NetWorks Sports Spotlight Interview with Joby Branion – Co-Founder & Executive Director, Athletes First (@athletesfirst)

NetWorks Sports Spotlight Interview with….Joby Branion – Co-Founder & Executive Director, Athletes First
By Tracey Savell Reavis

Joby Branion, Co-Founder & Executive Director at Athletes First

For Joby Branion, the route from athlete to agent was about as predictable as going undefeated for an entire season in the NFL. Youth football in his hometown of Wareham, Mass., led to a scholarship to Duke University, where he played four years and earned All-ACC honors. But when the former Blue Devil defensive back got cut by the Washington Redskins, what followed was 10 years in a school administrator’s job, grad school and law school, and a stint as a corporate lawyer.

It wasn’t until 1996 when a friend of a friend informed Joby of an opportunity to work with Leigh Steinberg’s sports representation firm.  His perception of sports agents up to that point had been that they were enablers who told their clients whatever they thought they wanted to hear. Since that was not his makeup, Joby initially wanted no part. It took more than a little research before he decided to give it a try. It was a decision that would turn out to be a wise one.

Today, Joby is Co-Founder & Executive Director of Athletes First, a bicoastal sports representation agency that opened its doors in 2001.  As the agency’s name suggests, they focus on personalized service. For Joby, that means not only being there for clients, but being honest with them. Even if it’s not what they want to hear. In addition to big name NFL players like Mark Sanchez, Matt Hasselbeck and Ray Lewis, Athletes First reps baseball and basketball players and a number of coaches. Among the services Athletes First offers its clients are contract expertise, a pre-draft training program, PR, and negotiating marketing/endorsement deals. It’s this work that gives Joby the opportunity to do something he loves – sharing his life experiences so that he helps young men navigate life’s minefield of important decisions.

Post-draft, post-lockout and, finally, post-season kickoff, Joby spoke with us about some of the benefits of focusing less on a specific destination and instead on enjoying the journey.

Can you describe what the atmosphere was like at Athletes First during the 135-day NFL lockout?
The biggest difference from normal years was that there’s usually more communication with general managers and teams. And we didn’t have that during the lockout. And we take our relationship with our clients seriously. We keep them informed, give them the best advice. It was harder to do that during the lockout. So for us it was a challenge, a new landscape.

And when it was over?
A mad rush of deal making that had to be done in an extraordinarily condensed period of time. Free agency was a very intense time with so many contracts being signed when normally there’s plenty of time to prepare. It’s not back to normal yet.

Were there any priorities your agency set as soon as the lockout ended?
No, no priorities. All deals were just as important – free agents, veterans. Every individual client believes their situation takes priority – so we do also. We worked around the clock to get everything done.

Athletes First client Von Miller of the Denver Broncos

One of Athletes First clients is Von Miller [drafted second overall by the Denver Broncos]. Can you talk a little about him being named as a plaintiff in the class-action lawsuit filed against the NFL by the Player’s Association?


He was approached at first, informally, before the lawsuit was even filed. It came up, if I remember correctly, at a cocktail party, in the abstract. Then there were follow up discussions. We talked to him about what the plusses and minuses would be for him. We pointed out that a general manager might look at this as a negative. But at the end of the day, Von was excited to join the other players. He was doing it as a way to keep the lockout from happening or to stop it if it did happen. Not anti-NFL, but saying I’m “pro” playing.

In the end it showed him to be a thoughtful man, who can take a stance on something. It turned out a positive, a good move on his part.

What do you think of the new, 10-year Collective Bargaining Agreement? Which side made out the best?
Well, in any negotiation there are trade offs. But I think both sides are happy. There is a long-term labor agreement in place now. And I think that says stability, and it adds to the value of the sport from a fans point of view. I’m glad it’s resolved.

Do you think the play in the league this season will ultimately be affected by the lockout?
It’s hard to say. There was some rumbling before about players not being able to participate in offseason training, that they’d be out of shape, at higher risk of injury. I don’t think we’ll really know until the end of the season.

What importance would you put on sports in your life, and the role it has played in shaping who you are?
Growing up it was difficult being around a stepmother and with no father. Football became like a surrogate father. It was my source of self worth and confidence. Football helped get me from childhood into adulthood. It is such an intense feeling playing football – the cheering, coming out onto the field, being with your teammates. There’s nothing in the real world like that. I tell people all the time, ‘You will always remember the last day you play’. I can still remember the last time I put on a football helmet. It took me several years to get that feeling out of my life. It was very hard to walk away from the game.

Can you talk about the career decisions you’ve made that eventually led to you to being a sports agent and doing something that you love?
Well I wanted to play pro football. Everybody wants to be a pro – in sports, in music. But that didn’t happen.  I got hired as the Director of Minority Admissions at Duke. I had a lot of interaction with faculty and staff and students. I got to travel. I got to grow and learn. Then I moved to the west coast to go to grad school at UCLA, and the experience was dramatically different. But the move improved my network. Each step I’ve made was an effective way to improve skills that I could always use in life. I think I got a much richer set of life experiences because of the choices I made.

What kind of skills do you think are important to have in order to be successful?
Expose yourself to things. Network. I harp on the importance of networking. But it’s not to be hyper-focused on a specific number of friends on Facebook. The quality of relationships is more important. And challenge yourself. Those are the cornerstones to happiness and success, and to waking up everyday feeling good about what you’re doing.

What lessons about work and life have you learned that you share with others?
I would encourage everyone to have as many diversified experiences as possible. I counsel young people all the time, don’t feel like you have to make a permanent decision about your career early on. If people ask you what you want to do, or what your plans are, it’s okay to say I’m not sure. Don’t feel like you’re a loser at 22 if you don’t know what you want. Just whatever you do, always look to make decisions that will increase your options.

Is there anything you haven’t done that you wish you had, or anything you would have done differently?
Yeah, there is – that I didn’t take as much advantage of the chance to study abroad.

And in some ways I wish I could have done Duke without being an athlete, just to see what that would have been like.

Joby Branion



Favorit Sport after Football: Lacrosse
On His Nightstand: The Help, by Kathryn Stockett
Hobbies: Whatever my three young sons happen to be into at the moment – today it is Call of Duty on PS3!
Favorite Musician: Prince
In His Music Library: Aside from his majesty Prince, everything from Lil Wayne and Adele to Stevie Wonder and David Sanborn
Favorite Movie: Pulp Fiction
Daily Newspaper: The New York Times, USA Today, and The Washington Post
Favorite Quote: “If you can be bought, you can be sold!” ~ Anonymous

Follow Athletes First on Twitter @AthletesFirst and find out more about Joby, Athletes First, and their clients on the A1 website

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