CEO of Sports Management Partners
By Judith A. Habert
When you meet Lonnie Murray, CEO of Sports Management Partners, you know right off the bat that she is a dynamic woman who is beautiful, loving, protective, and tough when necessary. Perhaps an unusual combination for the CEO of a company, but the perfect mix for one of the few Female Sports Agents in the industry. Although this is a job predominantly held by males, make no mistake Lonnie Murray has made a mark in this industry managing to approach it in her own unique and impressive way.
When you consider the game of baseball it is clear that it is not one that is open to women in most aspects of the field. Consider the fact that there has never been a female MLB player in its 149-year history. We came close in 2015 when a 16-year-old[ girl from France, Melissa Mayeux, a shortstop on the French U-18 junior national team became the first known female baseball player to be added to the MLB’s international registration list. This meant that she would be eligible to be signed by a Major League club. Sadly, this never happened.
So how did Lonnie break that ceiling and find her way into the Sports Agent business? Born in Camden New Jersey and raised in Washington state, Lonnie had no initial desire to be a part of the baseball industry. At the age of 17 she married her high school sweetheart, and due to the request of the U.S. Navy, she and her new husband were relocated to San Diego. The marriage was short-lived, but they both realized they were too young to make a major life decision like marriage. “He went to work one day, and I packed my jeep up and drove to the Bay Area where my girlfriend lived because I was just done. We were both young, and we realized it just wasn't forever."
Lonnie obtained a position working for a nonprofit and spent 15 years in this arena, "I loved working for nonprofits, I think it bleeds over to what I am doing now because I'm still helping families and kids. It is important to me that I am honest about what I'm doing, and that everything I do, is for the right reason."
With convictions such as these, it is easy to see why Lonnie would be a success in whatever industry she tackled. While working in the nonprofit industry, she would come to meet her current husband, former Major League player and past General Manager of the Arizona Diamond Backs, Dave Stewart. "I was working for a nonprofit ‘Team Up for Youth,' and Dave was a member of the board of directors. I had been introduced when he came into the office for a board meeting, but it was just that, a business introduction." It would be some time before they had their next encounter and this one almost lost Lonnie her job. "I was given the task of emailing all of the board members to get a consensus on a project we were putting together. All of the members responded swiftly, except for Dave, he had been out of the country and didn't get back to me for several weeks." When he did call, he told Lonnie that he could not open the files she had sent, so she resent the email, and he still had a problem. "I have to admit that this irritated me and I responded in a way I probably shouldn't have." Since Dave was an admired baseball Icon, particularly in the Oakland area, after a stellar career with the Oakland A's, I rethought my response shortly after I hit send. I asked a co-worker what he thought of my email to Dave, and from his response, Lonnie knew she was in trouble. "There was a good chance I was going to lose my job, so I went into my bosses office and started the conversation by telling him how much I loved my job. I was just about to explain what happened when this same co-worker interrupted our conversation and told me in private that Dave had responded.” To Lonnie's relief, he did so with a sense of humor, and shortly after that, the two managed to find themselves in a relationship.
Dave had started Sports Management Partners a year before he and Lonnie met, and his agency was thriving, representing some of the biggest names in baseball. Lonnie became an integral part of the agency filling a void that few agencies even realize exists in Sports Management. In addition to the day-to-day of contracts and operations, Lonnie had a remarkable aptitude for handling the people part of the business. “When I came onboard I started to notice things that I felt I could do better than other people working for the agency. It wasn't about the business part of her business; it was about the people part. To most it is just the business of baseball, to me, it was the business of people." This approach quickly caused the agency to grow even greater because there was a new understanding of elements that were missing in this field of representation and Lonnie brought them to the forefront. "Each one of my players and their family become part of my family. In addition to every other aspect of the business, I guess I sort of add the motherly touch. I am there for them to talk to about everything, not just the game. I also represent a lot of Latin players that don’t even speak the language. They are often signed very young and are not necessarily trusting of our culture and methods, so I provide the much-needed level of trust they require to feel confident moving forward in their careers.”
Lonnie spent eight years building Sports Management Partners when her husband received the call up to become the General Manager of the Arizona Diamond Backs. "While he questioned what was going to happen with the agency, for me there was no question as to what would happen. I had been a partner for eight years, assumed a large percentage of responsibilities already, and these were MY kids. My guys! When I expressed this to Dave, he never doubted that I could not only keep things going but that I would excel.” She did this and more. She built their numbers of players and now has 43 players both Major and Minor leaguers on her roster. Of this number 22 are Latin players who have come to SMP due to their strong reputation of fair management and loyalty to their players. “I can’t utilize my experience of playing major league baseball when I am recruiting a player because obviously I have not played the game, but I can get them in front of a multitude of people who have.” This fact has never been a problem for Lonnie. “Many of the Latin players that came here from other countries, leaving their families for the very first time. They sign a Player Contract and are often not even sure what they have gotten themselves into."
Lonnie is not like any other Sports Agent, she often finds herself in a motherly role, helping players and their families navigate their way through a system that isn't easy for our young American men, let alone many who don't even speak the language. "When players from another country are signed by a Major League team, they often believe that their next step will be wearing that team uniform on TV, living the glamorous life of the players they have idolized while playing in their own countries. Many of them don't realize that they will begin their career on the minor league level, often in small town locations spending long hours on buses to other unknown towns to play other minor league players.” Lonnie never sugar coats the long journey any of her players have ahead of them when they sign their contract. She is outspoken and honest that this is not going to be a piece of cake and there is going to be a lot of sweat and often disappointment for them along the way. “Doing this and being upfront with my players is why I believe they are so loyal to me.” Keep in mind that the sports agency business is not one that involves players signing contracts with their agents. A player is free to move from agent to agent if they choose, so seeing the longevity of the players who have signed with Lonnie is clear proof that she is doing it right and is, as such, constantly bombarded by referrals from her current players."
“If I had to pick something that I am most proud of it would be that I have 22 Latin players, the majority of whom don’t speak English, and I don’t speak Spanish. We communicate using a translator app, or we communicate through another individual who speaks Spanish. We have sat at restaurants, or in the car and have been texting back and forth, so we could utilize the translator app on our phones. We tell jokes, talk about what’s happening on the field and in their lives, and what is going on in mine because we are family."
In an industry dominated by male agents whose primary concern is often the bottom line and finding the one player who may one day sign for a multi-million dollar contract, it is clear that the emotions of the young men they sign may not be at the forefront of their concerns. This is not the case for Lonnie who is definitely a breath of fresh air in a tough often cutthroat industry.
The language difference does at times present a challenge. Lonnie shared with me a story about one of her “babies,” the affectionate term she uses for the young men she represents. “When one of my babies, Yoan Lopez, a Cuban pitcher, and I first met we looked at each other kind of cross-eyed. He seemed to not quite get me, and I couldn't really figure him out either. At one point I felt, I don’t know if I like your attitude and I’m sure he was saying the same thing about me. I’m sure he wondered, how is this lady going to represent me when we are not even communicating? But our relationship grew so strong, two years later he asked me to walk him down the aisle at his wedding, having lost his mother to cancer as a teenager.”
This is only one of the many stories Lonnie shares about her Babies. Although she is caring, she is tough as well. "When one of my players is not living up to his potential I am the first to go out on the field and tell him that he isn't doing what he should to progress his career. One player and I had many challenges in the beginning. He was a tough cookie and even had some issues with other players on the team. So, I had to be tough. I basically told him if you don’t get your s**t together I am not going to represent you. So it was the last game of the season when they were able to play on the big league field, and they let their families go out on the field. Of course, I went out cause I’m his ‘mom.' And I said to him; I'm proud of you , you had a great performance. I wish you nothing but success. But I don't like your attitude, I've warned you, and now I can no longer represent you. Back at the team hotel I was standing in front with seven other guys from the team, and he walked up to me and in front of everyone, with the help of one of the other players translating, he said he was sorry, and he never wanted to be disrespectful. He said he did not want to leave the family. I was incredibly touched and proud. It has now been two offseasons in a row that he stayed with me at our home for the entire offseason. He is also getting along much better with his teammates, ‘his brothers.'"
Lonnie is tough, and she has to be in a field dominated by men, but often it is tough love that gets her players through those rough times. Disappointment is often a big part of life for these young men who sometimes put out stellar performances and yet due to the "Business of Baseball" may be released or kept at the minor league level. Having a manager like Lonnie can often make the difference for these players.
When Lonnie’s husband Dave Stewart left his position with the Arizona Diamond Backs she assumed he would come back on as a partner at Sports Management Partners, but when he realized how much improved and how much Lonnie had grown the business he simply said, “This is yours, you’ve got this.”
Thanks to women like Lonnie, we are seeing that women can accomplish whatever they set out to accomplish. Sometimes at great odds and with great struggle, but for Lonnie, much of this came naturally to her, and it is easy to see that she loves her job and all of the players that she calls family. As Lonnie admits, “There is nothing else I would rather be doing,”
Thank you, Lonnie, for showing us what we can accomplish, not in spite of being women, but often because we are women.