By Mike Miazga
VolleyballMag.com Senior Writer
Stefano Bartocci is one of the sport’s movers and shakers you might not know about, but definitely should.
Stefano’s Best Sports Management firm represents some of our sport’s most accomplished players from the likes of Lauren Carlini, Carli Lloyd, Chiaka Ogbogu, Alix Klineman (for indoor), Lauren Gibbemeyer, Lauren Paolini, plus Roni Perry, Kara Bajema, Merete Lutz (regarded as one of the top players in the Asian market the last three years), Yaasameen Bedart Ghani (regarded as the best player in Korea right now), plus international stars such as Natalie Zilio Pereira (Brazilian captain), Ana Beatriz Correa, Tainara Santos, Cristina Bauer (French captain), Cuban stars Wilma Salas and Gisele Silva, Dominican standout Brenda Castillo, and many more.
Best Sports Management is an agency focused on helping you achieve a successful career by working only with top athletes and functioning as a big family. “We want to work only with the best players because we are not a common agency. We try to give our clients as much support as we can to develop their careers. We have the biggest average salary in the market which is possible only because we work with Incredible talents and such good athletes.” Stefano said.
Stefano, who is in Columbus for the NCAA women’s finals this weekend, took time to talk to VolleyballMag.com, before leaving for Turkey for the World Championship of club where Chiaka Ogbogu is competing. A number of topics were covered including how BSM got started, the 411 on how available international professional playing opportunities are, what players can expect in terms of pay and benefits playing internationally, why having an agent is important, and advice to U.S. women college student-athletes looking to play professionally.
VBM: How did BSM get started?
SB: Best Sports Management was born in 2007, initially it was for the management of track and field athletes, and winter sports with the management of sponsorship contracts. For many years, we have managed a large part of the Brazilian national track and field team, and many Italian winter sports athletes. Only in 2010 did volleyball arrive at an international level.
Best Sports Management has been on a very long trip over the years that passes through the Olympic and world medals for athletes to Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue services, strange Japan TV show and now with team sports and becoming a reference agency in volleyball.
The legal part is still an important part that we manage internally, but our study to set up is the American model trying to follow all the aspects related to the athlete’s off-court and branding opportunities. But the one thing that has remained despite our growth is that we are a big family. I still hear many athletes who have stopped the activity, but we still share moments and thoughts. This means the relationship has been established that goes beyond — and that means a lot to me. And as in all families, there are moments in which we cry and laugh. The important thing is we do it together.”
VBM: Tell us about your background
SB: I am an ex-athlete. I participated in the Turin Olympics in 2006 in bobsledding. I have
a degree in international affairs and international law. I was an agent in track and field for many Brazilian stars and became an FIVB and international agent starting in 2011. This all started naturally. When I was an athlete, I thought directly about my sponsorship contracts. I directed my studies so they were useful to follow my sports career. At the beginning, being able to do everything by myself, I thought I don’t need a person to help me manage what happens off the pitch or off a bobsled track or athletics track. But then I came up against the harsh reality that an athlete always needs someone to lean on and fight for his rights, not just economic ones. In my last year as a professional athlete, the year of the Turin Olympics, was truly dramatic managing all the economic interests that revolved around, the interviews, the photo-shooting and advertising campaigns, and the political part off the court with the coach, national team director and club directors was very heavy. I realized I had lost sight of the sporting goal on more than one occasion and was not protected by anyone for the non-sports wrongs and negative situations that arose. I told myself I wanted to be the person that other athletes have missed.
VBM: How much of your business today is volleyball-centric?
SB: Our core business now is volleyball, the direct management activity is aimed at volleyball top athletes only. The number of top-level clients has grown so exponentially that we could not fail to give priority over everything to volleyball.
We work worldwide—that is our agency is directed to contract for our athletes in every country in the world, which is a huge use of energy and strength. For this reason, we cannot work with a large number of athletes. Our cap is 100 athletes. For this, we select only the athletes who can be at the top of the world. We do not want to snub good athletes, but the services we provide are many and we cannot offer it to everyone, unfortunately. Sometimes we are very sorry to have to say no to an athlete, but we are a company. We have 13 people who work directly and indirectly within the agency (3 agents and partners, 2 lawyers who are with me the legal department, an athletic trainer always available to our athletes, a trusted doctor, a travel agent, a media manager, 4 accountants and two offices open in the Schengen area and outside the Schengen area).
VBM: How widespread are professional volleyball opportunities worldwide for players coming out of college?
SB: I believe that there are no players who are denied access to a pro career. There are championships for all levels in which all seniors/graduates can have access. You just have to be honest in proposing the appropriate championship for the athlete we are talking about. I see Division I players get experiences around Europe and be happy. It’s an experience I suggest everyone do.
Many athletes need this step before raising the bar and understanding, first, where they can arrive in volleyball, and secondly whether it is better for them to play volleyball professionally or enter the work world. For these types of athletes, there are agencies that are more job-research agencies and not sports managers, but can be more useful than a top-level agency.
Of course, the situation in regards to the top athletes is different. We are talking about players who, with the right program and project, will be the world’s elite for the next maybe 10 years and with the right progress, they will be of interest to U.S. volleyball for the next Olympic cycles.
This is what we take care of: To develop and create a path to get to the world elite, to do this not all championships are good. The first pro years are very important. They are the ones that will give an imprint on your career. And the various leagues are different depending also on the role in which you play. To develop a setter, for example, you have to try to put her in the right high-level sports project right away where she can learn how to manage a pro club, in this case it is very important the coach, the reference championships for this role are very few: Italy, Turkey, Brazil, and in a few clubs in Poland and France. It is possible I prefer to not go in other championships because they are not good enough to train a setter and then the jump to a top club, the risks are too high.
For an outside hitter and a middle blocker, there are more possibilities, but also a lot of competition, so sometimes you insert a player in a project and due to team problems or adaptation, they do not play in the starting six and then you have to be ready to change even in the middle of the league. The first years playing is fundamental, the reference leagues are always the same: Italy, Turkey, Poland, France, some clubs in Germany and some clubs in Greece and Romania with international coaches. In Brazil, the outside hitters better go when they are more trained and experienced. There, the school is very strong and going too early means a player is benched 100 percent of the time and you have a lot of pressure from the media.
For the role of right side hitters (opposites), on the other hand, many more doors are opened. Almost all the Asian championships, Korea, Japan, China and to a lesser extent Thailand and Indonesia, are also very good after a period of school in Europe, and permit to become international stars.
What I do not recommend is to make the leap directly from college to Asia because it is really a shock level of life change. Better a year of apprenticeship in Europe and then you can try the shot there for 2-3 years at most because it is true that they are very profitable championships, but in terms of psycho-physiological stress, they are very difficult championships with very high rhythms and sometimes not an excellent preparation system.
For the libero, it is a little more difficult because foreign limit rules mostly leagues decide to use national players, so the American libero needs to look at lesser-level leagues in France and Germany in the first instance and Romania, Hungary and Finland in the second, but some can have a chance also in Spain, Portugal and Switzerland leagues, unfortunately with low income. With this role, the new American league will help.
So the rule to keep in mind is if you start from too low a level you risk not progressing technically and losing years in leagues that fail to give you even the right monetary satisfaction and many players get lost. When this happens, it is very unpleasant for the movement of the volleyball player. If you start at too high a level, you risk having to take a step back and you have to be ready to accept it because you risk ending up in oblivion and no longer having a market. If the agent you are referring to is aware of the player’s level and has knowledge in all leagues there will be no problems.
VBM: What about pay, benefits, perks, etc.?
SB: In terms of payment, of course our target is to bring the players at the maximum salary possible. We are doing this for business so that is normal, but I suggest every time to not chose based on money to start. If the program we establish with the player is run well, the money will come automatically. Growing up the salary is physiological. We have the best average salary, so when a player starts to work with us, they know they don’t need to be worried about that. Our target every time is the top.
Amenities are important, of course. Top leagues give an apartment, alone at least from the second season, but we try every time to give it at the first season, car and airplane ticket (in business class for the players who reach the high levels). After that we may discuss food, but that is not normal in Europe, but it is important in Asia where the translator also is important. About services, all good teams have medical staff and physiotherapists, but in addition we give our players the chance to use ours or have a second opinion about injuries and kinds of strength preparation.
The length of season for most pro leagues is from September to April/May, but there also are some short leagues like China with high remuneration, or the Philippines that can be considered. They are 2 or 3 months and a player cannot play only this limited time if they haven’t access to the national team program during the summer. Players have a hard time far from home. It is not an easy life and more now with COVID restrictions for travelers.
VBM: What would you say to an American college player contemplating going overseas to play?
SB: If you are a top athlete and you have received an invitation from some agent, talk to everyone you want, don’t make the decision too fast. Take all the time you need to evaluate all of it.
Take all the information possible and try to understand what will be the project and what kind of attention they can give you. Look at their clients and their history. That can help see what they can do for you.
The most common lie is “I am the only one who can bring you this offer.” Don’t believe it.
The other lie is “Where the agent comes from is important.” This is simply untrue. It is important the attention he or she gives you and their presence. If you never see an agent coming to visit you and your team or never look what is going on during the league, that is more important than where they came from.
When you have 360-degrees talked with all the top agencies interested in you, look at the relationship between the agent and the player. It is all about trusting each other, so you will feel it if this is the right choice. If this trust disappears, you should think about changing.
The athlete needs to be focused on the sport part. All the other things involved in a pro life are an obstacle for the athlete if she needs to think on that alone. Honestly, the top market is almost closed if you do not have a good agent. Problems are always around the corner. Having one person take care of it is a nice sigh of relief.
Bad agents can be dangerous for a career. We receive many emails from players wanting to switch agents because of problems. We cannot help all, and if the career is compromised, we cannot help at all. Take your time to make a choice. Take all the information possible. Don’t choose without comparing the situation and choose only agents registered with FIVB so you can claim for any damages.
If you aren’t a top player or some top agency didn’t call you, don’t give up. You can still try to contact the agents yourself or rely on agencies that procure contracts in Europe for all levels of players. There are many chances to have a good experience and enjoy sports life.
The agents are used to sweeten the pill and make everything look good. It is important that every player has an idea of the world volleyball scene.
Playing overseas is not an easy life, but it is an experience to try.