Inside the war room

Mock free agency period illuminates the art of negotiation

In Saturday’s free agency simulation, QSIC student delegates assumed the roles of players, agents and team executives and negotiated mock million-dollar contracts.
In Saturday’s free agency simulation, QSIC student delegates assumed the roles of players, agents and team executives and negotiated mock million-dollar contracts.
Delegates emerged from breakout rooms and convened in the Goodes atrium to sign their unofficial contracts.
Delegates emerged from breakout rooms and convened in the Goodes atrium to sign their unofficial contracts.

Hunkered down in a Goodes Hall breakout room, the Houston Rockets have $21 million to spend.

Four team executives huddled around a table last Saturday, knowing their basketball club had an hour to fulfill four objectives: finding a point guard, a power forward, a top defensive player and a veteran leader. The names and attributes of NBA stars, each a newly-minted free agent, were printed on the stack of papers before them.

The executives weren’t seeking real players, of course, and the money on hand was purely theoretical. The Rockets brass was a group of student delegates at the Queen’s Sports Industry Conference (QSIC), each of them guinea pigs in an innovative sporting experiment.

“Simulation Saturday,” the first in QSIC’s nine-year history, saw the conference’s delegates split into the roles of player, agent or team executive and told to embark on a veritable free agent frenzy.

By negotiating and signing contracts, each group sought to achieve a specific set of criteria — making the most money, luring the best players, and so on — as part of an overarching peek into a mysterious corner of the sports industry.

Four Queen’s Commerce students and a Journal reporter holed up in room 149, with a Rockets logo printed onto loose leaf and plastered to the door. After a brief tutorial, marketing the Rockets to the players they wanted was up to them.

Brad Shafran peruses a stat sheet at the head of the table; to his right, Danielle Amirault logs into the team’s personalized Gmail account. Across Goodes, 11 other teams are competing for 22 players, each represented by an agent. In room 149, the Rockets deliberated.

First, they talked about power forwards. Several quality options are available, but nearly every one is too expensive. Shafran has his sights set on David Lee: the veteran All-Star could be a leader, but his current salary of $12 million is hefty.

“David Lee’s a good player, but Amir Johnson is so much more athletic and energetic,” Shafran said. “I’m honestly not sure.”

Just outside the door, the QSIC executive have set up a podium and backdrop, waiting for players, agents and teams to convene in the atrium and confirm the contracts they had arranged.

Early on, though, the lobby stays quiet, and the Rockets continue to talk. Point guard Mario Chalmers is a decent player and wouldn’t cost much. Tony Allen would be nice to get, but he’d be highly sought after as an inexpensive lockdown defender. Forward Rudy Gay? “Honestly, he sucks,” Shafran said.

The decision is made to target Lee, despite his elevated price tag, and Chalmers, a relative bargain that could satisfy two of Houston’s four objectives.

Amirault, Comm ’14, begins drafting an email to Lee’s agents, determined to woo the power forward from his current team.

“It’s so hard to lure him away from Golden State,” Shafran said. “They’re a similar team, but they do everything better than us.”

As Amirault presses “send”, the focus suddenly shifts. An email has arrived from Amir Johnson’s agency, expressing the power forward’s willingness to sign with Houston.

Shafran and Amirault rise from their chairs and enter the atrium, which has been suddenly thrust into chaos. Twenty minutes in, several signings have apparently been arranged, with teams and agents juking through the fracas to find each other.

The announcement comes through the microphone: the Rockets have signed Mario Chalmers for $5.15 million. There’s no word on Johnson; Amirault tears off in pursuit of his agent, while the delegate playing Chalmers signs his name at the podium.

Back in the Rockets breakout room, Shafran works the laptop. Another email pops up. “Let’s talk about Paul Pierce,” Shafran reads from the screen. “Let’s not,” he replies aloud.

Practically on cue, Pierce’s agent bursts through the door and lays out an aggressive pitch. He wants a team for his client, an aging small forward, and hopes he can convince Shafran to agree to terms on the spot.

Amirault returns with news: they’ve signed Amir Johnson for $6 million. Pierce’s agent is chased out as the Rockets calculate their remaining cap space.

Two new players are under contract; with just under $10 million left to work with, the Rockets want another. Rudy Gay’s agent enters the room to make his pitch, but he’s more timid than Pierce’s representative, and his requests are quickly dismissed.

In the corner of the atrium, Shafran is deep in conversation with — of all people — Pierce’s agent. Several minutes after deriding his declining productivity, the market has shifted, and the Rockets are suddenly in on the veteran forward.

Terms are hammered out within minutes, and Pierce becomes the third Houston Rocket to sign. Shafran and Amirault pose at the podium and return to room 149. Rudy Gay’s agent wanders by, desperate to pawn his client off for whatever sum, but he’s told that the Rockets are done for the day.

Houston has spent $21.4 million on three players, with Pierce’s contract pushing them slightly over their salary limit.

Later, they’ll learn that their free agent haul placed them third overall in the team standings. For now, though, the executives sit in limbo, reflecting on their crash course in the art of negotiation.

“If we’d gone at the very expensive players right away, we probably could have gotten some stellar deals on them, in retrospect,” Shafran said. “We ended up going with a little bit cheaper talent, but still quality players.”

He glances to his right; just outside the door, clusters of delegates continue to mill, consummating the weekend’s final mock deals.

“There was a lot of brotherhood, honestly. Everybody’s running around for their team,” Shafran said. “Even though nobody really knows how you win this simulation, everybody’s trying to win.”

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