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Leinart Aims for the Stars

USC quarterback chooses celebrity-driven Creative Artists Agency to represent him. He'll pick another agent to negotiate his NFL deal.

January 10, 2006|Greg Johnson | Times Staff Writer

USC quarterback Matt Leinart, who's been known to hang with stars when he's not tossing footballs, signed Monday with Creative Artists Agency, the powerful firm that represents many of Hollywood's top actors, directors and writers.

The latest step in Leinart's transition from college football star to NFL rookie -- along with his friendships with such Hollywood celebrities as Nick Lachey -- also illustrated the continued blurring of the imaginary line that separates the high-powered worlds of sports and entertainment.

Leinart plays a pro-style offense and he's already mingling with the show biz crowd, said Bob Dorfman, the creative director at Pickett Advertising in San Francisco and author of the Sports Marketers' Scouting Report. "He's got Hollywood good looks, and he's already proven himself in terms of camera presence and the ability to stay cool under the lights," Dorfman said.

Though known largely for representing such stars as Angelina Jolie and Julia Roberts, CAA also represents a handful of athletes, including skateboarding tycoon Tony Hawk and surfer Laird Hamilton. CAA spokesman Michael Mand cautioned against assuming that the talent agency plans to expand into the sports arena: "We don't have a sports department; that's not what this is about."

But CAA, which will handle product endorsements, licensing deals and charitable ventures for Leinart, recognizes that some athletes have significant marketing potential. Earlier this decade, the Beverly Hills-based agency explored a strategic partnership with IMG, the Cleveland-based sports marketing giant that represents such stars as golfer Tiger Woods.

Hollywood agents also have a history of representing athletes; super-agent Norman Brokaw signed gold-medal swimmer Mark Spitz after the 1972 Summer Games. The 108-year-old William Morris Agency, like CAA, is known for its Hollywood connections, but it also represents Michelle Wie, Phil Jackson, Oscar De La Hoya and Serena Williams.

Steve Clarkson, a Pasadena-based athlete trainer who has worked with Leinart for years and introduced him to CAA executives, said Monday the agency would handle marketing details -- pure and simple: "He's not going with them to do acting in film or television."

CAA is "incredibly enthusiastic about working with this special guy who clearly has pop culture currency," said CAA executive Steve Lashever, who handles commercial endorsements. "We'll be exploring many opportunities to see what will be appropriate for Matt."

Leinart's value to the NFL franchise that will draft him in April isn't yet known, in part because junior quarterback Vince Young has made himself available for the draft. Young led Texas to the national championship last week with a victory over USC in the Rose Bowl. Meanwhile, at USC, the campus was still buzzing on Monday about whether Heisman Trophy winner Reggie Bush, Rose Bowl standout LenDale White and other star underclassmen would turn professional.

Last year's top pick, quarterback Alex Smith, signed a $49.5-million contract that guaranteed him $24 million.

Leinart's role model, though, might be Indianapolis Colt quarterback Peyton Manning, a successful athlete and pitchman who earns a reported $42 million a year in salary and endorsement revenue.

Manning ranked third on Forbes magazine's 2004 list of highest-paid athletes, behind Woods and motor racing star Michael Schumacher, who each earned an estimated $80 million.

Leinart's success in the mercurial sports marketing world will be driven by his success on the field, but sports industry executives describe the fifth-year senior as well-positioned in the sports marketing derby.

"Clearly the recognition factor tends to be higher -- multiples higher -- for quarterbacks," player agent Leigh Steinberg said in a recent interview. "The camera starts on the quarterback's face and ends on that player's face. So the general public knows that player more than any other."

But college football fame doesn't immediately translate into marketing riches for every star player.

"We haven't measured him yet, because we usually don't measure until they're out of college and turned pro," said Henry Schafer, executive vice president of Marketing Evaluations Inc., a Manhasset, N.Y., company that tracks the appeal of well-known people. "And, some of us get so focused on an athlete's [fame] within the sports world that we think everyone else knows about them."

Though most athletes sign with an agent who handles their football and sports marketing deals, Leinart has opted to split the duties between CAA and an agent who will be selected in a week or two. That agent will deal with Leinart's upcoming contract negotiations with whatever NFL franchise drafts him.

Talent agents say that today's celebrity fascination helps some athletes to cross over into the marketing business. Tennis star Anna Kournikova has used United Talent Agency to structure off-the-field deals that include endorsements, workout DVDs, a magazine column -- and she is angling for a reality television show.

Bob Leinart, the quarterback's father, said that CAA, the William Morris Agency and Octagon, another sports marketing firm, were attracted to his son by his potential crossover appeal.

"They think Matt can be humongous because of what he's done, how he looks and the whole package," Bob Leinart said. "They think it's a huge crossover market."

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Times staff writers Claire Hoffman and Gary Klein contributed to this report.

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