On one side of the bargaining table sit some of the richest, most powerful owners in pro football. On the other is a 25-year-old agent whose beard does little to conceal a baby face. He is demanding hundreds of thousands of dollars for his player clients. Such figures frighten most people. “Fear?” shrugs Michael Trope. “I tremble more playing tennis.”
Such self-confidence has been responsible for $20 million in contracts for his 75 clients in the past five years. This spring has been particularly spectacular: Trope signed up four of the top six NFL draft choices. First, USC tailback Ricky Bell went to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for a reported $1.2 million over five years—a record for rookies. Next, Heisman Trophy winner Tony Dorsett signed on with the Dallas Cowboys, for roughly the same terms, followed by Marvin Powell (New York Jets, $750,000 for five years) and Warren Bryant, who is expected to sign with the Atlanta Falcons for a similar amount. Trope’s slice of this $3.9 million pie amounted to $360,000.
Unlike most agents, he does not charge a full 10 percent commission unless a contract is worth a million dollars or more. “I took zero on some ninth-and tenth-round draft picks,” he says. “I work on a sliding scale because I like to show I have confidence I’ll do well for my clients.”
Former USC star Anthony Davis, for whom Trope negotiated a $1 million deal with the Toronto Argonauts in 1975 and more recently a $490,000 package with Tampa Bay, met Trope in a college biology class. “He sounded unique, while everyone else had the same pitch,” Davis recalls. “Mike was a hustler, but legit. I got criticized for going with a young kid, but I don’t regret it. I’m 24 myself, and when I think of what I’ve got it blows my mind.”
Trope has a reputation for pressing team owners hard. “Of the 25 teams I’ve negotiated with, only three were volatile situations,” he insists (without elaborating). His talks with Dallas about Tony Dorsett, for instance, lasted one afternoon only.
“I’d characterize our negotiations with Trope as quick and businesslike,” says Tex Schramm, president and general manager of the Cowboys. Adds Vice-President Gil Brandt, “I’m not a great believer in agents because so many of them haven’t done well by their clients. But in Trope’s deal with Dorsett, he sacrificed some of his own money.” Ron Wolf, general manager of Tampa Bay, says, “He understands the workings of pro football. It would be silly to try to pull anything on him. He’s been cool and calm in all our negotiations and never exploded.” Nor has Trope been sued—an occupational hazard among pro football agents—in part because he does not try to manage his clients’ money, as many agents do. He merely advises them to buy real estate and take their salaries on a deferred basis. Trope’s assessment of himself as a negotiator: “Fair but inflexible.”
The son of a successful divorce lawyer in Los Angeles, Trope graduated magna cum laude from USC with a major in history. Former classmates recall him as a campus political kingmaker in the manner of alumni Ron Ziegler and Donald Segretti.
Trope set up his first score as an agent while still a senior. In 1972 the best wide receiver in the nation was probably Johnny Rodgers of the University of Nebraska. “I flew to Lincoln on a student standby ticket and went straight to the Cornhuskers practice field,” smiles Trope. He won over the skeptical Rodgers and eventually landed him $1.5 million in Canada. When Rodgers wanted to return to the U.S., Trope negotiated a $925,000-plus contract with the San Diego Chargers.
Besides tennis and a girlfriend, Trope has a peculiar method of relaxing. “What I like most is driving around looking at properties,” he claims. “I made $300,000 on paper on two real estate deals in April alone!” He is also producing a film about sports. Still, there is a hint of fatigue in wunderkind Trope’s voice. “The things that used to excite me don’t now,” he sighs. “The thrill is gone.”