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Sports Stars and Hollywood Celebs--Why America Loves Them All the Way to the Bank

Two Agents Explain What It Is You're Feeling From the Cheap Seats to the Box Office

August 18, 1996|MICHAEL WALKER

If there were any doubts that the sports and entertainment businesses are becoming indistinguishable, look no farther than the now-legendary contract Shaquille O'Neal signed last month with the Lakers. The Schwarzenegger-ian hugeness of the deal--$120 million over seven years to the ubiquitous product endorser, movie-star-in-training, and, almost incidentally, star center and former Orlando Magic raison d'etre--must have seemed uncomfortably familiar to the entertainment conglomerates now running Hollywood. * The Shaq deal is merely the most humongous manifestation of a new reality transforming both Hollywood and professional sports: Talent rules. Want to fill your stadium, Mr. Team Owner? Want a boffo summer hit, Mr. Studio Chief? Fine. Fork over-- really fork over--for the talent. * In a marketplace crowded with new media ravenous for sports and entertainment programming, talent is now the currency of the realm. True, recent star-driven movies (think "The Cable Guy," "Striptease") foundered at the box office while special-effects monsters like "Twister" and "Independence Day" practically minted money. And there are rumblings that free agency is making millionaires out of mediocre players while decimating teams unwilling to pony up for superstars real or imagined. But longterm, the clout of talent is only expected to grow. * At the center of this art-of-the-deal maelstrom are the deal-makers themselves--the agents. We invited one each, from pro sports and Hollywood, to power-lunch on our tab and chew over the cross-pollination between their industries. * Sports attorney Leigh Steinberg, based in Newport Beach, has negotiated record-setting contracts for an array of NFL quarterbacks, including Troy Aikman, and just signed Olympic gymnast Kerri Strug. He's also the inspiration (O synergy) for the movie "Jerry Maguire," starring Tom Cruise, slated for release in December. Arnold Rifkin, agent to Bruce Willis and Sylvester Stallone, is head of the William Morris Agency's resurgent motion picture department. MICHAEL WALKER, an editor at the magazine, moderated their conversation at Mortons over beverages sweetened with so many packets of Equal the waiter had to bring more.

BECAUSE, DOGGONE IT, PEOPLE LIKE ME

Leigh Steinberg (to Rifkin): Why is the public more angry about athletic salaries than they're angry about movie star salaries?

Arnold Rifkin: I don't know that they are.

LS: Every talk-radio show on sports, every indices of opinion we have indicate the fans are angry. And yet, no one's angry because Tom Cruise will make $20 million for "Jerry Maguire," or Sylvester Stallone, or Bruce Willis--I know you've negotiated for them.

AR: Maybe it isn't demonstrated as much, because we don't advertise what the salaries are. The top of the sports page, my little awareness of, says: "New contract for such and such a player, he will earn X dollars over the course of the next three or five years." It's really played up. Where there's an effort to not play it up in our business.

LS: Except there's an increasing awareness of the economics of star compensation in the entertainment and Hollywood world. In the old days, we didn't see "Top Grossing Movies," "Top 10 Videos."

AR: (nods): It's on your local news--the weekend box office is reviewed on Sundays.

LS: So obviously there's a fascination somewhere because someone is reading this, and the public is responding. The problem in sports is that people think of it as a game: How can someone make that much money playing what, after all, is a fun game? I'm not sure how many people think they can act like Sylvester Stallone, but everybody thinks that they can play sports. If the median income in this country is $37,000, when an athlete is crying because he's only getting a million six instead of a million eight a year, that strikes fans as totally insensitive.

AR: But look at the difference: When I negotiate for a movie, that's a 10- or 12-week schedule, then it's a year before you see it. And that's it. Troy Aikman plays for a team where a whole bunch of people live and depend upon that he create his significance as quarterback so that team sustains championships. Now, the angst that they have when that player's not performing well or the team isn't doing well--and they have all this information prior about how much he's earning--they begin to make a judgment about that person's value, where I'm almost forgiven for films that don't work when I have the one that works. Because that eliminates the memory bank.

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