Agent Kelli Masters tackles the NFL draft
Kelli Masters sat in the balcony of Radio City Music Hall and stared out over the empty theater. Four years into her five-year plan for becoming a sports agent, she had yet to land her first big NFL client. There was no sense of pressure or regret, however, that day inside the historic venue that hosts the National Football League's annual draft. She knew she loved the job enough already to extend her personal deadline into perpetuity.
The daydream that afternoon on a summer trip to New York was more about reminding herself where she wanted to be, and preparing for when she would return.
"I just sat there and thought about what was going to happen," Masters said. "I just knew, 'I'm going to be back here someday, and I'll be back there in the green room, someday, and I just need to get ready for it.' I said my prayers and said if it was meant to be, it would happen."
It took just one more year. When Oklahoma defensive tackle Gerald McCoy was selected with the third overall pick of last year's draft, Masters, an attorney practicing in Oklahoma City and one of a tiny group of female agents representing NFL players, had made her personal deadline. By forming a bond with McCoy and his family, using her combination of charm and guile to assure them she was the proper steward of his professional life, she had landed the young man who would be her first client to not only make an NFL roster but become a budding star. She had arrived.
"I was sitting in the green room. It was almost surreal," she said. "It was emotional. It was exciting. Gerald and his dad were so nervous. I was never nervous. We all pretty much knew what would happen, but, still, it's hard."
As is her ruthless, competitive, sometimes unscrupulous profession, and for a woman in a field still dominated by males, Masters said, it's especially tough.
"Everything told me to run the other direction because it seemed like the cards were stacked against not just women but anyone who wanted to do it the right way, without compromise, without breaking the rules and to deal with integrity," she said. "And it seemed like so many times, if you're not willing to cheat, then you're not going to succeed in the business, and I disagree with that in life, so I decided to take on the challenge and go for it."
In addition to McCoy, Masters represents draft prospects Quinton Carter (S, Oklahoma), Vidal Hazelton (WR, Cincinnati), Ollie Ogbu (DT, Penn State) and Nate Guillory (RB, Northwestern Oklahoma State) as well as Colts tight end Brody Eldridge.
Up to 30 registered NFLPA agents out of about 1,000 are female, but Masters struggles to list that many. While women hold positions of power in team ownership, the NFL agent ranks still lag behind. There are notable exceptions, such as Kristen Kuliga, the first woman to negotiate the contract of a starting NFL quarterback.
Kuliga gained her agent certification and founded her own agency in 2001. She took on Doug Flutie -- with whom she had worked at her previous job at a Boston law firm -- as her first client and landed the 38-year-old a $33 million deal with the San Diego Chargers after he had been cut by the Buffalo Bills.
"Women negotiate a bit differently than men," Kuliga told the CommonWealth, an alumni publication at her alma mater, the University of Massachusetts. "I believe that men often put their egos aside in dealing with women and let their guard down a bit more."
Masters, 37, became interested in representing players after working with many of them and their families setting up foundations through the law firm where she practices in Oklahoma City. McCoy wasn't bothered by her lack of experience.
"She did everything the right way. She followed all the rules,'' he said. "She hadn't done it, but as far as knowledge and knowing what to do, working out contracts and talking to teams and having connections, she had all of that. We went off what she knew and how hard she worked."
Masters said trying to penetrate a male-dominated profession has challenges.
"As a woman you face stigma, a little bit,'' she said, "with 'wow, that's a man's job.''' There's also a lack of built-in contacts from former friends or relatives who played or coached.
There also have been inherent advantages. Among them, standing out in a crowd. But that only helped land first meetings or to network, she said.
"Even if it was just a novelty or 'what's the girl doing here?' kind of thing because I was unique, it was a way to get in the door and a way to be remembered by people because I stuck out," she said. "But it's not about being different. It's what you do when you get through that door. Can you talk shop? Can you speak the language? And that was important for me to be prepared for that and be taken seriously and be professional."
Masters said the large number of households in this country with a female authority figure also has helped make connections easier. McCoy's mother, Patricia, whom he called his best friend and a guiding force in his life, died of a brain aneurysm in 2007.
"Everyone would have to admit women tend to be more nurturing," Masters said. "In situations a lot of times, these guys need someone who cares about what they're going through in the process emotionally.''
McCoy felt comfortable with Masters.
"Women are fighters. They have that mom instinct,'' he said. "With a man, it might be a little bit about himself, but I have seen it first-hand with me how she battles. Believe me. I've seen her go to battle for me.''