In 25 years, Steinberg has negotiated deals worth more than $2 billion for such headliners as Dallas Cowboys quarterback Troy Aikman, gymnast Kerri Strug and boxer Evander Holyfield. But in a new book, Winning with Integrity, written with Michael D'Orso, Steinberg argues that the art of negotiating is not peculiar to sports or business. "From raising children to shopping for a car, it's part of daily living," he says. And yet many people are so intimidated by it, he adds, that "they accept less than they really want."
In Winning, Steinberg emphasizes ethics and long-term vision instead of war tactics. "Develop relationships, not conquests" is his rule for a win-win negotiation. He once even dropped star NFL running back Eric Dickerson as a client after Dickerson refused to report to training camp in an effort to force renegotiation of his contract. "I thought it was extraordinarily hurtful to both the player and his team," says Steinberg. He also reveals himself as a real-life Jerry Maguire—an agent whose interest in his client goes beyond the usual 4 percent. "The first time I met with Leigh, he didn't talk about money," says retired 49ers center Jesse Sapolu. "He asked what I wanted to do with my life. I was taken aback."
A capitalist with a conscience, Steinberg insists that his athletes tithe to charitable programs. In Dallas, for instance, Aikman funded a wing on a children's hospital, while Seattle Seahawks quarterback Warren Moon has donated more than 100 college scholarships. "If a client isn't interested [in giving back]," says Steinberg, "he probably isn't the type of player I want to work with."
Steinberg grew up in Los Angeles, the oldest of three sons of a high school principal father and a librarian mother. While in law school at the University of California at Berkeley, Steinberg met star college quarterback Steve Bartkowski, who in 1975 asked the rookie agent to negotiate his first pro contract—a record $650,000 multiyear deal with the Atlanta Falcons. "It eclipsed previous standards set by Joe Namath and O.J. Simpson," Steinberg says.
By 1984, Steinberg had struck a $42 million deal, then the richest in sports history, between Steve Young (now quarterback of the San Francisco 49ers) and the L.A. Express of the now-defunct USFL. Both Steinberg and Young—whose character the agent greatly admires—say they felt ambivalent afterward. "I believe what a nurse, teacher or doctor provides society is much more vital than athletes," says Steinberg. "But we live in a free-enterprise economic system, and I can't change that."
A year later Steinberg married Lucy Semeniuk, a lawyer (and former Berkeley homecoming queen); today their three kids, Jon, 12, Matt, 7, and Katie, 3, romp in a 5,500-square-foot oceanview home in Newport Beach, Calif. "I travel a lot," says Steinberg, whose future projects include developing a Disneyland-sized sports amusement "town" in L.A. "But I also have the freedom to pick my son up after school and take him miniature golfing."
That kind of bonding meant a lot to Steinberg as a kid, when he would attend Los Angeles Rams games with his father. As Steinberg knows well, the same free-enterprise system that generates millions for players and team owners—and allows him to sit in luxury boxes all over America—has also priced stadium outings beyond the means of millions of families. He has proposed that pro teams set aside special blocks of tickets to be sold at reasonable prices. "I fell in love with sports because my dad took me to the Coliseum to watch football," he recalls wistfully. "We sat in the 50-cent seats."
Todd Gold in Los Angeles
This is how Leigh Steinberg works. In 1996 film director Cameron Crowe was so grateful for Steinberg's help in making Jerry Maguire that he gave the sports agent a small speaking part. "I'm a movie buff," says Steinberg. "So it was a thrill." It was also smart. At the time he was trying to revive contract talks with football's San Francisco 49ers about star safety Merton Hanks. So he arranged for Carmen Policy, then the 49ers' president, to be in the movie too. "We couldn't help but spend time together," recalls Policy, who eventually agreed to a $27 million package. "When Leigh calls, you know it's going to cost you. But somehow you feel you got your money's worth."