JLife Magazine was fortunate enough to catch up with Leigh Steinberg, the trailblazing sports agent and man who inspired the lead character of the film “Jerry Maguire.” Mr. Steinberg is a long-time Orange County resident, a card-carrying member of the “tribe” and a big supporter of our local Jewish community. He has enjoyed over forty years in the sports “business” and has learned many life lessons along the way. In his offices overlooking Newport Harbor, Mr. Steinberg gave us a fascinating glimpse into the “wide world of sports” and more.
Can you tell us a little about your family history? In 1947, my grandfather (who was a doctor) went to Israel to help in the War of Independence. There was a doctor’s convoy that went from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and his convoy was hijacked. He was shot and killed so he was buried in Safi. Then my mother’s sister, Mildred and my first cousins made aliyah to Israel in the late 60s so I have family there. I have a first cousin named Michael who is a professional at Hebrew University and another named Robert is a doctor and he medevacs in and out to help the troops. He was very active during the last incursion. So my family has roots there.
What is your favorite sport to watch and/or play? I grew up a baseball fan, rooting like crazy for the Dodgers and the Angels. They both got here about the same time. My grandfather ran Hillcrest Country Club. The other country clubs in the 40s didn’t allow blacks, Hispanics, Catholics, Jews or actors. So he helped found Hillcrest, which became a hangout for the acting community, but more specifically, the Jewish acting community. So I grew up there. Every day he would have lunch at the comedians’ table with people like Jack Benny, George Burns, Groucho Marx and many more. So it was actually George Burns and my uncle that took me to my first baseball game. I grew up loving the Dodgers. Sandy Koufax was a big inspiration because he wouldn’t pitch on Yom Kippur. So I still love baseball, but I spent 40 years working with football players… I’m a football fan as well.
Did you play when you were a kid? No, I ran track and cross-country.
Did your kids play sports? My two boys both played high school football. All three of my kids went to Corona Del Mar High School.
Did you go to any sporting events when you were a student at UCLA or Berkeley? Of course. When I was at UCLA, our basketball team won the national championship and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was the center. At Berkeley, well, not so much [chuckles]. But I still went to all the games [smiles].
How did you come to represent the future number-one pick? While I was in law school, I partially worked my way through school as a dorm counselor (an R.A.) at the undergrad dorms. While I was there, they moved the freshman football team in. That’s when students like Steve Bartkowski moved in. In 1975, Steve became the first player picked in the first round of the NFL. And here I was representing him, never having practiced law and I had the first pick of the NFL draft. We had other notable people living in our dorms as well; one was a bearded fellow who went down to Santa Clara and co-founded Apple Computers. His name was Steve Wozniak.
So anyway, Bartkowski asked me to represent him. There I was brimming with legal experience and we ended up getting the biggest contract in history. It even beat Joe Namath’s contract and O.J. Simpson’s. I remember we arrived in Atlanta and there were spotlights flashing in the sky, like for a movie premiere, and there was a huge crowd pressed up against the police line. And the first thing we heard was this quote, “We interrupt the “Johnny Carson Show” to bring you a special news bulletin… Steve Bartkowski and his attorney have just arrived at the airport… we switch you live to an in-depth interview.”
So that was when I really saw the idol worship and the veneration athletes were held in, in communities across the country.
Do you two still stay in touch today? Sure, of course.
Is there anything specific that you look for in an athlete that you feel makes them a “winner?” In football, I’ve represented 60 first-round draft picks and the very first player in the first round eight times. My practice is based on the athlete as a role model. I look for athletes with good fundamental values, a sense of self-respect… athletes that have lived in a nurturing family environment. I’d like them to value being part of a community where people are their brothers’ and sisters’ keepers. I ask each athlete to retrace their roots. Going back to their high school community, I encourage them to set up a scholarship fund and work with the local Boys and Girls Clubs. To really put down roots. And then at the collegiate level, I encourage them to endow a scholarship to stay close to the schools. That’s what Troy Aikman did and Eric Karros did at UCLA … Steve Young as well at BYU. At the professional level I ask them to put together a foundation of some sort that will help unite the leading business figures, community leaders and political figures in a program that will enhance quality of life. So the first thing I look for his character. What an athlete needs (besides exemplary work habits) is the ability to focus and have a quiet mind. To have the ability to tune out all external distractions and to elevate his or her level of play at critical moments… that’s the key to performing at a superior level. So it’s work habits, it’s intelligence and then it’s physical gifts.
You’ve been in this business for 40 years and represent many clients who are in their formative early 20s. What advice do you give them on navigating the waters of professional sports and life in general? The first key is to get them to do a personal inventory so they can gain perspective. This is so they can understand their own priorities and values. I talk to them about things like short-term economic gain, long-term economic security, family, geographical location, their profile and endorsements. Then there are the sports considerations… being on a winning team, the quality of coaching, being a starter and the system the team plays. Each of those values will fit differently into different people’s lives. So the key when getting into sports is figuring out what it is that motivates a person and what they’re trying to achieve. The second thing is to challenge the athletes to use the off season to cultivate a second career. What other skills do they have as a human being that can help them be a businessman, a coach, a broadcaster or a community leader? What skills can they focus on during the off season to hone?
The biggest fans of professional sports tend to be middle-aged businessmen. So when I had Steve Young and Brent Jones on the San Francisco 49ers, their training facilities are in Santa Clara. The closest businesses to that are the ones in Silicone Valley, high-tech businesses and venture capitalists. So it is not by chance that Steve Young has sold a number of computer companies and Brent Jones has a several-million-dollar hedge fund. I’ve had three players I’ve represented go on to become minority owners in teams. This generation can have a career after a sports career that is actually very successful. That’s why I think the role modeling and building a foundation is so important because it gives them a chance to utilize those skills.
Do you help your clients manage their financial affairs or provide them with resources to help guide them?
The financial planning is usually done by people that specialize in that field. We don’t do it in-house, but whoever is going to represent them has a fiduciary responsibility because an athlete coming off a college campus is no different than any other student who hasn’t been prepared to budget. Who hasn’t been versed on tax codes and they have to learn and aggregate all those skills. The big difference between other students and these athletes are that they are not about to receive a $10 million bonus. The other students may also be entering a career with a long-term lifespan, where the athlete’s is short. So it is important to teach and empower and the athlete to take control over their financial affairs.
With the way the economy has “dipped” in the last few years have you seen a change in the way you council these players?
There is no dip in sports. We are in boom times. Franchise values are soaring. Television revenue has absolutely sky-rocketed; rights have gone up because of the competition between multiple networks. We have brand-new stadiums with premium seating and naming rights. Social media has exploded with new apps with new ways to enjoy sports. Fantasy leagues have exploded. And there’s no end in sight because as long as television continues to expand it will create more competition and the bidding for those rights fees will continue to rise.
How did you become involved with the movie, “Jerry Maguire?”
The writer and director, Cameron Crowe approached me because he wanted to write a movie about the world of the Sports Agent. SO I met with him and we clicked and we spent quite a bit of time together as he gathered material for his movie. At times there would be cameras following me and whoever I was with as well. So at one point in the process I took the Cuba Gooding Junior down to the Super Bowl in Phoenix and made him pretend he was a wide receiver. He got very immersed in the research… people even mistaked him for a player. He ended up winning Best Supporting Actor for his role in the movie.
I actually had to show the actor Jerry O’Connell how to throw a spiral because he had gone to NYU and they didn’t have a football team.
The movie isn’t my autobiography. I mean obviously I started my career with the first round draft pick and that’s not how the movie starts. I told the director a bunch of stories and he put them all together, added his own stuff and developed the plot. For instance, he asked me what would be my biggest fear and I responded… “Losing the first round draft pick the night before the draft because I made a handshake deal with the dad? That was just a “What If?” scenario, but it made it into the movie.
The movie “Jerry Maguire” changed everything for me after it was released because the recognition factor was so high and when we were in development, everywhere we went the camera was following us. I don’t think I’ve been able to walk most places without somebody asking me to say, “Show Me the Money!”
Is that one of your coined phrases?
Not really, that comes from something to do with Tim McDonald with the Arizona Cardinals. Tim was going through free agency in ‘93 and he was looking for a team to sign with. Cameron Crowe (the director) was watching us walk around and meet with teams.
One night we went up to Tim’s hotel room, Cameron was interviewing him and asking him, “what are you looking for, what you looking for, what is your criteria?”
So Moneyline with Lou Dobbs was playing on a television in the background. Tim motioned to the screen and said, “I’m looking for someone to show me some respect.”
Then Cameron remembers him saying, “I’m looking for someone to finally show me a winning team.” Then as Cameron remembers it, he came up with and wrote “Show Me the Money” himself. While Tim remembers that he was actually the one who said, “Show Me the Money.” I can’t settle that one.
So then the movie “Jerry Maguire” led to Oliver Stone asking me to help out on “Any Given Sunday.” Originally a rapper was supposed to play the quarterback, but he couldn’t really throw well. They replaced him with the young comedic actor named Jamie Foxx. So on this movie, I worked with Al Pacino and Cameron Diaz and worked on the script. That led to my involvement with “For the Love of the Game,” which was with Kevin Costner and Kelly Preston.
That movie then led to “Arli$$,” which I didn’t take screen credit for because he was doing the most awful stuff. I basically gave him my worst thoughts. I then did some occasional acting like on “Beverly Hills 90210” and a sitcom that ran on NBC for a couple years called “Sports Action Team” I did a court show and all the rest of it.
Currently, I’m helping produce a film called “Born in June,” which is about my client Jim Jones. In this film, I will play the narrator. I’ve also optioned the rights to write a story on my life for a one-hour drama… sort of like a “Mad Men” style show that is based loosely on my life.
I started a new radio show as well. I do it for Yahoo Radio every Monday night. I have a lot of great guests. I’ve had the general manager of the Philadelphia Eagles on as a guest. I’ve been taping it out of KLAA which is in the Angel Stadium.
Out of your experiences on that those shows and all the people you have met who would you say is the biggest sports fanatic?
It depends what sport it is. When I was representing Lennox Lewis I took Jeremy Piven, Leonardo DiCaprio, Tobey Maguire, and Jamie Foxx to his fights. When it comes tofootball Tom Cruise was a big Colts fan. Al Pacino love boxing, but most of the younger actors I’ve worked with really like football best.
See pro football by two-to-one is the most popular sport in this country. Right behind it is college football. Way more popular than say something like soccer. When it comes to soccer we don’t know what to make of it. To make soccer popular in America they would have to change it. I once wrote an article for the “New York Times” on changing it and I got the most hate mail I’ve ever gotten in my life. Don’t do that.
What are some projects that you are working on now?
I’ve got a book that’s ready that’s going to be focused on parenting youth athletes. So no one gives you a driver’s license to parent youth athletes. For kids it can be a time of empowerment or it can be a time of crushing self-esteem. People don’t talk about whether it’s all about participation or more like Vince Lombardi and win at all costs. If your son or daughter is playing on a team they don’t like maybe a losing team or they’re not starting. Is this a time for asserting yourself and standing up for yourself? Or is it a time to learn patience and the rest? So we got that book ready. And I have another one planned after that that is based on the 10 virtues I’ve learned from professional athletes. So I will keep on writing.
Do you enjoy the writing process?
Well I end up writing two or three columns a week. I write for “Rant” and I write for “Forbes.com.” So yes, I enjoy the writing process. I grew up working on the school papers and I’ve done professional writing like book reviews and movie reviews… opinion pieces… all that. I never got tired of it. And I never got tired of what I was doing occupationally because I made my career flexible enough that there was room to do everything and not have to change professions.
You’ve survived some turbulent times in your life and career. Are there any lessons you feel that you could impart upon our readers based on some of the things that you have overcome?
Well I fought a battle with alcoholism. It impacted my business, my financial situation,but more importantly it affected my relationships and all the rest. I had always expected there to be challenges in my business life it was the things that happened in my personal life (like alcohol) that was most troubling. It has a way of making you feel powerless.
There was a whole series of things happening to people close to me that I couldn’t prevent. So I just had the feeling that I wanted to check out. Not leave the planet, but just have some relief from what I was dealing with at the time. If someone hasn’t experienced addiction it’s a complete loss of any rational control. So I just think people need to be careful because what is mildly pleasurable can turn into something terrifying without caution.
What brought me back in the end was a matter of proportionality. I always understood that I wasn’t a starving peasant in Darfur. My name wasn’t Steinberg in Nazi Germany. I wasn’t crippled. I didn’t have cancer. So what real excuse was there for me to not try and get myself together?
I have a father who believes in two core values. One is to treasure relationships (especially family) and the second was to try and make a meaningful difference in the world and to help people that could not help themselves. So I was hardwired to be of service in the world. And when I was in the middle of alcoholism I wasn’t being true to either one of those. My dad had a corollary, which is when you’re looking for someone to solve the problem, when you’re looking for someone to right a wrong and you start to think that “they” will do something about it, that “they” will solve it. Then there is a problem. You are the “they.”
Thank you for being so candid.
Tracey Armstrong Gorsky is the managing editor of Jlife and the editor-in-chief of Kiddish Magazine.