The rugby player agent breaking new ground

Kelly Evans has become New Zealand's first female accredited rugby player agent, Steve Deane reports.

Spot the talent, sign them up, play hard ball with ownership, rack up the endorsements, clip the ticket and drive a fast car.

It’s a glamorous business, being a sports agent, if you believe the likes of Hollywood’s 1996 Tom Cruise blockbuster Jerry Maguire.

But the reality isn’t quite so much “show me the money” as “read the fine-print on this contract”.

That’s why, when sports – and rugby in particular - became business back in the mid-1990s in New Zealand, player agents were predominantly lawyers. And male lawyers, at that.

Getting on for 25 years later, the times they are finally a-changin'.

“My business model, the way I go about everything, is all about relationships,” says Kelly Evans – New Zealand’s first and only female accredited rugby player agent.

Evans’ Cultivate Group has a stable of eight clients. Her first, signed in 2012, was track cycling star turned America’s Cup sailor Simon van Velthooven; the keirin bronze medallist from the 2012 Olympics who would go on to power Team New Zealand to America’s Cup glory in 2017 as a ‘cyclor’.

Like many of the athletes who would follow him in signing with Evans, van Velthooven had an existing working relationship with her through her work at Massey University establishing an athlete high performance system.

“She was working at Massey University and I was a student there,” van Velthooven says. “She was always very efficient, a details person, and friendly and courteous as well.

“She let me know that she was going to delve into [sports agency]. I’d just won an Olympic medal and we were both from Palmy. It was the right fit.”

Evens’ gender didn’t enter into his decision, van Velthooven says.

“She did a good job and the timing was perfect. She’s a detailed person and she is there to better the athlete, not herself.”

Built from the “ground up”, Evans’ Massey programme was designed to help student athletes progress both in sport and study. It encompassed emerging athletes through to Super Rugby players who were juggling studies with their professional rugby careers.

“I got to know a number of athletes through that capacity right across the country,” she says.

Evans’ own studies at Massey, a degree in Sport and Exercise, majoring in sports management, were targeted to give her the skills for a career in athlete management.

Gisborne-raised, Evans was a keen surfer, cricketer and dancer, but she never had any aspiration to be an athlete.

“I went into the degree not knowing 100 percent what I wanted to do. I always knew that I enjoyed looking after people and supporting people and being in the sports industry.”

While at Massey she came under tutelage of Dr Farah Palmer – the former Black Ferns captain who would break rugby’s staunchest glass ceiling by becoming a NZ Rugby board member – and many other influential sporting women.

“They really inspired me to go on this path,” she says.

“I started the company and specifically targeted Olympic sports, predominantly because my expertise and understanding was in the legalities and requirements around that.

“Not many Olympic athletes were being looked after and that is where I got into it.”

The move would prove timely. In 2013 a new Olympic cycle began, this time with rugby sevens on the programme for Rio 2016. The prospect of Olympic rugby gold opened the tap for funding from High Performance Sport NZ, in turn opening the door for the professionalisation of women’s rugby.

NZ Rugby’s introduction of full-time professional contracts for Blacks Ferns Sevens players in 2013 created a new market of players who would benefit from representation – many of whom would look favourably upon having a female looking after their interests.

Black Ferns Sevens captain Sarah Goss was the first to sign with Evans, followed by Sevens and 15s superstar Portia Woodman.

“I enjoy working with both male and female athletes,” says Evans. “As a female agent working in the sports industry, I'm immensely passionate about women in sport; in particular, increasing the visibility of women in sport and receiving the profile they deserve.”

But the work - contract negotiations, sponsorships, commercial deals, advocacy, tax advice, media liaison and brand profiling - isn’t exactly glamorous.

Evans isn’t even a fan of Jerry Maguire: “Not at all,” she says.

In October, Evans joined a select list of 16 agents accredited by the New Zealand Rugby Players’ Association. Unlike other sports, where agent accreditation is little more than a registration process, the NZRPA scheme is rigorous.

To be accredited, agents must demonstrate not only knowledge of areas such as contract law, athlete welfare and the global rugby market, but also have significant experience working in the field.

The scheme was established in the late 2000s, partly as an antidote to some of the more nefarious behaviours of rogue ‘agents’ cruising junior rugby events looking to snap up emerging talent.

It isn’t compulsory. Membership serves primarily as a stamp of endorsement from key players within the industry, including New Zealand Rugby.

“It doesn’t mean there aren't other agents working in the market who are not accredited but are good people,” says NZRPA executive Steph Bond. “But our system sets quite a high benchmark so that by the time they have come accredited [an agent] has proven themselves.

“They have got a bit of work under their belts, they understand all the documents, how the contracts work, so that actually we know that those agents will give really good advice to players.”

The list of accredited agents is dominated by the industry’s heavy hitters; the likes of Esportif and CSM Sport and Entertainment, companies that boast large stables of premier All Blacks.

Evans, though, has no pressing desire to elevate Cultivate Group to that status.

“I am only six years into this, running this company on my own,” she says. “I’ve kept it small purposefully.

“Long-term, I’d like to add new clients and new talent, particularly within in the Olympic realm. Obviously, that is cyclical so you have got to look for new talent further down the track.

“At the moment, I’m really happy with Cultivate and where it is. The clients I’m working with are fantastic people. And it is really neat to sort of get to go on that journey with them.

“But, no, I don’t have any grand plans to become a global empire.”

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