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Monday, May 20, 2024

Superagent Leigh Steinberg Says LIV Golf Is Here To Stay

  • Sports agent predicts more golfers will ‘follow the money’ to LIV Golf.
  • He also explains NFL TV networks operate on ‘same star system’ that makes studios pay premium for stars.
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Leigh Steinberg is the most famous sports agent in history. 

The founder of Steinberg Sports & Entertainment was the real-life inspiration for the Oscar-winning “Jerry Maguire.” His resume speaks for itself. 

Over his 40-year career, he’s secured over $4 billion in contracts for 300-plus pro athletes — including the No. 1 overall pick in the NFL Draft a record eight times. 

For client Patrick Mahomes of the Kansas City Chiefs, Steinberg negotiated a monster 10-year, $450 million deal — the richest and longest in NFL history. Similarly, Steinberg recently predicted free agent Aaron Judge of the New York Yankees could score a record $500 million, 10-year deal.

Front Office Sports spoke to Steinberg about the explosion in NFL broadcaster salaries, the future of LIV Golf, and more.

Front Office Sports: In the last couple of years, NFL TV partners have dished out TV contracts worth a combined $1 billion to secure the best announcers — including your old client Troy Aikman of ESPN. Was it a world gone mad? Or smart business by the networks and their media parents? 

Leigh Steinberg: Televised football has always been a loss leader. The money paid in rights fees, or for the right talent, is governed by lost leader bidding. The real goal is to be able to promote Monday through Friday scheduling. If you think about it, Fox was a marginal network before it bought the NFL. Based on being able to show those promos, they became a top-rated network. 

So they might have lost money on those rights fees. But at the end of the day, it’s the announcing team that is part of the draw and distinguishes why somebody might watch a broadcast. It’s one of the few distinguishing factors other than the lineup of games (the networks) have.

Tom Brady is a big draw. Troy Aikman is a big draw. Joe Buck is a big draw. So it’s the same star system that makes a studio pay a premium for a star in a movie. I want to tune in and see what Tom Brady is like. It makes me more apt to tune in to whatever broadcast he’s on. Even if Troy wasn’t my former client, I think he does a terrific job.

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So really, the correct way to look at it is does that broadcast bring the opportunity to sell the rest of the network’s non-sports network programming? And does that add to the bottom line value of the network? Arguably it does. It’s the reason why a news anchor might be the only thing that distinguishes the reason why you watch CBS rather than ABC. 

With NFL games accounting for 48 of 50 most-watched TV shows last year, have top NFL announcers become as important to their networks today as new anchors like Tom Brokaw, Peter Jennings, or Dan Rather were 30 years ago?

I think so. The only thing that broke that up was diminution of HUT (homes using television) levels…But prior to that, prior to having 300 (channels) and people who don’t watch at all, or cut the cord, then having Walter Cronkite on CBS meant that the world was OK that night. And then in local markets, having Jerry Dunphy on the air here in Los Angeles. Those were the faces — and I know because I represented television anchors — and it was the distinguishing factor in why someone would select one channel instead of another. That led to big differentials in ratings and advertising rates and all the rest of it. 

The point is: I think Tony Romo is really good. Would I be more apt to watch a game he’s commentating on? Yes. And while I’m doing that I’m going to watch all the promos even if the ad buys don’t equal the rights fees, inclusive of the talent fees.

There have been several controversial roughing the passer penalties this season. Has the NFL gone too far in protecting QBs?

The NFL has evolved into an increasingly quarterback-centric game. The key to making the playoffs and ultimately the Super Bowl rests with having a franchise quarterback that a team can win because of, rather than with. That they can build around for 10 to 12 years. And who can perform under adversity and in critical situations. 

Anything that protects that player is to the benefit of the franchise — and to the NFL. Because games are increasingly advertised from the standpoint of, ‘Here comes Josh Allen to play Patrick Mahomes.’ And the games are televised with most plays starting on the face of the quarterback. To lose a quarterback for any substantial period can alter the whole course of a season for teams. 

So it does make sense, whether it’s a set of protective rules to stop the quarterback being hit in the lower body or the head, or having the correct concussion protocol. It certainly makes sense to protect all positions. But especially that one.

Is LIV Golf here to stay? Or will it go the way of the XFL and other failed startups?

I think so. History’s replete with new leagues that make it. You basically need three components. You need a television contract, which they have (internationally). You need venues that can host a sport, which they have. And you need available talent, which they have. 

Their funding seems to be inexhaustible…So I guess the point is that as long as they’re willing to continue funding, even though they’re losing money, then I think they’ll stand the test of time. Because what inevitably will happen is they’ll attract more golfers…The point is that eventually people will follow the money. And if they’re giving bigger purses or guarantees, they’re inevitably going to get a higher level of golfer and become competitive. So I do think it can be around. 

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It’s just what is the tolerance of the Saudis for initial losses? I’ve never understood the economics of golf anyway. It seems to me that golf primarily exists — at the amount of [TV] programming — because wealthy men like to be involved with it in their own corporations. 

Because you can’t justify the ratings, given their amount. But anyway, I do think they’re going to survive. I do think they can tolerate the losses. And I do think they’ll inevitably attract higher talent. 

Now the Saudis are making deals with the Russians. But if their checks still cash, I’m not sure that golfers are the most socially conscious group on the face of the earth. 

How do you think former President Donald Trump’s involvement will impact the competition between LIV and the PGA Tour?

Given that the politics of most golf fans is fairly conservative, I don’t think it will have much effect either way. … And a lot of those people are the people that benefited from the (Trump) tax break.

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