At a time when many sports agents are getting squeezed out by mega-agencies with Shaquille O'Neal's mass and New York Yankee-like resources, a small Indianapolis firm is becoming a real player.
A curious experiment launched in August 2001 by local law firm Ice Miller has become a profitable venture despite long odds and a slow start.
"It's fair to say that launching this effort has been harder than we thought," said IM Sports Services LLC Chairman John R. Thornburgh. "After the first year ... we had to take a hard look at the investment we were making and decide if we wanted to continue."
Despite numerous business reasons to fold, Thornburgh said there was one compelling reason to continue to play out the high-stakes gamble: IMSS' president, Andrew "Buddy" Baker.
"In the end, we were convinced Buddy would do whatever it took to be successful," Thornburgh said.
Those within the NFL and NBA call Baker an up-and-coming agent. He got eight players drafted in the 2005 NFL draft, and this year signed his first bigtime NBA prospect.
"We've grown completely by referrals, and I think that says something about the way we do business," Baker said.
In 2001, Ice Miller partners interviewed 40 people before hiring Baker, a Long Island native and graduate of Purdue University and Indiana University School of Law.
About half of all professional sports agents are not attorneys. Ice Miller partners insisted on an attorney to lead IMSS, Thornburgh said, so he would understand the ethics that guided a typical law firm.
"We have a nearly 100-year-old law firm," Thornburgh said. "We didn't want to jeopardize our reputation with some of the shenanigans that go on in this industry."
But there was something else Ice Miller sought: an entrepreneurial spirit.
Instead of punching a clock, Baker, 34, worked long hours in the office and traveled the country looking for prospects. He leaned on his contacts made while a student manager for Purdue's basketball team.
Baker signed University of Illinois basketball coach Bruce Webber, a former Purdue assistant, when he was coach at Southern Illinois University. And he signed former Purdue player Matt Painter, who took over for Webber at SIU and is now head coach at Purdue.
Baker also made the bold move of getting into football and basketball.
"There's so much to know and it's so time-intensive, most agents or even agencies will focus on a single sport," said Milt Thompson, president of Grand Slam Cos., a locally based sports marketing consultancy.
Baker uses IMSS' ethical stance as a major selling point to prospective clients and their families. IMSS refuses to work with any athlete who leaves school early. Baker also does not use runners-independent gobetweens often contracted by agents to make contacts with collegiate athletes.
Justin Green, a 2005 fifth-round selection of the NFL's Baltimore Ravens, said he immediately noticed IMSS was different.
"I was approached by other agents, but Buddy quickly became a friend," Green said. "We've established a relationship where they help me beyond my athletic career. I call them every other day."
IMSS now represents 25 professional football players (18 in the NFL) and 14 basketball players (mostly in European leagues). This summer, the firm landed its first client in the NBA when James Singleton signed with the Los Angeles Clippers.
NFL and NBA agents get 3 percent of the salary of players they represent, plus a cut of endorsements. IMSS officials declined to discuss revenue, but Thornburgh said the firm turned the corner financially in the last year.
"The business of representing NFL players seems to be getting increasingly concentrated," said M.J. Duberstein, with the NFL Players Association research department. "Barely more than 10 percent of all agents represent three of every four players on an active roster."
Grand Slam's Thompson, who formerly represented NBA stars Detlef Schrempf and Rik Smits, said he got out of the business in the late 1990s when he "saw the writing on the wall.
"I saw where the business was headed," Thompson said. "A vertical, very expensive, high-risk venture. The success that Buddy is experiencing is pretty amazing."