Top of His Game
Brodie Van Wagenen brokers some of the fattest contracts in Major League Baseball and has nearly as much star wattage as The power players he represents
Winter may be post-season time in Major League Baseball, but it’s game time for sports agent Brodie Van Wagenen.
At 39, the Darien resident is near the top of his game. Since cofounding the baseball division of CAA Sports (part of entertainment giant Creative Artists Agency) in 2006, the former Stanford University right-fielder has negotiated contracts and endorsements for his players in excess of $2 billion. Those deals include a contract extension for the Washington Nationals’ Ryan Zimmerman, which guarantees the star third baseman $126 million over eight years. If sports agents had a league of their own, Van Wagenen would be an all-star power hitter.
The momentum continues to build for Van Wagenen. Last April, CAA Sports entered into a joint business venture with Shawn Carter—better known as rap artist and entertainment mogul Jay-Z—to form Roc Nation Sports. The brash new agency quickly signed Oklahoma City Thunder power forward Kevin Durant and New York Giants receiver Victor Cruz, among others. But the first and biggest catch was Robinson Cano, the all-star second baseman for the New York Yankees and free agent who at press time in early December signed with the Seattle Mariners for $240 million. Jay-Z handpicked Van Wagenen to help negotiate that deal, reported to be the fourth largest contract in major league baseball history.
Secrets to Success
As entertainment, celebrity athletes and mad money get cozier in bed, the competition in the agent business—never a game for softies—has heated up. To wit: Jay-Z’s latest release contains a track entitled “Crown,” in which he brags about stealing Cano from another legendary sports agent. “Scott Boras,” he raps, “you over, baby.”
Van Wagenen’s style couldn’t be less audacious. He is soft-spoken, intense but even-tempered, quick to credit the talents of his colleagues at CAA Baseball and eager to express gratitude for the support of his wife, Molly, and their three children. In these respects, he resembles the main character in the movie Jerry Maguire, or rather, the man Maguire becomes at the end of the 1996 feature film about an L.A.-based sports agent. Van Wagenen brings deep analytics and creativity to contract negotiations. To his clients, he brings something else. Even more than life-changing paydays, he offers them loyalty that extends beyond the field. When he started out in the profession, Van Wagenen said he wanted to be the agent who works for the player, not the other way around. “It’s why I got into this business,” he says. “If I lose sight of that, I need to get out.”
“Brodie has always taken care of me and my family, just like he said he would,” says Zimmerman, 29, who has known the agent for ten years. “It’s hard to find that.”
Those who’ve sat across from him at the negotiating table sing his praises, too. Jim Bowden, an ESPN analyst and former general manager for the Washington Nationals, has called Van Wagenen “one of the most respected baseball agents in the industry. His people skills are off the charts and he can be as convincing as he is genuine.” A.J. Hinch, the assistant general manager of the San Diego Padres, played on the U.S.A. Baseball Junior National Team with Van Wagenen at the end of high school and later as teammates at Stanford. “Brodie has always been loyal,” says Hinch. “That goes back to how he was as a teammate, and now as a friend, a husband and father, and certainly how he represents his clients.”
Coming of Age
Van Wagenen grew up in Southern California in the late 1970s at a time when most kids were heading for the waves or the skate park. But he was in the San Fernando Valley, far enough inland to be exempt from the surfer/skater culture. “It was baseball for me,” he says. “In my town, it was the primary sport and it became my passion. We had a good group of players and a number of my peers went on to successful baseball careers.”
He attended Stanford University on a baseball scholarship and started out as a right fielder, but in his junior year, when he swung at a change-up thrown by USC pitcher Randy Flores, he dislocated his right shoulder. The injury ended his college career and any dream of playing in the majors. “After eighteen months of rehab, I realized I was a five-foot, ten-inch tall, marginal player who would be better off working in professional sports rather than playing them,” he says.
As a freshman, Van Wagenen began dating Molly Knight, a fellow student from Ohio (her stepfather was astronaut Neil Armstrong) and a champion diver. Though captain of the Stanford women’s swimming and diving team from 1992 to 1995, she, too, had been injured and could no longer compete. So they began planning their future together. “Molly and I have a special relationship,” says Van Wagenen. “We started out as teenagers with high ambitions for ourselves and we had an understanding that we were going to pursue this life together..”
After graduation, she went to law school at the University of Chicago and he followed, figuring “Chicago was as good a city as any to find a job in sports.” The two married in December 1996. A communications major in college, Van Wagenen landed an internship with the Chicago Bulls during the Michael Jordan era. It turned into a full-time position selling tickets and sponsorships and running special events. “That job taught me how professional sports teams monetize their products. The experience has served me well in the world I’m in now.”
In the late 1990s, Van Wagenen left the Bulls for Athlete Direct, a tech startup that built online business sites for athletes. His job was to identify potential clients among players and contact their agents. He was just 25 at the time, but the newness of the venture leveled the playing field for him among older, more experienced agents. In the end, he signed 350 athletes across all sports and negotiated deals “with virtually every agent in the business—big, small, good, bad and everywhere in between,” says Van Wagenen. The experience taught him critical skills and broadened his base of contacts, so when the dot-com bubble burst and Athlete Direct folded, he leveraged those connections to establish himself as a baseball agent.
As an agent, Van Wagenen was able to combine his passion for the game with the thrill of spotting new talent. “When a player manages to stand out on the field among all of the best players in the country, that’s special for all of us—scouts, team execs and agents,” he says. “We get excited about what the potential might be for that person.” That’s one perk of the profession, but for Van Wagenen, there was another reason to pursue this career: Many of his friends were still playing professional ball. “I heard what pleased and displeased them about their agents and that got me thinking about how I could do it better,” he says. “I became passionate about wanting to provide a role that didn’t seem to exist at the time.”
In 2001, he went to work for International Management Group (IMG), a global sports and media business founded by lawyer Mark McCormack. Van Wagenen chose the company because he respected the integrity of its agents and McCormack’s brilliance. But after McCormack’s death in 2003, senior leadership changed and Van Wagenen felt the company was morphing into a different kind of agency. Since IMG had a strategic relationship with CAA, he and a handful of fellow IMG agents left the company in 2006 to form CAA Sports Baseball.
By this time, the family was living in Manhattan. They had three young children—a girl and two boys—and needed a home and a yard. The couple had never set foot in Connecticut, much less Darien, before. “Friends had given us referrals, but we were really just looking at the train lines,” he says. “But once we came here, we fell in love with it. We liked the small-town feel, the school system, and the proximity to both the water and the city.” When he first arrived in Darien, Van Wagenen didn’t know the extent to which the community was, in his words, “a baseball mecca.” Paul Archey, senior vice president of international business operations for Major League Baseball, lives there, as does Brian Cashman, New York Yankees’ general manager, and Todd Boehly, president of Guggenheim Partners, owners of the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Fairfield County was also the right choice for a family with children active in sports. Piper, 11, dives for the Newfield diving team at the Greenwich YMCA. Rafe, 9, and Jack, 8, also are on the Newfield swim team and they both play in Darien Little League. “Our children play the sports we played at a very high level,” Molly says. “We recognize that athletic achievement was part of our dreams growing up, but we’re careful to allow them to find their own dreams.”
Although Van Wagenen spent 140 days on the road last year scouting high school, college and minor league games, he made it to a surprising number of his children’s events. And as of last summer, he somehow found time to play for the New Canaan Cannons, the 28-and-over men’s senior baseball league managed by Dave Prutting. “Lucky us,” Prutting says of Van Wagenen, “because he can play! He told me he’d played for three years at Stanford and that was good enough for me. He’s a big-time line-drive hitter. He’s also a first-class guy and genuinely friendly.”
Jerry Maguire Moments
Staying close to the game is pure Van Wagenen. To one degree or another, the majority of his friends are involved in baseball and many of his clients have become friends. Those bonds anchor his career to his personal life and have led to some Jerry Maguire moments for a guy whose career has already transcended the story arc of the Tom Cruise character.
In the film, the agent’s talented but prickly client (Rod Tidwell, played by Cuba Gooding, Jr.) scores a game-changing touchdown. In the tunnel between the stadium and locker rooms, Maguire and Tidwell lock eyes, then man-hug. It’s a scene that highlights how their agent-client relationship changed from strictly, desperately business to intensely, genuinely personal.
A similar scene played out for Van Wagenen in 2009, on opening day of the Washington National’s new ballpark. In the ninth inning of a sold-out, nationally broadcast event, Zimmerman stepped up to the plate and hit a walk-off homerun to win the game and become the toast of the town. “I was seven years into the business at that point,” Van Wagenen recalls. “It was a very special moment to be in the tunnel watching a player I met as a college student plant that flagpole for himself, his family and his city. There was the eye contact, there was absolutely the hug, there was the love.”
And what about “the money,” a theme given big play in the press and in the film? “The cliché of Jerry Maguire is ‘show me the money,’” Van Wagenen says, “but I’ve never had a relationship with a client that’s been based on that. It’s more about show me your goals and help me achieve them.”
Winning—and money, for that matter—don’t always enter into what Van Wagenen does. Elected in 2012 to the Major League Baseball Players Association Advisory Committee, he councils (pro bono) the families of young draft picks. But he also stands by players whose careers peak too quickly. Flores, the former USC pitcher who threw Van Wagenen that career-ending pitch in college, was playing minor league baseball when he was formally introduced to the young agent. Flores became his first client. After advising the player for a number of years in the minors, Van Wagenen negotiated a two-year contract for him with the St. Louis Cardinals. He was in the stands for game seven of the 2006 National League pennant race to watch his client earn the win that sent the Cardinals to the World Series. Flores’ career peaked that night. He played in the minors for several more years before retiring in 2011.
“We connected early, and one of the things that’s special about Brodie is that everybody he talks to feels that same connection,” Flores says. “I leave every conversation feeling an authenticity. It’s not just about him. You can imagine the stable of clients he has and how busy he is, yet he takes time out to get face-time with a guy who won’t make him any money. He helped me form a framework for what was next in my life as I transitioned away from the uniform.” Flores now helps coach the USC baseball team, while working toward a master’s degree in education.
Van Wagenen’s goals for the future remain the ones he’s always had. “In my private life I want to be a good father and husband, while maintaining integrity in everything I do,” he says. “Professionally, I want to continue to work for the player to the best of my abilities.” Given his track record, those abilities are among the best in the business.