A "MINIATURE UNITED WAY" is how sports agent Leigh Steinberg is described in a press release he commissioned in 1988: "Despite his compassion for mankind, and what many consider extremely high values, Steinberg doesn't feel guilty for the high-priced contracts he has negotiated." Why should he? After all, it's his job to make money, and in 17years of wheeling and dealing, the only sports agent to have his wedding televised on Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous has made hundreds of millions of dollars for his clients and millions for himself He is now dickering to increase those totals by making very rich men of his half-dozen blue-chippers, including Desmond Howard and David Klingler, just selected in the NFL draft. To sign with Steinberg, whose roster includes 17 NFL quarterbacks, an athlete must agree to be a "role model" and to donate part of his paycheck to charity. Despite Steinberg's high-mindedness, a 1991 GQ profile branded him "The Agent From Hell." There are at least two sides to Steinberg.
Sports Illustrated: Are agents running sports?
Leigh Steinberg: Television probably has a much more decisive impact, but obviously there are agents and lawyers who have tremendous power by virtue of representing star players necessary to maintain a sport. Ultimately, the power is held by team owners.
SI: Owners seem to be conceding more and more power to agents. When was the last time a top draft pick attended training camp? Agents use them as ransom until their demands are met.
LS: It doesn't take a genius to hold a player out of camp. The trick is to double-track the negotiation process. You allow the player to do everything the team asks: go to minicamp, move to the city. At the same time, you carry on negotiations. The worst results I've had have been in holdouts. Andre Ware got an enormous amount of money from the Detroit Lions, but he was late to training camp. And it negatively impacted his rookie year. In my mind, that was not a totally successful negotiation. Is he financially enriched? Yes. Did he get more money by holding out than he would have gotten by signing? Yes. But my job is not just to maximize his income—it's to get him into his professional development as rapidly as possible. Whatever part I played in that deadlock was not constructive.
SI: What about athletes who demand that their contracts be renegotiated?
LS: I think it's completely insensitive. There's a tender relationship between sports fans and their heroes. Fans attend sports as a fantasy, an alternative reality. When a fan is confronted with labor and contract and drug problems, all things he's trying to escape, we endanger that fantasy element.
SI: The most fantastic element of sports is the compensation. There are baseball players who are now getting $6 million a year and basketball players who make $7 million. The average baseball salary exceeds a million. How much can owners afford to pay these guys?
LS: There's no question we'll see $10 million baseball players. There's no logical limit except the limitation of TV and other revenue sources. It's like asking what is the logical limit that a Coca-Cola could cost. When I was a kid, it cost hardly anything. For a long period, it cost a dime. Now it can cost a buck twenty-five. It's simply inflation. People get very angry at salaries in sports, but nobody gets angry when Michael Jackson makes $100 million on a nationwide tour or signs a billion-dollar deal with Sony.
SI: Various sports have toyed with the idea of doing away with agents, perhaps by instituting something like a wage scale.