Leigh Steinberg has witnessed no shortage of changes to the sports business world since his career began nearly 50 years ago.
The real-life inspiration for “Jerry Maguire,” Steinberg has represented the top overall selection in the NFL Draft a record eight times. His first client was Steve Bartkowski, for whom Steinberg inked a then-record deal after Bartkowski was selected first in the 1975 NFL Draft. From Troy Aikman to Steve Young, Steinberg’s clients have gone on to populate the annals of NFL history.
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But for all the sports super-agent has observed, he doesn’t mince words when it comes to the transformative impact the legality of name, image and likeness deals has on college sports, and the sports business at large.
“[NIL] changes forever the business of sports agentry and how it’s conducted,” Steinberg said.
The NCAA’s decision to give NIL deals the green light has had a “massive amount of unintended consequences,” Steinberg says, speaking to The NIL Deal over Zoom from his office in Newport Beach, California. Above Steinberg’s left shoulder is a cereal box depicting Patrick Mahomes — two-time Super Bowl MVP and Steinberg client — preparing to rip one of his signature improbable passes. It’s called “Mahomes Magic Crunch,” a branded form of frosted flakes, from supermarket chain Hy-Vee.
Until recently, only the pros retained the right to become the face of a cereal — or any product, for that matter. But in July 2021, Syracuse’s Buddy Boeheim agreed to a deal to promote cereal brand Three Wishes, becoming the first student-athlete to participate in a traditional ad campaign.
Of course, the implications of the new NIL landscape go far deeper than the ability for student-athletes to vouch for nutritious breakfast options.
Perhaps the most widely publicized element of NIL has been its effect on recruiting, which Steinberg says has “become Star Wars” with the advent of NIL collectives.
The NCAA has been enforcing rules focused on recruitment since the 1950s, with a mind toward equality in opportunity (albeit not outcome). With collectives, third-party organizations that can give money directly to athletes, Steinberg says those efforts come “off the table.”
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The NCAA still prohibits universities from using NIL deals as a recruitment inducement, but numerous coaches and school officials have expressed frustration at what they perceive as misconduct at rival institutions.
In a move perceived to be in response to widespread dissatisfaction, the NCAA recently loosened its standard of review to enable it to more easily investigate potential infractions. But so long as big-money boosters are able to funnel funds toward athletes, even above board, Steinberg believes the consolidation of talent toward the top level of college sports will only grow.
“It’s going to create much more of a have/have not situation between major college athletic programs, that will now be able to aggregate not only the high school to college [pipeline], but also the Transfer Portal,” Steinberg said.
NIL also “dramatically” alters the timeline for sports agents dealing with athletes, Steinberg said.
In the past, agents would typically begin to make contact with prospective NFL talent around their junior year of college. But with student-athletes now able to strike NIL deals in college (or even high school), Steinberg says the timeline has shifted forward by “three or four years,” as professional agents compete to build relationships with players at a younger age.
In a turn that has come as a surprise to some, agents aren’t just competing for the top class of student-athletes.
While NIL deal valuation still tends to privilege the elite in their sport, like quarterbacks in a Power 5 conference with NFL potential, there has been a considerable amount of NIL money around for student-athletes in the secondary tiers.
“The 15th best player at the University of Alabama might not be quarterback, but he still has value to someone in Tuscaloosa or someone in Alabama, and could still get [NIL deals],” Steinberg said.
There was similar concern that NIL money wouldn’t spread to women’s athletics, but that too has proved unfounded, Steinberg said, particularly in televised or Olympic sports.
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And then there are the unconventional, zany NIL deals that have found their way to student-athletes of various notoriety — like fast-food chain Jack in the Box partnering with a slew of players with some form of “Jack” in their name.
In other words, you no longer need to be a two-time Super Bowl MVP to get your face on a cereal box.
“[NIL] has been much broader in its aspect, and it’s not particularly surprising,” Steinberg said. “Right behind the NBA and the NFL in popularity is college basketball and college football, so it’s branding.”