The Sports Change Agent
By Maureen Nolan
In the 1990s, when Mason Ashe ’85 first carved out a career as a sports agent and attorney, he says athletes, black or white, were reluctant to hire an African-American to represent them based on a myth — that they couldn’t negotiate complex contracts. Ashe counts himself among the professionals who demolished that fallacy.
“And that is satisfying. Young agents come up a lot to me and say, ‘Hey, I heard about how you were part of that wave of negotiators 20 years ago that made it possible for us to be hired now,’” Ashe says. “That’s so touching — to hear somebody say that they realize it. And I stood on the shoulders of people who allowed me to get into the game. Because there were people, like coaches and scouts — and my boss, of course, who mentored me — who basically boosted me up in order to be in position.”
Ashe graduated from law school in 1989, zig-zagging to follow his blended interest of law, sports, and entertainment, even when it meant giving up a secure job for an uncertain opportunity he really wanted. He took on clients from the Women’s Basketball Association not because they made big bucks, but because he wanted the league to succeed. He likes to use all his training and abilities: Sometimes he’s a lawyer writing contracts, sometimes he’s an agent negotiating a deal, sometimes he’s a manager helping a singer-songwriter launch a career.
In his early years, Ashe worked at a mid-size law firm where he was, to his way of thinking, on the wrong side of the table, representing owners, not players. He quit to start his own business, then got recruited by a prominent boutique law firm and signed on to do his kind of work there, with the support of trial lawyer Michael Grace, who became a mentor and friend.
Ever thirsty for broader experience, Ashe said yes to an offer from the big global agency IMG in 1995. That’s where he met the boss who would become his mentor, Bill Strickland. As far as Ashe knew, they were the only two African-American executives in the company. A partnership was born; the duo left IMG in 1997 to co-found Strickland & Ashe Management. “We had a boutique at that point that was one of the largest African-American-owned sports-management, entertainment-management firms in the country,” Ashe says.
They struck lucrative deals for the athletes and entertainers they represented, and in 2003 and 2004 were named to Sports Illustrated’s list of “101 Most Influential Minorities in Sports.” While at that firm Ashe attained a bucket-list goal: getting hired by a first-round-pick NFL quarterback in 1999 and, later, negotiating for him one of the largest deals ever for a professional football player.
Ashe and Strickland parted ways in 2004. Ashe says he wanted to expand to represent all types of talent: golfers, rappers, sportscasters, news anchors, musicians, music producers, and concert promoters — you name it, and to do that he needed to go out on his own. Most agents focus on certain types of clients, he says. “I think that’s so boring,” he admits.
One of my bucket-list items on the entertainment side was doing a sold-out arena, a great rock star. And that ended up being Prince.
These days he’s working at his own shop, Ashe Sports & Entertainment Consulting. Here’s a glimpse of his world: agent for Perry Baker, World Rugby Men’s Sevens 2017 player of the year; marketing representative for Dawn Staley, former WNBA player and Olympian who now coaches the University of South Carolina’s women’s basketball team; and talent manager/advisor for dancer, choreographer, and fitness consultant (for such celebrities as Madonna) Craig Smith.
There’s plenty more. For instance, Ashe is learning about eSports or competitive video gaming. He’s always learning. That’s part of winning the game. “I have learned a great deal, but I need to constantly adapt to the changing professional marketplace and remain open to playing different roles in order to help clients monetize their talents,” he says.
Mason’s Career Highlights
- Negotiated contracts for NFL, NBA, and WNBA players who became starters, league champions, and Pro Bowl or All-Star selections
- Advised a wealth management firm as it developed and launched an initiative to serve pro athletes and entertainers
- Produced a figure-skating show highlighting a cast of minority skaters and the evolution of African-American music
- Named the National Bar Association’s 2016 “Sports Attorney of the Year”
- Agent and attorney for World Rugby Sevens Player of the Year and a female World Rugby Sevens Hall of Famer
- Lectured and designed courses on sports law and business management for international high school students, undergraduates, and MBA and law students
- Delivered the welcoming address at his Hamilton College graduation ceremony