The words “grind” and “hustle” have become synonymous with a certain type of lifestyle. Whether it be for entrepreneurs or professional athletes, grind and hustle are the very ingredients that often separate the good from the great, which in many cases is the difference between whether it’s a passion or a profession.

It may be a bold statement, but the path to becoming a successful sports agent may be just as difficult as the path to becoming a professional athlete. Just hear us out on this one…

For the uninitiated, a sports agent acts on behalf of athletes, negotiating contracts and endorsement deals to maximize their client’s value. In addition, sports agents also help to promote the athletes they represent by keeping them in the public eye and enhancing their value to prospective employers. Depending on the situation, sports agents may work directly for their clients or in an agency alongside other agents.

A graduate of Syracuse University, Mike Lecce got his start in sports management before he ever stepped foot on a college campus. As a sophomore in high school, Lecce built a relationship with the principal of his school, who happened to also be a sports agent. Mike notes that his principal “received a lot of flack from the community” for his dual professions, as he represented a number of high-profile athletes including Desean Jackson. But this affinity for sports drew the two of them together, and after many conversations (many of which took place in the school’s cafeteria), Lecce began his first sports agent “internship”.

Viral Nation, the leader in Influencer Marketing, Technology, and Talent Management, recently launched its new division, Viral Nation Sports. In this new digital-first, influencer-oriented world we live in, this new venture disrupts traditional talent management models, helping collegiate athletes cultivate long-term and relevant brand partnerships.

The launch of VN Sports follows a June resolution by the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) that now allows college athletes to use their name, image, and likeness (NIL) to seek brand partnership and endorsement deals. This option was previously available to athletes on the professional level, but not collegiate athletes, who were excluded as a result of maintaining their “amateur” status per NCAA regulations. Viral Nation Group’s history in talent and influencer relations provides a strategic advantage for young athletes eager to monetize their influence on social media.

Tapped as VN Sports Vice President, Mike Lecce joins Viral Nation with over a decade of experience in commercial management and representation of professional athletes, including the likes of future Hall of Famer David’ Big Papi’ Ortiz, Houston Astros All-Star Alex Bregman, and Jose Bautista. Lecce will lead recruiting and brand partnerships for VN Sports.

We sat down with Mike to discuss a number of topics, most notably the effect the new NIL ruling will have on college athletes, and how the entire influencer marketing industry is changing as a result.

Thanks for sitting down with us today Mike, it’s a pleasure to finally get to talk to you. We spoke a bit about how you got started as a sports agent earlier. Care to elaborate a bit on how you got into the game?

“Yeah, so I started working with my high-school principal over the summer of my sophomore year. He had 15 minor league baseball players that he was representing and he tasked me with trying to see if I could get them any free products. I was able to secure some product for these guys, a couple of which played for the Yankees, the Mets, and the Dodgers. I kind of transitioned from that into my schooling at Syracuse (University), and my foot in the door per se was really a lot of trial by fire – whether that be from education or from agency experience. After I graduated, I went to ESPN and worked on Stephen A. Smith’s radio show, and from there was put in touch with a gentleman who worked with David Ortiz, where I was representing him and a number of other professional athletes until I recently came on board here at Viral Nation.”

That’s really cool, man. Not many people can say they got their start in sports representation in this fashion, so your story is really unique. Outside of some of the bigger names we mentioned, like David Ortiz and Alex Bregman, what other athletes have you represented?

“So, the most lucrative sports are the ones that don’t have unions, just by nature. So the individual sports are super important, you know, the golfers, the gymnasts, those types of athletes. One of the first guys I got the pleasure of representing was a guy named Jake Dalton, who was on the U.S. Gymnastics team. Super nice, down-to-earth kid. You would think you were the client and he was the agent with how he treated you, just very kind and personable. But I think that (U.S.) team medaled a couple of times. But just going through the process is so cool with all these guys and girls, because they have such a short period of time to make money.”

Right, that window is so small for athletes in that particular arena of sport.

“Right. It’s not like they are really getting paid to do this. So as an agent, they are really leaning on you to help them. Alot of my other clientele was entire agent rosters for some of these more tenured agents. So would it behoove me to take care of the guy at the top of the list? Of course. But when you can take care of the guy at the bottom of the list, those agents don’t forget that type of stuff.

With that said, we worked with guys like Tobias Harris, Edwin Encarnacion, I mean…I had a lot of experience in Toronto. Guys like James Van Riemsdyk and Jack Eichel. I recruited Jack about a year before I left. He was a big name, but it was sometimes tough to get things going for him, mostly because the pandemic just hit everybody hard, specifically those small-market teams. Represented a lot of guys in hockey. Josh Jacobs is another guy we represented during his rookie year, so that was really cool. We secured him some trading card deals, which is huge for these guys. And it’s not like I’m some ‘super’ agent or something, it’s really all about hustle at the end of the day.”

Clearly, you have some heavy hitters in your lineup, no pun intended. Guys like David Ortiz are probably going to be in the Hall of Fame someday. But earlier, you touched on how it isn’t just about the ‘big guys’ when it comes to being a successful agent.  

“Yeah, I think it comes down to how intimidating it can be with the big guys, the ‘sticker shock’ so to say. You know, guys like David (Ortiz), you’re John Hancock and you ask for a half-million bucks, it’s like ‘whoa’. So instead, can I piece together ten names for you guys? Back in 2016-2017, not too many guys were doing bulk deals. But this is where it ties in really nicely with Viral Nation, because it’s like diversifying your content strategy with ten micro-influencers who all have a passionate, niche following instead of devoting the entire budget to one macro-influencer.  I can get you ten different kids from different regions who totally hit the demographics, and we can use a lot of the technology that we have behind us. It’s just a more strategic move. ”

“It’s not like I’m some ‘super’ agent or something, it’s really all about hustle at the end of the day.”

In part two of our Q & A series with Mike, we will be taking a deeper dive into NIL and the opportunities college athletes have with monetizing their social content. Stay tuned for more!

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