Of these four men in pro sports—Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Phil Esposito, Catfish Hunter and Jack Childers—who makes the most money?
Second question: who in the world is Jack Childers?
Among other things, he’s the answer to the first question. The earnings of the other three men, and scores of big-time athletes like them, indeed have soared in recent years—but not so much because they are performing better. Their business agents are. Jack Childers, 44, of Chicago is probably the most successful of this new breed of sports agent, a millionaire whose income tops that of any of the lavishly paid stars he represents.
From contract negotiations to product endorsements and even complete financial management, Childers extracts maximum gain for his dozens of celebrated clients, among them footballers Merlin Olsen and Dick Butkus, baseball stars Hunter and Lou Brock, basketball’s Oscar Robertson, hockey players Esposito and Dennis Hull, and even woman skier Suzy Chaffee, whom Childers signed on right before she appeared as Town & Country’s first full-page nude. Childers’ most valuable client: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar of the Los Angeles Lakers, who earns an estimated $400,000 annually.
“Jack is different from other agents,” insists Brock, a St. Louis Cardinal outfielder who holds the major league record for base-stealing. “He doesn’t push for an exclusive contract the way other promoters do. Instead he offered to prove himself to me by getting me $20,000 in commercials, endorsements and public appearances for starters. He did that and more in no time.” Suzy Chaffee concurs: “He is soft-sell but efficient. And he is liberated in his dealings with women.”
From his fee of five to 12 percent of each client’s income, Childers, his wife, JoAnn, and their sons, Mike, 17, and Mark, 15, live quite elegantly. Among the conveniences: a 32-room mansion with 14 bathrooms and a well-stocked wine cellar in nearby Lake Forest, Ill., a condominium in Aspen, a huge vacation house in Lake Geneva, Wis., six boats and five cars.
Barely two decades ago, Childers was a college dropout (and a hotshot high school basketball player) who was looking for a way to avoid the draft. He joined the Air Force and for the next six years served as a jet test pilot. During this time he met JoAnn, a slender Texas beauty whose parents frowned on her dating servicemen. JoAnn recalls their courtship: “I always knew when Jack was back from a mission because he used to buzz our house. Sure, I knew he was back, but so did the whole town.” Returning to civilian life, Childers first took a job selling match-books and became the top salesman on the staff within six months. Then he peddled a million Japanese-made T-shirts. “I realized I had an uncanny sense for creating and marketing ideas,” he says.
Childers set up his own promotion agency, selling the “Dino the Dinosaur” idea to Sinclair Oil. Then he won licensing rights to Howdy Doody, Twiggy, James Bond, the Green Hornet and Batman. In 1965 he landed a contract with the Major League Baseball Players Association to hustle products on radio and TV, and that led to signing up individual athletes.
Because of Childers’ consummate talent for plugola, the market today is flooded with Dennis Hull street-hockey pucks, Dick Butkus helmets and Lou Brock sneakers. Catfish Hunter puffs Dutch Masters on TV, Len Dawson gulps down Meadow Gold Milk and Oscar “Big O” Robertson pushes—what else?—SpaghettiOs.
Childers’ record is not unflawed, however. One of his deals—an agreement to let a mail-order house use Butkus’ name for promotional purposes—turned into potential scandal when several of the company’s top officers were indicted for bilking investors out of $300,000. But Childers and Butkus were not implicated. Most of the super agent’s troubles are of a different nature. “We have to tell some companies that they can’t use so-and-so, that he’s too nervous or that he lisps,” sighs Childers. “I probably would have a dozen commercials right now for Chicago Cub José Cardenal—if he could just speak English.”