Football

Agent who negotiated NFL player’s record $90 million deal is a Mission Prep grad from SLO

As star NFL running back Ezekiel Elliott woke to train each day at 7 a.m. in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico during his contract holdout this summer, his agent was often was by his side, even joining in workouts.

That man, 33-year-old San Luis Obispo native, Brian Hannula, said that for the last four days of Elliott’s salary talks, Hannula only slept four hours, issuing an offer to the Dallas Cowboys at 4:10 a.m. on Sept. 4.

Not long after, the Cowboys accepted, earning Elliott a $90 million contract extension over six years, and a hefty commission for Alliance Sports Management Group, led by CEO Rocky Arceneaux, who headed up the negotiations, and for whom Hannula works.

The deal makes Elliott the highest paid running back in the NFL — and the 2004 Mission Prep grad with a law degree played a key role.

Eight weeks on one deal

Hannula’s job was to manage the details of the salary considerations, “duking it out on the numbers” with the Cowboys’ contract specialist.

He spent eight weeks away from his San Diego home base, either working out of Dallas or Cabo San Lucas, on Elliott’s negotiations.

“Zeke is extremely sharp, and after a 30-minute conversation with the Cowboys contract guy, we’d have a discussion and brainstorm with our team,” Hannula said. “We used a big, massive whiteboard to write on. We had a plan that we wanted to make work. ...We got almost everything we wanted.”

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Dallas Cowboys’ Ezekiel Elliott (21) warms up before a NFL football game against the New York Giants in Arlington, Texas, Sunday, Sept. 8, 2019. Ron Jenkins AP

Hannula said the signing bonus of $7.5 million was lower than it could have been, but otherwise the contract generally satisfied Elliott’s objectives.

And it helped the Cowboys to sign two other key players, Jaylon Smith and La’el Collins, by remaining under the salary cap, Hannula said.

Hannula, a former Mission Prep running back, wouldn’t reveal what the agency’s commission was, but typically they earn between 4% and 10%, according the website, chron.com.

Hannula calls Elliott one of the “smartest and nicest kids we’ve represented,” and he believes the deal was fair and well-deserved for a star running back, vulnerable to a shortened career due to repeated body blows.

“Zeke has an unwavering belief in himself,” Hannula said. “He knows where he stands historically. Some people get frustrated at salary numbers of this magnitude, which aren’t normal to the average person, but everyone wants fair value.”

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Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott (21) finds running room as New York Giants cornerback Janoris Jenkins (20) defends during a NFL football game in Arlington, Texas, Sunday, Sept. 8, 2019. Ron Jenkins AP

Hannula said Elliot is instrumental on a team that made the playoffs last year. He has carried the ball nearly 900 times for more than 4,000 years in his three-year career.

A close relationship

“Some people think my life is like the show ‘Ballers’ on HBO, but it’s not like that,” Hannula said. “If anything, it’s more like ‘Jerry McGuire’ when (the agent) is stressed out and losing his mind, but he’s doing everything he can to maintain his relationship with his client. The bulk of the job is the day to day of client services and showing, ‘If you have a problem, I’ll help you with it.”

Hannula said he and Elliott have a close relationship and he sees first hand what it’s like for a famous athlete to be hounded at every turn by autograph seekers and fans wanting photos or a chat.

“My impression is that Zeke doesn’t think it’s that cool,” Hannula said. “... He actively tries to hide from the public, and some people don’t have boundary awareness. They’ll snap photos like paparazzi. They’ll follow him into the bathroom to try to talk to him. They do stuff that’s inappropriate. ...”

But Hannula said Elliott and others he’s represented understand that with fame and fortune, and playing a sport they love professionally, comes the unwanted attention and off-the-field scrutiny as well.

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Dallas Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett and running back Ezekiel Elliott (21) greet each other before a NFL football game against the New York Giants in Arlington, Texas, Sunday, Sept. 8, 2019. Ron Jenkins AP

They also discuss issues around that and how best to avoid pitfalls. Elliott was suspended for an alleged domestic violence incident, which the player denied (no charges were prosecuted), and Elliott was caught on camera exposing the breast of a woman at a St. Patrick’s Day celebration in Dallas.

“We’ve had talks about being more aware of his surroundings and being aware of how other people react,” Hannula said. “Some situations have been forced upon him, and some were avoidable. As much as he wants to live a normal life, his life isn’t normal.”

Hannula said he’s seen firsthand how close and generous Elliott is with his family, “taking care of everybody” and talking daily to his two younger sisters, whom “he adores.”

How Hannula got his start

Hannula graduated with an English degree from the University of San Diego, where he was a walk-on receiver who never saw playing time. He then went on to earn a degree from Thomas Jefferson School of Law in San Diego in 2010.

Hannula said that he “lucked out” by entering the world of sports agency. While in law school, he networked to get into sports-related work by seeking out college and NFL scouts, and other agents, without much success.

“I was meeting a lot of people, but it wasn’t turning into internships, jobs and opportunities,” Hannula recalls. “I was ready to call it quits and change gears. That’s when an ex-girlfriend reached out to catch up. I told her what I was doing, and she said she knew the founding CEO of a company.”

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Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott, left, laughs after comments made by team owner Jerry Jones, right, during a news conference regarding Elliott’s new contract at the NFL football team’s practice facility in Frisco, Texas, Thursday, Sept. 5, 2019. Tony Gutierrez AP

That CEO was Arceneaux, and Hannula started out by interning in law school, and then working for free for two years after, before taking the reigns to help ink a contract for NFL offensive tackle Donald Penn.

“That was my first foray into it beyond doing a research role,” Hannula said. “I fell in love with the business, negotiating and helping changing guys’ lives.”

Hannula said his education at Mission Prep was more rigorous than even his undergraduate and law programs, and he values his local ties, where his sister, Jaime Holm, owns Tinker Tin, a vintage trailer rental company for special events.

“I’m still very connected to SLO,” Hannula said. “A bunch of my family still lives there. My job is pretty cool, but I love hearing about Jaime’s work. I don’t even have the coolest job in the family.”

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Nick Wilson covers the city of San Luis Obispo and has been a reporter at The Tribune in San Luis Obispo since 2004. He also writes regularly about K-12 education, Cal Poly, Morro Bay and Los Osos. He is a graduate of UC Santa Barbara and UC Berkeley and is originally from Ojai.
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