When Jimmy Sexton signed his first contract as a sports agent, it was 1984 and his client, who also happened to be his college roommate Reggie White, became the highest paid professional football player at that time.
White’s five-year contract with the Memphis Showboats of the United States Football League was worth $4 million. Today, an offer of that size would be downright offensive to most elite professional football players.
Salary growth is only one of the many parts of professional sports that has totally changed in the 30 years that Sexton has been working as a sports agent. Today, his clients include many of college football’s highest paid coaches, as well as a number of the NFL’s top players.
Sexton went to the University of Tennessee (the other UT) in the early 80s where he served as an equipment manager for the football team. He doesn’t have the education credentials you’d expect to see on the resume of one of the most successful sports agents of all time—he didn’t major in sports management, mostly because that really wasn’t a thing in the early 80s, and he never went to law school.
As Sexton tells it, he just got lucky: his college roommate happened to be one of the best defensive lineman of all time. But more likely the secret to his success can be found in something he said toward the end of a talk he gave for the University of Texas’ Center for Sports Leadership & Innovation on April 5.
“My deal is about building relationships, and if you build the right kind of relationships, you can be successful at whatever you do,” Sexton said, addressing a room of CSLi fellows, UT students and members of the public.
Although he’s known as a great negotiator, Sexton’s true superpower lies his ability to build trust with his clients and the people on the other side of the negotiating table, the athletic directors, team owners and general managers.
“We go back to the same people over and over and over again to do business,” Sexton explained. “There are 32 general managers in the NFL. There are 60 to 70 Power Five schools in college football. If you have the attitude as a negotiator that you’re trying to get over on the guy you’re negotiating with, sooner or later he’s just going say, I’m not dealing with that guy anymore. But if you go into the negotiation with the attitude, hey look, he’s got some things on his side of the table that are important to him, we’ve got some things that are important to us. Let’s see if we can marry those in a way that we come up with an agreement that works for everybody.”
That philosophy has earned Sexton a glowing reputation in the football world and has helped him weather the many changes that have rocked the sports industry in the past 30 years.
One of the development that has had a big effect on his role as an agent is the shift from former coaches manning the general manager and athletic director posts to trained lawyers and economists filling those roles.
“For 10 or 15 years, agents had it made because you were negotiating against people in pro sports that were former coaches who just wanted players on the field,” Sexton said. “Now you’re negotiating against people who are Harvard lawyers, they’re leaving big-time firms to come work for these teams, and their job is to manage that cash flow.”
Sexton may have gotten lucky to get his big break, but since then, he’s mentored and employed many young people looking for their chance. The things that Sexton highlighted as qualities he looks for in potential employees served as a valuable takeaway for the aspiring agents, coaches and team managers in the audience.
He told the story of one young man in particular who played the long game. As a junior in high school, this young man already knew he wanted to be an agent, and when Sexton finally acquiesced to his repeated requests and allowed him to come into the Creative Artists Agency office for an afternoon, he stayed all night, fetching dinner and filing papers and offering a hand to anyone on staff who needed it. And he kept coming back, day after day, sticking around as long as there were people still in the office, which was almost always far past five o’clock.
“He was so over-the-top aggressive, and not in a bad way, in a good way of wanting to help and do anything he could,” Sexton said, “and that’s the one thing I’ve always used as an example to my people.”
What else can a young person aspiring to build a career in sports do to stand out in the crowd? Volunteer. Get a job in the athletic department. Early in your career, accept any opportunity to get your foot in the door, even if it isn’t your dream job and it doesn’t pay very well.
“If I told you all what I made my first, second and third year in this business, you would laugh,” Sexton said. “But I’ve always said this. Every single person that I’m with now, when I listen to their story, if they started out with a great offer at 22 or 23 making big money off the bat, they usually plateau really fast in that area, but if they started out really scraping trying to get by they usually were into something that was going to work for them long-term. There’s no scientific research that backs that up, that’s just been my history with it.”
This year, 1,700 young people applied for internships in the football division of CAA, which Sexton runs. The competition to break in to the sports industry is fierce, but those in attendance for Sexton’s talk at the University of Texas now have a secret weapon on their side. The words of football’s most powerful agent inspiring them and challenging them to make it happen.
“I never thought I was the smartest guy in the room. I never thought I had all the answers,” Sexton said. “But I always felt like the only thing I can control is how hard I work, and if I can out-work the next guy, then I’ve got a chance. If he’s smarter than me, but at 5 o’clock, he’s going to want to go home but I’ll stay ’til 10, make the extra phone call or write the extra letter, maybe I can get ahead of the guy that’s got more going for him than I do.”