Q&A: Renowned sports agent Leigh Steinberg impressed with University of Oregon, describes it as “seeing into the future”
University of Oregon students filled Colombia 150 lecture hall this past Wednesday to hear renowned sports agent Leigh Steinberg speak on behalf of the Warsaw Sports Business Club. Topics ranged from how to make it in sports business to national issues such as domestic violence.
Steinberg, who is known for being the inspiration for the sports movie Jerry Maguire, is on a tour for his new book, “The Agent” and has spoken at 80 different colleges.
Here is his one-on-one with Associate Sports Editor Hayden Kim:
Q: You made a pledge to Jim Warsaw to come speak at the University of Oregon once a year. What’s your view on the school as well as the sports culture here?
A: Jim (Warsaw) was a good family friend and he made me promise to come here to his management school once a year, so I’m honoring that. The University of Oregon has so many aspects of sports that are state of the art and progressive. From the Warsaw program to the facilities, to the advances in to having the 40-yard dash track in the facilities, to sports nutrition, to sports medicine, it’s really an exemplar of cutting edge sports technique. It’s probably the most advanced facility for sports in the country. Visiting here is like seeing into the future because the future is here now. It’s a great way to stay in touch with the trends of marketing, training, coaching – everything that is important in sports.
Q: Did you ever envision Oregon athletics taking the leap it has?
A: When Joey Harrington’s building length visage went up in Time Square and the first ad for Oregon sports went up in Los Angeles, you could sense that something was brewing. With the mass of support of Phil and Penny Knight, they forged something amazing up here in the northwest. Again, this is the future and every progressive advancement in sports training, nutrition, facilities, marketing, branding is being pioneered here, so it’s a very heady experience. To buy a Muscle Milk that’s branded the University of Oregon is novel.
Q: As a University of California Berkley graduate, is it weird to see Oregon progressing both institutionally and athletically?
A: Not really because it’s been building over time. My son was going to come here, except he got into USC film school, but it hadn’t been for that, Oregon’s a destination of choice in Southern California because of Eugene, the atmosphere because of everything they are offering educationally. My law practice has always been about innovation, being ahead of the time, so to me, to stay plugged in the innovations occurring here is a necessary part of staying plugged into advances in academics and sports.
Q: You’ve spoken at many colleges about your life experiences and have went on to publish books. In retrospect, do you feel like you were any different than the countless students that have sat in on your lectures?
A: There was no sports representation industry then, so there was nothing to really model myself after. It was being able to foresee the growth of television, eventually the growth of the Internet, social media and to able to understand what that would mean for the exponential explosion in sports content and revenue. It meant a different approach with owners, where instead of seeing the battle in sports as labor versus management, I felt that the battle for example the NFL, was with Major Baseball, basketball, home box office, Walt Disney World and any other form of discretionary entertainment spending, so if they ever have a deleterious contract negotiation that made an athlete look greedy, pushed away fans and then you have a collective bargaining agreement that pitted millionaires against billionaires, pushed away fans, so the real battle was to build a brand. I tried to unite with owners to figure out how the television contracts could be expanded, how we could introduce competition, was there a way to do what eventually became NFl Network or NFL Redzone, whether the stadium could have premium seating and naming rights, sponsorships, social media that athletes could be role models and they could trigger imitative behavior and we could use that positive force to make a difference. How to look at an athlete holistically. Three of my former clients are now minority owners of NFL teams. It’s a different way to look at an athlete, retrace roots, set up charitable and community programs, make a difference, defeat the concept of self-absorption and plot a second career just as fulfilling as the first.
Q: How did you initially get your foot in the door?
A: I had the first pick in the draft (Steve Bartkowski) serendipitously. I was choosing between being a television anchor, corporate litigator and before I got the chance, the first pick in the first round of the NFL draft, asked me to represent him and the very first contract was the largest in NFL history. We held an agent academy in Los Angles to try and mentor a new group of ethical idealistic agents, so what I told them (students) tonight was to study psychology, be able to put yourself in the heart and mind of other people. Get an internship, study business, be innovative in the way that you approach potential employers. Be clever, do something to get noticed that’s not a simple resume and be creative in that and when you get that internship, make sure that you’re invaluable, so you’re not modulate or fungible, that you’re not replaceable. This is not a field for the faint of heart. It requires maximum energy, passion because it’s hyper-competitive. Part of it is my fault with Jerry Maguire, but the point is being hyper-competitive. There are hundreds and hundreds of people for every prospective athlete.
Q: When you got settled into your first real job, how did you make sure to market yourself in a way that would make you invaluable to the company?
A: The key was to profile clients. To know the type of person I was going to appeal to. Again, the real talent was not suasion, it was listening, it was trying to find out the greatest anxieties and fears and the greatest hopes and dreams of the young man, so that I could speak directly to what was in his heart. It was knowing that if I had the right family and player, I would have a high degree success in bonding. If I didn’t, I might have a very marginal degree of success. It was (about) plotting a lifetime plan for them. And then, it was picking them. In other words, in football, it was the quarterback, so I ended up representing half of the starting quarterbacks because that player had a higher profile and all the rest of it, so higher name recognition, better ability to do endorsements, better ability to do all of that, so it was in starting in every field with the right client. Then it was being able to broaden that, be able to write best selling books and to speak and to be a steward of the sport. It meant seeing the broader picture and doing the charitable and community programs.
Q: You seem to value family and specifically relationships a lot. What does a relationship truly mean to you having dealt with a diverse group of varying types of people?
A: It means giving without wanting anything in return. Seeing how you can help someone achieve their dreams whose close to you and spreading good in the world without asking for anything in return. Projecting love, encouragement and inspiration because that’s why we’re here on the earth.
Q: A lot about being successful in any profession is being able to capitalize on presented opportunities. Can you take us back to when you first heard you were representing Steve Bartkowski and how you made sure everything went smoothly?
A: First of all, it happened so fast. People ask all the time if I was scared. I viewed it like a matter of politics and having been involved with student politics, I knew about leverage. I understood, being the student body president at (University of California) Berkley, public perception and I also understood leverage. When you negotiate against Ronald Reagan, you understand leverage. So, it was clear to me that there was a new league that would probably pay a premium to put itself on the map. It would probably pay a disproportionate premium, not for that one team, but put the league on the map. Even though people were skeptical about it, that was what Joe Namath did and eventually it worked. The key was to understand that and then the question: whose reality would prevail? Because there was no judge, there was no arbitration. It was a question of what would he would get was what someone would pay him. I mean, that sounds simplistic. It was a matter of research and extrapolation as to what type of research we could put together through analogy and comparability to make argument for what he (the client) was worth. We were so far above tradition, but that was the question, so it was trying to create a model for what a quarterback meant to a team and why he was worth what we were asking.
Q: Big Five Conference autonomy and the Ed O’Bannon case have changed the NCAA landscape forever. What’s your take on the whole situation?
A: Two things came down the same week: the NCAA said that the top 65 schools could set their own rules and the O’Bannon case, it came down like bam, bam. I felt like there was a cracking sound breaking apart what had existed before and that what would ensue was a brave new world because first of all, there would be a separation of those top teams who will be in position to get the best athletes, to offer them compensation and it indicated to me that the NCAA had moved too slow and hadn’t accommodated the growth in university and conference’s ability to do their own TV contracts and the growth in their revenue and modern reality. O’Bannon challenges the previous concept of amateurism and recognized that these athletes had a right to their own name and likeness. It ultimately changes everything and we’ve just seen the first steps of it because the O’Bannon decision hasn’t been complete written yet, but the dynamics of college – at least football and basketball — will never be the same.
Q: I’m sure you’ve heard about the recent alleged sexual assault case involving the Oregon men’s basketball team. Nationally, there has also been the Adrian Peterson incident as well as the Ray Rice domestic violence case. As someone who’s job is to protect the players, what was your take on these recent issues?
A: The truth and matter is that domestic violence is a scourge that this society has neglected way too long. I would argue it’s been more prevalent before than it is now. Every method of prevention, training needs to be instituted to prevent it so that it has to be clear to anybody from athletic side, that putting their hands on anybody in violence is impermissible. A diminutive woman is even worse because these are strongest, most physical people in our society and their hands are like lethal weapons. Ray Rice could have killed his wife, so vigorous training needs to happen and vigorous action needs to occur. Having said that, the thought that large numbers of athletes are thugs is wrong because the rates of this are lower than their non-athletic peers. One case to one too many, but to generalize this, we need to take strong action preventively, but it’s wrong to conclude from this that there is an epidemic.
Q: Do you believe that those in charge of dealing with these problems have done a good job?
A: The positive out of all of this is the higher awareness of domestic violence. The good part is that at every level of sports, a lot of time and energy are going towards considering prevention and discipline.
Q: I have to ask, how much of Jerry Maguire was authentic from your own experiences?
A: Well, the poetic license is Cuba Gooding (Jr.) jumping up after getting concussed. Aside from that, a lot of its based on the stories I told Cameron Crow. It’s not strictly autobiographical, it’s based on stories and I agreed with Cameron, not to talk about exactly what relates to what. He was quoted as saying: “Jerry Maguire strives to be Leigh Steinberg.” But, I told him tons of stories, some of which saw their way on the screen, some of which saw their way in re-imaginative screen.
Q: I’m sure everyone in the student body is curious to know: as a renown sports agent, is Marcus Mariota the dream client?
A: I don’t want to jeopardize the process of who he picks, but he’s got every chance of being the first pick of the first round of the draft. He’s an exemplary role model and not having met him, I can’t imagine a more desirable player in the country.
Q: Does he remind you of any of your previous clients?
A: He’d (Marcus Mariota) be right in there with Warren Moon, Troy Aikman, Steve Young, but he’s a combination of so many different skills that he’s pretty unique and special.
Q: You’re involved with many different projects even after your glory days as a sports agent. How did you manage to not only remain versatile in this industry, but also keep motivated throughout these years?
A: I had a battle with alcohol. Decided that I would put everything aside back in 2010, going sober living and if nothing else, I’d be sober and a great father. That was five years ago and now we’re going again to represent athletes and these other projects. I think it takes resilience, a belief that you still have something to offer and if it’s just representing one athlete, doing one good project, it’s still following my dad’s mission of trying to make a difference in the world and help people. But resilience is key. Those same basic values are still important and being a service is important.
Q: You mentioned a lot of potential projects that could help pioneer the future of your industry in your lecture. What do you personally foresee for the near future?
A: There’s a deemphasize on rookie negotiations because of the salary caps, but there’s still a big emphasize on veteran negotiations and I think for rookies, it puts the emphasis on helping a player towards the draft, on a second career, on role modeling, on marketing concepts because to tell a rookie in football or basketball or even some of the early baseball contracts, all of the creative, clever things that my associates and I did to prate the salary caps have been eliminated. Those contracts are much more cut and dry.
Q: Have to ask, will Los Angles get a football team?
A: Yes, I think the three top candidates are the St. Louis Rams, second is Oakland (Raiders) and third would be San Diego (Chargers).
Follow Hayden Kim on Twitter @HayDayKim
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