(WKRN) – Kelli Masters’ favorite part of the story of David vs Goliath is what happens before the big fight.
Before David took on the giant, the King tried to give David his armor. It didn’t feel right. It wasn’t his and it didn’t really fit. So David gave the King his armor back, picked up his own weapon, a slingshot, and the rest is history.
“Pretty much every day for the last 17 years, I feel like I’m picking up my slingshot,” she said.
Masters is an NFL agent. Her Goliath is a male-dominated industry and her weapon of choice is leaning into what makes her different.
“I was very discouraged by a lot of people who said it was a corrupt industry. Not just competitive, but corrupt. And, a woman on my own, trying to do things with integrity, I would never have success.”
The success would eventually come, but not without an in-depth process that proved challenging regardless of gender.
In order to become certified by the NFL Players Association to represent players, the application process involves a fee upwards of $2,500, a background check, various qualifications including a law degree, and a thorough vetting of your reputation in the industry.
“After you do that, then you take a test. The test has about a 30 to 40 percent passage rate. It’s a really difficult exam, you can only take it once a year, and you can only take it twice. If you fail it twice, you have to wait five years to take it again.”
Certification by the NFLPA opens the door, but once you walk through it, you’re on your own. Masters navigated the NCAA’s guidance, individual state laws, federal laws, school policies and coach requirements.
“Once you get through all of that and spend all of the money to be licensed and bonded and registered in all of the states where you recruit, then you have to actually find a client. It’s pretty challenging.”
Masters found a client. A few of them, actually. She has represented more professional athletes than any woman in the industry. She has served as an agent/contract advisor to player in every NFL draft since 2006. In 2010, she made history as the first woman to represent a first-round pick in the NFL Draft. Her client, defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, was drafted No. 3 overall to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
She accomplished it all despite fellow agents telling her it would never work. Masters also did it on her own. When agencies wouldn’t take a chance on her, she created her own agency.
“And, not just implicit, it’s been told to my face by multiple very successful agents that women just weren’t going to be respected in the industry.”
Respect is earned, and it’s easy to respect a lengthy resume like the one Masters can now boast, but in the beginning, respect came from her unique set of skills.
“What makes you different is what makes you better,” she said. “When I’m sitting with a player and a family, it used to be that I was very much on the defensive and trying to explain why a woman could do this, and I don’t feel like I have to do that as much. If they’ve already taken a meeting with me, they’re not necessarily looking at me as a lesser person because I’m a woman, but I do have to explain that this is how the business works and it very much is about preparation and relationships and earned respect. That transcends gender.”
Women in male-dominated spaces are often asked what the challenges are that come with being a woman. Masters focuses less on how it made things harder and instead, used it as her slingshot.
“You describe to a family that an agent is an advocate, an agent is a protector, an agent is a fighter. I remember having that conversation early on and a player saying, “Well that sounds like my mom.”‘
Nearly two decades ago, when Masters first passed the NFLPA certification exam, she was the only woman among three hundred men taking the exam. Now, at least 25 percent of applicants are women.
“Everybody told me in the beginning it was going to be absolutely impossible and it would be David vs Goliath with me competing against all the bigger companies. At times, it has felt like that, but I always have to remind myself that David won the battle with Goliath, so we keep fighting.”
Perhaps David using his own armor is just part of the reason Masters identifies with the well-known tale. The idea that the little guy can stand up to the big giant also mirrors her own struggles with breaking into the sports agent industry.
But it’s more than that.
As an agent, her job is to be the slingshot.
Masters says her first mentor in the NFL was a former scout for the Titans, C.O. Brocato. He passed away in 2015 and the Titans draft room is named after him. So when Jon Robinson and co. go to make their picks in a few weeks, the room where it all happens is in honor of a man who – knowingly or not – inspired a new generation of NFL agents.
If you want to be inspired, hear more about Kelli Masters’ story by watching her TedX talk.