From May 2018: a Hoop Scoop column for The Japan Times.
By Ed Odeven
Building relationships is a vital part of being a successful pro sports agent.
Sustaining relationships is equally important, but it’s an often trickier task in the cutthroat world of pro basketball. After all, agents come and go in this ultra-competitive business, and maintaining trust and meaningful two-way communication between agents and clients and teams takes skill.
Debora Zoli’s expanding business is a case study in building a portfolio of success in the 21st century. She toils in a field dominated by men. Currently, her fluctuating list of clients (players and coaches) now has about 45 individuals’ names on it with contracts lined up in Australia, Italy, Germany, Japan, Taiwan, Vietnam, England, the Netherlands and Hong Kong.
FIBA’s official agent directory, which boasts more than 500 names, lists about two dozen female agents in its latest global offering. In September 2017, Washington Post sportswriter Candace Buckner penned a feature on Danielle Cantor, who at the time was the only female agent certified by the National Basketball Players Association representing an active NBA player, according to the article. Cantor is well-known “super agent” David Falk’s partner.
And how does Zoli, who was born and raised near Faenza, Italy (pop: about 50,000), which is located within 100 km of both Bologna and Florence, navigate these very real challenges, including in Japan?
“I try to build a relationship of trust with a team, where I know that they trust me and give my opinion about players that they know I’m saying the truth and I’m not trying to cheat them,” Zoli told Hoop Scoop during a recent interview in Tokyo that was a part of her annual spring visit to Japan, with the whirlwind 2018 eight-day tour also including stops in Ibaraki, Osaka, Kyoto, Hiroshima, Fukuoka and Kumamoto prefectures.
“The other challenge is it’s definitely a competition. There are a lot of agents that are out there. . .”
Zoli took the exam for her FIBA license in 2007, the year the certification process was established, in Geneva, It was a one-day ordeal, and she received online material beforehand to study for the test.
More than a decade later, Zoli, now 36, reflected on the challenges of her chosen career and provided some insights on what it takes to succeed as a female agent.
“Definitely, I think it depends on your personality. If you stand up and show that you can work well, you can earn the respect of your clients and the teams,” commented Zoli, who went to Lubbock, Texas, as a high school junior to study English for six months. “Even if I’m a woman, but you’re a coach and every year I’m sending you good players, it doesn’t really matter if I’m a woman or a man, it means I’m good at my job.
“Probably my clients are happy with me because I’m very precise and diligent. So it’s more a matter of personality at the end than a gender (issue),” Zoli added with a laugh, while also nodding in agreement with this reporter’s view that she has an outgoing personality.
Her upbringing as an only child in a close-knit family in a small north-central Italian town cemented this aspect of her character.
“You need to speak to everybody,” Zoli stated, “because you can learn something from somebody else, and sometimes you can learn a different story from every person. And if you don’t talk to people, if you’re not outgoing, it’s very difficult to create opportunities.”
One of Zoli’s clients, Iwate Big Bulls head coach Donte’ Hill, summed up her approach to the job by extolling the virtues of her hard work. He began by saying that four words sum up her work: “committed, resourceful, knowledgeable, passionate.”
“Deb is all about what’s best for her clients,” Hill told Hoop Scoop. “For example, she wants to put her clients in a position that is best for them, not what’s best for her. She puts her clients’ needs before hers and this is the strength of her ability to gain respect from her clients.”
Hill continued: “Her negotiations are amazing because she knows the values of her clients and she knows the needs of the team or organization that is interested. So when she speaks to teams on their behalf she shares how that client will impact the goals that the team has and how they are a great fit. Nine times out of 10, she is right.
“Deb does her homework and her passion to prepare is strong. It doesn’t matter if you are a woman or man. If you focus on making great partnerships and creating success for all, then you will continue to build a reputation for delivering the best of the best.
“Deb is all about the win-win. She wants the client and team to win. She’s happiest when those two factors work out and create an amazing partnership because she put them together.”
Yes, that personal touch plays a big part in Zoli’s success. As chief executive officer of DG Sport Consultancy, LLC, she runs her business out of her Los Angeles office. But really, all corners of the globe serve as a virtual office.
“Deb has a unique ability in keeping up with all the trends that are taking place and shows she cares about her clients,” Hill related. “If a client has a good game, she will text. If a coach gets a win, she will send that text. She’s always communicating with everybody. You can look to expect a phone call from her at least once a month but she’s always in the loop on you as a player and/or coach.
“What makes Deb special is that she’s a businesswoman. She’s focused on the business and that means meetings, deadlines, flying to meet teams, and taking advantage of meeting clients during the offseason. The funny thing with Deb is if you are in town or in a one-hour radius she will make it her business to make sure you can connect. Even if it is for 15-30 minutes to showcase her commitment to building a strong business network.”
Japan-based businessman Todd Wiley described Zoli as an ideal business partner.
“My value is in building the relationships here and using my language skills,” said Wiley, who represents the agency in Asia. “Hers is a worldwide network and a work ethic that most Japanese find startling for a foreigner. I’ve known her to work through the night to complete a deal or to get up at all hours of the night to assist or negotiate when necessary. So one of her strengths is she simply outhustles everyone else.”
Illustrating Zoli’s ambitious international ambitions and focus on the value of relationships, Hall of Famer Clyde Drexler serves as DG Sport Consultancy’s global ambassador.
A road less traveled
Italy’s passion for soccer influenced Zoli in her formative years, and her father was a quality player in his younger years. Not surprisingly, she considered a career in sports management related to soccer.
But, in 2001, after completing her studies, she began working in her early 20s as a translator and assistant to the president of Imola, a top-division basketball club at the time in Italy. While there, she gained experienced dealing with American players (there were six at the time) and translating the contracts into English. This work got her involved in communicating with agents.
“And that’s how I started to understand how the actual job was going,” she says now.
Recognizing there were limited opportunities to find work in professional soccer — Zoli said there were “tons of agents,” giving the example of one big-shot soccer prospect who was being pursued by 20 or 30 agents — she capitalized on the experience she gained at Imola.
“So the competition was too extreme for me and so that’s why I thought, ‘Well, I enjoy basketball, so maybe it was a little easier for me to start in that sport.’ And I actually even got more passion about basketball than soccer right now.”
Zoli didn’t transform the experience gained at Imola into a super busy career right away. It took time. She paid her dues, being diligent and patient. She described those first few years on the job as “more like a hobby. I could not make a living.”
And so she relocated to Dubai, where she worked at a real estate agency for five years while continuing to gain additional experience as a young agent.
Veteran forward Ruben Boykin, who plays for the Sunrockers Shibuya and is represented by Zoli, said Zoli’s track record of success in Japan is paying dividends. Among the clients represented by Zoli and Wiley are established stars Michael Parker (Chiba Jets Funabashi, who are vying for the B1 title), Rick Rickert (Ibaraki Robots, a B2 title contender) and Josh Peppers (Rizing Zephyr Fukuoka, another B2 playoff-bound club). She brokered a deal with another sports agency to bring standout center Joshua Smith, who is sixth in the B. League in both scoring (17.0 points) and rebounding (9.5), to the Kyoto Hannaryz this season.
DG Sport Consultancy has also represented coaches Zeljko Pavlicevic and Bill Cartwright, among others, in recent years.
“I think Debora is doing a really good job of helping players find contracts in Japan. She knows a lot of GMs and coaches that trust her word,” said Boykin, a Northern Arizona University alum.
In the future, Zoli said she’d also like to represent NBA players, listing it as one of her goals as she continues to expand her business step by step.
The foundation is already there; she has a working partnership with ex-NBA player Toby Bailey, who spent time in Italy as a player and now works as an agent. “I sign most of his clients overseas,” she noted. But the work never stops. Teams are always looking for new players. Preparing for the upcoming season keeps her busy.
Case in point: Last offseason, Zoli organized a basketball showcase event for 22 players (four of whom signed pro contracts) in Los Angeles, and plans are in place for a second annual event on June 15 and 16 at the Shoot 360 complex in Torrance, California. The plan is for 25-30 invited players. She said six or seven Japan teams will send personnel to California for the event, using it as a recruiting tool for next season. The two-day showcase will offer opportunities to evaluate players during drills, workouts and scrimmages. Of course, it will keep Zoli in the center of things and remind potential clients of her role in the grand scheme of things.
Role of role models
Zoli doesn’t constantly seek publicity tied to the fact that her job is not a traditional role for women, but she’s happy to discuss her experiences if you ask her about them. And she won’t reject requests for advice if she’s asked.
“I had younger guys that emailed me and asked me some advice and suggestions on how to start this career, but not many women,” she admitted. “I will be honest, I did not find many girls/young women that approached me to ask me information on this kind of occupation. I think there is interest from young women in working in the sports business, but maybe in different fields, like sport events or sport marketing, public relations, media, but very few approached me because they were interested in becoming an agent. Most of the women I know who are involved in basketball follow women’s basketball only.”
Though she was invited to a few speaking engagements for high school students in Long Beach, California in recent years, Zoli had scheduling conflicts.
“Although I would be open to share information and be happy to advise people who want to start this career,” she told me, “I would not really say I’d like to be a mentor, but I would be open in attending conferences, seminars or programs (sometimes).”
A decade and a half after beginning to establish her roots in pro basketball, Zoli still draws inspiration from the crème de la crème of European soccer agents, Jorge Mendes, whom she called “the best soccer agent in the world.”
“He built an empire out of nowhere and now he basically represents the most important coaches and players in the world — Cristiano Ronaldo, Jose Mourinho,” Zoli marveled. “I have always been so fascinated about his story. Even if he does not work in basketball but in soccer, he has always been an example I am trying to follow to be successful.”
Zoli cited sports marketing and endorsement deals as key aspects of Mendes’ business.
“He is covering every aspect and that is the same thing I am trying to do with my company,” Zoli said. “I am definitely very interested in expanding my company in the endorsements and marketing business and this is what I am trying to build at the moment. I am trying to build connections/partnerships with sport and corporations, which can be beneficial for both sides. Asia is actually a great market for that.”