Having not been in the presence of many football agents during my time working in the industry, I was looking forward to speaking to one of the biggest names in this area of the football world: Dr. Erkut Sögüt LL.M.
It’s an area that fascinates me because while much of it is shrouded in secrecy i.e., the ins and outs of a transfer process or the negotiation of a contract, football agents have also been known to hit the headlines when a less-than-favourable situation arises.
So why does a talent agent with such a high-profile reputation and equally high-profile clientele, spend so much time and resources in developing the Football Agent Institute, attending lectures as a guest speaker and putting together his latest project, The Football Agent Masterclass?
“I am an academic myself; I’ve completed three Masters and I also have a Doctorate in Law. I am somebody who loves to educate myself and others. The process of educating someone and seeing their journey is great and it is always something I have been involved in, including through school and university. Teaching has always been a big part of my life and at times, the biggest part of my life. Being a professor is my end goal.”
It is rare to meet somebody with such a continuous passion for learning but somebody who has that passion for himself and for others, is extremely rare. From this first answer, I knew I wasn’t going to be speaking to the type of football agent we see portrayed in the media; there was a lot more to Erkut than being known for negotiating the biggest Premier League contract in history (January 2018). So how has his passion culminated into the development of the Football Agent Institute?
“I wanted to combine my experience of working within the sports business - as a sports lawyer and agent - with teaching. I want to give students access to the opportunities I didn’t have; it is difficult to break into the industry and it took me a long time to get an internship. For the first couple of years of my internship, I felt like I wasn’t learning anything and I thought to myself, ‘One day I am going to offer internships and do it in a different way.’ I want to teach and give young people – anyone who is interested in becoming an agent actually – the opportunity to find a way into the industry.
“When I first came to London - I have been in London for the last eight years – I started working with Charlie (Pentol-Levy, Director at the Football Agent Institute), who was a young, bright kid studying at university at the time. His brother Jack also started working with me; he was an up-and-coming agent. With their help, I knew we could do something special.
“It started with our book, ‘How to Become a Football Agent – The Guide.’ We sat down and thought, ‘How can we share the knowledge we have; where is the best place to start?’ and we came up with the idea to put a book together. It was a great success and we have just released a second edition, which has more information and more guest writers. We have also translated the book into Turkish and right now, we are working on another book project which will be published in German, Turkish and English. We may translate it into Spanish too…
“So the book was the real beginning for us and it opened up many opportunities for me to attend lectures as a guest speaker, which I love to do. I have travelled all over the world to speak, teach and hopefully inspire: Nigeria, Ghana, Los Angeles, Tokyo, Istanbul, Holland, Belgium… a lot of places!
“The book and guest lectures led to people asking me how they could learn more about being a football agent so along came the idea for an online course. It was lockdown so a perfect time to sit down and create it and right now, The Football Agent Masterclass is available to study. It’s been great so far and we have students from all over the world studying it: Saudi Arabia, Australia, India…
“It has been a great way for us to engage with our students and I am also available to them for one-to-one sessions; I listen to them and establish what their goal is. I try to be a mentor for them and help them in their chosen path, whether it is Sports Law, Sports Management, Sports Marketing etc. It’s really nice and I have been able to build great relationships. One student is actually going to be an intern with us in the summer for three months so the online masterclass is potentially opening that door to other students too.
“The first group of students have now finished their six-week course and the feedback is great. It was really important for us to know what the reaction to the course would be and I am really happy with what we have heard.”
For aspiring football agents, knowing that one of the biggest agents in the football industry has created a course, must be a fantastic thing to hear. To then hear that students have the opportunity to connect with Erkut and arrange a one-to-one session with him, must be the icing on the cake. I wonder just how many students Erkut connects with outside of the live session he hosts once a month?
“Tomorrow, I have a one-to-one Zoom session with a student in Amsterdam and on Wednesday, another student from London is meeting with me for a coffee and last week, a student from Durham University came to visit me. I try my best to help and meet with students as much as I can. I am supposed to be travelling to Tanzania to teach at the university there and one of our masterclass students is from Tanzania so I will be connecting with them while I am there too.
“Becoming an online masterclass student isn’t the same as becoming a student of other online courses, it’s becoming part of a mentorship group and having the opportunity to meet myself and the team; it opens up the real-world of a football agency. There is a lot to learn, watch, listen and read.
“We also have an alumni group, which is great and students from all over the world are talking to each other. For example, an agent in Australia is connecting with an agent in the USA. We also have students in Atlanta, Oklahoma and San Francisco and they are now networking with each other too. It’s a really important element of the course because networking is one of the core businesses of being an agent.
“I also set tasks. In the live session I have with them every month, I give them a task to complete over that month.”
It amazes me that Erkut finds the time to be so actively involved in each and every project; there are certainly no ‘box-ticking’ exercises. With a wealth of high-profile clients and an online course that is proving incredibly popular, it is both surprising and impressive that he dedicates so much of his time to each and every venture.
“I have to make sure I plan my day, plan ahead and manage my time. For example, I have a face-to-face meeting at 5pm today, a Zoom meeting at 7pm with somebody in Australia and another Zoom meeting at 8pm with somebody in the USA. I love it though and I have always worked a lot. I have a passion to share with others and I want to share my knowledge and experience. It makes me happy to do that, seeing students becoming good agents; it brings me joy.”
Moving away from the Football Agent Institute for a moment, I was keen to ask Erkut about the wider perception of football agents. As an outsider to the agents’ network, I am aware that it’s a role with little positive public recognition and, even when a good deal is made and there is general excitement around a player’s transfer, the response to the player’s agent’s involvement is usually, ‘I wonder what his percentage is?’ There is most definitely a perception of football agents that is built around money and reputation, rather than being seen as industry professionals who want to manage and develop talent.
“In any business, there are good people, bad people, good professionals and bad professionals. I think people have the same perception of football agents as they do with lawyers. However, lawyers don’t receive the negativity so much because many of them work in an industry that isn’t in the media like football is; there isn’t the interest in creating a story. The media is so interested in football; it’s always there and it will never go away.
“Agents are easy targets for a negative story. There could be five hundred agents, four hundred and fifty of them doing a great job and fifty not and the news will pick up on the fifty because it will sell a story. It’s better for them to say, ‘The agent acted like this, treated the player poorly and the club poorly...’ That’s the type of news that sells, unfortunately. The good news from an agent, who has perhaps been looking after a player for ten years, helping them create their career etc., nobody will want to read about that. So the media is one reason as to why there is a lot of negative information out there about football agents.
“The second point is that, there is no education for agents; the entry level is very easy. At the moment, you don’t need to pass an exam, you just register yourself with the FA. It shouldn’t be that easy for somebody to represent another person’s career. However, the good news is that it is changing next year; FIFA is changing the process (Erkut is a member of FIFA’s Intermediary Commission). So in 2022, to become an agent there will be a barrier in the form of an exam and a wider education. Professionalising the process will hopefully help to change the perception of agents.
“It is also important to know that, there are two types of agents: club agents and player agents. Football clubs can use agents for deals but nobody talks about them, everybody talks about the agent that represents the player. But there are many agents who are protected by football clubs, receiving money and their names do not come out publicly.”
It’s interesting to hear Erkut discuss this point because it affects him personally. What is most interesting is that he talks about the negative perception with concern but not frustration, which seems like a surprising but mature approach to dealing with it. I’m not sure I would be so unmoved if I had to contend with public opinion on a daily basis, especially if a lot of the time, those opinions were wrong. But that sense of maturity is likely to be just one of the reasons as to why he is so successful in the football industry and in demand by aspiring agents and educational providers. I wonder whether managing the current negative perception is something he teaches his students?
“100%. Also, one of the first things I teach our students is to not go into a ‘dodgy deal’. The money may be there and the deal itself lucrative but agents can get used by club officials to get money in and out, to receive kickbacks really. Unfortunately, if an agent really needs the money, they may go for that type of deal but I will always tell them to wait and not go for the money because there is a good chance the deal is there because they are going to be used by others. I tell them to sit and wait for the right deal. A lot of people think an agent is going to make millions of dollars or pounds tomorrow and have a great life but it doesn’t work like that; no business runs like that.
“It takes years and years to establish yourself, create clients and make money. For anybody who wants to be an agent, they need to know that it takes years of commitment and hard work to be successful.”
It’s a sensible point to make as generally speaking, those who have an interest in football will know that we are led to believe that a football agent’s life is full of glitz and glamour. I look down at my notes and realise the next question is probably a bit of an irrelevant one, as it has been quickly evident as to what makes the Football Agent Institute unique. Still, I wonder what Erkut’s thoughts are on this?
“We are in the business and doing deals all of the time. Essentially, we are an agency who are doing deals but educating others while we do it.
“We are not just an education company where students can learn theory, we are a business that can offer both theory and practical; it’s the real world. If a student comes into our office, they will probably see a football player or a coach or somebody within the football industry there; it’s a real-life learning opportunity for them.
“They are also learning directly from me while I am actively working as an agent and am on the FIFA commission; I am in the business. That’s the real difference between us and other institutions, the inside, one-to-one knowledge that we can offer.”
It is certainly an enviable learning experience for aspiring football agents. But what is it that students should be aware of before embarking on the career path of being a football agent and what do they need to know before enrolling into The Football Agent Masterclass?
“A lot of students think that they will never break through; they can’t even imagine it. But if you already have a negative thought about something, success will never happen. The negative thought means you are blocking yourself and your future. There are lots of young people who are passionate about being an agent but they won’t try it because of this negative thought. But you have to try things out and experience the real world if there is something you really want to do. I have a lot of students that once they have studied with us, they say, ‘Wow! We thought this business was something completely different.’
“I also make them into talent agents, not football agents. The Football Agent Masterclass is focused on football at the core but ultimately, an agent represents talent. So somebody can study this course and be able to represent a cricket player or a rugby player, for example. I show them everything to do with managing talent and I bring them away from the fact that I am a football agent. I am a sports agent, or a talent agent, a talent representative or a talent mentor. The name isn’t really an important factor, especially as the title ‘football agent’ can be seen in a negative way, as we have discussed.
“They should also ask students who have studied the course already; ask them what they learned and whether they enjoyed it. That’s important.
“Also, as we have spoken about, they should know that they will have access to the practical world of being an agent, along with one-to-one sessions with me. We are not running a typical online course; we have a blended course really.
“I have young agents who have learnt from me for years. For example, Jack (Pentol-Levy) is managing Family & Football in England; he is pretty much doing that on his own and I just oversee it all. There have been many young agents who have come to me, have learnt a lot and are now either doing it themselves or working with me in the Family Football Group.”
It’s an inspiring set-up and more generally, just nice to hear that Erkut has guided young agents into achieving their own successes. Moving into something more serious, I want to ask Erkut about the effects that recent events have brought into the profession of a football agent. It seems fitting to ask how the pandemic has affected the role of an agent but I was also keen to hear his thoughts on how Brexit has and will affect the role, especially in regard to the movement of players.
“In terms of Covid, we are more available than before because everyone is at home 24/7. Before, we were travelling a lot and it would take one or two days just to travel somewhere. So now, we are more available and it has shown us that we don’t have to make every trip; some things can be done over the phone or at home on Zoom meetings. My mindset has changed. Previously, I would be prepared to be somewhere physically whereas now I ask, ‘Do I need to be there?’ It saves a lot of time and energy to work from home so in that sense, Covid has helped in making that side of being a football agent better.
“With Brexit, I think it will affect youth players more. However, it’s important to know that England has always been different to other countries when it comes to football. Even when England were in the European Union, it was still more difficult for a football player to come to England than it was for somewhere like Germany, Italy or Spain. England has always had special rules and football players would always need a visa so I don’t think Brexit will make it any more difficult; it was already difficult! I think English youth players will have an advantage, definitely between the age bracket of sixteen and eighteen years old. Previously, a player from Germany for example, could come to England at sixteen years of age but now, he has to wait until he is eighteen. So it will help English youth players; they will have less competition from outside of the UK and this should make it easier for them to break into the first team.”
It’s difficult to work in the rollercoaster that is the football industry, especially when trying to educate aspiring students. Sport is intrinsically linked with so many external factors, whether it be political, social, financial… there are so many governing bodies, organisations and political decisions that can impact the way in which the industry is run. It therefore, would be fair to assume that Erkut and the Football Agent Institute has to be reactive and flexible to adapt their courses and teaching to the often-instantaneous changes in the world of football.
“Of course, we were just discussing the European Super League on our last live session. I also give my course members updates about the business, including what they should look into and learn in advance. I would like to run a seminar on how to pass the FIFA exam when it eventually comes out. It would most likely be a weekend seminar and specifically for people who have worked as an agent for the last ten years or so. Those agents will be experienced and knowledgeable but as of 2022, will need to pass the FIFA exam as this area of the industry becomes professionalised.”
It’s going to be a key change in the football agency world and one that Erkut is sure to be actively involved in, both with the Football Agent Institute and in his role as an active football intermediary. But are there any other projects currently in the pipeline?
“As I mentioned, we have the book project and of course we have work ongoing with the masterclass. We will also be running our annual summit, which we held virtually last year.”
And what about further online courses, or is the masterclass course enough for now, given it is still in its infancy?
“There are no plans for further courses right now. Next year, I may look at more specific courses such as, ‘How to Negotiate a Football Contract’ or, ‘How to do a Transfer Deal in Europe.’ I would look to discuss such areas in finer detail. It would probably be a two-day online course. Those smaller but more detailed courses are something I would like to work on, especially in the law side of the industry.”
So, we have covered what the Football Agent Institute has happening right now and briefly spoken about the short-term plans for potential courses, upcoming seminars and the new book project but what is Erkut’s long-term goal? Is there one or is the current success and pace something that he is happy to just see continue?
“Having a football university, as a professor.”
“I want to continue my studies for the next couple of years and then hopefully, in five or six-years’ time, I want to have a football agent university or a sports agent university. I would look to take just thirty or forty students each year and it would be a full-time, one year Master’s programme. Hopefully, I will do it!”
I have a feeling he just might…
Back to the book, which Erkut had mentioned at the beginning of the interview. I was keen to learn a little more about the content as after all, it seems like the most appropriate starting point for aspiring football agents to begin their educational pathway with the Football Agent Institute.
“One of the key parts of the book is how to register as an agent; how that procedure works. I also have a lot of experts contributing to it. For example, we have a contribution from İIhan Gündogan, who is the Uncle of İIkay Gündogan. We also have a contribution from Pep Guardiola’s brother, Pere Guardiola; Joachim Löw’s agent; Lukas Podolski’s agent; a journalist from the New York Times and Daniel Geey (one of the UK’s most highly respected sports lawyers). All areas of the industry are detailed in the book and each chapter has an expert contributing to it.
“We look at the whole development: registration process, working with youth players and professional players; building a player’s after career; working with the media; creating players as a brand… all of the areas involved with being a player agent are covered.
“But the most important thing about the book is to show people that they can be an agent too.”
I’ve reached the end of my questions but I feel like I have only scratched the surface of Erkut’s career and the plans for the Football Agent Institute. In fact, I have every intention of purchasing their book, ‘How to Become a Football Agent’ to read myself. I have no plans to be a football agent and I am certain it would be a role I would be incredibly dreadful at but Erkut has sparked an interest to learn more about an area of the industry that is so important but often misjudged. I ask Erkut if there is anything he wants to add before leaving him to prepare for the three other meetings he has in his diary today.
“The Football Agent Institute is not an institute; it’s more personal than that. We are based in Central London, above a coffee shop - which we also own - and our office feels like a university. We want to help anybody who is interested in becoming an agent, anybody who wants an insight into this area but we also want to make the learning process as easy as possible for them.
“Overall, I want to get the passion out of students and move them in the right direction. Ten years ago, we had students from Germany visiting our office, having just graduated in law. They told me they wanted to become an agent because of me; I had given them the passion and push they needed. It was great to hear. They are now agents in Germany and making a lot of money! One of the agents spoke to a newspaper in Germany recently and mentioned me again. That recognition is really nice for me to hear because if I am helping people, I am happy.
“It is the feedback from students that keeps me going really.”