It is four days after one of NFL and MLB agent Erik Burkhardt’s most volatile clients has made unflattering headlines again and his client’s name is at that moment trending on Twitter. A message was sent requesting a follow up to the interview for this article. A return call from him is honestly not expected. His day must be a tornado of stress as he works to put out fires and the small request for a follow up will likely get lost in the shuffle.
But just after 9 p.m., as promised, the phone rings. He is moving around rapidly but his voice is cheerful and friendly. This is Erik Burkhardt, always approachable and as one of his star clients and his wife explained always “on.”
Burkhardt is the agent for the likes of New England Patriot and Super Bowl Champion Danny Amendola, Texas Tech Head Football Coach Kliff Kingsbury, Miami Marlins Pitcher Jarred Cosart, Dallas Cowboys Running Back Joseph Randle, Green Bay Packers Wide Receiver Jordy Nelson and Cleveland Browns Quarterback Johnny Manziel.
It is Manziel that often garners the most media and fan attention and would seem to demand the most labor intensive efforts from his agent. It is Manziel who has been the subject of talk sport shows nationwide again in the last few days.
But to get a glimpse into how Burkhardt manages a client such as Manziel, you have to understand the agent’s own personal and professional story and the value system by which he operates.
The term “sports agent” often conjures thoughts of Jerry Maguire types looking to grease their own palms and shouting “Show me the money!” There are plenty of stereotypes about the nature of agents and their lifestyle. It can be a lucrative profession. The reality of the level of stress, energy and time involved with the job however would make anyone question, who in their right mind would want to be a pro sports agent?
Erik Burkhardt may be a bit of a mad scientist. He is a fast talker but it is sincere, at times brutally honest, and extremely focused.
“The reality is, because I’m always stressed out, people would say I am, but I’m not,” Burkhardt explains. “The whole thing is stressful. I choose not to look at it that way.”
Burkhardt is the Co-Head of Select Sports Group (SSG) a Houston based agency. His home is in the Dallas area and frequent commutes to Houston are a way of life. He and his college sweetheart Kari have been married for six years and together for a total of 12. They are now parents to a one-year-old son, Boston. The change in his family dynamic has changed how Burkhardt views the job.
He calls all members of the SSG staff and their clients “family.” It was a close relationship with a longtime friend that Burkhardt truly considers a brother that peaked his interest in becoming an NFL agent. Burkhardt attended Texas Tech University and was close friends with then quarterback Kliff Kingsbury. Kingsbury was getting approached by several agents about representation. During the process, Kingsbury leaned on his friend Burkhardt to sit in on a few meetings. Burkhardt said it was because he was smart. Kingsbury tells a slightly different story.
“He could talk,” Kingsbury laughed. “He could talk fast and he could argue, even if he knew he wasn’t right he’d continue to argue.”
“We go back a long time,” Kingsbury added. “He decided to go to law school to become an agent. I happened to be going through that process of trying to choose an agent at the same time. It just kind of worked out and ever since then we’ve been very close. He represents me now and it’s been awesome to see his success and watch him build in that profession.”
Burkhardt reflects on the early years in the business and the hardships. He credits valuable lessons in work ethic and endurance to his father who raised him and his brothers in San Antonio. He played high school football, some games against Kingsbury’s New Braunfels Unicorns, but said he didn’t carry the ability to play at the next level.
After Tech, he attended St. Thomas University of Law in Miami. He took the 2003 NFL Players Association agent certification exam and passed. He held his license as an agent his very first year in law school. He launched Burkhardt Sports Enterprises and says there were some “lean times” for the first six years. Burkhardt was determined to start his own company rather than sign on with a larger agency.
“He went through a lot,” his wife Kari explained. “You start as an agent and you have to build rapport, you have to build a client base and for him he started very young. That’s tough. You don’t already have the notoriety.”
He merged with SSG in 2012. Burkhardt is now the agent for 25 players. Success has not allowed for lengthy vacations, the ability to RSVP for weddings or dinners, or even to shun some of the work load and let the staff handle it. His time and energy devoted to work is almost compulsive. He wants to be involved in every decision about his clients from the contract, to the marketing, public relations, endorsements and major life decisions. He makes a call list of the clients he has spoken to that day and even notes the time of the call.
His wife says he sleeps with his phone right at his side and that even during attempts to rest it dings, buzzes or vibrates every minute.
“I always tell him, I don’t see how your body doesn’t shut down,” she said. “I don’t know anybody like him. It’s not normal to be so on all the time. He doesn’t turn off.”
“The balance is the hardest thing in my life right now,” Burkhardt said of his home life. “The boundary is that we’re on. We don’t have any set rules. I know when something is serious, I’ve got to commit to this date through hell or high water. Sometimes you’ve still got to cancel and work through those situations. It’s hard.”
“At home, he’s just dad or he’s just a husband,” Kari said. “He’s really caring, he’s got a beautiful heart. It’s just funny. He has two different sides because he gets on the phone and he’s very aggressive and he can negotiate and be firm. He’s good at turning that off.”
Working to develop the type of trust and bond Burkhardt seeks with his clients is a 24/7 effort. He not only deals with the clients but their family members, girlfriends, wives, or the entourage of friends.
“Their influential so it’s a leak in the system. I don’t like any leaks,” Burkhardt said. “Leaks lead to breaking of dams and then you’re out of football. I talk to my guys and we prepare. ‘Who are your friends? Whose on your team? What’s their role?’ ”
“Someone’s always in your client’s ear going, ‘Why did your guy do this? Why didn’t your guy do that?’ I’ve touched on it. I’ve touched on two years from now and when they are going to use the franchise tag.”
The level of control he seeks is not for manipulation but protection.
“They are not going to listen to you until you build the trust. So it’s like with our draft class, new clients, I go out and if my guys are training in San Diego, I’m there for a week. I’m sharing a hotel room with them just to say, ‘Who are you texting? Why are you texting?’ Just everything in their life, I feel like I should know about.”
He refers often to a 101 point plan he works through with clients.
“We go through every hypothetical you could have. Every minute detail. Girlfriends, wills and trusts, marketing, why we’re not going to start a website for you now. How we’re going to handle your shoe deal.”
“We really look at the macro, the long term. What does this really look like even post career?”
Burkhardt says he wants to be the first person his clients call when things go right or wrong. There are times he admits that he has learned of some situations from the media.
“Sometimes (clients) tell me after the fact that it’s because they didn’t want to disappoint me. That’s the ultimate compliment. I’m trying to build to that point where I’m always that call but it happens.”
He says there are many times he has met with a potential client and based on attitudes or their perception of their own ability passed on the opportunity to sign them. He also stresses that he’s not in the business of telling his clients what they want to here just for the sake of retaining them. It is a point Kingsbury confirmed.
“I think he can keep it real with me and I can keep it real with him which helps because we’re not afraid to hurt each other’s feelings,” Kingsbury said. “If I needed to say something to him or if he needed to get me back in line, I think it just makes that professional relationship that much better.”
Burkhardt operates as an attorney, not talking in specifics about his clients and pausing to make sure he is protecting their best interests. He admits managing the career of a client such as Manziel is a bit different, but there is a bond and high level of trust between them.
“Don’t make them something they’re not,” he says of his clients. “I can’t cage Johnny. Johnny is a different guy. He was a brand before I ever met him, much less represented him. You want him to be himself and have that competitive fire. If I take that away and I extinguish that completely, is he the same player he was at Texas A&M?”
The strength of the bond between Burkhardt and his clients was evident at his son’s first birthday party. Some clients flew in to join the celebration with Burkhardt even asking.
“My guys believe in me and trust in me. I ride with them. You have to believe that you can get them to the top or what are you doing? You’re just taking money out of their pocket.”