Exclusive Interview with Super Agent Leigh Steinberg

Leigh Steinberg

Super Agent Leigh Steinberg

Leigh Steinberg. Photo credit- Andy Hayt/Sports Illustrated/Getty Images

Leigh Steinberg Exclusive Interview for SwoleScience.com

Leigh Steinberg is not only one of the most famous sports agents of all time but is also one of the most revolutionary and legendary sports figures. Leigh Steinberg’s has represented the overall number one pick of the NFL a record 8 times, represented over 60 first round picks, and negotiated over 2 billion dollars worth of contracts. Leigh Steinberg has transformed not only the scope and dimension of sports representation but the overall sports world as well. He has revolutionized the interaction, marketing, salaries, and ancillary revenue of professional athletes. Leigh Steinberg has represented a broad spectrum of top athletes including: Oscar De La Hoya, Steve Young, Troy Aikman, Ben Roethlisberger, Ricky Williams, and Lennox Lewis. His incredible skills, tenacity, and abilities avowed himself to be the real life inspiration for the main character in the movie Jerry Maguire. Read more below for the exclusive interview…

Leigh Steinberg Exclusive Interview for SwoleScience.com conducted by Papa Swole.

SwoleScience- Thanks for doing the Interview, how are you doing?

Leigh Steinberg- Doing great.

SwoleScience- You have represented some of the biggest names in sports from the NFL to Boxing, and negotiated the richest rookie deal in NFL history at the time with Steve Bartkowski. How and what made you want to get into sports?

Leigh Steinberg- I was a dorm counselor working my way through law school in an undergraduate dorm. They put the freshman football team in the dorm, and one of those students was Steve Bartkowski. After I graduated from law school in 1974, I was weighing different offers from firms in corporate litigation, criminal law,  politics, and television news. As it happened, I took a trip to Egypt, was out on the Nile, jumped into the Nile, which seemed like a good idea at the time (laughs), and got some tropical disease. I ended up in the hospital for six months over in England, so I couldn’t work. In January of 75’ Bartkowski was the first pick of the first round in the draft; picked by the Atlanta Falcons, and that next month he asked me to represent him. So there I was, brimming with legal experience, never having had a client before, I had the first pick in the first round of the draft. There was a World Football League at the time competing against the NFL with teams like the Shreveport Steamers and Chicago Winds, and because of that we were able to leverage in order to get the largest contract in NFL history. It eclipsed Joe Namath and O.J. Simpson, who were the previous standard bearers. I recall we flew into Atlanta to sign the contract and arrived in the airport the night before. As we arrived there were lights flashing in the sky and there was a huge crowd pressed up against the police line, and the first thing we heard was: “We interrupt the Johnny Carson Show with a special news bulletin, Steve Bartkowski and Leigh Steinberg have just arrived at the airport and we are switching live for an in-depth interview.” So I looked at Steve probably the way Dorothy looked at Toto when they got to munchkin land, and I said “I guess we’re not in California anymore.” It was really then that I saw the tremendous idol worship and veneration that athletes are held in the community, across the country.- They’re movie stars, they are celebrities, and there really wasn’t organized sports law at that point; as a matter of fact, there was no guaranteed right of representation. A team and a general manager like Mike Brown of the Bengals could simply say- “You’re an agent?”…Click, and hang up the phone.

What I saw was the potential for athletes to be role models and trigger imitative behavior, especially in the young. I felt that if they retraced their roots and went back t0 the high school community that helped shape them, then to the collegiate community that helped mold them, and to the community that they played for, and help set up programs to enhance quality of life, then people would get a chance to know them for the quality of their character as opposed to a dot running around on an athletic field. So we made it a requirement that each athlete in their own way and on their own time, would go back to the high school community, setup a scholarship fund or give to the boys club, church, etc. At the collegiate level, athletes like Eric Harris and Troy Aiken endowed full scholarships to UCLA, Terry Collins at Penn State, and Edgerrin James at the University of Miami. This was a way of saying ‘this institution helped me, so I’m going to help enable another athlete to go’. Also, at the pro level, we setup programs that were foundations, where I challenged the athlete to find something, some condition or something in their old life that was especially distressful that they would like to tackle. For example, paying the down payment for single women in a program called ‘Homes for the Holidays, where they received the first home they’ve ever owned, fully  outfitted by Home Depot. There was Steve Young’s ‘Forever Young Foundation,’ where we granted substantial amounts of money to youth charity, and Warren Moon’s ‘Crescent Moon Foundation,’ where he sent hundreds of kids to college. It is a way to make a difference.  I didn’t really aspire towards sports law, but I serendipitously fell into it and then decided to stay.

SwoleScience- You helped revolutionize the sports representation world by spearheading large numbers and exposure of athletes, how do you think this changed the overall world of sports in general?

Leigh Steinberg- The key was to make sure there was a bond between the athlete and the fans. We didn’t force the fans an unremitting diet of contract hassles, and athletic misbehavior, which would push them away from sports. So part of the concept was having an athlete planning for a second career from the beginning; to utilize the off-season to help build that, and to realize that many of the people critical to their future were huge football fans. When Brent Jones was playing for the 49ers, Santa Clara where their practice facility was located, was proximate to silicone valley, which had the Internet revolution and venture capital community. So Brent has now gone on to a billion dollar hedge fund. Deron Cherry was a pro bowl safety for Kansas City and he had a charity foundation; when that ended, he had such a high profile that they granted him the Anheuser-Busch distributorship, which was a license to print money (laughs). He also became a minority owner of the Jacksonville Jaguars. I saw that generation as being able to not just be greeters but owners. As Ray Childress of Houston who was the defensive tackle, he had the Childress Foundation and then he ended up with car dealerships, and finally a minority owner of the Houston Texans.

So the plan was always to see an athlete holistically and to challenge them to think of the end of the career as the beginning of an exciting new life and not as a death. I also saw the growth of television. What it would and could mean as satellite and cable proliferated, turning three independent stations into two hundred stations. That provided a golden opportunity for rights fees and amount of broadcasts.

SwoleScience- What are the components involved in representing a professional athlete?

Leigh Steinberg- There are three components to sports representation. First is recruiting. Second is contract negotiations. Third is client maintenance.

The first key is to really understand an athlete; I would tell them that they should do an internal inventory and think about what values and priorities are critical to them. How they feel about short-term economic gain, the money that could come instantly, or long term economic security, money that would come over time. Thoughts on geographical location, weather, lifestyle, climate, urban, rural, family, profile, being able to make a difference in world, and endorsements. Then there were sports considerations; for instance, a starter liking the coach, the system the team plays, the playing surface and field conditions. All those stack differently into different players’ lives. Everyone confuses the requisite to representation and success as clever persuasive skills, but really it is listening skills. It is peeling back the layers of the onion so that an athlete can truly reveal himself and then help them deal with their deepest anxieties, fears, and greatest hopes and aspirations.

SwoleScience- How do you secure and really go about exposing your athlete with respect to endorsements and the media?

Leigh Steinberg- The key is to get the right athletes in the right sports to begin with.

SwoleScience- I’ve personally seen a lot of mismatches of athletes and endorsements.

Leigh Steinberg- Here’s the point, if someone tells a backup offensive lineman during recruiting that they are going to be an endorsement superstar, this is misleading the situation. It’s like a pyramid, and those few athletes with high popularity and high name recognition get the majority of the major endorsements. So, it was not by chance that when I started in football I realized that quarterback position probably had twenty times the name recognition of an offensive lineman. Not that there isn’t room for linemen, there are some really good opportunities for big men in the world, but the reality is that the key is the public. They decide when it has had its fill of sports pages that read like the business section, or even worse, like the crime beat section. They’re looking for interesting role models, someone they can point their children towards. Athletes like Steven Young, Warren Moon, Troy Aikman, Drew Bledsoe, and Ben Roethlisberger, players who had shown their caring for the community with their charitable work, were very conscious of public behavior, and were much more attractive to advertisers.

SwoleScience- How involved is a sports agent with an athlete’s daily life on average?

Leigh Steinberg- There are probably four or five issues that motivate an athlete to call, other than to say hello (laughs). They may be disturbed they are not starting, because their team is losing, because they don’t think the coaches are guiding them correctly, because they don’t like the city they are in, or because they are injured. Those are all special circumstances, which require the ability to give sage’s counsel, and exercise good listening skills. I would go to games because you need to see athletes play live, you also need to see them play in their cities. It was one thing to see Ben Roethlisberger on the road, it was another to see him in Pittsburgh and understand the environment; seeing how people react to him was critical. The major difficulty in this field for me was the injury rate, especially in football, but also present obviously in boxing, basketball, and to some degree in baseball. Knowing that, every Sunday night was like an edition of ‘E.R.’ or ‘House’, but I’m not nasty enough to be the guy in ‘House’ (laughs). The reality was that every joint of the human body was broken down in many athletes, so I had a physician’s desk reference on my desk, and had to become a specialist on how to send athletes on second opinions, and understand the construction of the knee, hip, and shoulder. The most disturbing phenomenon of all was the spectrum of head injuries and concussions.

SwoleScience- I was just going to ask you about head injuries and concussions in football.

Leigh Steinberg- I finally got to a point in the 90’s where when players like Steve Young and Troy Aikman who were suffering multiple concussions, would go to doctors, and there were no answers. How many is too many? No answer. What is the effect of one on the other? No answer. When is an athlete risking long term damage? No answer. So I started the Concussion Conferences with neurologists in Newport Beach back in the 90’s for three years, and then we did them again with the Concussion Institute in Los Angeles starting in 2006.  We had neurologists who were able to say that three, more or less was the magic number and that they felt these triggered exponential higher rates of Alzheimer’s, premature senility, dementia, and four times the rate of depression. The problem was that athletes were in denial about their own health from Pop Warner on. They were taught to be stoic, ignore pain, and stay part of starting unit.  It’s very difficult to get them to admit as older athletes that they were impaired and to warn younger athletes.

I got to the point where I couldn’t represent these athletes anymore, and send them out into a sport that could really hurt them, without being a crusader on the issue. Finally, I realized that it wasn’t just NFL football, it was baseball, basketball, field hockey, and AYSO at the pro/college/high school levels. We pushed very strongly for baseline testing to be introduced, where a cognitive test was given that would allow an objective way to assess a player’s level of mental acuity. Then when you have a kid with a concussion, there would be a second test that would again give the ability to make sure that you stayed asymptomatic and rest before you practiced and got in the game.

SwoleScience- What would you say is the most intense negotiation and hardest deal you ever secured within the sports world?

Leigh Steinberg- (laughs) In terms of intensity, the deal for Steve Young back in 1984 with the ‘LA Express’. The USFL was desperately trying to secure a big star quarter back for its Los Angeles franchise, the two leagues were warring against each other. The irony is that Steve really only wanted to play in the NFL; he had grown up with Roger Staubach’s picture above his bed. So you really had two leagues fighting with each other, and Don Klosterman was the general manager of the team and a former quarterback. He had a lot of style and swagger, so we started negotiating in their El Segundo office and then in the later afternoon moved to his house in the Hollywood Hills. It was a very easy negotiation because I just kept saying ‘No’ (laughs). Steve was going to be the first pick of the Cincinnati Bengals in the NFL draft but this was all occurring in March; so, we went back and forth, and back and forth. Finally, now this is 1984, we got up to a figure of 42 million dollars, which at that point was unheard of in the world of sports. In addition, they were going to help him establish a scholarship fund and make sure he went to law school, and a whole lot of other perks added to it.  We kept going and going, at one point we jumped into Don’s swimming pool, because it was so late. Finally, at about seven o’clock in the morning, Steve accepted the deal. We had gone at that point, roughly twenty-four hours straight. When the deal was announced, it lead the Dan Rather nightly news, was front-page headlines across the country and even in Europe. Steve was frankly agasp because he had these good Mormon values and now he was being held up as symbol of sports economics run amuck.  It was staggering because no one ever thought an athlete could make that much money.

SwoleScience- What sports do you think are not fully being capitalized upon with respect to exposure and athlete revenue?

Leigh Steinberg- Hockey. As an example, in the last playoffs they had Los Angeles, the second largest market against New Jersey, the first largest media market. So here you have a commissioner and advertiser’s dream. The two biggest markets in the country, both of which are larger than some countries, were playing each other. One of the games in the series wasn’t shown on NBC, it was shown on NBC Sports Television, which is received by some fraction of the homes that receive NBC. So here’s their showcase not on national television. That sport was in a very expansionistic mode some years ago and had moved all across the Sunbelt, and then they had a devastating strike. P.T. Barnum once said “the show must go on” so when they had that strike, they stultified and chilled their expansion. The key to that is that in those areas is where we haven’t grown up with ice. It’s never snowed in a place I’ve lived in my 63 years; we used to go on field trips in the mountains, called snow trips. In southern California we had never seen it, except for ice in the icebox; we’d always try to save the snow to come home and show our parents, but the hour and half bus ride put an end to that story (laughs). They key is that the sport is underutilized.

There are two other baffling situations. One is soccer, which is the world’s passion, isn’t impactful as a professional sport in America. I believe that is because Americans like games that have a finite chance of success or failure on every play- batters out, safe, pass completed, incompleted, etc. And we love a lot of scoring. So when you have a continuously played game that doesn’t have a lot of scoring and doesn’t have commercial breaks, it doesn’t fit traditional American tastes.  I wrote a book called ‘The golden goal” which talks about parenting tips for parents of youth athletes. No one gives you a ‘drivers license’ on how to raise a child and if you should explain to him at age six he’s supposed to be a young Vince Lombardi and win at all costs or that participation is the key; and if his team isn’t winning, he’s not starting, playing a bad position, do you tell him to assert himself? Or should he tough it up and learn character? And that being said we see some outrageous parental behavior.

Leigh Steinberg. Photo credit- Andy Hayt/Sports Illustrated/Getty Images

SwoleScience- Within the entertainment world there is a very strict distinction between agents and managers. The sports world seems to almost blend those roles. How do think that effects representation?

Leigh Steinberg- In the world of entertainment, a movie star can have a booking agent like William Morris Endeavor, a personal manager who is in charge of his career, a lawyer who does the lawyering, a publicity person, and a financial planner. Who has the most power depends on the personalities involved, in some cases the booking agent, law firm, or the personal manager. In sports it’s much more simplified, players have their agent and then my preference is that players find a separate business manager so that they have a financial planner in their lives that can teach them the basics of financial management and serve as a safety net to make sure their life gets under way in a prudent manner. Although we may interact with the financial planner, it essentially sets up a checks and balance system. The PR function, some of it I do, some of it the team does; so it’s much more simplified and therefore the relationships are much closer which I enjoy. Part of the reason I didn’t go into entertainment law was two fold, number one, I didn’t really want to know that the actor that I loved so much had a cocaine problem, beat his wife, or something, and just wanted to enjoy the artistry on the screen; number two, the relationships didn’t seem as close in all cases, and it seemed like there were too many cooks in the broth.

SwoleScience- With the recent incredible growth of the UFC and mixed martial arts, where do you see combat sports in the future?

Leigh Steinberg- I’ve represented Oscar De La Hoya for several years, and Lenox Lewis for a much longer time; I grew up in the era where boxing was dominant. There is a change in consciousness especially in the younger generation that gets their information from a computer rather than a newspaper, in tight sound bytes, able to control color, sound, and stimulus on a big screen television set, computer screen, mobile phone screen, or tablet, and multitask. They have a much shorter attention span because of it. Mixed martial arts seem to fit that mentality much better, it has the violence of football, and fights are quick. So I think it is going to continue to grow and become more and more mainstream. Now many of the matches are pay per view which can generate enormous income, but at some point they are going to be on a major network and that will boost their popularity. The NFL has never put the Super Bowl on pay per view, and if they did, they could have amazing windfall; but because anybody with enough money to get their own television can watch an NFL game, the popularity is almost universal, and that popularity fuels enormous television contracts which has transformed sports.

When I started back in 1975, each team got 2 million dollars as its share, as part of the National Football contract from the networks. That figure went up to 17 million dollars in 1989. Then all of a sudden, Fox and other networks jumped in because they understood that by bidding economics, could make more money than they’d ever recoup from advertising for the rights fees. They could put their promos in the Monday through Friday shows onto Sunday afternoon, and all of a sudden Fox could build its entire network, get exposure from Monday through Friday, and on Sunday,  and add to their rating and values. Fox was more of a minor network when it started, and now it is very competitive with the other three. When CBS dropped NFL football, its programming went into the cellar and when it got it back, it’s now dominant again.

SwoleScience- Since Steve Bartkowski, how much as professional football changed to now?

Leigh Steinberg- (laughs) It is almost unrecognizable; dramatic changes. In terms of how it is played on the field, when I began, teams ran on first down, ran on second down; now, it has become primarily a passing game with runs supplementing it. When I began, there were defensive ends playing at 220 pounds, guards playing at 220 pounds, a big tackle might be 240 or 250. Now, it is impossible to play tackle in the NFL without being over 300 pounds; the size has changed dramatically, the speed numbers have changed dramatically…

SwoleScience- Well, why do you think that is?

Leigh Steinberg- Nutrition, training techniques, and science instead of superstition, are used to train players. There are amazing nutritional supplements, really advanced concepts on diet, advanced training techniques, multiplicity of people doing that training.  We can put a prospective draftee into a training program for six weeks, with the right trainer, strength coach, weight coach, and watch the dramatic changes occur in their body, where they get bigger, stronger, faster, and more flexible. So there have been extraordinary changes.

The way that sport has multiple platforms of content is staggering. In other words, it is possible to watch NFL football on a tablet or a cell phone. There are fantasy leagues where fans across the country can get involved in their own surrogate teams. Concepts like direct television where a fan has the option of splitting the screen in multiple parts or being taken to wherever the dramatic action is, with statistics and other things on the screen. There is the capacity now to take a television screen and put over the game coverage statistics for fantasy league, and talk back and forth to other fans as the action occurs. There are naming rights on everything. The NFL, baseball, all have their own networks now. There is no end to the way that sports enjoyment is being developed. Dozens of apps for mobile phones, internet, or tablet which provide highlights and other content are available. I’m helping a group called DeskSite which has an app that can go onto a computer and if you are living in southern California but you are a very intense patriot fan you can get all of highlights and all of the content: interviews, analysis, etc, just as if you were living in Boston. The sport has married television, technology, Internet, phones, and tablets in ways that were never thought possible.

SwoleScience- The movie ‘Jerry Maguire’ was famously based on you, how did you become involved with Jerry Maguire?

Leigh Steinberg- The director Cameron Crowe called me up in 1993 and asked if he could do research, and shadow me through the world of football agents for a film that was going to feature a sports agent. He came with me to the NFL draft in 1993, when Bledsloe was the first pick; he watched and interacted during that. He came up to the press conference in Boston, came to the league meetings in 1993 in Palm Desert, came to a number of games with me, went to our Super Bowl party, went to pro scouting day at SC with me; we talked a lot and told a lot of stories. Then I helped fit the script so that willing suspicion of disbelief that was necessary to keep someone ensconced in the plot of a sports movie would show that it wasn’t a spoof.

Then I got a chance to work with the actors. I took Cuba Gooding Jr. down to the Super Bowl in Arizona that year and made him pretend he was a wide receiver for a week. I actually showed Jerry O’ Connell who played Cush the quarterback, how to throw a football because he had gone to NYU and they didn’t have football there (laughs). Then I obviously acted a little bit, which is not to quit my day job (laughs). I thought that the movie [Jerry Maguire] humanized agents and showed some of the warmer and more positive aspects of that world, and it became the most successful sports themed movie ever.

SwoleScience- You were a technical advisor on Any Given Sunday which shows a very gritty portrayal of the league, is this the most realistic portrayal in the media so far?

Leigh Steinberg- Oliver Stone called me, who was not doing an NFL approved film (laughs).  I introduced him to athletes when I was out on the practice field. I remember being in the locker room when Al Pacino did his big scene, and had the opportunity to interact with Al Pacino, Cameron Diaz, and Jamie Foxx on their roles.

There’s poetic license through out. If a running back would tell off a coach, he might have bit of room but they wouldn’t let the player run the team. But it was spot on, on how it showed the development of a young quarterback and how dramatically his life changes. I thought it was revelatory in terms of how injuries are treated.

SwoleScience- Well, in reference to that last statement, I would like to ask you about the portrayal of cortisone and everything in the movie?

Leigh Steinberg- Look, people have a misnomer that nefarious trainers and unethical people push players to do all sorts of delirious things to their bodies in order to play, but the players want to play; and players will do anything to play.

SwoleScience- So you’re saying it’s a two-way street?

Leigh Steinberg- Oh yeah. These athletes are in denial, since Pop Warner and little league.

SwoleScience- You were recently on HBO’s ‘Real Sports’, and around the same time, the same show did a special on the painkiller Toradol and the NFL. They showed players who had lined up to take Tordadol, and now had issues such as kidney failure. I think everyone is very quick to blame the owners and the trainers, but I don’t think anyone has really come and said the situation is a two-way street.

Leigh Steinberg- Of course it is. The reality of the situation is that long term health is an abstraction for young people, and it’s an abstraction for athletes. So you put the two of them together and it is very difficult to have them look past the moment to safeguard their health. So, think about this, if our values as non-professional athletes would put long term health first, the ability to play in an athletic career second, and below that, the ability to play in a given game, and at the end of the list would be to play on a certain play…This is turned completely on it’s head in most competitive athletes’ minds; all they want to think about is to play.

SwoleScience- What do you think is the best quality to have as a sports agent?

Leigh Steinberg- Heart. Empathy. Caring for clients, and vision. Being able to see the future trends in industry, future for an individual athlete, and also to be a steward to the sport. It is not enough to just stack dollars and bankbooks; if athletes become unpopular, the sport become distasteful. They key is, I have never seen this as labor vs. management; that is a stereotype. Take the sport of football; the real battle ought not to be labor v. management, unions vs. owners, or players vs. teams fighting over money. Obviously there are going to be processes to solve those things, but the key is to build the sport and build the brand. The battle for NFL is the battle against baseball, basketball, home box office, Walt Disney world, and every other form of discretionary entertainment spending. So the key to all that is to build the brand, to develop all the ancillary revenue streams, to keep athletes and sports popular, and the pie will be large enough that splitting it up won’t take so much heavy lifting.

SwoleScience- You had a hiatus from sports representation and have now come back recently, what are your goals for the rest of your career and what else you want to accomplish?

Leigh Steinberg- We’re going to try to build a company that has a real impact on sports and entertainment. It will aggregate a certain amount of athlete talent through representation and that should power a big marketing arm that markets to teams, leagues, individuals, corporations, and then a studio, in the virtual sense, that can do sports themed television, motion pictures, video games, mobile phone apps, internet apps, and find promising companies that we can help to develop and bring to market. Sometimes be producers, sometimes be consultants, and sometimes be shareholders.

Additionally I want to use sports to combat a major threat to our way of life, which is climate change. I don’t want to be a part of the first generation to hand that degraded quality of life down to children. Climate change is real and it threatens the human race. I’ve aggregated a series of sustainable technologies in wind, solar, water, resurfacing, recycling, to bring to venues at the pro, high school, and college level, and to drop carbon emissions and energy costs, trying to make those venues energy providers where they can actually send energy back to the grid, and to transform them into educational platforms so that players and fans who come, can see a waterless urinal or a solar panel for the first time, and think about how they can incorporate that in their own homes or businesses.  We put sports in the forefront leading the way towards attitudinal change on the issue of energy and energy saving.

SwoleScience- What is the most important piece of advice you would like to give to aspiring sports agents?

Leigh Steinberg- It is a hypercompetitive field. Understand that it takes passion and energy to be able to sustain the pace and make an impact. Have a core set of beliefs and a way to make athletes lives better and the sport better. Leave a legacy, make a difference. My dad had two core values, one was to treasure relationships, especially family, and the other was to be an agent for change to help people who couldn’t help themselves. So understand that at the end of life the world will no longer remember the size of the contracts done, but to help athletes in their maturation process and be more fulfilled, and then together help make an impact in the world; I mean those are practices that will stand the test of time.

SwoleScience- Thank you so much for the interview Leigh and we look forward to speaking to you again in the future.

-Papa Swole

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(Photos used with permission from Leigh Steinberg)

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