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Transfer mechanics: The inner workings of the women's market - Part 2 (agents)

Women's WorldTour peloton racing at the 2020 Giro Rosa
The Women's WorldTour peloton racing at the 2020 Giro Rosa (Image credit: Getty Images)

The professional women's cycling transfer market is at the late stages as negotiations come to an end, contracts are signed, rosters take shape, and the sport prepares for the quickly approaching 2021 season. 

In part one of Cyclingnews' Transfer Mechanics series, we took an in-depth look at the inner workings of the women's market; the transfer windows, the value of points, and negotiating salaries. In the second part, we highlight the increasing role that agents play within the transfer market. 

Agents are the matchmakers of professional sport, facilitating unions between athletes and teams, and they hold influential positions in cycling. 

Cyclingnews' The Power List: The 50 most influential people in cycling featured four agents: Giovanni Lombardi, who handles Peter Sagan's contract negotiations; Martijn Berkhout, who forms part of the larger SEG Cycling agency in the Netherlands, with clients that include Daniel Martin, Niki Terpstra and Bauke Mollema; Andrew McQuaid, who is the director of Trinity Sports Management, whose long list of clients includes Geraint Thomas, Sam Bennett and Rohan Dennis; and the kingpin of agents, Giuseppe Acquadro, works with Egan Bernal and almost every other high-profile Colombian rider in the men's peloton.

It's common for athletes to use agents in men's cycling, particularly where there is money to be made because, let's face it, sport is a business. The agents who scout new talent, find endorsement deals, handle negative publicity, and negotiate a higher salary, while looking out for their clients' best interest, must also make a profit. 

Agents earn a percentage of the final contract, which can be anywhere between five and 10 per cent. For example, L'Equipe reported that Sagan was the highest-paid rider in the peloton, earning upwards of €5 million, which means that Lombardi would have collected between €250,000 and €500,000 on that deal.

Big money means big business, but in women's cycling, organisations, teams, and athletes operate on a minute fraction of the amount of the men's side of the sport. 

Cyclingnews reported that the average women's WorldTeam, of which there are only eight, runs on a budget of between €1 million and €3 million annually. There are 47 women's Continental Teams, and while Boels Dolmans and Ceratizit-WNT run on a near WorldTeam budget, that's not representative of most second-tier team budgets, which are more likely working with €100,000 to €500,000 annually.

As far as salaries go, WorldTour teams are obliged to pay athletes a minimum salary of €15,000 (employed) or €24,600 (self-employed), and social insurances and benefits such as maternity leave. The minimum salary requirements will equal the men's Professional Continental, currently set at €30,855, by 2023. However, Cyclingnews reported that the financial compensation among the entire peloton could range from $0 to €20,000 to €30,000, and a very few top riders earn upwards of €150,000.

Given the budgets and salaries that the women's peloton is working with, it's easier to understand why agents don't wield as much influence, nor are they used as frequently as in men's cycling.

The professionalisation of women's cycling has improved with the inception of the Women's WorldTour in 2016, and minimum salary and standardised contract reforms in 2020. Now, more female athletes work with agents to help them negotiate contract clauses, salaries, endorsement deals, and brand and media opportunities, and to find a team that can provide the riders with what they need, and vice versa.

In part two of the Transfer Mechanics, Cyclingnews speaks with UCI-accredited agents Emma Wade, from Bespoke M, and Jamie Barlow, from Trinity Sports Management, who work in the women's peloton. We also speak with Tiffany Cromwell (Canyon-SRAM) and Ashleigh Moolman-Pasio (CCC-Liv) for a rider's perspective, along with Iris Slappendel, founder of The Cyclists' Alliance, on the importance of checking the health of a contract before signing.

Contract checks

A survey conducted by The Cyclists' Alliance last year revealed that more than 85 per cent of female riders did not use an agent or lawyer to review their contracts before signing. 

The women's riders' association is now educating athletes about the UCI's new standard self-employed and employed contacts through its Contract Management Platform, which is an online resource designed to up-skill riders' commercial knowledge and awareness of their professional cycling contractual rights.

Slappendel noted several essential reasons to work with an agent, such as negotiating on behalf of the rider, checking over contracts to make sure they are correct, and generally providing the rider with essential knowledge about what they are entitled to in their contracts. 

The Cyclists' Alliance has also created a rider-agent platform, which provides athletes with a list of approved UCI-accredited agents working in the women's side of the sport.

"We work together with a few agents, and we know they have a good track record in women's cycling. Working with a good agent gives the rider a bit more knowledge and power when it comes to their contract rights," Slappendel said. 

Emma Wade, from Bespoke M, works with some of the top riders in the sport, including Lizzie Deignan (Trek-Segafredo), Amanda Spratt (Mitchelton-Scott) and Tiffany Cromwell (Canyon-SRAM). Wade said riders are working with agents more often to make sure their rider-team agreement's clauses are intact and that nothing important has been removed or added to the standard contracts.

"It's worth working with a UCI-accredited agent because we have to be approved by the UCI and our own National Federations, and take an exam reflecting our knowledge of the rules and regulations around professional cycling," Wade said. 

"In simple terms, we understand what is and isn't allowed, and what should be in a rider's agreement. This knowledge is useful and protects a rider from agreeing to anything they don't need to, and hopefully makes them feel more comfortable. There are standardised UCI contracts now, so it is about ensuring those guidelines are followed.

"Also, you would expect an agent to negotiate, among other things, salary, the term of the contract, any bonuses, equipment, levels of insurance, use by team sponsors and time required from the rider. They can also ensure any personal sponsorships are negotiated into a standard UCI contract."

Negotiations

Negotiating a potential contract with a team can be daunting for athletes, especially if they represent themselves. An agent can help relieve some of the anxiousness during negotiations by representing athletes and acting as a mediator between the two parties. 

"Working with an agent can be an option for those who are nervous about the negotiations and contractual process," Wade said. 

"Having an agent can take away a lot of the stress of this process. Most people don't like talking about money, and it is so hard to negotiate for yourself, to say things like, 'I think I am good at sprinting, so you should pay me X amount.' It's much easier for someone else to big you up for you. 

"Plus, it's a demanding process working through a contract and checking and negotiating all of the points. It can be much easier for a rider to concentrate on their day job of riding their bikes.

"You'd hope riders can earn more money from having an agent negotiate on their behalf, feel more protected and that we can ultimately help professionalise the sport further."

Marianne Vos (CCC-Liv ) signs on for the start of the 2019 RideLondon Classique

Marianne Vos (CCC-Liv ) signs on for the start of the 2019 RideLondon Classique (Image credit: Getty Images Sport)

Moolman Pasio works with Stephen Fry, owner and director of sports marketing agency M2 Sports. He handles the various stages of contract negotiations, from the initial discussions of interest to salary negotiations.

"An agent would be contacting teams that together you all feel is suitable or that you might like to join. As a team leader, I would be contacted by teams that would say, 'We are interested in you as a rider, and are you interested in us for next year and can we talk?' I'm comfortable in having the initial discussions before I had it over to my agent," said Moolman Pasio, who is moving from CCC-Liv to SD Worx in 2021.

"I like to have the first personal conversations to find out why the team is interested in me and how they see me fitting into the team, what my role would be. They would then try and sell the team to me, so they might say, 'Here is why we are the right team for you,' along with X, Y, Z reasons.

"If it became serious, and I were comfortable, then I would hand it over to my agent, Steve, to negotiate the finer details of the contract and the salary. 

"Some riders might not even have that initial conversation on their own, and they might instead hand it straight over to their agent, who then acts as a third party in the communications. It can be one or two conversations, and it's a done deal, or it could be a longer process, back and forth, and a fair amount of negotiations involved."

Market value

Women's cycling has a long way to go before most athletes earn what could be considered a minimum wage, but that is expected to slowly improve with the new minimum salary requirements at the WorldTeam level. 

The minimum salary is far from liveable at €15,000 annually, but it's important to understand how that fits into Continental and WorldTeams' overall operating budgets, ranging from €100,000 to €3 million.

Agents are responsible for understanding team budgets and negotiating salary ranges for their clients that fit within the market value – so that athletes aren't negotiating too high or too low.

"It's still difficult for riders to understand their value," Slappendel said. 

"The salaries vary within teams, and so it is helpful to work with an agent who works with multiple riders and knows the riders' values and what is being paid within teams."

Cromwell, who now works with Wade at Bespoke M, signed her first pro deal after being scouted at the former Geelong Women's World Cup, where she said local and national teams competed with top teams in the world. Now more than 10 years of experience racing in the pro ranks, she said that riders used to undersell themselves because salary ranges were never discussed.

"In the past, riders would just take what was offered by a team, and a lot of riders undersold themselves because the market was not talked about as much as it was in the men's peloton. A lot of riders undersold themselves because they didn't think a team had the budget [to negotiate a higher salary]," Cromwell said. 

"There are a lot more teams willing to pay a higher salary now, and that is driving the price up, so there are greater negotiation abilities among teams to be able to battle each other for a top rider. If the teams and sponsors want a top rider, they are willing to pay, but it's all within reason. Compared to men's salaries, it's a long way off, but compared to where women's cycling was, salary values have increased."

Jamie Barlow, who works with Trinity Sports Management and whose clients include Kasia Niewaidoma (Canyon-SRAM), said that negotiating within a market value also means considering the depth of talent on the market and the number of spots available on team rosters within a season. Currently, there are upwards of 600 UCI-licenced elite women, but only eight WorldTeams that are obliged to offer a minimum salary.

"It's a real challenge because there are so many riders trying to make a select number of teams, and no matter what agent you have working on your behalf, your value comes down to what the market and what the teams are willing to pay. An agent can fight for better terms and better offers, but it depends on how many teams are interested," Barlow said.

The right match

Good agents are well connected with riders and teams within women's professional cycling, which helps match riders with teams better.

"An agent is likely to have a good understanding of the commercial landscape of the women's peloton – levels of salary, which teams may be looking for new riders, or new teams that may be coming in the sport. An agent can also usually suggest which team might suit a certain rider and vice versa, and know the relevant people to speak to," Wade said.

In general, Wade said an agent needs to understand what teams are looking for in a rider when filling spots on a roster. Likewise, agents need to understand their clients' skill-set, needs and future goals, and personality is essential when it comes to finding the right fit within a team.

"It is a jigsaw for teams needing to work around their finances and the type of riders they need depending on UCI points, race targets, who their lead rider is and availability in the peloton. Some teams like to develop young riders, and others might be looking for the finished product," Wade said.

"There may be new teams coming into the peloton, so riders may check their options if they aren't happy with their current team. Other riders will be more than happy to renew and stay with their current team, so it's about getting that secured as soon as possible, so both sides are happy and secure.

"A rider agent will work with the riders they represent to understand what they are looking for. For example, what type of rider they are: sprinter or climber. What kind of person they are: used to strict guidelines and coaching or more of a free spirit. What matters more to them: winning races or marketing themselves and working with sponsors. 

"An agent will then also work with teams to understand their culture and what kind of riders they will be looking for. Then it's all about matchmaking. Speaking to teams and riders and finding out if there is interest, and, if so, negotiating fees and terms before going to contract."

Services

During contract negotiations, Wade and Barlow told Cyclingnews that they are beginning to ask teams for bonus packages, which has not been as common as in men's cycling. They work with athletes on personal sponsors and commercial and ambassador deals that don't conflict with a team's existing sponsorship agreements.

"The difference, if we compare to the men's contracts, are bonuses and how lucrative those can be for the men versus most women having no bonuses structured into their contracts," Barlow said.

"We try to push hard for bonuses. Maybe not for the young riders coming in because, for them, it's all about getting their foot in the door and getting established. It's important for the riders who are always contesting the top 10s and podiums to get a good bonus structure in place, along with a bit more flexibility on the commercial side. We can bring commercial deals to the table that are not in conflict with the team, but unfortunately, they are few and far between, but I think that's starting to get better."

Trinity Sports Management's three primary services cater to career success, commercial success and post-career support. Specific services also include residency and visa paperwork, and accommodation for athletes racing overseas, which is important for athletes signing contracts with a foreign team.

Sarah Gigante (Tibco-SVB) flies to victory in the 2020 elite women's Australian time trial championships

Sarah Gigante (Tibco-SVB) flies to victory in the 2020 elite women's Australian time trial championships (Image credit: Con Chronis / Zac Williams)

Barlow recently signed on Sarah Gigante, 19, from Australia, who races with American outfit TIBCO-SVB, and Niamh Fisher-Black, 20, from New Zealand, who currently races with Swiss outfit Equipe Paule Ka. Both riders are spending more time racing in the elite echelons in Europe.

"We do everything from team negotiations to residency applications and issues because we offer a full-on management service," Barlow said. 

"If you look at Niamh and Sarah, next year they will look at making a move across to Europe, and that's a big move for anyone from Australia, New Zealand or America. We would very much be a part of that process to make sure that they get their visas in the right way and that they have accommodation," Barlow said.

Wade offers a long list of brand-specific services that includes logistics, sponsorship and public-relations activity, managing media and commercial partnerships, maintaining relationships with key brands, agencies, event organisers, publishers and governing bodies and developing clients' corporate speaking opportunities.

These services are not free.

Costs

One of the main reasons female athletes don't consult an agent or a lawyer is because of the consultation and services costs. An agent earns anywhere from five to 10 per cent of the final contract agreement. This becomes a problem if not all teams are paying their riders a salary. 

Barlow said that there are no upfront costs at Trinity Sports Management, which is becoming standard across most agencies. 

"I can't speak for all agents, but for the credible ones and certainly for us at Trinity, there are no upfront costs. We don't invoice a rider until they are earning the minimum amount, so, basically, until a rider signs her first WorldTeam contract," Barlow said.

"Our ethos is to grow with the rider, and in many cases, we will work with a rider for a couple of years before ever invoicing them. There's a risk on our side that maybe they don't make it to a WorldTeam, but we would prefer their first salaries to go into setting themselves up in Europe. It's a longterm strategy rather than getting in to make quick money. That's not how we're set up or established."

Wade agreed that agents generally take a percentage of contracts negotiated, but that amount also depends on the types of services a client needs.  

"The level of percentage varies from agent to agent, and also with how far-reaching the partnership is – whether the agent finds a rider a team or if there's a long-term relationship where the agent is also managing the rider's 'brand' and other partnerships and logistics. It could be a simple check of a final contract. In the end, I would always expect an agent to add more value than the percentage they take, to be honest."

Barlow stressed that not all agents are accredited, nor have the riders' best interests in mind, and that riders should be concerned if agents are charging higher than 10 per cent or charging athletes upfront.

"It varies, and there could be other agencies that charge more, but I hope not," Barlow said. "There shouldn't be any agency that is charging riders upfront – that's unheard of – and certainly shouldn't happen. It would sound off massive alarm bells."

For athletes who need their contracts checked, but cannot afford to utilise an agent or a lawyer's services, The Cyclists' Alliance's Contract Management Platform is a good starting point. Barlow praised The Cyclists' Alliance for the work they are doing to support female riders with their contract checks.

"You can see what The Cyclists' Alliance is doing now for riders, and that's really positive to see," Barlow said. 

"We would be more than happy to talk with female riders if they have any uncertainty or if they need help or advice. That's not something we would charge for; we would be happy to help."