Earlier this month, MLB Trade Rumors reported that controversial Cincinnati Reds hurler Trevor Bauer had hired Rachel Luba and her new agency, Luba Sports, as his new representation, thereby becoming Luba’s new client. Luba is an experienced attorney, but nonetheless has faced no small amount of sexism during her climb through the industry. Last week, Luba talked to Beyond the Box Score’s Sheryl Ring about her new agency, Bauer being her first client, and her experiences as a woman in the male-dominated baseball and legal worlds.
Sheryl Ring: What makes your agency different than others in the industry? What’s your competitive advantage?
Rachel Luba: In addition to charging an hourly rate versus the traditional agency fee structure, Luba Sports offers an array of a la carte services that allow hyper-customization for our clients. By using this model and allowing players to choose what services they desire and are important to them at various stages in their careers, we ensure that our incentives are always aligned with theirs. Contract negotiations are much less of an art nowadays and are becoming increasingly more of a science. Teams are developing more definitive ways of valuing players based on statistics and analytics, and I feel that we can mirror that process on our side at Luba Sports.
SR: There’s been substantial discussion in baseball circles about your commission structure. What is that structure, why did you choose it, and how does it differ from the traditional commission structure?
Luba: Most agencies charge a percentage of the contract value. Luba Sports charges an annual flat fee to retain the services plus an hourly rate for the work that is put in. In the traditional agency model, a player may be charged anywhere from $24,000 to $22 million — regardless of the time the agent spends on the player’s behalf. With our model, players are paying for the value of the services rather than for the value of their contract.
SR: There are very few women and non-men currently working as professional sports agents, and even fewer in Major League Baseball. What challenges have you faced, and do you expect to face, being a woman agent? How do you think your path differs from male agents?
Luba: From the moment I decided that this was the career I wanted to have, I have been warned and advised against it. From being told time and time again that I was not welcome in the industry, to being continually advised to “be a marketing agent—females thrive doing that,” it has definitely been an uphill battle. There was even a point during the beginning of law school, where I considered going by my initials, “RE”—or “Ari”—as it had a more gender-neutral sound to it. I was constantly trying to downplay my gender. But after some time, I realized that being a woman wasn’t something to be ashamed of. I realized that while the industry seemed to be wary of it, the players themselves were actually rather supportive and saw me as an aspiring agent rather than a woman aspiring to be an agent.
With the launch of Luba Sports, I am proud to take a step forward as a female in this industry. I understand that I may be seen as an underdog, but I am okay with that – I have always thrived in that role. A close mentor of mine told me early on that every time I walk into a room, unlike my male counterparts, I will have to prove that I belong there — and he wasn’t wrong. But that has forced me to learn the game in ways I’m not sure I would ever bother to do had I just grown up as a male playing it. I have studied analytics at length, spent time with scouts going to games and learning how they evaluate talent, and spent time in training facilities to learn about the player development side of the sport. It’s difficult to predict future challenges, but I am confident in my abilities and what we are building at Luba Sports.
In terms of my path, I didn’t grow up playing baseball. Rather, I spent two decades as a gymnast. As many athletes can attest, being a gymnast taught me how to set goals and work for them. I knew that becoming a baseball agent was what I wanted to do and I figured out a way to get myself here. Along the way, it was important that I earn a law degree, something that I was long advised to pursue to increase my credibility in the industry. Over the years, I have also made sure that I am over-prepared every time I walked into a room. At the end of the day, I truly believe that having a different background than my competition has allowed me to come in with a fresh perspective that’s not clouded by tradition—and I think that can be valuable in this industry.
SR: Your resume is very impressive – time at the MLBPA, with Beverly Hills Sports Council, and at Farrell and Reisinger, among other stops. What did each of those jobs teach you about being a sports agent? What do you think you still have to learn?
Luba: My experience with Reisinger and the MLBPA gave me such a unique experience with salary arbitration— one most agents will never have a chance to receive. I have been part of over 25 salary arbitration hearings the last few years which has given me a really strong understanding of how the arbitration system works. Additionally, I got to see the good, the bad, and the ugly, when it comes to athlete representation during my time at the MLBPA. I saw what worked and what didn’t work. I have learned a lot from all of my roles leading up to Luba Sports, and I think that each one gave me an even better understanding of the framework to understand how agencies traditionally operate. My time at the MLBPA specifically gave me more confidence that there is room for something different and that the industry is ready for something innovative and new.
That being said, I think it is critical to stay hungry and to continue learning and evolving. I never want to be in a position where I think I know it all and am no longer seeking to find better, more efficient ways to operate and service my clients.
SR: You spent several years working on salary arbitration cases, first as a law clerk and later at the MLBPA. What was your experience with respect to how MLB teams approach salary arbitration? Does that influence how you view labor relations between the league and union moving forward?
Luba: It’s definitely a unique process, and one unlike anything else in professional sports. Arbitration hearings are an adversarial process by nature, so at the end of the day, both sides do their best to advocate on behalf of their client. It’s an interesting environment in a hearing room, that’s for sure.
SR: What do you believe, in your experience, is the greatest challenge to labor relations right now?
Luba: I think we are all looking ahead to the upcoming 2021 Bargaining Agreement. It is widely known that there is tension on both sides, and it will be interesting to see how it all plays out.
SR: What mistakes do you believe other agents have made which you plan to avoid?
Luba: I’m not here to tear anyone else down. I know a lot of these agents, and I think that many of them are great at what they do. My primary focus is on the players. I want to run an agency that has the players’ interestsin mind and one that aligns the agent’s incentives with those of the players throughout their careers. I want clients of Luba Sports to receive the attention they deserve and to feel that they’re getting clear value forevery dollar they spend. At the end of the day, I want to give players another option.
SR: Your marquee client right now is Cincinnati right-handed pitcher Trevor Bauer. Bauer has been criticized in the past for, among other things, his actions on Twitter, including towards college student Nikki Giles and comments about women and people of color which have been widely considered sexist and/or racist. Do you see any conflict between your representation of Bauer and your position as a trailblazer for women in MLB agency? Did those controversies impact your decision to represent him? Why or why not? Do you plan to discuss these issues with Bauer in the future?
Luba: I have known Trevor since January 2011. As I have pursued a place in the baseball industry and many have critiqued or held my gender against me, Trevor has been one of the few individuals who has respected, supported, and encouraged me every step of the way. Trevor has not always been as aware of how he phrases things online and how those words could be interpreted differently than how he originally intended. That said, in knowing Trevor for almost nine years, I believe his actions speak louder than his words.
SR: Do you believe representing Bauer is a positive or a negative for your own personal brand? Why?
Luba: I think that Trevor is entitled to his own opinions, but they do not necessarily reflect my own or those ofLuba Sports. Trevor and I have talked about how he uses social media and the power that comes with these platforms. As he has matured, I think he has begun to see more clearly how his words can affect people and how he can at times be misunderstood. The back and forth tweets with the college student, as an example, should never have happened. Trevor did not intend to “harass” anyone by simply replying three or four times to her direct replies to him, but in retrospect can regrettably see the ripple effect of his comments and those of his followers given the magnitude of his reach on Twitter.
Regarding your references above, I go back to the actions I’ve seen over almost a decade and how Trevor is in real life as a son, a friend, a mentor, a baseball player, and now a client. He has been nothing but supportive of me and my goals in the almost decade we have known each other and I have seen the kindness he does unto others. Looking at his overarching vision of being an innovator and change-maker in baseball on the player side, I do think that he is well-aligned with my goals as a female in this industry.
SR: Bauer once told Sports Illustrated that he wants to be MLB’s most recognizable international brand. Is that endeavor something you plan to be a part of? If so, how?
Luba: Absolutely. That is an important goal for Trevor, and I plan to help him achieve it. For clients like Trevor who want to build their brand and who are willing to put in the work to build it the right way, I help them see their brand vision, develop their brand identity, and connect with the right audiences.
SR: Bauer is considered by some, including my former FanGraphs colleague Travis Sawchik, to be among the more forward-thinking players in baseball. What, in your opinion, makes him so?
Luba: No doubt. Trevor is always hungry to learn and develop, both on the field and off the field. It is no secret that baseball has been slow to evolve compared to many other sports. People tend to shy away from change and stick to doing things the way they’ve always been done, but Trevor has never been afraid to go against the grain and think outside of the box. Everything he does has a purpose. Trevor has certainly received a fair amount of resistance to his unconventional approach and ideas, but I think that’s just par for the course when it comes to being an innovator.
SR: What are your goals for your agency? Are you hoping to be a “superagent” along the lines of Scott Boras or Dan Lozano? What do you believe you offer that they don’t?
Luba: My goal is to help as many players as possible, both on and off the field. The more players I can help, the better.
SR: Where do you see your agency in five years? In ten?
Luba: In five years, I hope to be able to say I have helped numerous players at various stages of their careers, both on and off the field. I want to do this by not only negotiating their contracts, but also by offering them opportunities to build their personal brands, help them to perform better on the field, and transition into their post-playing careers.