Comeback Of A Sports Superagent

Leigh Steinberg is a player again after a nasty lawsuit nearly killed his business

Dressed in baggy shorts, Nikes, and a tennis shirt testing the strength and stretch of the fabric, Leigh W. Steinberg, the onetime king of sports agents, is holding court. His office, with a sweeping view of Newport Beach, Calif., is a testimony to deals done and celebrities schmoozed: Dozens of footballs signed by former clients litter coffee tables. TVs are everywhere, all tuned to ESPN. Then there are the pictures -- Steinberg with Henry Kissinger, with Oliver Stone, with former President George H.W. Bush.

There also used to be a poster on the wall that read: "Ten reasons why Drew Bledsoe will kick you in the butt." That was before Buffalo Bills quarterback Bledsoe added another by taking the stand in a nasty 2001 court case that pitted Steinberg against a handful of agents who broke away from his firm. Relying partly on the testimony of disgruntled former client Bledsoe, the suit -- which Steinberg won and which the breakaway group is now appealing -- portrayed him as a drunk, public lout, and out-of-control womanizer who had lost touch with some clients and embarrassed others.

Now the 54-year-old Steinberg is staging a dramatic comeback. When the National Football League conducts its draft on Apr. 24, Steinberg, who has represented seven NFL first-round draft picks in a 30-year career, will have at least six clients who could be chosen in the first three rounds. One is Miami of Ohio quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who may be among the top three picks.

Not that it has been easy. Steinberg's agency lost more than half its 86 clients when junior partner David Dunn quit to start his own firm, Athletes First, in 2001. And in a business where mothers entrust their behemoth sons to dealmakers they've just met, bad reputations die hard. "Agents were smiling about [his problems] and taking shots at him," says rival agent Gary Wichard. "This can be a sick business."

Cordel Harris, whose 6-foot, 7-inch, 320-pound son Kwame signed with Steinberg last year and now plays for the San Francisco 49ers, says rival agents talked trash about Steinberg, but he won her over anyway. "He just spoke from his head and his heart," she says. It helped that he showed up in jeans and a T-shirt, instead of the typical agent's $1,000 suit.

The new crop of potential draft picks will help Steinberg's depleted practice, which gets 3% for negotiating contracts. So will such off-season deals as the seven-year, $43 million contract he signed for Jacksonville Jaguars quarterback Mark Brunell to play for the Washington Redskins.

But Steinberg wants to take his practice even higher. "I'm in the content business," he says, and he is pushing to find new businesses. He says he has optioned the rights to make a movie about onetime high school basketball phenom Spencer Hayward and has been shopping -- so far without luck -- a TV show called Sports Wars, in which stars would take on other contestants in physical tests. And in a bid to find the next Yao Ming, the Houston Rockets' star center, Steinberg is spending $10 million to create a sports academy in Beijing that will nurture basketball, soccer, and golf players.

That all sounds promising. But the last time around, as Steinberg's attention wandered from his clients, they wandered off. He admits there was some truth to the allegations about his conduct, "but it was exaggerated for the purposes of the trial." Chastened by the mass defection and having undergone counseling, Steinberg says he won't repeat those mistakes.

For the wide-eyed University of California at Berkeley Law School grad who jumped into the agent business by winning a $600,000 contract from the Atlanta Falcons for Steve Bartkowski, the NFL's top draft in 1975, the ride up was fast, the trip down even quicker. Now, Leigh Steinberg wants to prove he can still show them the money.

By Ronald Grover in Los Angeles

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