Miller had a huge 2015-16 season, and his performance in the Super Bowl earned him the game's MVP and helped his Denver Broncos win their first championship in 17 years.
Yet after the season, Miller found himself in an unfavorable bargaining position: Broncos management was giving him an exclusive franchise tag. That meant that instead of becoming a free agent with the ability to negotiate a deal with any team, Miller would be automatically assigned a one-year, $14.7 million contract from the Broncos.
While certainly not a shabby number, that contract also meant Miller's ability to test the open market would be delayed by a year. What's more, a devastating injury in the upcoming season could mean that Miller, still only 26, might never earn the long-term deal his talent is worth.
Miller's agent, Joby Branion, knew his client--arguably the best linebacker in the league--could earn much more than that if he had any bargaining chips. The pair came up with their play: They would tell Broncos general manager John Elway that Miller would sit out the upcoming season if he didn't get a long-term deal.
"For it to be real leverage," Branion says, "Von had to be committed to the idea. He had to accept that he might have to walk away and not play that year. It couldn't be puffery." They went all in: Branion told the Broncos his client wouldn't play without long-term security, and Miller announced the same on social media.
That July, Miller slipped up. While on Chelsea Handler's talk show, Miller responded to a question about whether he would really sit out with a bit too much optimism. "No," he told the host. "I can't see myself with any other team." Branion's camp panicked briefly--and then strategized. The next morning, Miller posted on his Instagram account that there was "no chance" he would play with the franchise tag.
For the next few weeks, Miller and Branion held strong. The strategy worked. Hours before the league-imposed deadline, Miller and the Broncos agreed to a six-year, $114.5 million deal, the biggest contract for a defensive player in NFL history.
Telling the other side you're willing to walk away from a deal can be a powerful negotiating tool, but it's not for the weak of heart--and will only work if you execute it correctly. Here's how you can.
1. Have a deep understanding of the entire competitive landscape.
Cristina Cordova, who heads business development for fintech company Stripe, has secured partnerships with Twitter, Facebook, and Pinterest, among others. "When we're thinking about working with a partner," she says, "and there could potentially be other partners we can work with in the same space, we make sure we really understand the landscape. Do we want company X, or company Y?" Answering that requires knowledge of your own situation as well. "You need to know what your asks are," she says, "and prioritize those asks."
2. Set your minimum ahead of time.
Know the least favorable terms that you'd be willing to accept, says Melissa Thomas-Hunt, a bargaining professor at the University of Virginia. But, of course, don't let the other side know what those minimum thresholds are. "You keep that information close," she says, "because if they know it, the rational thing for the other side to do is push you right to that limit."
3. Accept the consequences of walking away.
By coming to terms with the possibility of foregoing a year of salary and playing time, and convincing Elway and the Broncos of it, Miller and Branion took back the power, Thomas-Hunt says. Be prepared to live with the consequences of walking away, whether they entail losing capital or burning a bridge with a potential future partner. "If you truly can accept those things," she says, "it gives you a much stronger position in your negotiations."
4. Be convincing.
"The threat of walking away is only as good as the other side's belief that you will do it," says Alison Fragale, a negotiation professor at the University of North Carolina. That's why Miller's slip-up on the talk show could have been devastating for his leverage. "If the other side doesn't believe it," she says, "it becomes an empty threat, and then you've lost your power."
Kevin Mohan, a professor at Harvard Business School, summarizes game theorist Thomas Shelling: "The one who wins a game of chicken," he says, "is the one who takes his steering wheel and throws it out the window, and proves that I'm not going to turn--because I can't."
5. Mentally prepare yourself for the challenge.
Branion says that Elway and the Broncos have a uniquely hard-nosed style of negotiating, with curt communication and little willingness to go back and forth on terms. Whatever your opponent's style is, make sure you're ready for the fight. "John Elway is not going to just cave on anybody. If you're dealing with him, buckle up," Branion says. "But you can't be afraid to hold your position."