Straight-talking veteran agent David Burns, of Chicago-based Burns Sports Celebrity Service, Inc., estimates there are now 300 agencies jockeying to book the 200 most capable sports speakers. Burns has been renting out athletes' time since 1970, long before the boom in motivational sports speaking. "At first, my business was about CEOs paying a bundle to put Jack Nicklaus or Arnold Palmer into commercials that made no sense, just so the CEO could be breathed upon by his god," Burns says. "The way it works now is that I get a call from a meeting planner or a human-resources executive, and I find out what category of motivational speech he or she wants. I inquire about budget, location and time, and I fax back a list [of candidates] within 30 minutes."
With a hefty 20% to 33% of the quoted fees going to the agents, the bookers are forever jousting to land star speakers as exclusive clients. Busy speakers sometimes opt for an exclusive arrangement, like the one former Olympic gymnast Mary Lou Retton ($10,000) has with the elite Washington Speakers Bureau, because the agency will absorb promotional costs and manage the paperwork. But most speakers remain independent.
Agencies handle contracts—Riley's has been known to run past six pages, specifying in legal prose even the number of autographs he will sign—and help speakers assemble the preview tapes most upper-tier speech consumers demand. The tapes the Washington Speakers Bureau use of Holtz, Bradshaw and other clients imitate the ponderously epic tone of NFL Films highlights. At the onset of the Holtz reel, huge letters appear against a black background: When Lou Holtz was 12 years old, he announced to his family and friends that he would someday be the coach of Notre Dame. After a long pause, new words appear on the screen: No one believed him.
The agents also collect great sheaves of praise-laden letters on behalf of clients. Beneath a welter of impressive corporate logos, the written testimonies indicate that as many "hearts" have been "touched" and "spirits elevated" by sports spiels as by Spielberg movies or romance novels. "It would be difficult to overstate the impact that Dan Jansen...had on our recent CEO Circle of Excellence events," wrote a sales operations manager for Southwestern Bell Telephone, lauding the Olympic speed skating gold medalist.
The agents also help speakers develop their skills. A few sports speakers have had professional coaching, but most of them seem to have observed the hyper-competitive environment of motivational speaking and turned the creation of a table-pounder of a speech into yet another test of their strength and will to win. Pitino says he learned to hold an audience by listening to hundreds of coaches' harangues at clinics and basketball camps he attended as a young man. Later, he recalls, "when I started out as a coach, I would give 60 to 65 basketball-camp talks per summer. I'd go up and down the Eastern seaboard, spending $45 on gas to give a $75 lecture. Then, when I started coaching the Knicks, the corporate stuff started to flow in. I got $5,000 at first—which seemed like a whole lot of money at the time.
"And I know it sounds silly," adds Pitino, "but I really do get pumped up when I speak. I think it helps me in coaching."
"It's taken years of nurturing and marketing to get Rick Pitino where he is now," says Reede, who approached Pitino in his search for "an East Coast Pat Riley" in 1987, when Riley was still in Los Angeles. "But he's moving to the top because everybody loves a winner, and everybody wants to know what it takes. Corporate America is looking for a kick in the pants, and Rick can deliver it. I've told him that all he needs is one national championship, and he will be able to write any number he wants on his ticket."
Twenty minutes into his Philadelphia address, Pitino steps up the intensity, and the Convention Center begins to rock like Rupp Arena in the closing seconds of a game. The coach kneels on the stage in his black suit to act out the diagramming of a final shot. He divides the huge crowd into Kentucky Wildcats and Louisville Cardinals and ascribes a surfeit of good attitude and bad to the two teams respectively. Later he jumps down into the audience and claps his hand on the shoulder of a middle-aged white man in a nubby sportcoat: "You are Charles Oakley," Pitino declares, "and you're gonna be great tonight!"
Though Pitino's touching of shoulders and his role-playing are relatively sophisticated ways to connect with his listeners, he also likes to open things up with an ice-breaker typical of the talk circuit—in his case, the old story about how he got the plum Kentucky job because an assistant to his predecessor, Eddie Sutton, was caught sending cash to a prospect in an Emery Express envelope ("So I use Federal Express," Pitino says with a knowing smile). Ditka will warm up a crowd by mentioning his current unemployment, though this is ironic in light of his speaking income, and humor is hardly Iron Mike's strong suit. Pat Williams gets a crowd going with his Henny Youngman shtick ("From now on," he told one Florida group, "no Florida Gator athletes should get letters unless they can read them"). And for his $9,500, former Washington Redskin All-Pro quarterback Joe Theismann will raise energy levels with the cry, "How many'a ya play golf?"
A casual look at a selection of motivational speeches actually reveals more similarities than distinctions. Ditka and Theismann even rattle off the same setbacks Abraham Lincoln suffered before he "overcame adversity" and made himself President.