Darek Braunecker’s Frontline Athlete Management exists very much off the radar in downtown Little Rock. Which is exactly how he likes it — off the radar in an off-the-radar town.
Relatively speaking, of course. When it comes to pro sports, Little Rock isn’t ground zero. But the Illinois native, drawn to the state by a chance to play collegiate baseball at UALR, has put down roots. And his Major League Baseball-focused agency is doing just fine. Aside from the historic deal it brokered in 2019 for the National Football League’s Russell Wilson, its roster of clients includes heavyweight big leaguers such as native Arkansans and former Razorback pitchers Cliff Lee and Drew Smyly.
Braunecker’s partner and the firm’s general counsel, Mark Rodgers, is based in Florida. Both are MLBPA (Players Association) certified player agents, and Rodgers is a certified player agent with the NFLPA as well. Frontline has three other MLBPA certified player agents working remotely across the South, and Dustin Moseley, another former big-league pitcher taken with the 34th overall pick out of Arkansas High in Texarkana in 2000, serves as director of client development working out of Little Rock.
Braunecker is about as connected as one can get in pro sports, baseball especially. He agreed to visit with Arkansas Money & Politics about how his firm and pro sports have weathered a unique 2020.
AMP: How has the pandemic changed the way you do business?
DB: It’s changed almost every facet of our business. From the inability to have personal interaction with clients and team personnel to the complete shutdown of Minor League Baseball, not to mention the economic impact it’s had on the entire industry of professional and amateur sports, it’s required us to become more digitally interactive and operationally creative to ensure we continue to monetize the brands and production of our clients in ways that didn’t previously exist.
The traditional, off-field earning opportunities such as corporate appearances, television advertising and public speaking and memorabilia signings have completely evaporated for now, so we’ve had to explore new avenues to try to create revenue streams for our clients and our firm.
AMP: What lingering effects might the 2020 disruption have on pro sports?
DB: We expect the effects will be relatively short-term once we get some of these issues behind us, but owners will certainly attempt to use the economic effects to their teams and businesses as a way of suppressing the market on player salaries in the short term. It’s our job to attempt to mitigate that. We know the financial impact is real as far as cash flow for teams, but we also realize that most professional sports teams have been flush with cash, and franchise values continue to escalate, and there are all sorts of creative ways to structure player salaries/contracts to address any short-term cash flow issues.
So, we feel teams will be positioned to spend in whatever manner they choose but realize the overall market could be impacted to some degree based on individual team financial circumstances. But overall, most teams remain in a healthy financial position and expect revenues to return over the next couple years, so they should want to remain competitive and continue to provide a quality entertainment product to ensure they’re positioned to capitalize on a return to normalcy and the public’s desire for entertainment.
AMP: The MLB collective bargaining agreement is set to expire following the 2021 season. What can we expect?
DB: I believe the landscape has changed to some degree with the effects of the pandemic, for both parties (labor and management), and I’m hopeful the silver lining will be both sides developing a new understanding of the importance of working in a collaborative manner to ensure an equitable resolution. But there are a number of issues that have to be addressed, very important economic issues for the long-term health and benefit of our sport. It’s going to be a very important round of bargaining to make certain player rights are preserved and the current economic system of the game is overhauled to some degree to address the many areas of concern that have impacted player earnings.
AMP: In determining what the 2020 season would look like, especially in economic terms, how did MLB do?
DB: The fact that there was even a season of any sort was a minor miracle, especially with the contentious and public nature of the negotiations between the two parties (MLB and players’ union). But considering the hand we were dealt and the unprecedented issues MLB faced as the torchbearer for all professional sports leagues in how to truly deal with the impact of the pandemic, in an effort to create some form of season, I’d say the overall outcome was as good as could be expected. Both parties, along with a large segment of the American public, are pleased with the product and the outcome.
And now with postseason baseball taking on an entirely new level of interest due to expanded playoffs, I think we’re well-positioned to come out of this better than most expected and hope for a return to a more “normal” 2021.
AMP: Speaking of postseason baseball, are expanded playoffs here to stay?
DB: Good question, but it seems to be a hit so far, and I think viewership is up. So, it might be a really good thing for the sport; it would just need to be tweaked some to provide a bit more of an advantage for the higher seeds. But that might take care of itself with fans in the stands of home stadiums and the higher seeds having a full, three-game home slate in Round 1. I have to admit, [opening day of the expanded playoffs] was a hell of a lot of fun and felt a bit like March Madness to me….