, the goal is to create a handshake deal and maybe even get something in writing, to secure a job for the following year. After all, roster spots are filling up fast.

“I don’t sleep at night if I miss a deal,” Cooke says. “I lie in bed trying to figure out how to find my guy a job.”

This small, intimate scene – and the backend relationships that bring these men into the same room each year — may be the most challenging obstacle standing in the way of Caleb and Alex Fairly. It’s no secret that cycling is a small, intimate sport, where relationships go back decades and a handful of powerful men steer the commercial side. Caleb has plenty of contacts within the sport from his own racing career. Whether he can leverage those contacts into contracts, however, could make or break his practice.

The sport’s conservative attitude toward change will also factor into the Fairlys’ goals. The sport’s movers and shakers are infamously hesitant to upend the apple cart. After all, the sport has carried on with its various financial structures for decades.

“You’re dealing with a fragmented and conservative sport,” Correia says. “Bringing new ideas in isn’t always a reality.”
The agents interviewed for this story said the sport has a long history of upstart agents who entered the marketplace with new energy and new ideas, only to quit or become part of the establishment. In fact, the origin story for every agent interviewed for this story — including Dries Smets — includes a mention of wanting to bring about positive change for riders.

Caleb Fairly says he likes his chances. By his calculus, if he was disenchanted by cycling’s representation market, then other riders must feel the same way too.

“Agents think riders expect too much,” Fairly says. “They’re right.”

Related Articles