Zeljko Kiauta, sports agent for 20 years, talks about his job, his beginnings and his vision of the evolution of the profession with digitalization.
Back to the first part of this testimony!
Hello Zeljko, can you first introduce yourself ?
Hello, my name is Zeljko Kiauta, I am originally from the former Yugoslavia and more precisely from Bosnia Herzegovina. I have been living in France for a long time now… I have been a sports agent for 20 years and co-founder of the digital platform Sportiw.
What is your career path? How did you become an agent?
My passion for sports started when I played soccer at the age of 7. For a long time I dreamed and thought of becoming a professional footballer but it didn’t happen. So I turned to studies. I graduated from high school, then I went to business school and got a Master’s degree in finance. I was rather destined to make a career in companies or banks.
But after 6 months of my first “job” I was contacted by a friend, a former professional basketball player, who told me that he was starting to work as an agent and that he wanted me to help him with the clubs in France. So I started to help him in parallel to my work and I literally fell in love with the agent business! Finally, when my manager asked me to stop being an agent because there could be conflicts of interest with my job as a financial advisor, I made my choice. I left the bank to become a full-time sports agent. And I’m still an agent 20 years later :).
What was it like when you started in 2001?
I started working as a sports agent during the 2001/2002 season in the world of basketball and then in handball. In 2002, France adopted a law on sports agents which imposed an exam to deliver the agent license. I got it for basketball at the first session in 2003 and for handball a little later.
At the beginning, I struggled to sign my first contracts because being a soccer player, I had no contacts in basketball in France. I spent my days calling clubs and trying to approach coaches at the end of games but that was the end of it because I was unknown to the circuit and without any reference (signed players). The agent’s job is a job of trust and the coaches and the managers of the clubs prefer to work with people they already know, that’s why agents are often former players or people coming from the environment. So, I had to be creative… and reactive… to make a place for myself.
I adopted a strategy of focusing on a specific segment and not on the whole market. So i specialized in a specific market of ex-Yugoslavian players (Serbs, Croats, Bosnians, etc.). The objective was to become the privileged interlocutor of French coaches for this market.
But this was not enough because in France there were already 3 agents from ex-Yugoslavia and several ” major” French agents who already had partner agents in these countries. So the window of opportunity was already occupied.
I was thinking about how I could won the trust of the French coaches so that they would be interested in the players I was offering.
I “cracked” the solution by becoming the “guide” of the French coaches during the trips of detection of talents in Belgrade, Split, Treviso, Frankfurt… I was accompanying them for the camps which were very popular at the time because there were much less videos and sites of statistical analysis than today. That’s why a camp was an ideal place to unearth the young players or free agents. I was their guide and “interpreter” with Croatian, Serbian, Montenegrin, Bosnian players and agents… and it worked! The coaches had the opportunity to get to know me and to learn who I am and see the seriousness of my work. I had to be very serious and very reactive! When a coach was looking for a video on a player, I had to be the fastest. I remember that I had set up a system to send VHS tapes faster than DHL… and cheaper! laughs. And yes in the 2000’s there was no youtube, whatsapp and wetransfer :)). The video tape would leave Belgrade or Zagreb in the evening by bus and I would pick it up the next morning in Chambery or Grenoble to ship it back to France the same day.
Since I was not a basketball player, I imposed a certain discipline on myself: I could be wrong on the technical/tactical profile of the player but never on the psychological profile. I left the technical/tactical evaluation to the coaches and their staff (of course I made sure I didn’t mess up on the level of the player) but let’s say that the profile is a question of “taste” of each coach. So let him make his own opinion on the basis of videos and stats. My philosophy, which is still valid today, was to find players with professional attitudes and a good mental attitude who can quickly integrate into a new environment. The adaptability of a player is the key to the success of his career and therefore of my work!
How did you manage to get to the Pro A and the Euroleague?
Things didn’t happen by snapping my fingers. It took me a year to sign my first contract, which required work, a lot of work… At the beginning I had no resources, or any network at my disposal so I had to give it my all!
From the beginning, I oriented myself towards the top of the market, but the top players all had agents, more or less. Every time I contacted them they referred me to their agents. Then I contacted their agents who told me that they already had their partner in France. So a lot of barriers to entry :).
So, I had to scout a lot, look for rare gems: players who are “underrated” (not at their level), who are coming out of a complicated season or not known in France… I needed a “reference player”, a player who was going to open doors for me…. And I found him in my second season! It was Dzenan Rahimic that I brought to JL Bourg (later he played in Pau Orthez) and who was one of the best players of the Pro A championship that season. At the end of the season, almost all the Pro A clubs wanted him and that helped me to get known in the business. And all of a sudden, the big European agencies wanted to work with me… My career as an agent was launched!
In the following 4-5 years I placed several dozen players between Pro A and Pro B and I worked with clubs like Le Mans, Asvel, Strasbourg…
What is the job of an agent?
The legal definition in France is as follows: “The person who carries out, for remuneration, the activity of bringing together parties interested in the conclusion of a contract relating to the paid exercise of a sporting activity”.
So if we stop at this definition, the job would stop at putting clubs in contact with players… In reality, this vision is far too simplistic!
Of course, the agent must put the two sides in contact and try to find the most ‘win-win’ combination possible between a club and a player, in terms of the sports and contractual project, but the relationship often goes beyond that!
I like to say that being a sports agent is the only job where you spend 50% or more of your time in “after sales service”. You might as well reduce the risks upstream. Working with humans, you can never be sure of anything. When you “sell” products, you can have a defective product or batch from time to time. You replace it and it’s fine.
The agent’s job is not only to find rare gems, players who will be “clutch” or who make the difference but sometimes simply a team player or the missing piece of the puzzle.
The human being is not a machine, so you always wait for the weekends after each game if a coach or manager or even a club president is going to call you to complain about the quality of the “goods”. On the other hand, they rarely call you to congratulate you for the “good pick” 😅
…I’m talking about product or merchandise on purpose to provoke a little and point out this problem. We work with humans and not with objects!
Precisely, what is your relationship with your clients?
This makes a great connection to the previous question! I don’t like to define myself as an “agent” but rather as a “career manager” or “club coach”.
I don’t just want to “place” a player in a “one shot” for the best deal. I want to know him well, to understand his ambitions, his professional projects but sometimes also his family projects… This is what allows me to propose the most adapted club projects!
And it’s the same for the clubs, I want to know as much as possible about their ambitions, their local ecosystem, the philosophy… That’s what makes for good “matches”.
For example, I have several times proposed projects at a “lower” level to a player, but because I knew that the club could provide him with a training that would be important for him for the rest of his life/career… Or simply because I knew that he would flourish within the framework of this club. I like to look beyond the contract that is being negotiated. And to do that, you have to be very close to the players and the clubs.
I used to say that all my bad experiences came from my job but all the good things too. I remember the real friendships that were created with players, coaches and club presidents.
There is nothing better than when a player calls you first to share the birth of their child or invites you to their wedding. You become their friend, their confidant. I love my players and that’s why I can spend time with them to advise them, help them and also yell at them. I am not the agent who pats them on the back.
Everyone has a life story that is exciting and usually involves a lot of sacrifices. I never became a professional player because I felt that at one point I was not ready to make a certain number of sacrifices, especially in relation to my studies or my private life. That’s why I admire all those who became professionals because behind them there are hours and years of work, sweat and sacrifices; shortened vacations, missed evenings with friends, boyfriends/girlfriends, sacrifices of their families, parents etc.
In short, I have a lot of respect for all this and I want to help players and clubs in areas where I am competent: negotiation, administration or any other non-sporting aspect of their career.
That’s why, after the high level, I oriented myself to help the “intermediate levels”. First as an agent and that inspired me to start the Sportiw project…
Thanks to Zeljko Kiauta for this very interesting interview on his vision of the agent’s job! We will soon find the second part of his interview on the genesis of the Sportiw platform, which he co-created in 2019 to address the issues of sports recruitment.