Can’t wait for the next 10 years to see all the goals you accomplish TB. pic.twitter.com/IHkekVFuup
— Rachel Luba (@AgentRachelLuba) November 13, 2020
Gymnastics alum Rachel Luba hopes to revamp representation in baseball business
Former UCLA gymnast and club boxer Rachel Luba has turned the sports agency landscape on its head, breaking norms and stereotypes on her way up the ladder. (Courtesy of Rachel Luba)
By Sam Connon
Jan. 21, 2021 3:09 p.m.
This post was updated Jan. 24 at 9:36 p.m.
Rachel Luba doesn’t take the mound every fifth night or step up to the plate with the game on the line.
Those are her clients’ jobs, whether it be 2020 National League Cy Young Award winner Trevor Bauer or All-Star outfielder Yasiel Puig.
The UCLA alumna has much loftier goals as a growing agent, and she said she’s on track to do a lot more than simply fit in in the baseball world.
“That’s kind of the goal – try to somewhat takeover baseball,” Luba said.
Luba didn’t grow up a die-hard baseball fan, and she never played the sport as a kid – she was all in on gymnastics, the sport that drew her to UCLA in the first place. She says that outsider mentality works to her advantage in the older, male-dominated industry, however, as she aims to bring new life to a game she claimed is slowly dying every day.
“Being a female, I didn’t grow up in the sport – even softball players, they don’t grow up in the sport of baseball, so it’s different,” Luba said. “I think the value of not growing up in it and not being clouded by tradition and how it’s been done just allows me to come in from a very different mindset, a kind of a mindset where you question everything.”
Luba’s presence on social media – including regular activity on Twitter, appearances in Bauer’s vlogs or casual banter with baseball fans – also sets her apart from the pool of MLB agents working today. Top agent Scott Boras doesn’t even have a Twitter account, and most of his baby boomer competitors are in the same boat despite representing All-Stars and World Series champions year in, year out.
Having nearly 60,000 Twitter followers and a blue check mark isn’t what earned Luba a spot on Forbes’ 30 under 30 list for sports in December, and neither was it just due to the fact she was one of a select few female agents working in the game last season.
Subverting industry norms is an everyday kind of thing for Luba at this point, and it has been for quite some time now – starting back in Westwood nearly a decade ago.
Perfect 10s to perfect games
Luba committed to California for gymnastics in high school, but after learning its women’s program was getting cut the following year, she made a late change of plans and joined the then-reigning NCAA champion Bruins instead. Former UCLA gymnastics coach Valorie Kondos Field said while Luba wasn’t at the level of a scholarship athlete, her gymnastics was still beautiful and her personality was even stronger.
“I remember being so impressed with her poise and vivacity; she had this really exciting energy but with a tremendous amount of poise for someone so young,” Kondos Field said. “Very early on, she trusted me, and she’d stop by my office and we would have conversations and she’d share a lot of her life, experiences and her personal struggles.”
Luba said Kondos Field taught her a lot during her freshman season and not just about competing on the bars, floor or vault.
“Miss Val was a huge influence just on getting me to, for one, enjoy the journey,” Luba said. “And then just learning to love myself and love being an athlete, being proud, even just in terms of my body and all that. So that was a lot of, I think, what UCLA gymnastics did for me, it just kind of helped shift my mindset in a lot of ways.”
Her experience with the Bruins was short-lived, as she quit the team after one year.
Kondos Field said discussing Luba’s decision to leave the sport was difficult at the time, but ultimately a telling moment of what was to come for the now-former gymnast.
“When you’ve done a sport for so long, that’s your identity,” Kondos Field said. “To have a young adult, a young student-athlete, consciously and purposely make that choice is a very hard choice, but I feel it’s a very mature choice. She made that decision, it was her choice, and I applauded her for it because it’s not easy giving up your identity.”
That’s when Luba’s late decision to enroll at UCLA ironically ended up getting her back on track.
Because she committed to UCLA so late in the game, the rest of her future teammates had already been paired up as roommates. Luba ended up in a single at Hedrick Hall, where she was surrounded by UCLA baseball players who became some of her best friends at school.
“They became my brothers, and that was really what started my interest in baseball and desire to pursue a career in it,” Luba said.
Luba said the players immediately took her under their wings and showed her the ropes of the sport, considering she just barely knew the rules when she first showed up on campus.
The next few years were very busy for Luba, who graduated from UCLA in three years, learned about America’s pastime from Westwood’s most qualified teachers and earned a bronze medal at the 2013 women’s club boxing national championships. From that point on, it was baseball or bust.
Behind in the count
Luba had officially set her sights on becoming a baseball agent, so she reached out to some contacts to see how she could start to make her way into the industry.
She eventually got a sit-down meeting with an old UCLA baseball friend’s agent while she was still in school, and it did not go as she planned.
“The first thing he pretty much told me was, ‘You’re not welcome in the industry, you’re female,'” Luba said. “I grew up with three brothers, and there was never anything that guys could do that I wasn’t allowed to do – my parents raised me that way. So it just bothered me that someone said that to me.”
Luba said the agent was one of many advisors who tried to steer her toward marketing agencies instead of player representation, pigeonholing her into certain roles because of her gender. Looking deeper into the baseball industry, she said she realized those tactics were the norm, so she set out to get her law degree and succeed despite the stereotypes and daunting statistics – just six of the 400 MLB-certified agents were women when Luba finished her undergraduate studies in 2013.
After earning her law degree from Pepperdine University in 2016, Luba spent two years as a salary arbitration attorney for the Major League Baseball Players Association. Luba became the youngest certified MLB agent and only woman with her own agency when she started Luba Sports in 2019, meaning she was still one of the few women who even got that far, something she said was intimidating at first.
“A lot of times when women don’t really exist in an industry, or there aren’t a lot of them, the few that are there are very territorial of it,” Luba said. “They almost like being the only one.”
By expanding her network on social media and finding others in her same position, she decided that wasn’t going to be the case.
Luba said NFL and NBA agent Nicole Lynn was one of the female agents who inspired her, and she also managed to make a connection with NFL agent Molly McManimie – who represents former UCLA football running back Joshua Kelley – during a virtual baby shower in December.
“There’s a really solid network of women in sports who help one another and motivate, inspire and stand up for one another,” Luba said. “Because it can be very lonely, a lot of times, being a female in the sports world.”
With mentors, guides and a dedicated following, Luba spun what looked like a lonely landscape into an opportunity to set records and break barriers. Last November, Luba became the first female agent to represent a Cy Young Award winner, who just so happened to be her former classmate.
An ace in the hole
Most player-agent relationships don’t start in First Amendment lectures, but that’s where Luba and Bauer first met.
“I realized (Bauer)’s someone who thinks very differently,” Luba said. “He’s very progressive and doesn’t necessarily fit the traditional mold of baseball, which is kind of right up my alley as well.”
Luba said the two remained good friends, even after Bauer got picked No. 3 overall in the 2011 MLB Draft and bounced around the country over the next few years. Like he had when the two were at UCLA together, Bauer continued to teach Luba about baseball without being patronizing like she said so many other men were at the time.
Even considering their long-term personal relationship, Luba said she didn’t expect anything professional to come out of it.
“I never, in a million years, thought I would be (Bauer)’s agent,” Luba said. “People would tell me, ‘Oh, you’re friends with Bauer, you’ll represent him,’ and I just said no way.”
But after graduating from law school and listening to Bauer complain about his representation for years, Luba said she realized she had a chance to turn things around for both of them. It wasn’t going to be easy, considering Bauer was a notoriously analytical, former mechanical engineering student whose father was very involved with his finances and training.
Luba said she pulled from her law background to devise a plan that could give Bauer exactly what he was looking for in an agent while also breaking new ground in the industry. Instead of taking a cut of Bauer’s contracts and removing her own incentive to perform at a high level post-signings, she decided to structure her agency on billable hours and everyday services rather than commissions.
“If it’s a 10-year deal, a player can leave (their agent) the day after (the contract is signed) and that agent still gets commissions for 10 years, so there’s a lack of incentive there,” Luba said. “And this art of being able to negotiate a contract isn’t much of an art anymore, it’s more of a science based on numbers and data.”
Bauer and his father were sold on the idea after Luba’s formal business pitch, and he became Luba Sports’ first client.
“I want to see a better landscape. I want to see better representation, better branding, better marketing, stuff like that,” Bauer said in an interview with Complex in December. “And (Luba) and Luba Sports perfectly align with that, allowing flexibility to players to use the money that they’ve paid their agent in more creative ways and get more for their dollar.”
The two now collaborate on much more than contract negotiations – although that is the pair’s top priority at the moment with Bauer currently the top free agent pitcher on the market – such as Q&As, livestreams, vlogs and more. Luba said Bauer has grown a lot since college, and the two have both realized the importance of building their brands and diversifying in order to push baseball into the next generation.
Swinging for the fences
Besides growing her agency on the baseball front, Luba said she also wants to eventually expand into other sports as well. Even if she isn’t getting the clients, however, Luba wants her fee structure to spread regardless and start a revolution in the agency world.
Taking over baseball is a tall task for the 5-foot-1 former gymnast, but garnering national recognition and two top-tier clients after just one year in the business is quite a first step for the 28-year-old agent.
“She was not afraid of hard work; she’s not afraid to put herself out there,” Kondos Field said. “She’s a wonderful example of dreaming big, working hard, and when you do stumble, pick yourself up, brush yourself off, take a deep breath and take the next step towards your goal.”
When Luba earned her spot on the 30 Under 30 list Dec. 1, one of the first public congratulations she got was from the UCLA gymnastics Twitter account.
The team also didn’t miss an opportunity to show off Luba’s bio from her freshman season, where she wrote that her career objective was to be a sports lawyer or agent.
“I forgot I had it in there,” Luba said. “It was a good reminder of how long I’ve been working at this and how long I’ve wanted this.”