Today’s guest on The Successful Pitch is Leigh Steinberg who was the inspiration for the character Jerry Maguire. He has a fascinating story of where that famous line, “Show me the money” came from, so you’re going to really want to listen to hear how that came about. Leigh is also very interested in making a difference in the world, not only with his own business but for the athletes and coaches and newscasters that he represents. He’s all about making sure that people know about anti-bullying as well as the issues of concussion with football players. He has all kinds of tips on how to take what you’ve learned as an athlete and apply it to the business world, whether it be courage under pressure or the self-discipline that you learn from sports and applying that to being a business leader. He said when you ask the right questions, you draw people out, and that’s really the secret to negotiating a great deal. Enjoy the episode.
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Show Me The Money with Leigh Steinberg
Today’s guest is Leigh Steinberg who is the CEO and Chairman of the Board at Steinberg Sports and Entertainment. He has two core values that I am really resonating with and excited to bring you, about treasuring relationships and making a positive impact in the world. Leigh represents professional athletes that are willing to serve as role models. He can retrace the roots to high school and collegiate programs and scholarships. He has represented eight players in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He represents boxers like Oscar De La Hoya. He represents literally 40 television news anchors, sportscasters and coaches. As if that’s not enough, he was a creative consultant on Jerry Maguire, to name a few. Leigh, welcome to the show.
Thank you, John.
I’m always interested to ask my guest to tell me and our listeners the story of origin. In other words, I know you went to Berkeley and got your law degree there and actually taught legal things. How did you get from being so involved in the law into becoming this guru for sports and entertainment?
I went to Berkeley in the tumultuous time of the late 60s and early 70s, ended up Student Body President when the Governor of California was Ronald Reagan. I learned all I needed to know about negotiating from interacting with Governor Reagan as we were on the streets protesting the war in Vietnam and he was crushing those protests. I became a dorm counselor in an undergraduate dormitory. Working my way through law school, they moved the freshman football team into the dorm, and one of the students was Steve Bartkowski. In 1975, he became the very first player picked in the first round of the NFL draft. There really wasn’t sports agencies then. Players mostly represented themselves or have their parents represent them. He asked me to represent him and we got the largest rookie contract in NFL history. Berkeley was laid back when it came to sports, and so was Southern California where I’ve grown up.
We got back to Atlanta, their Klieg lights flashing in the sky like for a movie premier. A huge crowd was pressed up against the police line and the first thing we heard was, “We interrupt the Johnny Carson Show to bring you a special news bulletin, Steve Bartkowski and Leigh Steinberg have just arrived at the Atlanta Airport. We switch you live for the interview.” It was really then I saw the tremendous idol worship and veneration that athletes were held in communities across the country, how they were movie stars and celebrities. I thought if I could take those core values and have athletes go back to the high school community and retrace their roots by setting up a scholarship fund or working with the boys and girls club or church and then go to the collegiate community and endow some form of a scholarship, and then set up a charitable foundation at the professional level where the leading business figures, community leaders, and the political leaders with chairs and advisory board and set up a foundation that enhance the quality of life. They really could serve as role models, show the qualities of their character, and make a profound difference in the world.
It’s not enough to just be famous, I don’t think. You still want to make an impact in the world. In fact, one of the people I think that does that really well is Judith Light. I am fortunate enough to know her on a personal level. She’s won two Tony’s and an Emmy and all kinds of great stuff. She uses that fame to support causes that she believes in. It sounds like that’s what you’re doing for the athletes that you represent.
Running back to Tampa and Atlanta, just flipped 161st single mother and her family into the first home they’ll ever own by making the down payment and having the output. We have athletes who are working on causes from dyslexia to endangered species, from at-risk kids. Warren Moon has sent hundreds of kids with scholarships to college through his Crescent Moon Foundation. Troy Aikman has enriched children’s hospitals. The athletes pick something near and dear to them and then go ahead and make a difference. While they’re doing it, they’re learning skills other than athletic ones and they’re networking. It also can be messaging. I had the boxer, Lennox Lewis, cut the public service announcement that said, “Real men don’t hit women.” He was able to permeate the perceptual screen that especially rebellious adolescents put up against authority figures in messages and make more of a difference on an issue like domestic violence than a thousand authority figures ever could. Steve Young and Oscar de la Hoya, “Prejudice is foul play.”
There’s so much to unpack there. First of all, the irony of having someone who’s a boxer talk about not bullying people and then realizing that a lot of people somehow don’t see color when they see a star athlete. Then that athlete as a person has still experienced some form of racism and can be the person to speak out and say, “This is not okay.”
We use the cultural symbols to try and deliver messaging in a way that triggers imitative behavior. It could be Bruce Smith, all-time sack leader in the NFL being part of The Impression Virtual Environmental Law March on Washington. It can be Warren Moon and I posing for an ad for one of the environmental organizations. You’re able to take an athlete like Rolf Benirschke, who did a program with the San Diego Zoo called Kicks for Critters, which raised millions of dollars and exposure for the concept that many species are endangered and they can be saved.
I think having athletes who have a shelf life much like a dancer, for example, ballet dancers or somebody like that, you know you’re only going to be able to do that for a certain amount of time. It sounds like you really help them have other focus besides just how much money you’re making and what team are you playing on, to start broadening their horizons while they’re in their peak so that that they can transition into possibly being a co-host of a talk show or whatever else they might want to do from being known for more than just being the athlete. Is that a fair statement?
We’re trying to stimulate both the most positive values and priorities with them, but also prepare them for a second career that will be just as fulfilling as what has come before. We have three players who are now minority owners of actual NFL teams, players who own parts of luxury hotels or head of construction companies, or run hedge funds or very involved in broadcast. No longer the greeters in front of Las Vegas hotels; these athletes have brand. Everything they learn in the athletic experience, whether it’s pushing off present gratification for future success, self-discipline, mastering complex information and applying it in real time, courage under pressure, team work. All these skill sets are completely applicable to business, media, coaching or anything else that they like to be involved in.
Self-discipline from sports can be transferred to business career and this concept of courage under pressure, which you will face whether you work for yourself or someone else, that there will be pressures and you have to dig deep. If you have that frame of reference, I think that brings a lot of credibility to what you’re doing. You wrote a book called The Agent: My 40-Year Career Making Deals and Changing the Game. Tell us about some of the stories from that.
What I try to emphasize there is that the real skill in life is listening. People think that it’s suasion, but allowing a space and trust to be built up so that you can peel away layers of the onion in another human being and be able to understand their deepest anxieties and fears and their greatest hopes and dreams, and bond with them at a deep level and see the world through their eyes. If you have that skill, you can gracefully navigate life. It’s not as important what your feelings are in the situation, whether it’s recruiting someone, negotiating with someone, trying to get to a solution. Being able to understand the other person’s priorities and goals so you can craft a win-win scenario is critically important. It’s listening and being able to draw out another human being and understand not what they’re telling you on the surface but what their real deeper agenda is, and seeing if you can figure out a way to accomplish your own goals while doing the same thing.
I negotiate contracts and the time frame of it is critical because there’s nothing that the athlete can do better with his life than to play for that team. Time works against us; time to be late to training camp or time to miss. The point is that what you fear is deadlock. When two people feel like somehow good faith has been offended, they can lock their positions in and self-destruct and just takes over. They’ll lock in and lock in. When you think things can’t get worse, in a deadlock they always can. The question is, how can you work out a paradigm of cooperation and not have that break down, and to be able to somehow identify points of commonality where resolution could be reached?
You’re the renowned expert at negotiation. I think people would be surprised to hear that your real tip on negotiating is not being typically aggressive but the listening and the empathy skills that you just iterated there. I think that’s a nice a-ha moment for everybody to say, “If I really want to be a good negotiator, I should become a good listener.” Am I on the right page there, Leigh?
Yes, and you also need to understand how to ask the right questions that could draw people out. The same skill is true in recruiting, in trying to make a sale, in every area of business. Making the assumption that you’re pre-set pitch is going to be effective assumes that every human being has the same priorities and the same personalities. What’s really important is to focus in critical situations that someone have the power to exclude all extraneous stimuli, to ignore the fact that the consequence of not making a sale or not negotiating this deal may be apocalyptic. To be able to tune that out, tune out extraneous noise, focus on the moment and elevate your level of performance to come through in those situations. So often in life, there will have been mistakes made or the situation may have grown dire. You may be facing pressures or temptation to quit or to see the situation as dire and unsolvable will be there at all times. It’s having the ability to tune all that out and focus on solution and be creative and perform in that moment that’s critical.
You are the “real life Jerry Maguire,” super-agent, that’s what your book is really about. The director, Cameron Crow, of Jerry Maguire said you were the primary inspiration for that. Did you ever have a client ask you to do what they did in the movie about “Show me the money” and all that stuff?
No. It’s funny. Cameron called me up back in 1993 and asked if he could shadow me to pick up the atmosphere for a film that will involve a sports agent. He followed me to the 1993 NFL draft where I had the first pick. He came up to a press conference in New England with Bill Parcells, went to USC Pro Scouting Day, came for a week to league meetings, came into my office, Super Bowl parties, games, and I told him lots and lots of stories. The line, “Show me the money,” comes from a player named Tim McDonald who was out in Palm Springs. It was at the league meeting as I was showing him off to different teams to try to get them to sign him as a free agent. One night, Cameron went up to Tim’s hotel room and said, “What are you looking for in this experience?” Lou Dobbs in Moneyline was on in the background and Tim gestured towards the screen and said, “I’m looking for someone to show me some respect. I’m looking for a team to show me some winning. I’m looking for a team that shows me some money,” and Cameron wrote, “Show me the money.”
I love the story behind that. It’s such an iconic moment. Thank you for sharing that. You also have a story about how you decided to pass on representing Peyton Manning. Can you tell us about that?
That was one of my genius moves of the 20th century. There had been a situation where there were two quarterbacks coming out in ’93, Drew Bledsoe and Rick Mirer. Everyone thought Rick Mirer was more prolific in college, Drew was a better natural talent. I took Drew, we went on to Pro Bowls and to play in the Super Bowl, and Rick was not quite as successful. The same paradigm looked like it was going to happen in 1998, and that was Peyton Manning and Ryan Leaf. Ryan Leaf was really gifted athletically. Peyton Manning was really prolific in college. Ryan had to decide earlier, I took him. Peyton goes on to be one of the all-time great players and Ryan had a very fore-shortened career.
Do people pitch to you all the time to represent them? What do you look for when you hear a pitch like that?
I’ve represented in football 61 first round draft picks and the very first pick in the first round eight different years and in baseball practice, basketball practice. You’re looking for a talent level that’s going to enable our practice to stay on the cutting edge and give us role models who will really make an impact. In football, we have a quarterback-centered practice. This year, we have a quarterback Patrick Mahomes II who’s shooting up the first round with Texas Tech and last year. Paxton Lynch who hopefully will start this year for the Denver Broncos. You look for good values, first of all, and you’re looking for someone with a sense of self-respect, who understands the importance of nurturing family, who wants to be part of the community where people care for each other. Then you look for a work ethic and then that capacity, the ability to transcend the moment to perform in critical situations. All those things. Hopefully you have a strong family there but that’s sometimes not possible to have a nuclear, two-parent family. You look first for the character and personality qualities. There are many talented athletes. Every time you represent someone, it involves cutting up a little bit of your own life, which you have a finite amount of. You want to make sure you’re spending it on young men or women that truly you’ll be proud of.
What’s interesting to me is you not only represent the athletes but news anchors and sportscasters and sports coaches. I assume that same filter applies to them as well, yes?
It does. If you’re meeting people who have a heart, compassion, social conscience, a sense of a larger world, they’re going to use their craft and they’ll do more. They’ll find a way to use their profile to make a real difference. You get the same impact from people who are on television really in any capacity. Some of the coaches are as well-known as the players. They have longer careers, so do the news anchors, than athletes do. Again, every form of celebrity affords the opportunity to influence other people. A news person can do it through a well-crafted story or a story that’s got some passion or illumination to it. I think it’s all equally compelling.
The other thing that you’re doing that I’m really interested in is this creation of a virtual studio where you’re producing sports themed movies and TV and video games. Certainly, in the startup world, these internet apps and fan interactivity, the second-screen involvement, is really the hot button right now. Can you tell us about how that came about and what you’re doing with that?
We learned very early that the representation of athletes took us into the creation of content, and being involved with technologies. Back in the 90s, I have developed a company called Athletes Direct which was football, baseball, basketball players’ writing weekly diaries talking about their charitable foundation, e-commerce application. This was when you still have to go to AOL to get on the internet. We germinated it and sold it a couple of years later for a massive multiple. These projects where we can develop a sports themed reality show, a competition show, are dramatically scripted where we can consult on a sports themed motion picture. Then in technology, can we find the next new app, the new startup that brings fan experience closer, the next new website, the next new way to deliver content and be an adviser to that?
I’m an adviser to a company called Desk Site where if you live in Los Angeles but you grew up in New York, you want to follow the New York Giants football team, you can get 30 hours of high-def over your computer, all the highlights, all the analysis and everything. It’s just like you were there. It’s got a demographic feature where you can tailor the advertising on a subscription basis to women or men or younger people or older people, as opposed to the scatter shot that happens when they’re advertising trucks on NFL games to an audience that’s 41% women. It’s a new concussion helmet that uses coil and compression to attenuate and dissipate the energy that comes into the head by as much as 50%. We have a group called Steinberg Ventures that looks at all forms of new technology development and looks for good startups.
Let’s talk about one of your other passion projects besides preventing bullying is working on concussion awareness and prevention and potential cures. You touched on that a little bit with Steinberg Ventures. Using technology to prevent some of these head injuries, obviously it’s a big topic right now. If the damage has occurred sometimes it doesn’t show up for a while. Anything else you want to tell us about what we can do as people who care? Is there a charity or something?
First, awareness. The reality of the situation is that, for example the sport of football, every time an offensive lineman hits a defense lineman with the inception of a play, it produces a low-level sub-concussive event. It turns out that an offensive lineman can walk out of the game with 10,000 sub-concussion events, none of which has been diagnosed, none of which has worked. It could happen as many as 10,000 times. The aggregate will almost certainly produce ALS, premature senility, Parkinson’s, chronic traumatic encephalopathy and depression. This danger exists not simply in pro-football or college and high school, in field hockey, in AYSO, in hockey; anything that involves collision. People need to be aware of that and understand that the collisions and concussions have especially devastating effects on younger people.
Looking at the age someone should start a collision sport, it takes longer for that adolescent brain to heal. Keeping track of the amount of concussions, finding ways to play collision sports more safely, protective helmetry and other devices. These are all things we need to focus on. We know that athletes who play collision sports may turn 40 and have problems bending over to pick up their child. It’s another thing not to be able to identify that child. We’re talking about the brain, which makes the concussion issue different than any other type of injury.
Any final thoughts, it’s just been a pleasure having you on, that you want to leave the audience with?
My dad used to tell me, when you’re looking for someone to fix a problem or deal with a situation in the world, and you keep waiting for the amorphous ‘they’ or them to fix it: the government, older people, someone else. He would say to me, you can wait forever. He would look at me and say, “The ‘they’ is you, son. You are the ‘they’.” It’s about individual responsibility and people believing that they have the power to affect the world around them and make a difference.
Don’t wait for somebody else to make a difference. You do it. I love it so much, Leigh. Thanks for sharing your insights and even the secrets of where, “Show me the money” came from. It’s been a fascinating interview. Thanks again.
- Leigh Steinberg
- Steinberg Sports and Entertainment
- Pro Football Hall of Fame
- Crescent Moon Foundation
- Kicks for Critters
- The Agent: My 40-Year Career Making Deals and Changing the Game
- Desk Site
- Steinberg Ventures
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