Jimmy Button | At Length With An Agent
Dylan Ferrandis is the pivotal player in this year’s Silly Season contract negotiations. The French racer has established himself as one of the top talents in the US SX-MX scene over the last few seasons and is ready to make the move to the 450 Class in 2021. It’s an important decision for Ferrandis, as it’ll certainly shape the next part of his career, but he has plenty of insight and assistance from Jimmy Button. The athlete-agent relationship between the two dates back to right around the time that Ferrandis expressed his initial desire to move to the United States, and together they’ve gone through the usual highs and lows, with right now certainly being one of the “highs.”
While Ferrandis signed autographs at the Toyota of Escondido event in February, we spent time with Button discussing his client’s upcoming free agency, the boos that came at stadiums on the West Coast, and what we thought could help grow motocross as a whole. Button’s role at Wasserman pairs him with athletes and drivers outside of motocross, so his outlook on the business isn’t limited to what he sees in our industry.
Since this is a complete transcript of our half-hour chat, it’s a bit lengthy (4583 words to be exact), but it offers some insight into Ferrandis’s personality, what brands look for in athletes and the challenges that potential sponsors experience when they look to invest into motocross.
This is a busy time of year for you, just before San Diego, since it’s the last big event before everyone takes off and goes back East. What is this weekend like for you as an agent and as part of Road 2 Recovery?
This agent stuff with Wasserman trumps everything because that’s what keeps the lights on. The year has been going pretty well for my guys, except for Justin Bogle’s injury at Glendale a couple of weeks ago. Like I tell everyone, if you wear a crash helmet or fireproof suit, you know what the dangers are for your sport. I’m living in Arizona now and had an appointment with one of my doctors that’s local in San Diego, so I came over early to get that sorted out, then came to the signing at Toyota of Escondido. It’s awesome what they do for the riders and it’s grown every year. Friday consists of meetings and the Road 2 Recovery board meeting at the stadium, so I’m trying to punch as much stuff as I can into the weekend. It’s good to get a bunch of stuff done before the East Coast swing starts and for me, Dylan is in the points lead and has the red plates, so things are going well. He’s won a few races and been on the box at every race but St. Louis, and I think he would have been on the box there too had the first lap of gone different. I’m working my tail off on his 450 deal next year and fortunately, he’s doing his job, which makes mine much easier when it comes time to negotiate.
You are a big reason that he came to the United States, thanks to your trips to Europe and getting him signed to Yamaha. What was it that initially started that relationship?
It’s interesting. A gentleman by the name of Jeremy, a French guy, worked with me at Wasserman for a while. He was our guy in Europe that would scout young talent and bring them into the fold, with hopes that if they progressed in their first one to three years of riding the Grand Prix, they would want to come here. Because they all have different initiatives. Some want to be a 10-time world champion and beat Stefan while others want to get strong over there, make a name for themselves, and come to the US to race Supercross. Obviously, the French thing is different because they have been good at Supercross for 35 years and Dylan falls into that pretty well. When the conversation started, I want to say it was early in 2014, Dylan was riding well and had just beaten Jeffrey straight-up in a race. So we wanted to organize a trip so that he could come to the US, stay over here for a month, ride all of the tracks, and go to Supercross races to watch before deciding, “Do I want to come to America or will I be a GP guy?” You have to make that decision at a fairly young age, you can’t wait until you are 22 or 23.
So, he came over and it went really well. He said he wanted to do it and truly at that point, there was one team to ride for, which was Star Racing. The bike was amazing, it still is, but it was lightyears ahead of everyone else at that time. I have a really good relationship with Bobby Regan and the rest of the team. It was actually at San Diego that we sat down with Bobby and Brad in their truck and I told them, “Dylan wants to do this 100-percent, he wants to ride for this team. Let’s put this together.” They were really into it and had to check with Yamaha, Keith McCarty and Mike Guerra, and we signed the contract three weeks later in 2015. It happened very quickly because they had seen him ride Genoa, Paris, and the Monster Energy Cup. They could see that he wasn’t going to be a fish out of the water because he was already at the super-elite level riding the 250 class.
There is a lot that goes into that. The second that the contract was done, I put the Wasserman wheel into motion and said that we had to start working on visas for him, his mechanic that he brought over at the time, and his wife, Nastasia. It’s a lot of work, but fortunately, we had the time, so when he came over in the Fall, everything was handled. The visas were dialed, the house was dialed, everything was sorted. It is a lot of work, but they were able to rely on me so that he could basically transfer his life over and start with no interruptions or distractions. Obviously, there were some teething issues getting used to this circus that is Supercross, because it’s different over here. He started out with a lot of speed and the consistency started to come, but the injury in 2018 at Atlanta was pretty shitty. I think he was just on the cusp of getting to where he is now and that was a big, big injury. It set him really far back because I think he could have contended for the outdoor title that year. I’m a firm believer that everything happens for a reason and it gave him time and motivation. The team has a lot of belief in him, things are going well for him and his wife, and over the Fall break, they bought their first house. Their life is here and their world is Southern California. It’s great working with him because there’s those two as a team plus David Vuillemin and myself, and we’re Team DF14 in a nutshell. There is one goal for all of us and that is to win races, win championships, and make a mark on the sport. So far, I think we are checking the boxes very well.
DV is a very accomplished racer and he’s handling the training program and riding, but you’re an accomplished racer, too. Are you one to give input on things or do you stay hands-off?
If I’m watching practice and I see something that I think is significant, maybe when they are watching video or something, I’ll interject something. But they have a good program going and I do the business part. If I can add anything into the riding stuff or see a line, I will, but that’s not my job. DV does a great job, their rapport is perfect, and I’m not going to interject too much to be a driving force. DV is with him every day at the track, he knows what’s going on, how he’s feeling, so I try to be hands-off in that department.
There is a big cultural difference and I know those first few years that he was here were hard, especially when he went to the East Coast (editor’s note: almost all of Star Racing trained at Cooper Webb’s North Carolina facility when Webb was at Monster Energy Yamaha).
Yeah, the Charlotte thing was tough.
It had to be tough because he could not go to a place that is more different from France than there.
There or Tennessee.
You all have done a very good job of getting everything back “home” and now California is his base. They have figured out the restaurants and places that they like to go to…
And I think that part of it was when you first come over, you haven’t won yet, and you have to play by everyone else’s rules for a little bit. Once you prove that the way you do things works and works for you, then you can stand your ground more. As an agent, I have to take what he wants and what the team wants, then find a happy medium for everyone. In the beginning, North Carolina is what the team wanted, and we were not in the position to put a foot down and say that we weren’t doing that. But we’ve earned the leverage now to say, “This is our program.” And they believe in the program, too. Everyone on the team loves him, her, and DV. I have a relationship with the team that goes back 25 years, so there’s no big deal there. But it takes a little bit to do that and you have to set the foundation. When you are winning races and contending for the championship, you are able to stand up for exactly what you want.
Not to dwell too much on the ongoing issues of the last few weeks, with the booing and everything, but how has he adapted to being in America? Did he understand that maybe he wasn’t going to be America’s Sweetheart, because he’s European, or was that something you all have had to figure out the hard way?
Go back to the picture from Southwick, where their fans are the gnarliest ones. A guy is giving him the bird, he does it back, and there’s a photo of it. Everyone thought, “Hell yeah! We like this guy because he stands up for himself.” Then you have what happened three weeks ago and now it’s, “Let’s crucify this son of a bitch.” When it happened my first reaction was, “Oh, shit. I hope he didn’t break his leg and that they are both okay.” Then you saw that everyone was alive, and the race kept going, but the fans took it so far that I was like, “Oh, shit. This is strictly because he is French.” And I hate to say that, because I don’t care what side of the aisle you are on, they were pissed off because Christian is the blonde hair, Southern California guy with a rad family that everyone knows, and Dylan is the big bad wolf. What looked like to them, from a spectator’s standpoint of racing, the French guy just tried to kill him. When in reality, that couldn’t have been further from the truth. Was it ill-timed? Yes. Could he have waited a couple of corners? Yes. I could go through 500 things and say yes, but also say, “Christian knew that Dylan was catching him and why not let him go and tow in behind him? He would have gotten second in the race and made 40,000 in bonus money.” You can go through so many variations of how that could have played out.
The boos were deafening at A2, they were okay at Glendale, and Oakland was kind of weird. I think that the reality is that us within the industry knew that he wasn’t trying to hurt him, that he was moving forward quickly, wanted to get to the front, and was thinking that he was down in the championship and figured, “It’s fucking go time. I have to win a race. I have to do it tonight because the opportunity is there, and the other guys are behind me.” The reality of it is he would have gained way more points because he would have put two more guys between himself and the others that are in the championship. It’s unfortunate the way things played out.
Back to the original question, I think he understands that he’s not going to be the sweetheart and cannot be for obvious reasons, but there are some pretty shitty fans out there that took it too far. Dude, the DMs I got on Instagram were insane. Did these people not know that you could go to the FBI, show them the messages, and it’s over? Pull your head out of your ass.
The thing is that this isn’t the first time that it’s ever happened, either. Mike Alessi has gotten his share of shit, Jeff has too, but those are two guys that from the time they were 14 years old had to deal with the trial by fire that is the public spotlight. For Dylan, this was his first time. For me, I instantly thought, “Welp, now we have another Jean Michel Bayle. We’re going to run this kid off in two years.” And I was bummed because he’s such a good talent for the sport. Going forward with that and knowing how he is, how he doesn’t follow anyone on Instagram and doesn’t care about that stuff, does the attitude of, “The only thing that matters is what happens on the race track,” make it difficult for you as an agent?
Let me jump on the soapbox really quick. Everyone loves Instagram because it gives them a vantage point into an athlete’s world. When I was growing up there was Motocross Action and MotoWorld every other week. Now you can see what they did in the last hour. For that reason it is great and some people really embrace that, like Kenny and Dean. They have done a really good job of it. But then you have guys like Eli and Dylan, who do it because they have to. But they aren’t sitting thumbing through it because to them it’s a time burn. His focus and goal are to wake up, eat right, train right, ride right, race right. That is it. And I think in the end, when he calls it quits on his career, I don’t think that he is going to look back and say, “I should have tried harder with the social media.” I don’t think that will ever be a factor. I also think that our industry, well really every industry because I am involved in several, I think that everyone got so much on the social bandwagon because you really can directly market to what your demo is. But when you do a ton of that shit, it comes off fake as hell and people start to notice. I think that it went really far and it will come back to be a happy medium. Are we there yet? No, and as an agent, it pisses me off when companies say that they’d rather do a deal with a guy because he has more followers but hasn’t won a race in three years. I represent some influencers and it’s the exact opposite for them. I have one girl that races cars and she makes so much money off Instagram just for her tire deal, but I have some guys that also race and their tire deal is a third of hers because they have no followers and she has a million. I benefit and see both sides of it, so I’m not preaching about it and it’s interesting to see what the dynamic is. It’s a strange deal, but what are you going to do?
Part of me has to think, “Is this hard for him to get sponsors or get deals because he isn’t so public?” But then again, results are what matters most.
Can everyone be Ken Roczen? No.
And if everyone was, it would make Ken less special, because they’d all be the same thing.
Ask John Tomac if he has a hard time getting deals for Eli. Right now, we are having good success and are getting ready for the next three or four seasons with Dylan because he is doing what he has to on the track. In my opinion, results will always trump everything, no matter what it is. When they put you in the box, they don’t put you in a box and talk about your cell phone and how many followers you had. It’s number one plates and race wins.
How much can you say about his move to the 450 Class? He is a hot commodity right now and I know that you can only say so much.
In all honesty, what I can say right now and today is that we have no idea. Do we have options? Obviously. Those within the industry know what the colors are that we have options with, but sometimes you have to pull the ace out of your sleeve, and that’s what I’m trying to do right now. Because I think there are more options out there than what meets the eye. We will see what happens, but he is in a good place and I think that he will end up with a team and program that allows him to get the job done. He doesn’t want to do a deal that will just line his pocketbook. The reality is you can make a lot of money racing and do well versus getting a very big paycheck and riding like garbage or being on a program that you don’t assimilate well with. He could be on a team and bike that works for certain riders, but that might not work for him. For me, it’s about finding a way to build the team around him, making sure we have the right staff and bike. From our side, the Dylan-Nastasia-DV-Jimmy side, we have that boxed checked well. Now we have to check the boxes for the team, bike, and staff. I think I will walk out of San Diego knowing a lot more than I do today because I have a lot of meetings scheduled. He is going to ride a 450, he’s going to be good, and it’s exciting.
I’ve wanted to ask someone in your spot this question for a while. As an Illinois kid, I grew up going to the Indy 500 and watching that side of things. To me, and this is no disrespect to anyone involved or you, but it’s so small compared to what it was in the past because they have changed the cars and rules and everything. So, it blows me away that they can get as much sponsorship money as they do. What is the thing that keeps motocross from getting that money instead?
I hate being politically correct, but I have to pull that right now. If you look at IndyCar, NASCAR, MotoGP, and Formula1, in a generalized sense you have very high-level and intelligent businessmen running all of it. From the teams to the engineering to whatever. Now, I’m not saying that motocross and Supercross has a bunch of idiots running around, not saying that at all. But from the standpoint of polished businessmen, there aren’t as many here as there are there. If you look at GEICO Honda, Jeff Majkrzak is a genius and is super polished. Look at that sponsorship. It’s the biggest that we have in this world.
And I don’t think that people realize that.
They have been here for a long time, they are happy, and the team does a great job. Look at the operation that they run. It is a NASCAR-IndyCar-MotoGP-F1 style program. I think there needs to be more of that. My former colleague Steve Astephen would chime in well on this, too. You need everyone working together instead of against one another. The reason that you see really big deals, and take F1 out of the discussion because the amount of zeros in the contracts is unbelievable…
If you look at what Petronas does, no one here knows what or how big that company is.
Because we’re in a little bubble. If you look at those deals, in all honesty, they have nothing to do with exposure. They have practically zero to do with exposure and instead, it’s all about creating business. The RCH boys were on to that, with a little help from Wasserman when we were handling the sponsorships, and they knew that they had to create business for their partners, you have to create experiences for their partners, and then connect the dots so that everyone sells more stuff. Because why do the OEMs do this? To sell parts and bikes. Why do FMF and Pro Circuit do this? To sell pipes. But when you get to the conversation of, “We need a 15 million dollar sponsor,” like what Ally Bank has with Jimmie Johnson, you need to know how it will be business to business and what other businesses you will put them with so that everyone can extract more from each other. And that’s not being done at a very good level here yet. I think everyone needs to get on board with each other better. The OEMs need to work better together and I think Feld needs to work better with the riders and OEMs. And I don’t say that and think that they are all doing a terrible job; I see things that are changing slowly. But there is a quantum leap that everyone needs to take because we have an amazing sport that the right demographic loves. It’s blue-collar people that spend money on what they love and it’s a great family sport. Everything but the injuries is amazing. We just need to do a better job of working together to do more and do better. I pray that we get there while I’m still alive because, from an athletic standpoint, this is the greatest sport in the world, bar none. You have to be more fit and more focused, more of everything that every other sport is, and there’s no reason why a 20th place guy in the 450 Class isn’t making 300,000 or 400,000 dollars a year. That should be what is going on. It’s so far removed from that right now. With me being involved in IndyCar, a lot of people think that those guys make a shitload of money. They don’t. There are a few that get paid really well, but they aren’t making Ken Roczen-Eli Tomac-Jason Anderson money. They probably aren’t making Justin Barcia money. The elite in our sport make more money than the elite in IndyCar, but they don’t make more than the NASCAR guys. There are paid drivers in F1, but that guy is bringing 19 million dollars to the team. It’s different and I hope that we can get there, but that it doesn’t end up like other motorsports, where whoever brings the biggest check gets there. I think a little of that has happened, just because the technology has taken a leap and it’s more expensive to go racing because it’s not like the old two-stroke days when you could have five guys on the factory team. The bikes weren’t that costly and the technology wasn’t there. You had the mechanic, the suspension guy, and the team manager.
And you needed a box full of jets, and not a computer, to get the bike running right.
Now you have to have a staff that adds hundreds of thousands of dollars to the team’s budget. And that gets hard to replicate over 25 teams.
Another big thing I hear is how motocross is great because it’s the key demographic. When you have conversations with people at the decision-making levels of companies and they come to the races, do they bite onto it as easily as we think they do? Or do you really have to sell them on it because it’s such a different form of racing?
I think they bite onto it in the way of, “This is cool and exciting, and the demographic is good.” But I think their pause for concern is, “How do we go about making the proper program to extract what we can out of this?” That’s where you run into problems like, “Who do we have to pay? What will we need to do with Feld and MX Sports?” When you do a deal in stick and ball sports, it’s easy because you know what you’re going to get. There are player’s unions and agreements, so when you come in you see everything and know exactly what you are getting. Here, it’s like, “Okay, so pay us. But then you’re probably going to have to pay some people over here and then probably need to do this. But you won’t be trackside and if you want that, then you need to pay this number.” It’s all pieced together and that makes it hard to create an all-encompassing program that is turnkey. You can get there, but it’s a hell of a lot more work.
In the last few years I have had some high-level conversations, nowhere near what you’ve had with people, but high enough that I am asked, “What do you think we can do to make more people come into the sport with what we have to offer?” The one thing I have always told them is, “You all need to put your cards on the table as a group and come together to see what each person is doing. If you stop thinking of everyone as competition that you’re out to beat, we will all grow together.”
Do you think that is possible? Do you think that everyone could put their things to the side and come together for something that will take a few years to build? Or is that a fantasy?
If they don’t, the sport will not exist.
I really think we have a five-year window where it could go either way and what we do will have a lasting impact.
We have to make hay while the sun shines. Look how good the racing is. Right now you don’t know who is going to win, so it’s not like the Jeremy Days. Damn him [Laughs]. It’s not the Ricky or Chad or Bubba or the Ryans days. There are gnarly dudes up and down the whole thing, there are 15 guys that have won already. We need to, as you say, put the cards on the table and make it happen. But we need everybody to be working together. The ironic thing is that everyone puts their blinders on and thinks, “Oh, we don’t want to spend the money. It’ll cost too much.” We need to invest a little bit now so that we bring in more, because then it will cost less. It’s out there. Our sport is great and we can market the hell out of a number of different products, so if we work together we can make something that is fantastic. But it’s an interesting sport. F1 doesn’t have an on-road and off-road series, but we have Supercross and motocross.
Another thing is that when we watch those races, we know we’re not going to buy a Mercedes F1 car or a Chevy NASCAR.
And it’s the same in MotoGP. It’s a unicorn that you want to see. That group (Dorna, the organizer of MotoGP) does a great job of working with the OEMs and the riders. I say this knowing that it’s taboo and I won’t say “union,” but there needs to be a group that speaks up for the riders and the OEMs. There need to be heads of state that can come together and discuss how we are going to move this forward, that shows the rider’s standpoint, the OEM’s standpoint, and the promoter’s standpoint. Everyone needs to work together because in the end, this is a show. No one is fixing cancer or anything serious here.
We’re just having fun.
Exactly, it’s a good time that everyone gets to have. We need to work together because it’s just motocross. Let’s work together so that we keep everyone employed and bring more people in.