Q&A: Leigh Steinberg scripts his return to the world of a gentleman agent

More than 30 years ago, Leigh Steinberg, right, had to convince Steve Young to attend a press conference that involved his signing a $42 million deal to join the USFL's Los Angeles Express. Young went on to have a Football Hall of Fame career after NFL success. Steinberg is now coming back into the agent world after a recent bout of personal issues.

More than 30 years ago, Leigh Steinberg, right, had to convince Steve Young to attend a press conference that involved his signing a $40 million deal to join the USFL’s Los Angeles Express — rejecting the NFL. Young went on to have a Football Hall of Fame career after NFL success. Steinberg is now coming back into the agent world after a recent bout of personal issues.

Leigh Steinberg may have been recently sidetracked, but he hasn’t lost sight of his ability to be an agent of change.

Despite a personal spiral and gradual recovery that had his name in the news for all the wrong reasons – other than making one of his athlete/clients one of the richest at their position — the West L.A. native and Newport Beach-based negotiator is in a rebuilding mode, rehabilitating his image, reconnecting with old clients and friends.

The Steinberg Sports and Entertainment group spells out its commitment to keeping true to the lessons taught to Steinberg by his father, a former L.A.’s Hamilton High school teacher and principal, who treasured relationships and stressed finding a way to make a difference in the world.

theagentThe difference is now, the 64-year-old Steinberg appears thankful for a new perspective, evident in the pages of his new book, “The Agent: My 40-Year Career Making Deals and Changing the Game,” with Michael Akrush (St. Martins Press, $25.99, 302 pages).

Before a recent appearance at the Mysterious Galaxy bookstore in Redondo Beach, Steinberg explained the motivations for the release of his new book, and even how it might even be the stuff for a movie script. Except this time, there’d be far more depth than how people still associate him with the inspiration for the Tom Cruise character in “Jerry Maguire,” which came out some 18 years ago.

Q: Is there a purpose or goal for coming out with your life story – to date – that isn’t obvious based on your recent struggles with alcoholism, bankruptcy, and other personal matters? Is there a cathartic nature to it? Was there any cautionary tale you wanted to tell?

A: I’ve loved everything that’s involved in being an agent – getting a 60th-round draft pick signed as much as having half the starting quarterbacks in the NFL at one time. That was all fun.

Personally, I sort of withdrew from the world for a couple of years so I wanted to explain where I had been – dealing with the death of my father, my two boys diagnosed with an incurable eye disease, having a house flood and mold develop so it had to be knocked down, and finally a divorce. I don’t want to relive all that, but it’s what happened. It might help someone. It all led to drinking, I needed help and I’m glad to say that next month, I will be four years clean and sober.

I also wanted to do a template for the thousands of young people who are thinking about sports as a career, and talk about the whole concept of refuting situational ethics – you can’t be nice to cats and dogs and then do heinous things in the work place. You can succeed conventionally, with integrity.



Q: You also take the opportunity to tout your latest social cause – more research needed with concussions on the football field. Is there motivation to do that so you can help protect the welfare of your clients – so you actually have clients moving forward?

A: My duty has to be more than just stacking dollars in a players’ bankbook.  I had a crisis of conscious back in the ‘80s when quarterbacks I had as clients, we couldn’t find an answer to their head injuries – Steve Young, Troy Aikman . . . How many hits were too many? They couldn’t tell us. I’ve learned how when an offensive lineman hits a defensive lineman at the inception of every football play, it produces a low-level, sub-concussive event. So a lineman can walk out of football with 10,000 sub-concussive hits, none of which were ever diagnosed or which he’s aware of, the aggregate of which does much worse damage to the brain than simply getting knocked out only three times. So if 50 percent of the mothers in this country finally know this and tell their kids play any sport except tackle football – it won’t kill football, but it’ll change the socio-economics of the people who play it, even for those who see football and boxing as a way out of certain economic circumstances.

I found some helmet technology that has a coil system that compresses the energy wave, then dissipates it, and we’re finding that the first test is dropping that force by 46 percent. There also has to be more in pharmaceuticals that can protect the brain, or heal it. And then it’s teaching kids better blocking and tackling techniques. And it’s about putting devices on the sidelines that can detect the damage of lower hits and whether a player can return or if he’s at risk.

Q: The label always attached to you has been “super agent,” almost as if was your first name. Do you see that term as dangerous, with a stigma of power and money and maybe even corruption or backstabbing that often is attached to it?

Leigh Steinberg does a book signings in New York during the recent Super Bowl week. (The Associated Press)

Leigh Steinberg does a book signings in New York during the recent Super Bowl week. (The Associated Press)

A: You know, I’ve never really delved that deep into it. I wish I could tell you I had. It’s sort of like those sports agents who are attorneys and keep correcting people: No, I’m just an attorney. If that’s the best use of your time rather than getting into things of substance, I don’t know. I mean, at one point, we once had a very dominant practice in the NFL. We had 90 players, eight No. 1 overall picks, half the starting quarterbacks in the league. But I never saw it as a battle of labor versus management. I always looked at it as the NFL’s battle for attention against baseball, basketball, Walt Disney World, YouTube, HBO and every other form of entertainment. I thought if I ever had deleterious contract negotiations that put a player in a bad light and alienated fans, it was self destructive. To have a collective bargaining process of millionaires against billionaires, which led to a cessation of games, that was completely self destructive. The reason we’ve had so much success in the NFL is labor peace since 1987. All the energy goes into the process of building the popularity. I saw in football the people like (owners) Jerry Jones or Bob Kraft as allies because we had their big stars and we could think together about an NFL Network or a DirecTV package and naming rights and luxury seating and dominating social media and other ancillary revenue streams. And then there would be enough money so individual contract negotiations  wouldn’t be so tough.

Q: So when you call someone a “super agent,” something also often attached to a Scott Boras or Drew Rosenhaus, aren’t they thought of as more of an uncompromising, squeeze-every-dollar power brokers, maybe to the detriment of their own clients sometimes? Is that what a “super agent” means to you?

A: It may mean something to them, but the important thing for me is always to profile athletes who give back, help people who can’t help themselves. That’s the way I’ve always felt I was judged.

I look back at the beginning when there was no real ‘sports representation’ business. A general manager could hang up the phone on you and say, ‘We don’t deal with agents.’ So I related it all as to being a fan and held onto things like ‘teams shouldn’t move,’ or ‘an athlete should take a pay cut if it helps lower ticket prices,’ things like that. I had very different goals.

And when you make yourself the center of the negotiation, you lose your identity away from representing players.

Fortune_LeighSteinberg_Tearsheet1Q: People do have a bad opinion of agents, though, right? Even after seeing “Jerry Maguire?”

A: Of course they do (laughing). Maybe ‘Jerry Maguire’ helps, but fans make the connection between salaries and ticket prices. I used to make the offer that one of my clients would take less money if it helped more people attend games. An owner put his arm around me and said, ‘Son, we are never taking you up on that. Ticket prices aren’t related to salaries. They’re a function of supply and demand.’ Whatever the salaries are, we’ll keep raising prices until we’re no longer able to fill the stadium. In reality, it’s the incremental cost of advertised goods on television is how they end up paying for (salaries). TV has exploded. The revolution in television meant exponentially more games, highlights, analysis, commentary, previews, all that. It’s a huge industry with a massive effect on rights fees. It’s really the straw that stirs the drink.

Steve Young with the L.A. Express in 1983, in a photo for Sports Illustrated.

Steve Young with the L.A. Express in 1983, in a photo for Sports Illustrated.

Q: Your identity awareness was definitely raised in the early 1980s when you negotiated the unheard of 43-year,  $40 million deal for Steve Young, coming out of BYU, to join the USFL and the Los Angeles Express, at the expense of going to the NFL. Looking back as you do in the book, could people get past the money issue and not understand what was going on at the time?

A: Steve, to anyone who knows him, never put the money as something that was important to him. I would always sit a player down and ask him: Can you rate for me how you feel about short-term economic gain, long-term economic security, family, geographic location, endorsements, being on a winning team, the quality of coaching – sit down, be introspective and tell me where you come down on them. My job is to peel back the layers of the union because we know that men don’t share all that so easily. You have to really understand their deepest hopes and dreams as well as their greatest anxieties and fears. Trying to get that clarity can be tough.
expressThe irony in his situation, this was a person to who, on that check list, participation was everything. Because it wasn’t the money. The Cincinnati Bengals, who had the first pick, still had Kenny Anderson as their quarterback and Steve might have sat on the bench a few years. The Express, with Don Klosterman as the GM, showed him how they could help his game with John Hadl as the coach, and Sid Gillman as the offensive coordinator. Had Steve not eventually reeled off those amazing years with the 49ers after Joe Montana left, sure, he could have doubted making that decision to spend those two years with the Express. And after all that, he still got all that money from the contract and annuity, even after the Express went bust and the league took it over and he bought his way out so he could go to the NFL.
That was part of the fun of this book to go back and relive a lot of those situations.

Q: Was most of that from memory, or did you keep a lot of files you could go through and reference?

1958-la-dodgers-lat-300A: All memory. You have to decide at some point – are you going to memorialize life, or are you going to live it? To me, I was moving so fast I didn’t have time to read articles or file them away, it was always going forward. But those where great days in Los Angeles sports. I was a Bruin baby. We went to the Coliseum to watch the football team run the single wing under Red Sanders. My dad didn’t miss a UCLA basketball game from 1947 to 2004 when he died. That’s going back to the Venice High gym and Santa Monica City College. And the Dodgers were my biggest love. They came in ’58, and my grandfather (the former general manager at Hillcrest Country Club) took me to the very first game, along with his friend George Burns, at the Coliseum. A year later, they win the World Series. People forget, they used to market the game to Los Angeles like we were a small town. They organically grew into it. I loved Sandy Koufax and Maury Wills. At our house, John Wooden was the pope, followed by Vin Scully, Sandy Koufax, Jerry West … I had a poster of Jerry West above my bed as a kid. One day, I’m in his office (when he was the Lakers general manager) doing a contract for Byron Scott.

Q: How does that make you look at the Dodgers franchise that exists today with new ownership? Do you have any skin in the game there representing any players?

A: No, but we will. We plan to build out and represent baseball, and basketball. They’re on a great track now. The Dodgers new team understood the economics in baseball were about to go up and they aren’t spending money they didn’t have, they’re spending money from TV. When that team is winning, it’s a total bonanza in marketing and TV rights, so they can make that money back. At least they’re trying again, you know.

SuperSportsAgentLeighSteinbergQ: Was the whole McCourt era tough for you to watch? Did you try to become detached from it?

A: No, I was outraged. My Dodger team always had a lineup you could follow. The first group with Ron Fairly, Charlie Neal, Jim Gilliam, Tommy Davis, Willie Davis, Frank Howard eventually were replaced by Garvey, Cey, Lopes, Russell, Baker . . . we had a tradition of the Rookie of the Year, the best relief pitchers, but we grew up with all that. Built through the farm system. McCourt never had the money to buy the team in the first place. He leveraged the deal up. Then they used the team almost as a piggy bank to do other stuff.

Q: You’ve mentioned in the book that part of your job is having to deal with the idiosyncrasies of wealthy business men. How do you learn that?

A: You’re dealing with men who’ve made their fortune in the rough and tumble free enterprise system, especially now. The older guard, it was a family that had the business of running a team. Today, that’s not true. People are buying franchises at huge costs, and you have to be in a certain strata, men who everyone told they couldn’t do this, they couldn’t do that, and guess what, they’ve succeeded in spite of that. One of the things you have to learn is never personalize anything. I tell a story about learning not to talk in the newspaper after I had an experience with (Cardinals owner) Bill Bidwell. You can make a great case and win fan support, but they don’t write the checks. And you can’t go bragging about a deal, making sure it was win-win for each side. Even if a player who was about to make a great deal of money, I had to convince the other side that his worth was going to up tremendously in future years so they were almost getting a bargain by signing him now. It goes both ways. The economics kept changing. And you can’t flaunt your business. When USA Today used to tallies of which agents signed the most free agents in the off season, I didn’t cooperate because I had nothing to gain from that. You would get owners who’d read that and think, ‘This guy is getting too big for his britches.’ That would also undercut the uniqueness we had to offer to each of our clients. Part of it is studying them, knowing what their business is, and you don’t just enter the scene.

Q: You were a consultant on the Kevin Costner movie, “For Love of the Game,” way back when. Did you get a part in the new Costner movie, “Draft Day,” all about the NFL draft and players and agents and all that?

MV5BMjAyOTMxMjA3Nl5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMTMwNjQ4MDE@._V1_SX640_SY720_A: I had a cursory look at the script as it was being written, but that was during a period in my life when I wasn’t totally active in the industry, so maybe I would have ended up as a consultant. But here’s something interesting: Sports themed movies, where it’s based on a true story, where there’s a conflict followed by triumph, when they’re modestly budgeted, they make money all day long. For this book, I have an agent at William Morris and I think we will be shopping it as a movie.

So I keep writing for Forbes.com, Yahoo and Huffington Post, I have a podcast that’s starting and I have an agreement with a production company for a TV show that has not been sold yet that would be for a reality show that I would host called: ‘So You Want to be a Super Sports Agent?’ It would be the like ‘The Ethical Apprentice.’ Same format but when you give punitive agents a task, you watch how they do it. They can trash the other agents in doing it, but then they get disqualified. Or they could be dishonest on a contract, and same deal. On the surface, it may be about the glamor of agents and all that, but the subtext is ethics.

Q: You talk about how you tried to help Georgia Frontiere keep the Rams in Los Angeles before she eventually moved them to St. Louis. What do you make of the latest connecting-of-the-dots with Stan Koneke buying a patch of land in Inglewood and making some jump to conclusions that it could mean the Rams moving back?

A: I was so successful at helping her, wasn’t I (laughing)? They’ve been gone for 20 years. I knew at the time that if we lost the Rams, we’d lose the Raiders before we’d get a team back, and people said I was crazy because the league will always need to have a team in L.A. for its TV package. I think the package in those years has gone up from delivering $40 million per team to $130 million per team. The league is doing just fine.

For us to get a team, I hope (the Koneke purchase and rumors of him being able to build a stadium near the Forum) is true in one way and I hope it’s not true in another. I don’t see taking teams that are supported in a community away from the fans. If you tell fans, ‘These are your Los Angeles Lakers, and you should support them in a season like this,’ sort of like a civic treasure, then you can’t use the concept of just a corner drug store that can be moved any time at someone’s choosing. If we got a football team here, it would be massively supported.

hntb_001Q: So if a team came to L.A., you’d rather see it be one of expansion, not relocation? If that’s even doable at this point in the 32-team league.

A: They never should have allowed Baltimore to leave for Indianapolis or St. Louis to go to Phoenix and not awarded them franchises. Then all this situation today happens. The problem Los Angeles has had it not having a civic leader who took command and get a single venue as an agreed-upon site instead of multiple venues. You need enthusiasm in the city, broad support, and it’s helpful to have press support. We have none of that. It’s not by chance L.A. was supposed to get a franchise in 2000 but couldn’t deliver (it went to Houston instead). NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue tried to get a team here, couldn’t deliver. The NFL offered L.A. a deal no one else got – it would build the stadium. And we couldn’t even give them that. I thought the AEG proposal for a downtown stadium had civic support, the logic of location, all of that. But now that Tim Leiweke is gone and Phil Anschutz has a powerful will who wants a percentage of the team that comes. Now we’re just lost again.

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