10 Questions with Leigh Steinberg
"There really is a Jerry Maguire. Only he's not some schlumpf struggling to make it on a wing and a prayer like Tom Cruise in the movie. . . . His name is Leigh Steinberg, and he's been cultivating a choirboy image for twenty years. He also happens to be the pre-eminent sports agent of our time."|
-- The San Francisco Examiner Magazine
After watching the film Jerry Maguire, Bengals GM Mike Brown told The Cincinnati Enquirer, "If they can make Larry Flynt a hero, I guess they can make an agent a hero."
Leigh Steinberg, the real-life inspiration for Jerry Maguire.
The man who the character of Jerry Maguire is based on is sports attorney Leigh Steinberg. For more than two decades, he has revolutionized the practice of sports management, and pioneered the convergence of the sports and entertainment industries, and has negotiated over two billion dollars in deals for his clients. He is a legend in the worlds of sports, film, newspapers, radio and TV. In essence, Steinberg no longer has to "show you the money" -- he is the money.
"It's fashionable now, after the movie, for a lot of agents to talk about heart. But Leigh was the only one talking like that in 1993, when I began research." |
-- Cameron Crowe, the writer/director of Jerry Maguire
Leigh was a founding partner of Steinberg & Moorad, a law firm that represented more than 150 clients, including Troy Aikman, Steve Young, Drew Bledsoe, Kordell Stewart, Warren Moon, and practically every major professional athlete in the world. But then in 1999, Steinberg sold his firm to Assante Corp., a multi-billion dollar wealth management firm with clients like Tom Cruise (the other Jerry Maguire) and David Letterman. Steinberg then became Chairman and CEO of Assante Sports Management group and Steinberg Moorad & Dunn.TEN QUESTIONS (PLUS ANOTHER SIX)
Steinberg has also developed original television and film content for Fox Television, Warner Brothers Studios, ABC Entertainment and HBO. He has been at the forefront of the Internet revolution by creating and building sports web-sites, strategically aligning his firm with ESPN's Sportszone. In fact, Steinberg is frequently sought out as an actor and as a consultant on entertainment projects such as Kevin Costner's, For Love Of The Game, Oliver Stone's feature, Any Given Sunday, and the HBO original series, Arli$$.
But if Jerry Maguire teaches us anything, it's that you can never relax in the field of athlete representation. In August of 2001, Steinberg said, "You incomplete me" in a lawsuit filed in federal court, accusing ex-partner David Dunn and his company, Athletes First, of preparing a blackmail scheme to discredit him and lure away 40 of his clients. Can you say, "Show me the blackmail money?"
So, just like in the Cruise film, our hero has to battle his own "Bob Sugar" -- a partner who is trying to take all of his clients. Is Leigh Steinberg really Jerry Maguire? Can a sports attorney be a nice guy? SportsHollywood decided to find out.
SportsHollywood: What sports do you play?
Steinberg at his desk, working to show somebody the money.
STEINBERG: I ran track, and basically played every sport. When it came to football there was a certain age where I realized that my future in football was being a grease spot on the side of some bigger player. They didn't have a whole lot of 5'10" quarterbacks playing in the pros (until Doug Flutie). So today my athletic activities are limited to running on a track, instead of running from a 300-pound lineman.
SportsHollywood: What's your favorite sports movie?
STEINBERG (looks at this reporter like he's just asked one of his clients to take a pay cut): Jerry Maguire!!! How could I answer anything else?
SportsHollywood: How much did you consult on Jerry Maguire?
STEINBERG: (Writer/director) Cameron Crowe followed me around for a good couple of years to do research for the film. He went to the NFL draft with me in 1993, to player workouts, the NFL meetings, and even the '94 Super Bowl. He was in many, many different situations with me. Then, besides acting in the film, I was on the set a lot, and worked with the actors as a technical consultant. They actually took photographs of the office here and superimposed Tom Cruise in a couple of times. I think a lot of what Cameron saw ended up on the screen.
One of the best times I had was taking Cuba Gooding, Jr., down to the Super Bowl -- making pretend he was a football player for a few days to get him into character. And I actually remember telling him at one point, "Cameron is such an amazing writer and you're such an amazing actor that this could be an Oscar-type role." We both laughed about it -- and then of course he won! He had a great time with the players.
SportsHollywood: Your Newport Beach office setting was re-created for the famous "Show me the money!" phone call scene with Tom Cruise. Was that scene based on any real phone calls?
STEINBERG: (Laughing) NO, thank goodness! My clients are always shown the money!
Actually, the line "show me the money" comes from a visit Cameron had with the strong safety Tim McDonald, who was looking for a team in free agency. Cameron was with us at the 1993 League meetings in Palm Desert, and we were showing Tim off to some team executives, hoping that someone would take a liking to him and want to bid for him. I was walking him around, showing him off to the teams, because he was quite tall for a safety (a very similar scene ended up in the movie). So then Cameron was in Tim's room one night, asking him what he was looking for in the process. CNN's Money Line was on the TV in the background, and Tim answered "the money." Now, Tim meant a lot more than cash -- he meant "respect" and a home and a whole lot of values beyond a salary -- but he gestured to the screen, and Cameron laughed and wrote the line, "Show me the money."
SportsHollywood: Which fictional sports agent do you identify with more: Tom Cruise in Jerry Maguire, Robert Wuhl in Arli$$, or Woody Allen in Scenes from a Mall?
STEINBERG: Well, since Cameron Crowe spent all that time with me for over two years, it's obviously Jerry Maguire. (Laughs) And of course the close physical resemblance between the lead actor and myself...
SportsHollywood: What actor would you like to see portray you in a film?
STEINBERG: Well, when you've had Tom Cruise play you, anything else is a comedown. (Laughing; Thinks) You know, we don't look much alike, but Denzel Washington would make a great sports agent.
SportsHollywood: Okay, we're done asking about Jerry Maguire, we promise. Back to sports: What's your favorite sport?
STEINBERG: Well, my favorite sport as a kid was clearly baseball. I grew up with Sandy Koufax and Maury Wills and the L.A. Dodgers. They were my first passion. You could hear Vin Scully's voice coming out of every transistor radio in Southern California. Then I went to UCLA -- so of course I became a huge Bruin basketball fan... and later came to football.
The first Dodger games were at the Colliseum.
SportsHollywood: Which is your favorite baseball team -- the Dodgers or Angels?
STEINBERG: I loved them both. My grandpa took me to "Roy Campanella Night" in 1958 or nine. It was the Dodgers versus the Yankees and there were 93,000 fans in the Colliseum. I also saw the first game the Dodgers ever played in L.A. -- it was the Dodgers vs. the Giants. "Sad Sam" Jones pitched for the Giants, and Carl Erskine pitched for us. I remember my dad wrote "URGENT FAMILY NECESSITY" as my school absence excuse!
But my first baseball experience was with the Hollywood Stars in the old Pacific Coast League. My grandfather was running Hillcrest Country Club, and that's where a whole group of Hollywood comedians hung out. He played gin rummy every day with George Burns, Groucho Marx, George Jessel and Jack Benny. So George Burns and my grandpa took me to my first baseball game.
Read more about the Stars here.
Then the Angels came in 1961, and I fell in love with them. I remember the first player they drafted was Eli Grba, who was significant because he had three consonants with no vowels starting his name. And they had little Albie Pearson -- who Steve Bilko could pick up with one hand. They used to show that he was so small that he could fit in a chest of drawers... (Laughing) Team marketing has changed.
Now some alien force seems to have come and captured the Dodgers. I don't know what happened to my Dodgers. My partner represents Sean Green and Eric Karros, so I don't want to get him in too much trouble. But after they traded Mike Scoscia, I'm not sure what happened to them. Now it's close between the Dodgers and Angels for me.
SportsHollywood: Lakers or Clippers?
STEINBERG: Oh -- Lakers. (Although I could never understand how they kept their name after moving from Minneapolis. Unless you count an ocean, the largest lake we have out here is probably in my bathtub.) I go back to rooting for Jerry West, Elgin Baylor and Hot Rod Hundley as a kid. Of course the voice of Chick Hearn. We were so lucky in California to have Chick, Vin Scully, and Dick Enberg to sort of narrate our childhood as we watched our favorite teams.
I have to say that it was a very strange experience when, later in life, I represented Byron Scott and was negotiating with West -- whose picture I used to have over my bed! That took some getting used to.
SportsHollywood: Kings or Mighty Ducks?
STEINBERG: The Ducks, because they're here in Orange County. But the truth is, growing up in California, we knew nothing about hockey. The closest we'd get to hockey is seeing a piece of ice in the fridge. I'm still not sure I've mastered all the rules. The Kings raised awareness of the sport here by bringing in Wayne Gretzky, but I have to go with the Ducks in Orange County -- even though they're better known for the Disney movies than for the actual pro team.
SportsHollywood: Do you think L.A. will ever have another NFL franchise? (And the XFL doesn't count.)
STEINBERG: Well, I won't bash the XFL too much -- but just remember that ESPN has proven that men would rather watch mediocre sports than great anything else. It bothered me when they attacked the NFL as being "sissified" and lacking true violence and contact. I defy Vince McMahon or any XFL executive to take one snap behind center in an NFL game. The NFL today has bigger, stronger, bodies than ever, moving faster than ever, hitting a stationary object harder than ever before -- so the physics of the hit have changed. But the equipment to protect the players hasn't developed along with that, so now you have more players out with worse injuries, for longer periods of time.
As for football in L.A., it's going to take a loooong time before another team comes here. When I was chairman of "Save the Rams" six years ago, everyone rationalized that the TV market was too big in Los Angeles for the league to ignore, and a team would be playing again in L.A. very soon... but look what happened! The league just negotiated a new TV deal for twice the money they got before, without a team in Los Angeles!
There is no political lobby fighting to get a team back in Los Angeles, as there was in Cleveland, Houston, Baltimore or St. Louis. We don't a Mayor doing it; we don't have a leader in the Board of Supervisors; We just have a huge geographical area made up of dozens of cities and a number of counties -- with no leadership to bring them all together. That's number one. Number two, you need a facility to attract a team. And there's no plan -- or more importantly taxpayer will -- to build that facility. Third, there are so many alternative recreation sources that there's no great human cry to get another football team. Now we're getting a whole generation of kids who have never had a football team in L.A., so they don't miss it and don't ask for it. It becomes self-perpetuating. They don't know what they're missing.
SportsHollywood: If Dennis Rodman came to you and said he wanted to rebuild his image, what would you tell him to do?
Steinberg's book, Winning With Integrity, provides readers with insight on how to improve their life through non-confrontational negotiating.
STEINBERG: Well, he does live here in Newport Beach, and I do run into him. All he would have to do is be an effective basketball player. The truth of the matter is if he played effective basketball, then he's no different than my generation was while rebelling in the Sixties. There's certainly a place for the rugged individualist in this society. His looks may not be everybody's cup of tea, but there's no reason that he shouldn't be popular as a productive athlete. If...
I represent Edgerrin James, who has led the NFL in rushing the last two years for the Indianapolis Colts. He wears dreads and has gold teeth -- which is not a look that is generally familiar to Middle America. But behind that he has an amazing work ethic, a totally disciplined lifestyle, is extremely intelligent, and has a value system that is completely consistent with Middle America's. People who spend time with him discover he is exactly the kind of person they would want their children to emulate. He's a fantastic role model!
Hey, our Founding Fathers wore long hair and powdered wigs -- I don't see anybody trying to look like them today, either... But we do look to them as role models.
SportsHollywood: If a guy drafts one of your clients in your rotisserie league do you step in and negotiate a higher price?
STEINBERG: (Laughing) They're not gonna be cheap.
SportsHollywood: We can't help it -- one more Jerry Maguire question: Do you think you're Jerry Maguire?
STEINBERG: Not really. Jerry Maguire is Cameron Crowe's creation. And he's a brilliant creation. He's just starting out and facing a series of ethical dilemmas about how to live his life -- He used to say that Jerry would aspire to be me. We do have a "mission statement," in the sense that I'll only take clients who are willing to give back and be true role models, by setting up programs in their high school, college and professional communities. Who understand that athletes have the ability to trigger imitative behavior.
Cameron was able to get an inside look at professional football from the standpoint of athletes and agents and general managers that few people have ever seen. He was able to sit where you're sitting and observe interactions with clients and negotiations with athletes and executives and myself in very unguarded moments. He probably has a fresher take and a truer insight into how our world really works than anybody from his business has ever seen. How much of that real life shows up on the screen only he could judge.
Now, there are parts of what went on that did show up in the movie. For example, in '93 we were at the Marriott Marquis, where the draft was being held, and I had the first player who was going to be drafted -- quarterback Drew Bledsoe ("Cush" in the movie). The draft was going to be held the next morning, and of course the chief anxiety in that situation is that you're surrounded by other agents promising him anything he wants, and you could lose that client the same day --and in the movie Jerry did lose him.
So there was a lot that Cameron saw, but those characters are his creations, and the wonderful lines that they speak are his creations. Those are his ideas, and it's his film. He's a great guy -- the nicest guy you'll ever meet.
SportsHollywood: As an agent, do you think it's good or it's bad that the media has so much more access to athletes now?
STEINBERG: I think the presence of the jurist's prudence columns in the sports sections presents a distorted picture of athletic behavior that just ends up depressing fans. It makes them feel worse about contemporary athletes. In the "good old days," athletic misbehavior wasn't reported, so that we simply didn't have any concept of domestic abuse, or drunk driving, or racism, or other forms of misconduct by athletes. Some fans view those times as the pristine days, and think that all athletes have become criminals today. In reality, we can prove that the incidents of drug, alcohol abuse and violence have dropped dramatically among professional athletes -- but the problem is it would be impossible to convince than fans, because of what they read on the AP wire. Forty years ago the chances of journalists reporting -- or the authorities even prosecuting -- a pro athlete were practically nil.
SportsHollywood: Which do you love more: negotiating or sports?
Steinberg with the rewards from a lot of successful negotiations.
STEINBERG: SPORTS!!! But I'd like to add that negotiating is not something to be avoided or feared -- it's an everyday part of life. We negotiate over who'll do the dishes; who'll pick up the kids. We're all negotiators. It's learning how to negotiate to keep both sides happy -- whether it's for a multi-million dollar contract or just which show to watch on TV, that determines the quality and enjoyment of our lives. We're all negotiators. As I write in my book, there is a misnomer that destroying another person's position is an effective and practical way to negotiate. In reality, even if the destroying another person's position and winning is possible, that scorched earth philosophy will lead to a broken relationship, so that one negotiation may be successful, but that likely will be the last time you can have an effective negotiation with that person... As for me, I just wish I didn't keep losing the "dishes" negotiation.
Interview by Phardoe and Jeff Hause
was born and raised in Los Angeles where he attended the University of California, Los Angeles, and then U.C. Berkeley. He subsequently attended Boalt Hall School of Law at the University of California where he met his first client, Cal quarterback Steve Bartkowski.
Leigh and the woman who completes him -- his wife, Lucy -- reside in Newport Beach along with their three children.
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