Last year I was fortunate enough to be selected to judge at Tulane’s NFL mock contract negotiation competition and came away very impressed with the students who organized the event as well as the tremendous group of law students who competed last year. They have recently finalized this year’s competition dates and schools are now able to register for the competition. This past week I was able to do a Q&A with Tate Martin, who has the responsibility of running this year’s competition, to help explain the ins and outs of the competition. I strongly encourage any law students serious about pursuing a career in the NFL to read this and reach out to Tate to learn more about the competition. Hopefully I’ll be attending again this year and get to meet many of you again in person.
So tell us a little bit about the history of the competition you are running. How did it come about?
This will be the third year we’ve been doing the competition; the first year was very small and only involved Tulane law students, and last year was the first year where we actually invited other schools to come compete. The idea for the competition came from some students who graduated last year, Ryan Feder, AJ Stevens, Scott Champagne and Harrison Smith, sitting down at the Sports Law Conference in 2014 with Ari Nissim of Roc Nation and talking about how they wanted to have a competition that taught real world negotiating skills in a practical setting; they actually drew up the basic framework for the competition on a napkin, and we went from there.
That first year was really crucial to figuring out how we wanted the format of the competition to work, as well as what data we were going to use; it really gave us a solid point to improve on before we brought in other schools to compete last year. I was fortunate enough to compete in the competition the first year and got to experience first-hand what worked and what didn’t, and then I, along with another 2nd year law student, Greg Castillo, were on the competition board for this past year. Greg has interned with the Saints for the past two years, and I’ve worked for a NFL agent the past two years, so we had different perspectives that I think really helped us make the problems used in the competition realistic.
Now that we’re in our third year, Greg and I will be running the competition along with Breard Snellings, a JD/MBA student, Kyle Houliston, another third-year law student, and Erin O’Neil, a second-year law student. All three of them competed in the competition last year and have already made significant contributions to make this year even better than the last.
How many teams competed last year and how many teams are you hoping to get this year?
We had 20 teams compete last year, three of which were Tulane teams who placed in the intra-school competition we had earlier in the year. Our biggest concern as far as expansion goes is making sure we preserve the quality of the competition. The feedback we got from teams this past year is that they really enjoyed the discussions they were able to have with the judges after their round of competition, so we would want to make sure that kind of experience isn’t lost; we also know that our judges are people in the industry who take a break from their busy schedules to come here for the competition, so we always want to be mindful of that. With those two considerations in mind, we’d probably like to have around 24-28 teams this year if the logistics allow for that.
Tell us about the format of the competition and how it works? What does a sample day look like for a competitor?
So, the competition is structured to simulate a negotiation between a real-life NFL player’s agent, and that player’s team. We give the sides confidential objectives weeks in advance of the competition, along with a brief explanation of the reasoning behind the objectives. We encourage the sides to look up statistics on their players and do extra preparation along with the information we give them so they can defend the arguments they make in the negotiation.
As far as what a day looks like, the competition spans two days total; on the first day the schools will be separated into pools based on a brief we had them submit before the competition, and will participate in three negotiations within their pool. Last year, the players we used in these negotiations were Josh Norman, Harrison Smith, and Alshon Jeffery. So every team that comes to the competition will at least have three negotiations, regardless of how they end up doing. Once these three rounds are over, we have a networking event in the evening where we announce the teams that made it to the semi-final rounds which will take place the next day. The next day is made up of the semi-final rounds and the championship round, followed by a panel discussion with the judges. This year’s format could be different as we’re looking to expand, but the two-day format will stay the same because it works so well for our judges.
What are the types of free agent players that we might expect to see as being used for the mock negotiations?
Well, we’re really trying to find players that will have unique negotiations. Negotiating a contract for a guy who will likely end up at the top of the market has its challenges, but the negotiations I’ve found the most interesting are for the guys who will be somewhere in the middle, whether that’s because they’re an older veteran whose performance may decline in the near future, or they’re a young guy with maybe only one or two years of high level performance. Finding those guys’ fit in their respective position markets is always interesting and challenging to me. Also, we’ve focused mostly on skill positions in the past, but this year we’re looking to have more variety and working in an offensive or defensive lineman, possibly both. I don’t want to give away the players we’re going to be using, but we’ve been considering doing guys like Delanie Walker, Star Lotuleili, and Donta’ Hightower among others.
Who are some of the judges that have been involved in the competition in the past? Will teams get a chance to ask them questions or network with them?
Last year, we had a great combination of NFL team personnel, well known salary cap experts, and NFL agents serve as judges for the competition.
From the team side, we had people like Trip MacCracken, VP of Football Administration for the Chiefs; Khai Harley, VP of Football Administration for the Saints; Nick Sabella, Football Administration Coordinator for the Chicago Bears; and James Waldhauser, President of Cousineau McGuire who often served as outside counsel for the Vikings.
From the agent side, we had Jason Elam, of FW Sports Management; and Martin Fischman, founder of Fischman & Wiltz Sports.
J.I. Halsell, of NFLContractMetrics.com, and yourself were two salary cap experts who were able to provide a unique point of view throughout the competition.
Having judges from so many backgrounds really provided competitors with unique feedback after their negotiations, and we’re hoping all of our judges from last year, along with some new ones, are able to come back for this year’s competition.
To answer your second question, yes, teams will have an opportunity to network with the judges and ask them questions on numerous occasions during the competition. We’re hoping to have two networking events this year; the first would take place the night before the competition starts, and would give the competitors a chance to meet each other, as well as the judges. During this first networking event, we’d like to have a presentation of some sort about the basics of a NFL contract and things like that. You and I have discussed a presentation like that before, and I think having something like that could clear up any confusion a team may have before the negotiations start the next day, and would lead to better overall negotiations.
Another opportunity for the competitors to interact with the judges will come during the competition itself. At the end of each negotiation, both teams who participated in that negotiation will get feedback from the judges on their performance, and will have the opportunity to ask them any questions about how they can improve. Out of everything we did with the competition, this post-negotiation feedback was something I think the competitors loved the most about the competition.
Our second networking event after the first day of competition is another chance the competitors have to network with the judges and each other; after a full day of competing, the competitors have usually had the opportunity to meet and talk to most of the judges, and this reception gives them a chance to discuss their performance in competition further or ask them other questions they may have. Finally, at the end of the competition we have a panel discussion where the judges give their thoughts on the competition and answer questions asked by anyone in attendance. While some schools have to leave before the panel discussion, the ones who were able to make it last year said they found it extremely informative.
Outside of the competition will there be a chance to network with other teams?
Yes. After speaking to some of the teams in attendance last year, one of the things that kept coming up was that they wished they had more of an opportunity to meet and network with other competitors. We wanted to make sure that we took that into consideration this year, which is why we added the networking event the night before the competition. We want this competition to be a destination where people who want to be involved with this industry can come together and form connections that could someday lead to jobs and careers in the NFL.
Can a team bring more than two people to the competition? Are advisors permitted to sit in?
Yes, we allow for a team to have either two or three members; the difference is that a team with three members can only have two of their members participate in a negotiation at a time, and all of the members of the three-person team must participate in at least one negotiation. We also allow for one coach of a team to sit in on the negotiations, but they may not have any interaction with the team for the duration of the negotiation.
What might be some good resources to prep for the competition? How far in advance are information packets with assignments sent out?
I’d encourage teams to learn about how NFL contracts are structured, such as what the signing bonus is and how it is calculated, as well as the various aspects of a contract that would be important to the team and to the player. For example, a player may be more concerned with what his New Money APY is in relation to other players at his position, while a team may be focused more on how much money will be fully guaranteed to that player.
Probably the best resource I can recommend for learning these kinds of things can be found on your site. The articles you’ve written analyzing contracts that have been signed by players, analyzing team’s salary cap situations, etc. all contain the kind of logic we try to take into consideration when creating the problems for our competition.
JI Halsell’s NFLContractMetrics.com is another excellent resource for understanding contract structures and many of the metrics by which contracts are benchmarked.
We’ve tried to make our competition as realistic as possible while also keeping it easy to understand for people without an extensive background in these areas, but it definitely helps teams to come in with a good grasp on these concepts when they study the information on those two websites.
What is the date of this year’s competition and how can someone get more information about signing up?
The competition itself will take place on January 27-28, but that first networking event will be the evening of January 26. Information on signing up can be found on our website, http://www.law.tulane.edu/tlsOrgs/sportslaw/index.aspx?id=19289