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the challenge

Bernie Lee represents 17 athletes, including four NBA players, but none of them are Canadian. How can he fight the bias that U.S. representation is automatically better?Michelle Siu/The Globe and Mail

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Bernie Lee is at the top of his game. After 14 years as a basketball agent, the Toronto entrepreneur has built a client roster that includes NBA players as well as athletes signed with professional teams abroad.

Mr. Lee's company, Lee Basketball Services Ltd., consistently makes industry lists of top agencies. His reputation has developed to an extent that, when rapper Jay Z decided to form his own basketball agency, Mr. Lee was brought in for numerous meetings to discuss the possibility of him joining the new business.

"We went through a year of meetings and due diligence, but when it came time for me to think about whether this was something I would pursue, I decided not to pursue it," recalls Mr. Lee, who played basketball throughout high school and university. "I went through a moment where I thought about how hard I have to work to gain credibility and access, and how much easier it would be if I joined Jay Z's team, but I knew that the ownership I had would fly out the window."

Today, Lee Basketball Services represents 17 athletes, including four NBA players, among them John Lucas III of the Detroit Pistons and Toure' Murry of the Washington Wizards. That may not sound like much, says Mr. Lee, until one looks more closely at the industry's numbers. Of the roughly 1,900 certified agents, only 105 represent one or more of the 450 players in the NBA.

But while Mr. Lee has clearly made it as an independent sports agent, there's a peculiar aspect to his success: Lee Basketball Services has no Canadians on its roster.

Click here to see pictures of Bernie Lee and his clients

"The number one response I get from Canadians is, 'Wow, I didn't know there were Canadian agents,'" says Mr. Lee, who is among just a handful. "There's an inherent bias among today's players and players' parents that if they want to succeed on a higher level, they need a U.S. agent."

For Mr. Lee, who grew up in Toronto, gaining credibility in his own backyard has become a challenge – one that is magnified by the rapidly growing pool of home-grown basketball talent.

"Canada is a huge hotbed of basketball talent right now," says Mr. Lee, whose business has grown from a one-man operation to a four-person team. "How do I strip away that bias toward U.S. agents so that people can see me, my track record and knowledge base, and understand that I can represent them just as successfully as a U.S. agent?"

The Challenge: How can Mr. Lee gain credibility and win business among Canadian athletes?


Maurice Dutrisac, co-founder of the business consultancy Mastermind Solutions Inc., Toronto

Canada is getting more and more NBA talent, so now's the time to get a foothold in this market. The quickest way for Bernie Lee to gain credibility among players who want a U.S. agent is by getting a U.S. partner. Perhaps he can form an alliance with a U.S. agent or buy an ownership stake with an American agency. He should also get a U.S. address.

At the same time, he needs to highlight that he is a Canadian with an in-depth knowledge of Canada and the basketball scene here. I think being Canadian should make it easier for him to gain the trust of players and parents, but then he needs to show he has the American connections as well as a presence in the U.S.

Barry Rogerson, brand strategist, WBR Communications, Halifax

It sounds like he has already made it in the United States. Now he has to tap into what he has already accomplished in the States and leverage that in Canada. People tend to gravitate to those with big or established brand names – even when it has nothing to do with merit – so he needs to build his brand and start propagating the fact that he has had these successes in the U.S. with these American athletes.

Social media is a great way to do that. There's an agent representing soccer athletes who is constantly broadcasting on Periscope, which is like a live TV version of Twitter. This guy is really working to grow his brand, and he's doing it on a platform where his target audience is present.

There's a lot of value in touting being Canadian, but you have to be careful and make sure this value is consistently communicated. I think customer service is far superior in Canada than in the U.S., so perhaps he can emphasize the dedication and one-on-one service he can deliver to athletes.

G. Orlando Prendergast, independent music industry representative, Toronto

Mr. Lee needs to persuade his clients to promote him and provide testimonials. He needs to be more visible, to be present in photos and videos with his players. It's success by association, so he's really got to pop his collar and show Canadians he's associated with these successful athletes in the U.S.

Maybe he can get his players to come here and do summer camps, or start a charity and have his players come in as star attractions. I don't think he can change the climate overnight, and there will always be people who think that in order for them to get the fame and money they deserve, they have to be in the U.S. and deal with Americans.

But by getting his current clients to promote him, he can gain the confidence of Canadians and get them thinking: "I'm Canadian and Bernie's Canadian, so I should deal with him because he can get me to the U.S."


Look for a partner

Consider forming an alliance with a U.S. agent or buy an ownership stake with an American agency.

Polish your brand

Use social media and spread the word about your successes with U.S. athletes.

Seek favours

Ask your players to promote you, which will help you gain the confidence of Canadians.

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Interviews have been edited and condensed.

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