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The National Basketball Association’s free agent signing period began in July, tipping off this year’s fast break to grab available talent. One league agent is pleased that in the current market his seven eligible players ended up with $75 million to $80 million in total contracts. If a traditional agent represented these players and took the NBA maximum 4 percent of their deals, the players would pay at least a collective $3 million for the agent’s services. Instead, their hourly-based bills will total approximately $500,000. What sort of sports agent does business by the hour? One working at a law firm. Williams & Connolly’s Lon Babby, who handled the seven free agents in this instance and calls his approach to athlete representation the “Grant Hill model” after his first such client, has used this fee structure to become a prime-time agent. While charging players by the hour is not brand-new, in the increasingly outsized economic environment of top-tier pro sports, Babby’s Washington market rates of around $500 per hour end up being a bargain. Retained by Hill in 1994, Babby now boasts a client roster of 14 additional NBA players, including last season’s league MVP Tim Duncan and 2001 consensus college player of the year Shane Battier, plus a total of 13 players in the Women’s National Basketball Association, and the National Football League’s Rocket Ismail. The current Sporting News roll call of the 100 most powerful people in sports includes Babby, the only firm-practicing attorney on the list, at No. 94. “I didn’t set out to do this,” says Babby, who defended President Ronald Reagan’s shooter, John Hinckley Jr. “I came here to be a litigator.” But after serving as Baltimore Orioles general counsel and regular counsel to the Washington Redskins (both positions were secured through firm founder Edward Bennett Williams), now Babby lives off his knowledge of salary cap exceptions and management machinations and can boast, “I didn’t parachute into this practice.” Battier, a forward with the Memphis Grizzlies, says that choosing Babby was a layup: “It makes sense on all levels. I’m saving a lot of money and surrounding myself with people helping me make the best business decisions.” Associate James Tanner Jr., who spent four years doing securities work in the D.C. office of New York’s Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, came to W&C in 1997 to assist Babby. It’s one headhunter call he’s glad he took. “Lon was looking for someone with a corporate background,” says Tanner, whose duties now run from negotiating Duncan’s restaurant deals to traveling to California to monitor L.A. Clipper Keyon Dooling’s off-season surgery. The two lead attorneys also draw on the support of two corporate and two litigation associates, as well as a former NBA marketing officer hired by W&C (now sporting the slightly less glamorous title of paralegal), another paralegal who manages scheduling and appearance logistics, and a freelance public relations professional. Babby says his team provides the same full service as large sports management companies, with the exception of financial advice. Traditional agents have noticed the publicity Babby and his approach have received, and some don’t believe the hype. “The agents don’t like us,” says Babby, because of his attempt to undercut the market. One basketball agent says that midlevel players earning less money than the superstars and needing much more maneuvering to get signed will pay an agent or lawyer about the same amount over the course of a career — whether billed hourly or as a percentage. The 2002 NBA draft, completed in June, confirmed that Babby’s approach is not for everyone, as no draftees retained W&C. And despite a few notable exceptions, the use of law firm attorneys as registered agents for contract negotiations “has not become very prevalent,” says Ron Klempner, National Basketball Players Association associate general counsel. Attorneys involved in athlete representation point to a number of obstacles its practitioners face, including state bar rules prohibiting solicitation, which can clash with the job’s history of unsavory recruiting tactics. These attorneys also agree that players needing 24/7 hand-holding should not look to law firms, whatever the savings. “We’re in the service business, not the baby-sitting business,” says Weil, Gotshal & Manges’ Jeffrey Klein, who represents a number of current and former Major League Baseball players. Daniel Grigsby of Arnold & Porter’s Century City, Calif., office points out that as counsel to the L.A. Lakers, his firm and others that represent teams and league entities face conflict issues if they represent the players within them. Babby says his team’s work fits in well at W&C, making a nice bookend to partner Robert Barnett’s hourly-based writer and broadcaster representations. Babby also plans to expand his football practice and break into baseball. The wide-open salary structure of the latter sport, he says, will make his approach even more attractive to its players. Babby says he will not change his hourly approach, however, to chase the highest possible percentage of $200 million baseball contracts. “I’m a victim of my own marketing,” he says. The billable hour, long the target of lawyer, client, and consultant criticism, turns out to have a few fans left.

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