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Steinberg: A sports agent is …

October 29, 2011|By Leigh Steinberg

When I started my career in sports law in 1975 by signing the first pick in the NFL Draft — Steve Bartkowski, quarterback with the Atlanta Falcons — to the largest rookie contract in football history, sports representation was in its infancy.

Most athletes represented themselves or had their fathers help them, and teams were under no obligation to interact with agents. Owners such as Mike Brown of the Cincinnati Bengals would simply announce, "We don't deal with agents," and hang up the phone.

The two expansion franchises that entered the league in 1976 had purchase prices of $16.5 million. Each team received $2 million as its share of the national television contract, and the average player salary was $30,000. There has been a revolution in agentry and economics in the past 36 years. The average NFL franchise is worth a billion dollars, teams receive $130 million from national television and the average salary exceeds $2 million.

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As I have spoken on more than 75 campuses — to student bodies, law school, business schools and masters programs — a career in sports is the No. 1 goal of ambitious students. We can blame or credit the three years I spent with film director Cameron Crowe, guiding him through and telling him stories about football representation for "Jerry Maguire," with spurring some of the excitement.

Thousands of agents and financial planners attempt to sign every rookie entering professional sports. Each of the pro sports' players associations certify the agents representing its athletes. Agents must pass background checks and agree to be bound by ethical standards. Financial planners are not subject to mandatory certification, but the NFL has a voluntary program to mandate standards for professionals handling athlete's money. But anyone can try to recruit an athlete on a college or high school campus — and many thousands of "runners" who steer athletes to agents are active throughout the country.

Certain states such as Florida and Texas have state regulation requirements so stringent that agents have been sent to jail. California has a state program to regulate athletes.

I'm asked many times daily how someone can break into the field.

Start by forgetting every hoary stereotype and most conventional wisdom about representation. Agents have distorted their real purpose by narrowly focusing on simply stacking more dollars into a player's bankbook and publicizing themselves in bitter public negotiations.

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