Kelli Masters remembers the feeling going to her first NFL scouting combine in 2006, seeing no other female agents in the room and wondering if the people who told her she didn’t belong were right.
Masters had studied law at the University of Oklahoma and began her professional career as a business litigation attorney. The former national and world champion baton twirler and Miss Oklahoma 1997 became an agent because her passion for helping people with their nonprofits led her to work with athletes who wanted to start charitable foundations.
Masters had only one client and little experience when she went to Indianapolis but she was eager to attend the annual agents’ meeting and break into the business.
Then, she got a rude reality check.
“I was approached by one of the biggest agents at the time who’s still a big agent, and he basically gave me a lecture on why I didn’t belong there and really spoke to a lot of the insecurities that I walked in with,” Masters said on the AP Pro Football Podcast. “I was thinking: ‘Gosh, I feel like I’m prepared, but am I prepared? Can I really hang with this crowd? Can I really compete and be respected and develop relationships in this very male-dominated industry?’ And he basically told me that I couldn’t. He told me that I was a laughingstock and that I would never be respected and that players wouldn’t want to sign with me strictly because of my gender.”
Masters faced difficult obstacles often early in her career. She’d go meet potential clients only to be asked if she was the assistant or secretary. She was told by parents of college athletes that women couldn’t handle the job.
But Masters didn’t walk away. Instead, she put this agent in his place.
“I said: ‘You know what? I don’t see a lot of other women around here, but that’s OK. You don’t know me as a person. You don’t know what I’m capable of. You don’t know what I’m wanting to accomplish here. And sorry, I’m not going anywhere. And there are going to be other women coming behind me that are also going to be doing great work in this industry, and you’re just going to have to accept that fact,’” Masters recalled.
“Being told to my face by someone that I actually looked up to that I didn’t belong and I was a joke was pretty harsh. And then being specifically told in the recruiting process that we just don’t want to sign with a woman because we don’t think women can do this, those were tough in the beginning. But I think we’ve definitely blown right past that.”
Masters has more female colleagues now, including Kim Miale, Caitlin Aoki, Nicole Lynne, Molly McManimie and Christina Phillips. Of the 910 NFLPA-certified agents, 67 are women. Still, that's only 7.3%.
“I love the fact that now, 18 years later, gender is no longer a barrier, and I’m thankful for that,” Masters said. “I always kind of hoped that we would get to a point where it was no longer making headlines when a woman did something big in football."
It took Masters four years before she represented a player who earned a spot on a team’s regular-season roster, meaning she didn’t get paid until that happened. Agents don't get compensation if a player only makes the practice squad. Some agents need a secondary job because they spend their own money to prepare players for the draft. They provide them with everything from nutritionists and trainers to travel, lodging and meal money.
Masters invested plenty of time, money and energy building relationships, establishing herself in the business and recruiting players before she finally saw a return.
In 2010, she got her big break when Oklahoma defensive tackle Gerald McCoy and his family chose her to be his agent. McCoy was selected No. 3 overall by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, making Masters the first female agent to represent a top-5 pick in the NFL draft. McCoy went on make six Pro Bowls in an 11-year career, and earned more than $100 million.
“It’s still hard to sign first-rounders,” said Masters, who started her own agency, Kelli Masters Management. “It’s the impossible dream for most agents.”
Masters has now represented more than 40 NFL players who’ve been on active rosters. Her clients also include players in Major League Baseball, Olympians and professional golfers. She detailed her career as a sports agent in her book called “High-Impact Life,” released in 2021.
Her Christian faith is a theme throughout the book and has been a foundation during her career.
“There are faster pathways to the top of the industry by kind of cheating or skirting the rules and it’s just not even on my radar,” Masters said. “Even if it means losing clients, I want to do things the right way. It’s not about who am I impressing, who am I pleasing, do I look successful. It’s have I served, have I fulfilled what I was assigned to do, am I loving people well, am I advocating and fighting for and protecting the people that have trusted me to do that. I cannot imagine doing that without faith.”
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