‘I Was at a Redskins Game and I Had This Epiphany’
While everyone else is telling nfl players they can walk on water, adisa bakari is telling it to them straight.
‘I’m not coming to them from the vantage of a fan; I’m coming to them very matter-of-factly—concerned for the person behind the jersey—that they need me,’ says Adisa, who counsels professional athletes on contract negotiations, in addition to other aspects of their athletic and post-athletic careers. ‘They know more people from their community who have gone to the league and come home working at high schools and pumping gas, than they do successful business people.’
As the Principal Founder and Chief Executive Officer of The Sports & Entertainment Group, Adisa has been representing NFL players for nearly 20 years. He spent his childhood dreaming he’d be one of them, and entered his freshman year at Delaware State University with plans to pursue either law or football.
‘I realized very quickly that I was not as good an athlete as I thought I was,’ says Adisa, who met his wife on the track field his first semester. ‘I played for three years and then decided to transition away from the sport and focus exclusively on plan B, which was law school.’
After graduation, the native Washingtonian returned to DC and began proving himself as an executive compensation attorney. He dreamt of starting a sports practice one day that could make a positive impact on his community, but found himself deep in the corporate firm life, ‘eating the pie.’
‘I was at a Redskins game, watching Delaware State alum Darnerien McCants play in his Rookie year, and I had this epiphany. I realized that professional athletes were no different than the corporate executives I was representing. It dawned on me that one of the reasons NFL players—and professional athletes across the board—were underrepresented was because the business of the sport hasn’t kept pace with the representation needed. I loved football, it was something that I grew up playing, and now was the time to make the leap to sports.’
With nothing more than a business concept, a ‘barrel full of passion’, and a supportive employer, Adisa signed Darnerien as one of his first clients. By 2006, he had his own firm and was representing the likes of three-time Pro Bowl receiver Maurice Jones-Drew.
Adisa’s practice has been built on a sobering statistic. In the NFL, eight out of 10 players end their careers in financial despair. To understand why, Adisa says you must first understand the history of the sport.
Thirty or 40 years ago, player issues were very streamlined. The money wasn’t there, and without free agency, there wasn’t much to negotiate in a contract. Players were just that; not C-level executives.
But as the popularity of the sport rose, so did players’ salaries. In 1993, the NFL adopted the first collective bargaining agreement, which enabled players to test the market and create a bidding war between teams. Salaries got even higher.
‘By then, the NFL had already surpassed baseball as America’s pastime. Football was America’s everything, but players were getting part-time jobs in the offseason to make ends meet. The players had quickly become executive level people in the sports industry. The type of representation that would ensure their long-term success should have evolved and it didn’t.’
Many of Adisa’s clients come from humble economic beginnings; born into a cycle of poverty. Their families have grown accustomed to it. They can manage poverty. Wealth is another story.
‘There are tricks to being poor, and there are tricks to being wealthy. We explain that you have to learn how to be wealthy to sustain it. The practices utilized for generations to manager your family when you were poor aren’t applicable anymore. For us, there’s nothing more rewarding than being instrumental in seeing a family go from meager beginnings to multiple millions of dollars.’
With the average football career spanning less than four years, most players won’t become the Maurice Jones-Drews of the league. However, Adisa says due to the popularity and influence of the NFL brand, a few years in the league is the equivalent of an additional degree. Players simply need to leverage that time correctly, and follow Adisa’s defined plan for success—leaving very little to chance.
‘Like any young people, these players think they’re invincible and are going to have their abilities forever. I’ve been doing this for almost 20 years now and I’ve seen a lot of horror stories; stories where you can see the player derailing that train, and you wish you could get in front of them. The worst place to take advice is in that locker room. If you heed our advice—and don’t let the celebrity and the lights, as we call them, get too bright—you’ll end up in a good spot.’
Today, that’s exactly where his own firm has ended up. After two decades successfully representing NFL players, The Sports & Entertainment Group expanded into the NBA last year. Baseball and soccer are next.
It’s a career path Adisa’s No. 1 fan always saw coming.
‘Evelyn Elizabeth Pitts, my grandmother who raised me, told me since I could remember, ‘You’re going to be a lawyer.’ I was the youngest of three children so I was given a lot of latitude. I was kind of mouthy and she associated that with being a lawyer.’
Adisa’s grandmother passed away five years ago, but lived to see his success.
‘She saw everything.’