As regular readers of this blog already know, I’ll be joining sports business icon Leigh Steinberg tonight on his new Yahoo! Sports radio show ‘Behind Closed Doors’ (shameless plug: I’ll be on from 8:30-9 p.m. CST). It got me thinking about Leigh’s career, and perseverance, and to some degree, mine too.
When I was in my early 20s, ESPN’s SportsCenter was in its prime. These were the days of Craig Kilborn, Dan Patrick, Keith Olbermann, Chris Berman, etc. I couldn’t imagine a sports career that could top being on SportsCenter. That was a major goal. But today, I can’t imagine being on SportsCenter, and I don’t know anyone who even watches it anymore. It’s become trite, and anyway, all the highlights you want to see have either (a) been broadcast or (b) are readily available online somewhere. The model has changed completely.
In a similar vein, Leigh’s career has changed completely. Obviously, he’s known for a lot of things. He was one of the fathers of modern sports representation, if not the father of it, and he was the inspiration/model behind the movie Jerry Maguire. The number of legendary quarterbacks he’s represented is endless, from Steve Bartkowski and Warren Moon to Troy Aikman and Ben Roethlisberger. However, after a highly publicized lawsuit and some personal struggles, he fell from atop the sports representation business, and over the last decade, people around the business started referring to Leigh in the past tense.
Now here’s the interesting part: as Leigh showed when he helped Bartkowski land a mega-deal in the 70s, he’s adept at identifying trends and leveraging the market. He’s still an agent — client Garrett Gilbert, a QB from SMU, was drafted in the sixth round by the Rams this spring — but I think Leigh recognizes that the Dodge City environment that made a creative mind such a license for success 40 years ago is not in evidence today. As the agent business has saturated and competition has risen to great heights, he’s leveraging online radio, social media and more traditional methods (he’s authored several books, including one published this year) to tap into what I call the sports education market. It’s the one populated by hard-core football enthusiasts as well as the endless number of students pursuing sport management degrees in universities across the country.
Leigh is uniquely positioned to tap this market. Not only has he represented several members of the Hall of Fame and served in several roles related to sports and entertainment, but he’s indirectly played a role in the birth of several major agencies, including Irvine, Calif.-based Athletes First; Rep 1 Sports, also based in Irvine; and even Chapel Hill, N.C.-based Vanguard Sports Group, which was just launched by Joby Branion. Joby was one of the three agents who left Leigh in 2002 to launch Athletes First, and he’s a top agent in his own right today.
I think the takeaway from Leigh’s career is that the opportunity that everyone else is pursuing is not always the best one. When players were not yet using agents, or barely using them, Leigh found a way to enter that market and make it a success. When others flocked to it, he found another way to capitalize. Keep this in mind as you launch your career. There’s more than one road to success.