Super Lawyer to the Superstars

Bob Woolf plays a winning game of contract negotiation for the likes of Larry Bird

THE experience of negotiating more than 2,000 contracts for professional athletes has taught Bob Woolf much about the process - including how unsettling it can be. Mickey Redmond, a high-scoring hockey player with the Detroit Red Wings, once fainted into Woolf's arms at the bargaining table. Not surprisingly, the prominent Boston attorney doesn't encourage his clients' direct participation in contract talks.

``Sometimes to the person it's very emotional,'' Mr. Woolf says. ``That's why it's important to get someone else to do the negotiating.'' As the athlete's representative, ``you care, but you don't care that much. You can be a lot more objective.''

A little dispassion, he's found, can help to avoid anxiety and acrimony. And certainly, it prevents the kind of hostility that surfaced recently when another agent was roughed up by an an executive of pro basketball's Charlotte (N.C.) Hornets. The club official later apologized, but not until he'd lost his cool while trying to sign the team's top draft choice.

To Woolf, whose most prominent athletic client is basketball's Larry Bird, confrontations of that sort should never happen. ``I don't believe you have to be disagreeable to disagree,'' he says, expounding on a philosophical point driven home in his new book, ``Friendly Persuasion'' (see boxed review).

The book project took five years, and Woolf (who seems to relish the attention) is eager to discuss it. Stacks of review copies sit on a couch in his spacious 45th-floor office decorated with sports memorabilia. It also has a fine view of Fenway Park.

Woolf refuses to use the word ``demand'' in negotiations. ``I say `these are my recommendations'; `this is my proposal'; `this is my suggestion'; `can you live with this?' ... I'm giving you the same proposal, but it's much nicer and will get a much nicer response. I don't believe you win through intimidation.''

He trusts people to differentiate between hard-nosed (but courteous) bargaining and mean-spirited ones. ``Just as a dog knows the difference between being kicked and being accidentally stepped on, people know when they're being treated well and being mistreated,'' he says.

Woolf says that both parties win in a good negotiation. And to achieve that outcome, a lot of homework is necessary to establish what the financial parameters are and what is reasonable.

``I always work within the economics of the sport,'' he says. Woolf has lived through the demise of the American Basketball Association, the World Football League, the World Hockey Association, and the United States Football League, and realizes there's no sense in hammering out contracts so lucrative they bankrupt leagues and franchises.

``I want the team to make money; they're entitled to make money,'' Woolf says. ``They take all the risks and put up all the money. I just want my client to participate in the growth of the industry.''

Woolf, who typically receives a 3-to-5 percent share of an athlete's salary, has been a major beneficiary of this growth. A budding criminal lawyer in the early 1960s, his career took a fortuitous turn in 1964 when Boston Red Sox pitcher Earl Wilson chose Woolf to represent him.

Before long, other sports stars in and out of Boston were knocking on his door. Over the years he has represented more than 500 athletes, including local heroes Carl Yastrzemski, John Havlicek, and Doug Flutie, during a period of skyrocketing salaries.

The name on the door remains simple - Bob Woolf Associates, Inc. - but indications of the company's growth and prosperity are obvious. Forty people occupy well-appointed offices on parts of two floors. There is a small branch office in Miami, and a second just opened in Beverly Hills, Calif., to serve West Coast clients, including Hollywood stars.

Woolf takes obvious pleasure in dealing with stars from different spheres. Besides going to bat for the rich and famous of sports, he represents violinist Itzhak Perlman, former Lebanon hostage Frank Reed, and the New Kids on the Block rock group.

Woolf has been riding the crest of a wave for more than two decades, and is frequently asked when the bubble will burst on sports salaries.

``It will only burst,'' he says, ``when the money coming from television diminishes, and eventually it's got to diminish.''

THE sums TV currently pays to broadcast sports events are ``outrageous,'' Woolf acknowledges. They are driven, he says, not by economic considerations, but by the pursuit of prestige. ``The television companies can't afford to lose baseball, basketball, or football.''

The day of financial reckoning in sports hasn't arrived, ``but it's getting there,'' he says. ``Any time the economy starts to go bad, that's a sign.''

Until a downturn really hits, though, Woolf suspects the sky's still the limit, especially in the National Basketball Association, where he says the average salary is $1 million a year. Within five years, he predicts, the league will produce the first $10 million-a-year player.

The client who has done the most to make Woolf's projections realistic is Larry Bird, who will receive $6 million from the Boston Celtics this season.

The Bird-Woolf relationship began in 1979, when Woolf earned the right to represent Bird in professional negotiations. The right was bestowed by a group of civic leaders in Terre Haute, Ind., where a committee had formed to guide the Indiana State University star. The committee interviewed about 60 candidates, some at great length. Woolf says he was grilled for eight hours without Bird being present. Larry finally appeared when Woolf was recalled for a follow-up, four-hour session. Eventually the field was narrowed to two - Woolf and Reuven Katz, a noted Cincinnati attorney. Woolf got the nod. The day after the announcement, Bird flew to Boston. ``I asked him why he signed with me,'' Woolf recalls, ``and he said, `To tell you the truth, Mr. Woolf, that other fellow was too smart for me, so I chose you.'''

Given the proliferation of agents, including many with flimsy credentials, Woolf has taken special pride in this endorsement from Middle America. ``I considered it a way to prove my credentials,'' he says.

His professional portfolio includes 38 years practicing law (he politely points out that he is a sports attorney, not an agent). As such, he can provide a full menu of services, everything from drafting wills to arranging endorsements to preparing taxes and making prenuptial agreements.

But after years in the sports world, has he tired of it? Hardly. It's been like a Walter Mitty existence from the beginning, he says. And ``it's still like that.''

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