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The Deal Makers

by Paul Wilner

The Bay Area is best known these days as the epicenter of the digital revolution. But it’s also home to sports teams that inspire die-hard fandom: the Golden State Warriors, the San Francisco Giants and 49ers, the Oakland A’s and Raiders. While Steph Curry, Jimmy Garoppolo and Marshawn Lynch score points—and publicity—on the court and field, some of the world’s most prominent superagents work behind the scenes to make sure their athletes earn top dollar. A trio of local heavyweights, including Leigh Steinberg, the inspiration for Jerry Maguire, reveal how they play the game.

Leigh Steinberg

It’s been a long, strange trip indeed for the superstar sports agent, but he wouldn’t have it any other way.

Leigh Steinberg
Leigh Steinberg

Steinberg famously inspired the 1996 Tom Cruise-starrer Jerry Maguire, a tale of career suicide turned redemption wrapped in a romantic comedy, and helped Cameron Crowe prepare for the film by taking the director (and former Rolling Stone writer) to NFL draft events and 49ers games. He went through a rough period a while back, when he was plagued by personal and professional problems, including a bout with alcoholism and painful litigation with former partners. (He prevailed in court, but it was an ugly split). After bottoming out with the loss of his marriage, and having to file for bankruptcy, by 2010, Steinberg, who is nothing but resilient, was determined to turn his life around through a stint in rehab and ongoing A.A. meetings.

These days, he’s back in action as CEO of Steinberg Sports and Entertainment—this story, like Maguire’s, has a happy ending—with clients including Green Bay Packers running back Aaron Jones, Denver Broncos quarterback Paxton Lynch, Kansas City quarterback Patrick Mahomes and a slew of NFL draft picks.

He waxes nostalgic about his days as the fearless student body president at UC Berkeley, where he crossed paths with Jim Morrison and Jimi Hendrix and confronted then-Governor Ronald Reagan.

“It was 1970, and classes had moved off-campus to protest the killings at Kent State and the bombing of Cambodia, and the chancellor was in jeopardy because Reagan was furious about it,” he recalls. “I went to defend him in front of the Board of Regents, and Reagan said, ‘Aren’t you the same Steinberg who was arrested for sitting in front of troop trains?’ I said, ‘Governor, I would have been 10 years old at the time, so this shows your penchant for distorting the truth.’”

After graduating from Berkeley Law and flirting with a job possibility in the Alameda County District Attorney’s office, Steinberg became a sports agent almost by accident. He was friendly with Steve Bartkowski, a star quarterback at Cal who asked Steinberg to represent him when he became the first-round pick in the NFL draft. Despite his inexperience, Steinberg navigated the draft to win Bartkowski “what was then the biggest rookie contract in NFL history,” signing with the Atlanta Falcons.

In the fast-paced world of agenting, a blood sport in itself, Steinberg felt a responsibility to use his newfound position for good.

“My dad had two core values—one was to treasure relationships, especially family, and the other was to try to make a positive difference in the world,” he says.

Toward that end, Steinberg picked clients to represent who shared his vision and had an interest in creating charitable foundations and supporting high school and college scholarships. “I saw that these athletes could be role models and had the capacity to trigger imitative behavior, especially with youth,” he says, referring to PSAs by former clients Lennox Lewis (“Real Men Don’t Hit Women”) and Oscar De La Hoya and Steve Young (“Prejudice Is Foul Play.”)

“I had a redwood and glass house in the Berkeley hills for years, and besides athletes I was representing Bay Area newspeople and anchors like Wayne Walker, Suzanne Saunders, Dave McElhatton and Ross McGowan and Ann Fraser. It got to the point where every time you turned on the television, you saw one of my clients,” recalls Steinberg, now based in Newport Beach. “Between the newspeople and the athletes, I’d go out to dinner all the time—we were regulars at Perry’s, and a restaurant Joe Montana owned.”

In 1992, he worked with former Mayor Frank Jordan to keep the Giants from moving to Florida.

“Frank called me and said the team had just signed a binding sales agreement with a group in Tampa–St. Petersburg, and asked if I had any ideas about how to resist it,” Steinberg says. “It struck me as wrong—how could a team claim to be a civic treasure, with an implied allegiance to loyal fans, then just move? So I flew up to the Bay Area and spent time trying to convince people it was not a fait accompli, then ended up calling Larry Baer, who was a friend from Cal and seemed a logical person to put together a group to try to stop it.”

Jeff Sperbeck

Sports has always been a family affair for Sperbeck, who was born and raised in Sacramento, where his late father, Dick, was a high school football coaching legend. He was quarterback at Jesuit High School in Sacramento; his brother Marshall also quarterbacked at Christian Brothers and then Valley High School before coaching for Foothill College and Sacramento State. And his sister, Stacey, married another hometown boy, former New York Jets quarterback Ken O’Brien.

Jeff Sperbeck
Jeff Sperbeck (right) and Mike Sullivan

Still, after graduating from Cal Poly with a degree in marketing, Sperbeck wasn’t sure of his career course. He and a friend wound up crashing for free at the Atherton home of Oakland Raider great Jim Plunkett, a friend of a friend and a future client, while Plunkett was out of town. (“He put us on scholarship,” Sperbeck laughs.)

He returned to Sacramento, thinking he’d try commercial real estate, but his heart wasn’t in it. So he moved across the country to join a small sports marketing firm in New York. Missing California, he relocated back to the Bay Area to start the CLS Sports agency, picking up clients such as Niners greats Ronnie Lott and Roger Craig. That in turn led to a long-lasting professional relationship with famed Denver Broncos quarterback John Elway.

The business continued to grow. In 1994, he partnered with Mike Sullivan—who had previously partnered with Leigh Steinberg—to form the firm Sullivan & Sperbeck, which they sold to Octagon Football seven years later. But the enterprise was becoming a behemoth. By 2009, Sperbeck decided to leave Octagon and founded The Novo Agency, representing the likes of former 49ers running back LaMichael James and New England Patriots wide receiver Brandin Cooks.

“Life is funny, and it teaches you lessons along the way,” he notes. “As a young man, I didn’t want to get into coaching. My dad was a coach, I had uncles who were coaches, and I thought I’d do something else. But things circle back. Ultimately, I became a kind of life coach, helping players deal with things—not just contracts or marketing deals, but aspects of their personal lives, guiding them through the trials and tribulations of having a lot of money, the challenges of relationships and their finances post-career.”

He has partnered with Elway to cofound the winery 7 Cellars Wines and the firm Next Play Capital, which guides athletes investing in the brave new technological world. Lott’s son, ex-NFL linebacker Ryan Nece, is the managing director of Next Play Capital. (Sperbeck: “I remember playing catch with him at the Pro Bowl when he was 10 years old.”) Lott and Elway each have managing ownership stakes in the venture capital firm.

“Ronnie is someone who’s helped me immensely and I’m grateful to him in so many ways,” he says. “We’ve become godparents to each other’s children and spent Christmas together. He’s taught me about philanthropy, being giving and just being a great person.”

In his spare time, Sperbeck has taken up a new hobby: wedding officiant. Recently, he flew to Seattle to preside over the nuptials of friend and client Danny Shelton, a nose tackle for the Cleveland Browns. Previously, he had helped Atlantic Falcon coach Greg Knapp and his wife get hitched. Sperbeck muses: “I have another happy couple.”

Doug Hendrickson

Hendrickson plays in the bigs.

He’s co-president of the football division at Independent Sports & Entertainment, where he reps names like Oakland Raiders running back Marshawn Lynch and Super Bowl-winning Philadelphia Eagles linebacker Mychal Kendricks. He’s also helped San Francisco-born defensive end Dion Jordan of the Seattle Seahawks recover from drug and alcohol addiction.

Doug Hendrickson
Doug Hendrickson

The affable agent, who was born in Cupertino and studied marketing at San Jose State, is clear about his priorities. “Look, when I got into this thing I realized I had to hold on to my core values,” he stresses. “When I was getting into this business—even back then you heard horror stories—I realized that if can make a difference in clients’ lives in terms of helping them in every aspect of their careers, and focus on post-career money management to make sure they do the right things, then I’ve done my job.”

He takes special pride in turning around players’ lives.

“Marshawn was a kind of young, untrustworthy kid when I signed him, and now he’s at a point where he’s built a business empire, hasn’t spent his money and is doing great things on and off the field. I try to pick players who are like-minded and want my guidance,” he says, adding, “In this business, you have to be a no guy. These people have heard yes all their lives. They need someone who’s going to tell them the truth.”

Hendrickson comes by his sports roots honestly. His cousins, Jim and Keith Fahnhorst, played for the 49ers in their heyday, and he grew up meeting legends like Joe Montana and Ronnie Lott and attending home games and Super Bowls. He played basketball and baseball at San Jose State, but when he realized his dream of going professional wasn’t going to happen, his former college roommate, Johnny Johnson—a star running back for the Arizona Cardinals and New York Jets—put him in touch with his agent, Jim Simms, who hired Hendrickson in 1993.

Eight years later, he joined Octagon Sports, which represents Steph Curry, among other megastars. He left in 2014 to work at Relativity Sports and then ISE. According to Hendrickson, being stationed in the Bay Area is now seen as a tactical advantage, as opposed to a possible demerit.

“Hollywood used to be a big attraction, but now the evolution is toward Silicon Valley—tech, software, VC firms, hedge funds,” he says. “This is a melting pot for the brightest and wealthiest minds in the world. So if an athlete wants to tap into that, it’s all here. I tell the athletes when I recruit them that football is not a career—it’s an opportunity. It gives you the chance to meet the right people to figure out what you want to do with the rest of your life.”

Hendrickson and his clients wine and dine with everyone from Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom to former Google guru Marissa Mayer.

Justin Tuck played 12 years for the Raiders and Giants, played in two Super Bowls and five Pro Bowls, and then decided to go to Wharton School of Business to get his Masters,” he notes with pride. “Now he just got offered a big job at Goldman Sachs and is calling me about other ways to build his second career up. Those are the kinds of things I get really excited about.”

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