When I started my career in sports law in 1975 by signing the first pick in the NFL Draft — Steve Bartkowski, quarterback with the Atlanta Falcons — to the largest rookie contract in football history, sports representation was in its infancy.
Most athletes represented themselves or had their fathers help them, and teams were under no obligation to interact with agents. Owners such as Mike Brown of the Cincinnati Bengals would simply announce, “We don’t deal with agents,” and hang up the phone.
The two expansion franchises that entered the league in 1976 had purchase prices of $16.5 million. Each team received $2 million as its share of the national television contract, and the average player salary was $30,000. There has been a revolution in agency and economics in the past 36 years. The average NFL franchise is worth a billion dollars, teams receive $130 million from national television and the average salary exceeds $2 million.
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As I have spoken on more than 75 campuses — to student bodies, law school, business schools and masters programs — a career in sports is the No. 1 goal of ambitious students. We can blame or credit the three years I spent with film director Cameron Crowe, guiding him through and telling him stories about football representation for “Jerry Maguire,” with spurring some of the excitement.
Thousands of agents and financial planners attempt to sign every rookie entering professional sports. Each of the pro sports’ players associations certify the agents representing its athletes. Agents must pass background checks and agree to be bound by ethical standards. Financial planners are not subject to mandatory certification, but the NFL has a voluntary program to mandate standards for professionals handling athlete’s money. But anyone can try to recruit an athlete on a college or high school campus — and many thousands of “runners” who steer athletes to agents are active throughout the country.
Certain states such as Florida and Texas have state regulation requirements so stringent that agents have been sent to jail. California has a state program to regulate athletes.
I’m asked many times daily how someone can break into the field.
Start by forgetting every hoary stereotype and most conventional wisdom about representation. Agents have distorted their real purpose by narrowly focusing on simply stacking more dollars into a player’s bankbook and publicizing themselves in bitter public negotiations.
Athletes have short playing careers and the specter of injury is ever present. Quality representation focuses on a holistic approach to second career and life skills.
There is an obligation to truly understand a young man or woman’s greatest hopes and dreams and most limiting apprehensions and fears. This process can be initiated by asking an athlete to be internally introspective and evaluate their own goals and priorities.
Ranking and valuing these priorities will add clarity in decision making and help the agent actualize a client’s dreams. (“Help me, help you.”)
I ask every athlete to be a role model. They must be able to permeate the perceptual screen that people erect to filter out messages from authority, political and commercial messaging and influence values.
I ask that athletes view themselves as active citizens and return to their high school, collegiate and professional communities and set up charitable and community foundations that enhance the quality of life and allow them to leave a legacy.
Establishing these programs helps stimulate values such as spiritual sense, a sense of self-respect, nurturing family and supportive community. My staff and I worked hard every offseason to prepare athletes such as Troy Aikman, Warren Moon, Steve Young and Lennox Lewis for possible careers in business, broadcast and coaching.
I have also tried to spur awareness and research into the causation and treatment of athletic injuries, especially concussion, with an understanding that most athletes are caught in a pattern of denial and distorted priorities when it comes to protecting their health.
Agents also have a responsibility to help build the sports of the players they represent. Professional sports is not a vital life necessity like food or transportation. Sports depend on the support of fans who choose to spend revenue on products and attend and watch games.
We can damage that relationship by acrimonious public or player negotiations that rub excess greed in the faces of fans.
The average family income in California is $43,000, with average debts of $78,000, according to an excerpt from “Boomerang,” the book by Michael Lewis I just read. Don’t expect fans to sympathize with an athlete who is “only making $10 million, when he deserves 15.”
The real battle of sports is not labor versus management, but the struggle of a sport like football to attract fans away from baseball, basketball, HBO, Disneyland and every other source of discretionary entertainment spending. The real energy in sports needs to be devoted to building brand identity and popularity to stimulate every ancillary revenue flow and build a bigger pie.
The agents who feel the need to take the spotlight away from their players and turn the focus to their own macho negotiating skills do a disservice to the profession.
(Answer the question posed in the post on the following page)
Darren Heitner, Contributor
It’s nice to see you writing on Forbes.com. You write that “Agents also have a responsibility to help build the sports of the players they represent.” How exactly are agents supposed to help build the sports, and what exactly does that even mean? Further, why should agents be responsible for “building sports?”
A note on the author of the article:
Leigh Steinberg Contributor
Leigh William Steinberg is the most pre-eminent sports agent & attorney in the nation. As one of the most widely recognizable figures in the history of professional sports, Leigh has dedicated over four decades to his passion for athlete representation and being an agent of change. Leigh’s client roster has boasted a multitude of premier athletes and “Hall of Famers” spanning over multiple professional sports, including the likes of Steve Young, Troy Aikman, Warren Moon, Bruce Smith, Thurman Thomas, Ben Roethlisberger, Erick Karros, Dusty Baker, John Starks, Lennox Lewis, & Oscar De la Hoya. Steinberg has pioneered the convergence of the sports and entertainment industries and is credited as the real life inspiration for the lead character from the film “Jerry Maguire.” During his more than 40 years in the industry, Steinberg has represented the #1 pick in the NFL draft a record setting 8 times and has negotiated well over three billion dollars in contract deals for his clients. His passion for helping others has always been a cornerstone of his practice as his athletes retrace their roots to the college and high school levels and dedicate themselves to aiding those in need. To date Leigh’s athletes have raised over $700 million for causes around the world. An author, public speaker, philanthropist, and a father of three, Leigh resides in Southern California where he continues to operate a sports and entertainment practice built on the values he has instilled in so many of his clients.
The author is a Forbes contributor. The opinions expressed are those of the writer.