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Leigh Steinberg on why NIL marks ‘the beginning of the end’ for NCAA

Leigh Steinberg
Photo credit: Courtesy of Leigh Steinberg

Reader’s Note: Part One of The NIL Deal’s conversation with Leigh Steinberg can be found here.

NFL fans know well the on-air cool of Troy Aikman, who for two decades served on FOX’s lead commentator crew before moving to ESPN last season.

This comes as no surprise to Leigh Steinberg, who represented Aikman when the Hall of Fame quarterback was selected first overall by the Dallas Cowboys in the 1989 NFL Draft. Akiman has always been media savvy, Steinberg says, and his know-how extends beyond the commentator’s booth: in the early days of SMS lingo, it was Aikman who received Steinberg’s query regarding what “LOL” was short for.

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“[Aikman] was the first athlete I worked with that mastered social media,” Steinberg told The NIL Deal. “Troy was a computer geek, to a certain extent, and knew how to project onto social media, and trained himself to be completely [media] savvy.”

The first, but not the last. In the current era of college sports, which permits student-athletes to profit off of their name, image and likeness, more players than ever stand to gain financially from leveraging their brand-building skills and digital aptitude.

Aikman, to a degree, had it easy: he was a California kid with an easy smile, a star at UCLA and a high-profile draft pick for “America’s Team.” All he had to do was play; the brand would come. 

Not all of today’s student-athletes are in the same position as Aikman was. But technology has advanced and access to media channels has increased since the 1980s, providing up-and-coming student-athletes the opportunity to find their voice — and share it — all on their own.

From cell phones to iPads to social media, the next generation of star athletes has grown up with content-making tools practically “in their cribs,” Steinberg says.

“They’re completely into the cutting and rhythm of YouTube and TikTok and quick bites of information, they get it,” Steinberg said.

With college sports now firmly in the NIL era, this burgeoning tech literacy comes at an opportune time. While star quarterbacks at high-profile universities have tended to command most of the big-money NIL deals, the door is open for sponsorships and brand partnerships for student-athletes at all levels.

Steinberg, who has represented the top overall pick in the NFL Draft a record eight times, is still looking for college talent with pro potential. But NIL has changed the equation, with agents and marketing companies now taking note of a student-athlete’s marketability at a younger age.

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“The first key,” Steinberg says, “is the character and personality, off the field, of a star on the field.” This may be a student-athlete who is a first of their kind in some way, or is “inherently so media savvy” that they know how to be colorful and engaging when the situation calls for it.

“You’re looking for storytelling, and the ability of that athlete to individualize, to separate themselves out from the mass, and have an interesting story,” Steinberg said.

The new equation also means that Steinberg, now 73, takes a new approach to connecting with prospective clients more than 50 years his junior.

Steinberg restarted his agency in 2014 after several years away from the sports business, inaugurating his return with a book tour that took him to about 50 college campuses.

It was clearly a new generation, and it involved some studying up on his part. Like any good agent would do, it meant being able to put himself in their “hearts and minds,” being familiar with their music and their TV shows, and understanding how they receive information.

With platforms like Twitter and Instagram, it was now possible for Steinberg to engage with student-athletes in an entirely new way. It was “a pretty full restructure of contact,” but that’s fine with him: in recent years, many of the athletes who approach Steinberg are ones who have seen him on TikTok, Steinberg shared.

“You’ve got to be able to teach an old dog new tricks,” Steinberg said.

With NIL marking a turning point for student-athletes off the field, many questions remain regarding enforcement and regulation. The NCAA last week issued its first ruling on an NIL-related infraction, an investigation that began well before the body relaxed its standard for reviewing potential wrongdoing. For many, that ruling raised as many questions as it answered.

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The ruling was issued after Steinberg spoke with The NIL Deal, but Steinberg highlighted a lack of consensus regarding fair recruiting practices as among the NIL-related factors that could be driving college sports toward a world with “no NCAA.”

“I think the Power 5 conferences have the ability to negotiate their own TV deals, and set their own rules,” Steinberg said.

“And I think NIL is the beginning of the end of the NCAA in some ways,” Steinberg added. “They’re going to have to work really hard to stay relevant.”