When Mark Termini ’84 and Wendy Cohn ’88 started their sports agency, Mark Termini Associates Inc in 1986, they could not envision the success that would lie ahead. Termini had recently graduated from CSU’s Cleveland-Marshall College of Law and got into the business by signing his first clients through Northeast Ohio connections from his basketball playing days. Cohn was still enrolled in the law school’s evening program and working full-time as a victim advocate when she started with the sports agency soon after Mark entered the business.
“From the very beginning, the business has been extremely competitive and all-consuming,” Termini recalled. “In the early stages of MTA, it was a fight for survival. Fortunately, we were able to evolve and grow from there.”
What started as a small agency between business and life partners representing a handful of clients grew as Cohn and Termini built MTA into one of the most respected NBA player representation firms in the industry. The agency managed by the now-married pair has gone on to represent approximately 75 NBA players including more than 30 first-round NBA Draft selections. Termini has negotiated more than $2 billion worth of NBA contracts.
During their growth, Termini’s main focus was on client acquisition, player-contract negotiations and client management. Cohn handled everything else in their full-service operation, serving as a one-person law office within the agency. At a time when there were few women working high in the ranks of the sports industry, Cohn negotiated marketing agreements, shoe contracts, trading card deals and insurance policies, and advised players on legal matters, often managing outside counsel in a myriad of legal areas for her clients. In more recent years, she has also led player-contract negotiations for NBA rookie contracts including 2016 #1 NBA Draft selection Ben Simmons, represented the agency’s coach and executive clients in contract negotiations, and been sought out by major sports brands for consulting in her areas of expertise, including right of publicity, licensing, marketing and negotiating.
“Wendy has been invaluable to our success. She helped navigate our agency path through an extraordinarily competitive and cutthroat business environment,” Termini said.
Cohn is a native of Hartford, Connecticut and came to Cleveland to attend Case Western Reserve University, where she studied Urban and Environmental Studies, played on the varsity tennis team, and initially met Mark. She went on to work as a victim advocate at the Cuyahoga County Witness Victim Service Center, which at the time was one of the first and only victim advocate programs in the country. As part of that work, Cohn spent considerable time in courtrooms and began to learn the legal system, which sparked her interest in attending law school.
Despite enrolling at CSU C|M|LAW with a focus on criminal law, Cohn’s attention shifted as she began working with Termini. She had watched basketball growing up and played in high school, even though tennis was, and still is, her first love (Cohn still plays tennis regularly and is a USTA-rated player). Where her agency work and her love of sport truly intersect is in their competitive nature.
“I’m a competitive person and it is a competitive business,” Cohn explained. “This is not your everyday, run-of-the-mill legal job and it is not for the faint of heart. Our work is challenging but at the same time it is very interesting and unique.”
In more than three decades, Cohn has seen significant changes in the sports industry, including the roles of women in the business side of sports. In the early days, Cohn does not recall dealing with any women in significant front office positions for an NBA team. Now there are several women in those positions. While female agents are still rare, there are women in leadership positions and as general counsel throughout the major sports companies. The National Basketball Players Association is currently headed by Executive Director Michele Roberts, the first woman to head a major professional sports union in North America.
While Cohn has never viewed herself as a pioneer for women in the industry, she acknowledges that others may see it differently. She sees contract negotiation as a results-based business open to anyone with the skills and drive to produce.
“No matter who you are, in this industry there will always be people on the other side of the table trying to get the best of you because the stakes and the scrutiny are so high,” Cohn explained. “If you acquire the requisite skills, are prepared, know the business and have credibility, you will have a chance to be successful. Once I proved I knew what I was doing, I was taken seriously and treated with respect.”
Legal education is prominent in Cohn’s family, as two of her three brothers are also attorneys. For Termini, law school could not have been farther from the equation.
“Even in college, if you had said to me that I was going to be a lawyer I would have laughed and told you that becoming an astronaut was more likely,” Termini recalled. “Going to law school and becoming an attorney was not anywhere in my vision of the future. I had no insight into the profession and no family members who could give me guidance.”
Termini’s comfort zone was basketball. His father, Marlo, was a longtime Cleveland-area high school basketball coach and educator. Mark played for Holy Name High School and went on to star at Case Western Reserve, where he scored 1,161 career points and was an All-City and All-Conference selection. Termini admits he went to Case to play basketball without much regard for his future career. He found his way back to basketball after a brief stint in sales, then as a junior college assistant coach in Minneapolis with lifelong friend Flip Saunders (who he would later represent over Saunders’ entire 17 year career as an NBA Head Coach) and later in a front-office sales position with the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Unsatisfied with his career to that point, Termini turned to law school at CSU C|M|LAW. Despite his work in basketball to that point, Termini did not have sports agent on his radar and entered law school because he believed he could control his own career destiny as a lawyer.
Termini enrolled at CSU C|M|LAW as an evening student while still working for the Cavaliers and later switched to the full-time program while still taking many evening courses. Termini was impressed with how many of the evening students worked full time and were raising families, and it was during that period that he reconnected with Cohn. Termini considers attending CSU C|M|LAW the best decision he could have made as he became very focused and goal-oriented in his law school pursuits. He respectfully remembers and highly values the significant impact Professors David Barnhizer, Mickey Davis and Frederic White had in shaping his legal education.
“In my opinion Cleveland-Marshall graduates take a back seat to no one in regards to having the ability to be street smart and very effective practicing lawyers,” Termini said.
While a legal education (or even an undergraduate degree) is not required of certified NBA agents, both Cohn and Termini agree that their legal degrees have been immensely valuable in client representations.
“A law degree brings added value to all sectors of our business, including and especially to the sports business,” Termini said. “An agent that is a lawyer sets himself apart from non-lawyer agents.”
“A legal degree and the skills that come with it are extremely important,” added Cohn. “The ability to analyze, attention to detail and writing skills are all extremely important in the business because there is a lot of experience in those areas on the other side (of the contract negotiation table) as well.”
Termini and Cohn recognize that agents are just a tiny portion of the business side of sports and that so much of that business is legal based. For agents, contracts are a major focus, including the Uniform Player Contract and various marketing agreements negotiated for clients. The NBA’s main legal document is its 598-page Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) that governs the league and its players. With his legal knowledge and extensive experience, Termini is recognized as an expert on matters involving the CBA.
The pair make an important distinction between contracts and negotiations and find people often misunderstand the difference between the legal knowledge of contracts and the business, strategic and interpersonal acumen needed in contract negotiations. Coming out of law school, Termini discovered he was still naïve on negotiations. He read and studied dozens of negotiation books to master the art of negotiation and add that skill to his knowledge of contracts from law school.
Termini recognizes that the business of representing players in the NBA has changed significantly over time, from individual agents in the early days to many agents and agencies becoming part of large, corporate entities. Despite their great success, Termini and Cohn have elected to keep their agency small, with four total employees and offices located in Brecksville, Ohio. It has always been important for Termini to keep the agency in his hometown, despite reservations from others that Cleveland lacked the glitz and glamor of other cities. He recalls meeting with the now notorious former owner of the Los Angeles Clippers Donald Sterling, who conveyed dismay that Termini would base his operations in Cleveland- despite the glitz and glamor available in Los Angeles.
Over the last decade, Termini and Cohn’s agency partnered with another Cleveland-area native making it big in the sports agency world, Klutch Sports Group (KSG) and agent Rich Paul. As Klutch began in 2012 as a basketball agency with a small client list headlined by LeBron James, Termini teamed with KSG to serve as their chief contract negotiator, while Cohn handled various legal and business matters for the firm. Working together until recently, Termini negotiated over $1.4 billion worth of NBA contracts for Klutch clients over the past eight years.
Now, with over 35 years of experience in the industry, Mark Termini Associates Inc will no longer represent clients as a traditional, full-service agency and instead will continue with the niche they thrived in with Klutch as hired contract negotiators and advisors. They are quick to acknowledge that the sports agency business is not like family as it is sometimes described, and that every agency, including theirs, is driven first and foremost by the requirement to produce positive economic-oriented results for its clients. Still, along the way the pair have developed several lifelong relationships and friendships and Cohn noted that players they have represented now have sons playing in the NBA. The couple remained longtime friends with Flip Saunders and now represent his son Ryan Saunders, recently Head Coach of the Minnesota Timberwolves. Cohn also holds special regard for their representation of 5’5” Cleveland-native Earl Boykins, the second shortest player in NBA history who managed to stay in the league for years on short-term contracts before eventually landing a long-term, $13.7 million contract.
For Termini and Cohn there has been only one business relationship that has truly been like family and that is because it is actually family--their relationship as work and life partners. They recognize that work-life balance has not always been easy to achieve as the “life” component is shortchanged due to the nature of the business, but that their similarities as driven, competitive individuals is what has made their partnership successful at home and in business.