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More to being a sports agent than “show me the money”

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So you want to be a sports agent?

But you’re not quite sure what it takes to become one or how to break into the cutthroat profession. The only thing you do know is that it seems like the words agent and money are synonymous.

But to someone who is just starting off – and even for those who have been in the profession for decades – being an agent is more about providing service than it is about making money.

That’s the Leigh Steinberg way.

Steinberg, a sports agent who has represented 60 first-round NFL draft picks, including eight No. 1 selections, and seven Pro Football Hall of Famers, also is known for being the inspiration for the title character in the film “Jerry Maguire.”

How do you become Leigh Steinberg? You start by creating a profile of the kind of athlete you want to represent, he says.

On Saturday at the University of Houston, Steinberg and fellow Steinberg Sports and Entertainment agent Chris Cabott addressed 32 attendees at the Leigh Steinberg Agent Academy, a one-day sports agent boot camp.

Steinberg asked participants their reasons for attending the symposium. Most were interested in learning more about the profession from Steinberg’s perspective. A couple said they represented athletes but wanted to learn more about serving their clients. Several said they went to college to become agents, but life after school got in the way and now they thought they would give the career a second try. Several were law-school students who said they hoped the class would help them begin a career as a sports agent.

People skills important

Steinberg attended law school, but he said the subject in college that helped him the most was psychology, learning why people act a certain way and make the decisions they do.

Steinberg said he would love to see some of his students turn their boot-camp experience into a successful career as a sport agent.

The reality is that most of them won’t make it, but some might.

Several students likely found out that being a sports agent wasn’t for them after attending Saturday’s academy, and Steinberg knows it is not everyone’s priority to spend every day in the office like he does.

“Figure out what’s important to you,” he said. “Is is short-term gain? Security? Family? Be clear what your motivation is and understand yourself well enough.”

Steinberg said if a person’s motivation is to spend all of their time with friends or playing video games, then “this is not the industry for you.”

But what if it is, and a person decides to enter the highly competitive world of the sports agent?

In the NFL, where there are 850 certified agents jockeying to represent more than 1,700 players, there are no guarantees.

And the certification process can be time-consuming and costly.

Agents are required to apply through the National Football League Players Association.

The process includes paying a non-refundable $2,500 fee, possessing a college degree, attending a two-day NFLPA symposium, completing the NFLPA’s written exam and passing a background check.

Agents also need to be certified in any state in which a prospective client attends college. In Texas, it costs $1,500 to be certified as a sports agent.

That is a lot of overhead, and that doesn’t include the travel, lodging and entertainment involved in recruiting prospective clients.

And what about the cost of a medical exam if a second opinion on an injury is warranted? What about the cost of supervised physical training in advance of the NFL combine?

There can be a lot of money going out before there is any hope of money coming in. So it is easy to see how being a sports agent is not for everyone.

Job is about giving

Cabott said agents can find fulfillment if they make the job about their clients and not themselves.

“Give someone something,” he said. “That’s how you start a relationship. You build something by following through.”

Steinberg’s clients are known for excelling on and off the field. He helps them establish charities, become role models and work toward their ambitions of a second career or “life after football.”

He said it all comes back to creating that profile of the person you would like to represent, going after those players and persuading them to create a partnership with you.

“Does their profile match up with you?” Steinberg said. “If you do, you’ll have a better chance of actually landing them as a client than if they don’t.”

Steinberg said he learned that lesson the hard way.

After convincing quarterback Steve Bartkowski, who was the first pick in the 1975 NFL draft, to become his first client, Steinberg said he developed a “hot young lawyer” attitude. He spent all of the money he made signing Bartkowski by flying other potential clients to high-profile dinners and events. Steinberg quickly was running out of money, and his father eventually came to him with maxed-out credit cards. Steinberg knew he had to make changes.

“One year after I had made the biggest deal of my career, I was almost out of the industry,” Steinberg said.

‘Never give up’

His last attempt to stay in the business was landing Joel “Cowboy” Parrish, a guard from the University of Georgia, as a second client. Steinberg arranged for Parrish to sign with the Toronto Argonauts of the Canadian Football League, negotiating a contract that paid Parrish a premium over what he likely would have received in the NFL. With his agent’s commission, Steinberg then had just enough money to stay afloat. He was back in the game.

“If this is your dream,” Steinberg said. “Be smarter but never give up.”

© 2015 Houston Cronicle | This article was written by Stephanie Kuzydym and first appeared in the Houston Chronicle on June 28, 2015.

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