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Too much ain't enough: Handicapping Shaq's big score

August 18, 1996

Shaquille O'Neal's seven-year, $120-million pact with the Lakers last month set off an orgy of speculation about how the deal would affect salaries throughout professional sports. We corralled agents Steinberg and Rifkin after the signing to get their reactions. Here's what they said:

STEINBERG: First of all, it shows that when they handed out IQ tests for agents back in 1975, I flunked, choosing football and baseball, instead of basketball, as areas of concentration.

The sums are staggering. The negative part is that no one explains to fans how a basketball team can afford these salaries and where the monies are coming from. It also creates a two-tiered status: There will be a class of three or four superstars per team, with the remainder making the minimum [$247,500]. Second, the players are putting a pretty crass face on the signings. We haven't really heard one player say that he's dedicated large amounts to his community or to charities. That damages the tender thread between sports fans and their heroes. It's the height of insensitivity--like Marie Antoinette--to rub these figures into the faces of the fans, to someone who is struggling to pay basic bills.

[O'Neal] walks into this situation as one of the highest-profile athletes with the most endorsements in the country. Playing in Los Angeles will elevate him to an entirely different level, which we're now seeing the start of, where he stops being the favorite of only hard-core sports fans. Remember, very few people have actually seen Michael Jordan play basketball, relative to his commercials. There are millions of people who know Shaquille from his commercials, his rapping and his movies that never saw him with the Magic. There's no question that Shaquille O'Neal will find a shorter span of patience in Los Angeles than in Orlando. Because he's being paid premier dollars, the expectation is going to be NBA championships, and if those don't happen, I'm sure he will hear it. The forbearance for anything less than spectacular performance won't be there.

RIFKIN: Whenever you print someone's salary, you increase the meter-read on their pressure. I certainly am not going to judge Shaquille O'Neal, but this number creates an inordinate amount of expectation. I don't know any human being who would want that pressure. Truly, Shaquille is an industry of enormous proportion. The natural concern with any growing industry is that one doesn't expand without securing all the necessary elements. The only hope is that he's able to fulfill each of those franchises [movies, records, endorsements and basketball] with the proper priority.

We're experiencing something that's indigenous to the '90s regarding the celebrity-ism of athletes--the fact we have Shaquille in films. It's funny: we're watching the Olympics, watching athletes achieve medals, at the same time we're experiencing the extraordinary circumstances of the free-agent season in basketball. Meanwhile, the movie business is experiencing unprecedented numbers. There must be some crossover here, something that's interrelated.

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