The Big Picture

Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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The Agency Wars erupt again: CAA vs. IMG

May 7, 2010 | 12:11 pm

Derek_jeter Just when showbiz talent agents start inching toward respectability -- which I guess you could measure as the distance between the Ari Emanuel-style hustler on "Entourage" and the Ari Emanuel who can impress office visitors by yelling at his assistant to get his brother, the president's chief of staff, on the phone -- we get the news, via this wonderfully detailed story from the Wall Street Journal, that the business is still full of backbiting, deception and general chicanery.

As you may have heard, CAA has been moving into the sports world in a big way, shrewdly having realized that sports is the new entertainment business, with tons of highly paid media stars slam-dunking and home-run hitting their way to glory. It takes years to sign and grow your own stars, so CAA, as the Journal reports, has been poaching lots of top agents and executives from IMG, the longtime sports agency giant. These raids have netted such prominent sports stars as baseball great Derek Jeter and NFL running back LaDanian Tomlinson. 

But now IMG is fighting back, the old-fashioned way, suing CAA for poaching Matthew Baldwin, a $90,000-a-year junior agent who defected to CAA last month. The details of the story will sound familiar to anyone who's followed Hollywood's poaching skirmishes of the past. According to the lawsuit, Baldwin, who had been based in Minneapolis, began secretly discussing a job post with CAA earlier this year. According to his sworn declaration, Baldwin said that he signed a lease on an apartment in L.A. on March 29. On March 31, he collected his 2009 bonus from IMG. On April 1, he told his boss that a rumor of his imminent departure to CAA was false.

But the next day, lo and behold, while his boss was safely on a plane, out of cellphone range, Baldwin left him phone and e-mail messages announcing his resignation. That same day, he went to work for CAA and sued IMG in federal district court in California to void the clause in his contract barring him for two years from soliciting IMG clients he'd repped.

The best part of the legal tussling comes from IMG, which says that it's suing to mitigate damages from the loss of trade secrets and proprietary information. Messy break-ups happen all the time, including the time that ICM abruptly fired Emanuel and a trio of young fellow agents after they made off with a cache of personal files in a nighttime raid on their own ICM offices that led to the 1995 formation of Endeavor.

But what's all this about trade secrets? After all, Baldwin was a junior agent representing football and basketball coaches. What sort of secret licensing or salary strategies could possibly be involved in the poaching of a middle-grade sports agent? Had IMG found a new way to commission the coaches' cut from their teams' Nike deals? It may take a while to sort out all the legal ramifications, but this much is for sure: With entertainment star salaries in free fall, expect to see more clashes like this on the sports side of the entertainment universe, which seems to be the one place where stardom is still a growth business.

Photo: New York Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter at a May 5 game at Yankee Stadium. Credit: Jeff Zelevansky / Getty Images