Super-agent Leigh Steinberg: Building the Billion-Dollar Athlete

Leigh Steinberg
·6 min read

The opportunities for marketing and second-career development for a professional athlete have never been brighter. An athlete that is willing to do foresightful planning, careful networking and effective branding can go beyond sports money and into billionaire money.

The amount of sports programming bringing athlete visages into our living rooms via television has exponentially exploded with massive amounts of live games, feature shows, opinion shows and highlight shows. The NFL is not only the most popular sport in this country, it is the most popular form of live entertainment. Layer the broadcast explosion with social media platforms that allow athletes to directly engage with fans, shape their image and broaden their popularity—and you have a potent combination.

Constructing an off-the-field plan for an athlete begins with utilizing listening skills to draw out his or her priorities and goals. What is critically important to that individual? Short-term economic gain, long-term economic security, family, spirituality, geographical location, endorsements, making a difference in the world, profile, winning, starting, coaching—all of these considerations will play into the mix.

The next consideration is to identify any talents or skill sets that the athlete has outside of sports—a bright business mind, coaching talent, public speaking, broadcast skills or writing skills. This information will help you put together a plan to jump-start a second career.

Later in his time quarterbacking the Dallas Cowboys, Troy Aikman used his offseasons to do the color commentary for NFL Europe broadcasts and created a video resume. After enjoying a 12-year playing career, the Hall of Famer joined Fox as a color commentator in 2001 and was promoted to the network’s lead crew just one year later.

Another frank and honest discussion I would have with clients interested in building a brand off the field is to educate them about the fishbowl nature of the professional athletic experience and the need to avoid off-field incidents. Nightmare consequences ensue with drunk driving or an incident of domestic violence—prevention is the best antidote.

The last step in setting up an athlete post-career—outside of great on-field play and a meaningful second-career plan—is to retrace their roots from a philanthropic standpoint. Establishing an athlete in the high school, collegiate and professional community with scholarship funds or charitable foundations is essential if he or she wants to leave a legacy.

Kansas City Chiefs QB Patrick Mahomes created the 15 and the Mahomies Foundation that aids youth charities. Miami Dolphins QB Tua Tagovailoa established a scholarship fund at his high school in Honolulu. It is important not to forget where you came from, and to continue to water those seeds in the community that raised you.

If done well and the athlete is fully engaged with this plan, the opportunities spring from each of these communities. Spending time cultivating powerful alumni of a university or figures in their professional community can lead to fulfilling relationships.

The Houston Oilers’ Hall of Fame running back Earl Campbell was greatly assisted by University of Texas alums in setting up his meatpacking business. San Francisco 49ers tight end Brent Jones and Hall of Fame quarterback Steve Young met with key figures in Silicon Valley, and those relationships helped each of them set up venture capital firms. Chiefs defensive back Deron Cherry networked with key business figures in Kansas City through his Cherry Foundation, which in turn helped him acquire an Anheuser-Busch distributorship. Buffalo Bills defensive end Bruce Smith found help with his construction company in a fellow Virginia Tech alumnus.

Brand is king. In addition to the actions outlined above, contemporary athletes also need a strong social media presence, which means they need carefully curated content. Utilizing social media to emphasize the on-field, philanthropic and endorsement portfolio to keep the athlete’s brand relevant is a job in itself. Care and creativity and the partnership of companies that align with those brand ideals all go into creating an attractive brand identity that is carried throughout areas including online presence, social media, merchandise, content and endorsements.

What percentage of the public recognizes the athlete’s name and attaches positive connotations to it? How many non-sports fans know their name? The athlete’s entire public-facing image needs to have a uniform look and identity that people associate with the athlete and his or her brand. Once the brand becomes ubiquitous, it can be applied to any business to create awareness.

Partnering with a company that will build a high production value, cleverly scripted advertising program around an athlete can exponentially boost his brand. Perhaps 20 percent of the population follows NBA basketball, but virtually 100 percent of the population could identify Michael Jordan, based on his ubiquitous Nike ads.

Aikman and Oilers defensive end Ray Childress owned auto malls named after them. It’s a simple concept but one that can permeate a city. What license plate would a sports fan rather have on their car? One from John Smith or from Troy Aikman?
Athletes like Los Angeles Lakers All-Star LeBron James created production companies to produce content on multiple media platforms. Hollywood producers and executives would be thrilled to meet James, so that automatically opens creative doors and opportunity for a successful business model—all while he is still playing and his name is hotter than ever. That’s multiple revenue streams all based off of one brand.

This generation of athletes can transcend employee status to become actual owners of franchises, and many are already starting to do so. Cherry owns part of the Jacksonville Jaguars. Childress owns a piece of the Houston Texans, former Atlanta Falcons running back Warrick Dunn currently owns a piece of the Falcons, and Mahomes is a partial owner of the Kansas City Royals baseball team.

If you have a plan and you deliver on and off the field, it can be parlayed into big business. Each time an athlete knocks down one door in his or her strategic plan, the next one appears, and the competitive edge that they cultivate on the field usually translates into the business world. The skills needed for success in sports is the same as in business—the ability to process large amounts of information in a short amount of time, self-discipline, delaying instant gratification for future success. With a good team around the athlete and the right strategic vision, athletes can take their on-field money and brand and turn it into a billion-dollar enterprise.

Leigh Steinberg has dedicated his 45-plus year career of representing athletes to harnessing the power of sport for the betterment of society. He has represented many of the most successful athletes and coaches in football, basketball, baseball, hockey, boxing, golf, etc., including the No. 1 overall pick in the NFL draft for an unprecedented eight times in conjunction with 64 total first round picks and 11 Hall of Famers. Furthermore, Leigh has represented other notable athletes such as Oscar De La Hoya and Lennox Lewis, as well as multiple Olympians and professional teams. With an unrivaled history of record-setting contracts, Leigh has secured over $3 billion for his 300+ pro athlete clients and directed more than $750 million to various charities around the world.

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