When famed sports agent Sandy Montag played for his high school basketball team, he didn’t like being idle for long — even when sitting on the bench.
Montag kept statistics, wrote up games notes and then strung together articles for his high school newspaper in Tenafly, NJ. And for $25 a pop, he tapped away on his Smith Corona, writing game stories and box scores for The (Bergen) Record.
“I was a hustler and a creative person and made things happen,” Montag says during a meeting at The Ritz-Carlton building in White Plains, headquarters for his sports-management, marketing and consulting firm, The Montag Group. With an array of pictures, awards, and large-screen TVs, his office could easily double as an ESPN studio.
Montag started his business pursuits young, selling T-shirts, delivering bagels and lox, and acting in TV commercials (Geritol and PDQ chocolate drink) while still in grade school. And he loved sports; he considered Madison Square Garden a second home.
Today, at 53 and married with two grown children, little has changed for the Ardsley resident. “I still get a huge thrill going into an arena,” says Montag, who often finds himself at MSG, MetLife Stadium, or some other sports cathedral where one of his clients is performing. “I love the arena, the live event.”
The Ultimate Deal-Broker
Montag has built a career out of building careers, showing up and brokering deals, even ones few people thought possible, which is why he is considered one of the leading sports, talent, and broadcasting agents in the US, if not the world. As president and CEO of The Montag Group, a business he started in 2014 after decades with famed sports agency IMG (previously known as International Management Group), Montag focuses on consulting, advising, content development, media strategy, and contract negotiations in the areas of sports, entertainment, and lifestyle. With six employees and more than 50 clients, Montag negotiates tens of millions of dollars in deals for his clients each year.
He sees himself as more than just an agent: a career-guidance counselor coaching a roster of current clients, such as legendary former Oakland Raiders coach/retired NFL color-commentator John Madden, ESPN college basketball broadcaster Dick Vitale, and NBA analyst and former player Mark Jackson, as well as former coaches Bob Knight, of Indiana Hoosiers fame, and Tom Coughlin, who won two Super Bowls with the New York Giants. But his sweet spot is with sports broadcasters, including the familiar faces of Bob Costas, James Brown, Jim Nantz, Erin Andrews, and Scott Van Pelt along with other well-known names.
Montag spent more than 30 years at IMG in New York City, where he developed a reputation as the go-to guy for tough but fair negotiations and for always watching out for his clients’ interests. As of his 2016 departure from IMG, Montag represented roughly 70 percent of the company’s broadcast talent, inking multimillion-dollar deals for marquee names and behind-the-scenes talent while maintaining strong relationships with players, network executives, commissioners, and team owners. (IMG was acquired by WME for $2.4 billion in 2015; Montag could have stayed to run the talent division but left amicably to start his own company.)
One of his most famous licensing deals, considered among the largest in sports history, almost didn’t happen: John Madden’s eponymous video game with EA Sports, which is estimated to have sold upward of 100 million units since it was created in 1988, took many years to get off the ground because Madden wanted it to be realistic. Madden and Montag patiently waited for the technology to catch up to Madden’s vision of what the game ought to be. Now, it’s a product that generates $400 million in sales each year, of which Madden and Montag get a percentage. Though Montag won’t say just how much either he or Madden makes from the game, he offers, matter-of-factly, “It’s like having a No. 1 movie every year; it’s worked out from a business standpoint.”
Montag got his start while working as a gofer for Madden after graduating from Syracuse University in 1985. Traveling alongside the iconic sports figure — who, famously, opted for trains and buses because he won’t fly — Montag not only learned the Xs and Os of football, but of life. The job consisted of research, lots of it, in an era when cellphones and the Internet didn’t exist. That meant Montag spent his weeks speaking with players, coaches, and fans; hanging out in hotel lobbies, at tailgates, and in local mom-and-pops; and occasionally talking about life and chewing the fat over some Miller Lites — something Madden (who had been a pitchman for the product) refers to as “The Hang” and an important part of the job.
“I realized early that he was something special,” says Madden.
After a few years on the road with Madden, Montag landed an assistant’s job at IMG with Madden’s help. That’s where he learned the intricacies of sports management and eventually became Madden’s agent. While there, Montag worked with Madden on a series of book deals; the first-ever “Madden Cruiser,” an RV that was part-office, part-home and logged roughly 200,000 miles a year; and a series of lucrative career moves for the 14-time Emmy winner. But it was Madden’s move from ABC’s Monday Night Football to NBC’s Sunday Night
Football that really garnered lots of headlines. It meant the famed announcer had “touched all the bases” at the Big Four networks throughout his career — CBS, NBC, ABC, and Fox. And Montag helped make it happen.
“He was always a businessman,” Madden says of Montag. “He’s a guy who can help you and take you to the highest peak.”
While their relationship started out revolving around work, it evolved into a father-son/friend dynamic. In Madden’s 2006 Hall of Fame speech in Canton, OH, he said as much: “[Montag has] been with me for over 20 years. You know, I mean, agent, smagent. He’s a friend, a very good friend. I thank him for everything that he’s done for me.”
Montag has also done a lot for retired NBC Sports chairman Dick Ebersol, who relied heavily on Montag to help make his dream of bringing Sunday Night Football to NBC a reality.
As part of that negotiation, Montag secured talent both in front of the camera and behind the scenes (producers, directors, etc.), having also played a role in brokering a separate deal that sent Al Michaels to NBC in exchange for giving ABC the Ryder Cup matches, Olympic highlights, and the rights to a 1920s cartoon, “Oswald the Lucky Rabbit,” which was created by Walt Disney and considered to be the precursor to Mickey Mouse (and long coveted by Disney, ABC’s parent company).
Ebersol considers Montag the top sports-broadcast talent agent because he’s eager to solve problems, helps his clients achieve their goals and has an “unfailing ability to bring people together.”
“I believe, without question, that he is the best sports talent agent that I have ever worked with,” Ebersol says. “No one comes close to Sandy.”
Montag believes one of his strengths is that he sees opportunities where they exist, even when others do not, and he has the patience to wait for them to come to fruition. “I don’t believe in the word ‘no’; deals are never dead,” he says. “You have to believe that you can make stuff happen.”
A Personal Approach
That’s precisely how he ended up partnering with Ari Fleischer, President George W. Bush’s press secretary, after the Pound Ridge resident announced he was leaving the White House. Montag, a C-SPAN junkie who appreciated Fleischer’s regular sports references during press briefings, cold-called him to see if there was some work they could do together. Remarkably, Fleischer returned the call, and the two began working on a communications partnership that involves media strategy, media training, and crisis communications with players, teams, and leagues. It has been going strong since 2004.
Not only is Montag honest, smart, and levelheaded, he is well-liked and respected in the world of sports, Fleischer says. “Sandy is a bona fide throwback who values personal relationships. What he is showing is how to be successful in today’s world, with nice old-fashioned values.”
Montag returns client calls every day and prefers face-to-face conversations over email (he never closes a deal that way). He doesn’t like to sit, instead opting for a standup desk. And in a superstitious business like sports, he shows up, greets his clients on the field, along the sideline, in the booth, or wherever they expect to see him. In fact, he shook Tom Coughlin’s hand in the tunnel for most Giants home games, Montag says. Why? Because career coaches are superstitious, too.
There’s nothing superstitious about his formula for success, though. It’s best to deal with decision-makers — team owners and network executives — he says, because they have a global perspective and know what they want, which makes deal-making far more efficient. “I like negotiating top-down,” he explains. And he always lets the other person make the first offer.
What’s his best advice? “You will learn more by listening than by talking,” he says. “Some of the best leaders are listeners.”
Former journalist Jerry McKinstry is managing director of The November Team, a political strategy firm in Westchester.