Leigh Steinberg (September 10, 2011)
First, can you tell readers how you got started as a sports agent and the biggest misperception some have about sports agents
Back in 1975 there wasn’t an established field of sports representation, it was more like the Wild Wild West. The right of representation in the NFL was not guaranteed until the 1977 Collective Bargaining Agreement and executives like Mike Brown of the Bengals would say “we don’t deal with agents” and hang up the phone.
I was attending law school at the University of California at Berkeley in the early 1970’s and working my way through school as a dorm counselor in an undergraduate dormitory. They moved the freshman football team into the dorm one year and one of the students was Steve Bartkowski, quarterback on the team, who went on to be selected as the first player in the first round of the 1975 NFL Draft by the Atlanta Falcons.
I graduated from law school in January of 1974 and took the year off to travel the world. When I returned and was choosing between law offers, Steve called and asked if I would represent him. So my first legal client was the first pick in the draft, being fought over by the fledgling World Football League and the NFL. He received the largest contract in NFL history,eclipsing the previous standard-bearer Joe Namath and we flew into Atlanta to sign the contract.
Arriving the night before we were greeted by a crowd pressing up against a police line, klieg lights in the sky like for a movie premiere, and the first thing we heard was “we interrupt the Johnny Carson show to bring you a special news bulletin, Steve Bartkowski and his agent have just arriving at the airport, we switch you live for an in-depth interview”
The biggest misconception is that sports agents are all materially oriented with no care for their clients or the effect of their actions on the sport itself. I had long-lasting relationships with clients like Warren Moon (23 seasons), Troy Aikman and Steve Young. I have always endeavored to get to know a players’ deepest motivations and dreams and work to fulfill them on and off the field.
In your estimation, how did you become as successful as you have in this business –how are you different from other agents?
I realized early on that if I asked clients to retrace their roots to the high school, collegiate and professional communities that support and shape them and establish programs that enhance the Quality of life it would build roots and second career relationships based on the quality of their character.
We emphasized a sense of self-respect, nurturing family relationships and active community involvement as basic core values. My role is to oversee the long-term interests of clients including second career while understanding the need to build the success of sports and their fans.
The real battle in football is not labor v. management but the competition of the NFL with MLB,the NBA,HBO,Walt Disney World and every other form of discretionary entertainment spending for fans.
Having acrimonious public contract disputes or bitter CBA battles alienates fans from sport. If I can build the brand of a sport it will create multiple ancillary revenue streams that make owners my allies, and drive revenue that will create a big enough pie to accommodate handsome contracts for Players.
Cameron Crowe followed me around for three yrs to experience the world of football in preparation to write and direct a film about an aspiring sports agents that became “Jerry Maguire”. I told him stories, worked on the script, worked with the actors (I took Cuba Gooding Jr. down to the Arizona Super bowl and made him pretend he was a wide receiver),spent time on the set and played a cameo.
I haven’t been able to walk through an airport without some asking me to say “Show Me the Money” Since.
You do a great deal of work for charity –what charities are you most involved in and why – and how can readers help?
I see my role as trying to make a positive difference in the world. Whether it was Rolf Benirschke’s “Kicks for Critters” which raised money and awareness over the plight of endangered species for the San Diego Zoo or Derrick Thomas’ “Third and Long” which raised money and focus on illiteracy and dyslexia in Kansas City or Warrick Dunn’s “Homes for the Holidays” which moved single mothers into the first homes they will ever own–these programs can utilize the high-profile that athletes have to change the world for the better.
My Dad had two core values–treasure relationships, especially family, and be a force for good in the world.
On the new CBA –what concerns you most from an agent’s perspective on the new agreement –and were you given an opportunity to add your concerns to the discussion (if so, what were your biggest concerns?)
Never have been a fan of the salary cap. It forces best run teams to discard the players their hard work has scouted and developed and encourages mediocrity. It puts undue emphasis on injury by making backups aging vets or lower round rookies and a key injury dramatically drops level of play. It forces highly paid rookies to play too soon and retards their careers. It does only one good thing- keeps labor and management in a desirable situation of long-term labor peace.
How have you found the Steelers front office to be in terms of working with them –and how are they in fact different from other teams in their approach to player relationships and negotiations?
I am major fan and friend of the Rooney family. They epitomize so many values that built and maintain the primacy of the NFL. They do an outstanding job of developing players below the first round and maintain dominance.
I was able to get Ben Roethlisberger signed his rookie year relatively on time and he starred unlike Philip Rivers who was so late he didn’t play for three years.
In an interview with us earlier (http://www.pittsburghsportsdailybulletin.com/page48.html), sports agent Ralph Cindrich stated that the Steelers used to be a very difficult organization to work with but have changed tremendously over the years. Have you found that to be the case as well and what made them difficult in the past??
When they had a smaller stadium and existed in a “small market” they felt under financial pressure and let a number of quality free agents go. Jim Boston reflected this mentality.
How do you work with players to prepare them for life after sports?
I challenge each player to use the off-seasons to develop other skill sets and prepare for second career. We prepare them to be business leaders–Ray Childress and Deron Cherry both own small pieces of NFL teams–or to be broadcasters like Troy, Steve, Warren, Brent Jones, Desmond Howard or Daryl Johnston and continue to be community leaders.
How has the business of being a sports agent changed since you first started?
The explosion of television with competitive bidding between multiple networks for broadcast rights changed the face of economics forever. Teams which received two million dollars per team per season for their national television rights now get over 120 million.
The 1976 expansion teams, Tampa Bay and Seattle sold for 16.5 million, Houston had purchase price of 650 million in 2000, now the average team is valued at a billion dollars. New stadia with luxury boxes, signage, naming rights drive revenue. Fantasy football, NFL Network, the new technology generates new revenue.
Baseball dominated US sports when I began, now the NFL is by two to one the most popular sport with fans.
Unfortunately, sports agents as a business has gotten a black eye from those that have crossed ethical and legal lines. How can the profession regain a more positive image –what steps can you take?
There are more regulations than ever before. The Players Associations certify the agents of pro athletes and have rules for conduct which they enforce. Many states have regulatory agencies which can discipline agents and send them to jail. Certain universities have agent compliance programs which govern agent behavior. It is better but not good enough.
Players have obvious expectations of you as an agent. But what are your expectations of athletes as clients, and how do you handle those that don’t meet those expectations?
It is important to under-promise and over-perform and tell clients the truth.
Setting reasonable expectations instead of stoking fantasies about what they can expect in compensation and what their obligations are in public behavior go a long way to developing long-term happy relationships.
Who have been some of the more enjoyable athletes you’ve worked with (any of them Steelers) and what made them so?
I was the designated “Steeler QB agent” for twenty years with Neil O’Donnell, Kordell Stewart and Ben Roethlisberger. Also had Carnell Lake, Pro Bowl safety.
Having a client in Pittsburgh, with their passionate fans and quality organization is especially fun.
They all were quality young men. I’ve represented 60 first round clients including the very first pick in the first round in eight separate years and valued them all, but Warren Moon and I were together for twenty-three years and he had me give the presenting speech for him at the Hall of Fame so we have a brotherly relationship.
Players like Howie Long, Bruce Smith, Thurman Thomas, Derrick, Steve, Troy and Warren, all of whom made the Hall of Fame were especially satisfying clients.
Any last thoughts for readers?
Sports and representation needs new young professionals with values and ideals who want to make a positive difference and have passion. This has not been work, but an exciting life.