Sports agent Leigh Steinberg on pro football's rise

Leigh Steinberg

Longtime sports agent Leigh Steinberg hugs a participant during Mercedes-Benz Tweet Race Winner Announcement at the annual Super Bowl Party named in his honor. 

As the NFL draft begins later this week, a lot of attention will be on the players. But there's another figure to keep in mind throughout the process: the sports agent.

Leigh Steinberg, the author of the new book "The Agent," knows the process all too well. He got his start back in 1975 while working as a dorm counselor at UC Berkeley. One of his freshman residents, Steve Bartkowski, was his first client. He says negotiating contracts then was much different than it is now.

"Bart asked me to represent him, and there was a World Football League competing with the NFL then," Steinberg said, "so we had leverage, and we were able to get the largest rookie contract in NFL history."

Since then, Steinberg has secured over $2 billion for over 100 clients, and has represented the number one draft pick in the NFL draft eight times.

Steinberg has seen many of the changes in pro football throughout his 40-year career, thanks in part, he says, to the growth of television.

"There were weeks last year where three out of the five Nielsen-rated shows were nighttime NFL football," he said.

That's to say nothing of how the concussion discussion has changed over the last couple of decades. Steinberg said he held seminars so his players could hear what doctors had to say.

"I had a crisis [of] conscience in the '80s. We'd go to the doctors, and they couldn't tell us how many was too many," he said. "What makes this different than any other injury is it affects rationality, consciousness, memory, and what it means to be a human being."

But if you ask the players, he says, they would do it all over again.

About the author

Kai Ryssdal is the host and senior editor of Marketplace, public radio’s program on business and the economy.

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