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Leigh Steinberg: The Super Agent – Part One

Photo by Brian Ach/Getty Images for Steinberg Sports & Entertainment

There’s Leigh Steinberg, super-agent. He’s to the right of Kevin Costner but unlike Tom Cruise’s line in the movie Jerry Maguire (loosely based on Steinberg); he is the agent you know about. He’s the agent the whole world of sports and entertainment knows about. After forty years in a business that has seen Steinberg guide seven of his clients into the NFL Hall of Fame and reach the summit of sports representation but which has also seen him hit rock bottom with sobriety issues and bankruptcy, Steinberg wants to make sure he leaves an indelible mark on the industry and the world around him.

As we inch closer to the 2014 NFL Draft, I had the chance to sit down with Steinberg, a man who knows the inner workings of the draft better than anyone, to talk about his new book, The Agent. In Part One of our conversation we discuss Steinberg’s resurgence into sports representations, his goals and what is driving him now.

Part 1: Q & A

600AM ESPN/El Paso: After already authoring one bestseller, Winning with Integrity what inspired you to put pen to paper again?

Steinberg: I wanted to lay out a template for those people who might be thinking about sports. It’s possible to retain your ideals, it’s possible to retain your values and still be conventionally successful. I talk about a style of agenting that focuses holistically on a player and prepares them for a second career and has them retracing his roots.

600AM ESPN/El Paso: Does that kind of ideology, of asking a player to do more than just the basic off-the-field activities work today with the perceived me-first athlete?

Steinberg: This generation has grown up in front of a computer screen with noise and sound flooding over them; they’re tweeting, you-tubing, texting, playing video games with headsets on, to give the illusion that one can control every second of sensory input, so it’s a little subversive to attention span. However, the right ambitious athletes still understand that their time in pro sports will be ephemeral and fleeting and they then have the challenge of a satisfying life after that. Do they make up 100 percent of the collegiate population? No, but you can still find young men and women that want to make a difference.

Photo by Frank Micelotta/Getty Images

600AM ESPN/El Paso: You’ve sat on top the summit of sports agency, but have also lost it all. What possesses you to make another run at representing athletes, especially at an age when many people are starting to look towards retirement?

Steinberg: I was hard-wired by my father with two basic values. One was to treasure relationships, especially family, and the other was to try to make a positive difference in the world. I still believe I have the capacity to help athletes, nurture good values, and that together we can make an impact on the world. I feel blessed to be given a second chance to go out and impact the world. It is much more fun in some ways to build something than to be at the pinnacle and have to maintain that level. I mean I had gotten to the point where if I did not have the first pick in the football draft, if we didn’t have a load of first picks in baseball, same thing with basketball, then that year was a failure.

600AM ESPN/El Paso: Throughout the past ten to twenty years sports representation has taken on several new aspects, including endorsement deals, training, nutrition and even the entertainment industry. There have also been big changes in how much an agent can profit when negotiating a contract, with salary caps and slotted rookie salaries. Are you ready for the challenge of a new industry and the pros and cons that come with it?

Steinberg: The changes are that the biggest sports are now salary capped. So unlike the years where we had tremendous creative opportunities to avoid salary caps, now every football player drafted has to sign a four-year contract. There’s nothing an agent can do to change that until year four.  So the amount of real contractual value in the first four years in a basketball or football player’s life is not much.

Back in 1996 Jason Taylor’s father called me and said, “We really would like to hire you but what’s your training program?” Training has been like mutually-assured destruction. People do it because other people do it. We’ve seen major “merger mania” and consolidation in the agency field. Most agencies have been bought up and combined with the entertainment groupings. It’s really not the fee from contract negotiations that those groups are after—they’re after the synergies that allow bundling and marketing.

The concept of a studio not in the four wall, brick and mortar sense, but virtually the sports theme motion pictures, television, video games, apps that can bring fans closer to sports over the multiple platforms of content supply, your phone, your ipad. So they’re looking for the ability to get consulting fees and more to the point equity on those projects which eclipses what would come from representation. That’s where the fusion has happened and it’s still a grand experiment to see whether it works. Right now we’re a boutique but I think it is necessary to expand and form strategic alliances with other groups to give us more breadth.  

600AM ESPN/El Paso: Where do you see entertainers like Jay-Z in the world of sports representation? Considering Master P’s debacle with former Texas running back Ricky Williams. Do artists have a place in sports?

Steinberg: I think there is a market for all sorts of approaches and I can see Jay-Z would have an appeal because he has been successful in his own life. If he can enrich players in a variety of different ways, more power to him. I think there is no shortage of athletes to represent, there’s a new group that comes in every year so there’s enough for anyone that truly cares about athletes and provides high quality professional services to be able to flourish.

Tomorrow, in Part Two of my conversation with Leigh Steinberg, we take a look at what led to his battles with sobriety and the challenges that forced him to give up his agency.

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