Sports Agent Plays Hard as League Leader in His Game
It is just before midnight and sports attorney Leigh Steinberg is, as usual, on the phone in his eighth-floor corner office overlooking the Fashion Island shopping center.
There is trouble on the other end of the line. One of Steinberg’s multimillion-dollar National Football League clients has violated NFL rules. If discovered, he could be out of the game for a few weeks.
Steinberg does not want that to happen. It would not look good. Before calling the frightened player back at training camp, he and fellow attorney David Dunn map out a solution.
A story will be concocted. The scared player will fly home until the whole mess blows over. No one will be the wiser.
“I know this sounds nightmarish,” says Steinberg, adopting a fatherly tone on the phone. “But just know that we’ll get through this, and we’ll get to happier days.”
Steinberg, 45, hangs up the phone and stuffs a wad of chewing tobacco under his lower lip. “He’s just a young kid,” he said. “He’s really a great kid. I can’t allow him to get in trouble.”
It’s the last phone call of a 15-hour day for Steinberg, arguably the most powerful agent in all of football. His job is negotiating contracts for some of the highest-paid players in the game. His specialty is keeping them that way.
Steinberg’s alphabetized client list starts with the Dallas Cowboys’ $50-million quarterback Troy Aikman and ends with Steve Young, the San Francisco 49ers’ $26.75-million signal-caller. In between are 19 quarterbacks on 14 of the NFL’s 28 teams. It’s enough to ensure that Steinberg’s phone calls are always returned.
“Anyone looking for a quarterback, they’re going to end up here,” says Steinberg, eyeing a map of the United States propped against the wall and dotted with black-and-white mug shots of his clients.
Now, the still-boyish agent has taken on perhaps his toughest client: Orange County, a player with shaky stats and questionable commitment. As co-chairman of Save the Rams, a local group of businessmen and politicians, he’s got just a few weeks to renegotiate a contract with the team.
The effort is making his long days longer.
This one began with the 7 a.m. weekly meeting of Save the Rams at the Anaheim Marriott. More than 40 people showed up--the most ever, an encouraging sign to Steinberg that things are on track.
“People here are so stingy,” he says, visibly frustrated. “Part of the problem of Orange County is the lack of cultural or geographic cohesiveness. There’s a sense that what we are geographically is ‘not Los Angeles.’ ”
By 10:20 a.m., Steinberg, rumpled in stained Calvin Klein jeans, a white “Keep our Rams in Orange County” T-shirt and white Reeboks, is back in his office. He pops open the day’s first Diet Dr. Pepper, which he chain-drinks, alternating with jugs of orange Gatorade Light. Cases of the stuff are stacked in adjoining offices.
He slumps back in one of the leather recliners plunked in the middle of his office and wedges in the first of many dollops of tobacco, palming the can in his hand and clicking it open and closed as he talks. And talks.
Most of Steinberg’s business is done in this position, usually with his feet on his messy desk and a telephone tucked between his cheek and shoulder. His famous clients, who now include boxer Oscar de la Hoya and the U.S. Soccer Team, stare back at him from framed Sports Illustrated covers, posters and pictures hung haphazardly on his walls.
The phone never rings in his office, one floor below the one occupied by Peter Ueberroth, the former baseball commissioner and chief organizer of the 1984 Summer Olympic Games in Los Angeles. The walls are soundproofed and when a call comes in, his assistant opens the door and displays the caller’s name in block letters on a note card.
Sometimes the calls come so continuously, Steinberg says, that he barely has time to make his way into the adjoining bathroom, where the countertop is littered with bottles of Rolaids, Tums and a half-dozen Old Spice deodorant sticks.
Last year, Steinberg’s firm negotiated $325 million worth of new business alone. The firm includes Jeff Moorad, who represents a slate of top baseball players, two other attorneys and a rotating crew of about 10 shorts-clad, over-educated, mostly female assistants.
Steinberg’s firm represents more than 130 clients in all, including professional sports stars such as San Francisco Giants slugger Matt Williams, New York Knicks guard John Starks and Edmonton Oilers goalie Joaquin Gage. He also represents most of the big-name television news anchors in San Francisco.
Steinberg won’t say how much he makes, but the firm takes a 4% cut of football deals, a 5% cut of baseball and basketball deals and a 15% cut of endorsement contracts. He also rakes in $15,000 per speech on the speaker circuit, and he makes dozens each year. When he bills clients an hourly rate, Steinberg charges $1,200 to $1,500 an hour.
Steinberg notes that he donates to charity all honorariums received from schools and student groups. He requires all his clients to donate part of their earnings to charity. Steinberg himself gives thousands of dollars to schools and other foundations each year, part of his philosophy that he and his clients must be role models for society.
Today, Steinberg is focusing on a client whose star has fallen.
Dan McGwire, the 6-foot-7 backup quarterback for the Seattle Seahawks, is about to become a victim of the NFL’s new salary cap.
Once a first-round draft pick, McGwire has suffered three unproductive seasons, and now the Seahawks want to slice his $1.1-million-a-year contract to $400,000 to raise money for another player. Steinberg is trying to get a fix on Mickey Loomis, the Seahawks executive vice president proposing the cut.
“Who is he? What’s his title? I’ve got to get into his head,” Steinberg ruminates. “Is he going to be judged on whether he’s able to move the money down? What are they trying to do with the extra money?”
Steinberg’s assistants have prepared a list of the salaries of every secondary quarterback in the league (the average is $817,000). With McGwire’s stats, it’s going to be tough to keep him at his current salary.
But $400,000 is insulting--the fourth lowest in the league.
Dunn has prepared a script for Steinberg to use called the “McGwire Approach to Loomis.” But Steinberg knows Loomis can’t play hardball--he’ll have to deal with Steinberg again.
“It’s not as if they can treat the negotiation for McGwire like the typical agent-client negotiation,” he says. “They’re going to have to come right back here to somehow fill their needs.”
At 12:55, McGwire calls from training camp. Steinberg reassures him, but says he must look at the salary cut “in terms of the whole league. This has probably happened with two-thirds the players in the NFL.”
Ten minutes later, Pittsburgh Steelers assistant controller Dan Ferens is on the phone. Steinberg tells him that Tom Donahoe, the Steelers’ director of football operations, has been interfering with his client, defensive back Carnell Lake, who is negotiating a new contract.
“He doesn’t get that I’m the strongest authority figure in Carnell Lake’s life,” says Steinberg, who also represents two of the Steelers’ quarterbacks. Donahoe “needs to move into the modern world.”
Ferens assures Steinberg that the situation will be remedied.
Steinberg hangs up. Dunn and a summer intern come in for a powwow.
“You guys are going to laugh at me,” Steinberg starts. “What do you think about the concept of doing marketing for Rodney King? A possible book and movie?”
Steinberg spends a chunk of the afternoon talking to reporters. If they don’t ask about the Rams, he tells them. Though he’s spoken the same words at least a dozen times before, he doesn’t sound bored.
At 2:50, Frank Michelena, one of the county’s most prominent lobbyists, calls to tell Steinberg that he has rounded up a coalition of Orange County auto dealers to support the Save the Rams effort. They lay plans for Steinberg to meet the dealers on Aug. 23.
At 4 p.m. the Seahawks’ Loomis calls back, sounding nervous over the speaker phone: “I’m not saying take it or leave it or anything like that.” Steinberg agrees to get back to Loomis, then hangs up the phone and assigns an assistant to talk with the Seahawks until the deal is closer to the $800,000 range.
At 4:50 p.m., Steinberg dictates a guest column on the Rams for The Times’ Op-Ed page.
At 6 p.m., he’s on the phone telling Philadelphia Eagle’s linebacker William Thomas that he isn’t excited about the team’s $2.6-million, three-year contract offer.
“This whole thing, William, is about what is your maximum leverage point. Keep me abreast of what’s going on in the Philadelphia papers,” he says. “Anything you see or hear, let me know.”
Steinberg takes a break for take-out Chinese.
At 8:45 p.m., a white stretch limousine whisks him to CNN’s studios in Los Angeles for a half-hour call-in show about the baseball strike. A young assistant is at the ready, with cans of tobacco, Diet Dr. Pepper and rice cakes for the ride.
Steinberg does television talk shows nearly once a week. He is often touted as an expert on topics on which, well, he isn’t.
This month, he popped up on “Vicki!”, the syndicated talk show featuring Vicki Lawrence, one of Carol Burnett’s former sidekicks, where he chatted about female athletes, though he doesn’t represent any. He also appeared on “Larry King Live,” where he pledged to get his athletes involved in fighting domestic violence.
“People want someone who can give them good TV,” he says.
By 11:30 p.m., Steinberg is back in his office. He makes plans to be in early the next day. There is McGwire’s contract to be dealt with, as well as deals for Lake and Thomas. Maybe he muses, he can get USA Today to write about the Rams.
And there is still the immediate future of the frightened young client in trouble.
“I gotta deal with my guy,” Steinberg says. “I can’t leave him hanging out there like that.”