Creative Artists Agency has just suffered a major blow. I’m told that Matt Leinart, the Hollywood handsome Arizona Cardinal quarterback who was a USC star and 2004 Heisman Trophy winner, has fired CAA. I first heard a rumor there was trouble in their marketing relationship early this month, but at the time I was assured by sources close to Leinart that he was still in the CAA fold. Today, I received confirmation that Leinart has severed future marketing ties with the Hollywood agency. Interestingly, this is almost a year to the day that I was the first to report that Leinart signed with CAA’s then brand new football agent Tom Condon and, in the process, left Newport Beach sports agent Leigh Steinberg. Stealing Leinart was the first official act of CAA Sports, intent on entering the sports contract business in a big way. At the time, CAA already repped Leinart for marketing deals, but Leinart’s move to Condon brought all of Leinart’s representation, his football contract and all his marketing pursuits (like off-the-field endorsements, licensing, autograph shows and public appearances), under the CAA umbrella.
But, from the start, things didn’t go as planned for Leinart or CAA. At the NFL draft last April 29th, Leinart was expected to be the No. 2 pick behind USC running back Reggie Bush. Instead, Leinart went only 10th pick over all. Nor were the Cardinals anywhere near as high-profile a team as say, the New York Jets, where Leinart had tried out. (High-profile teams mean high-profile endorsements…) As The New York Times later snarked, “In 90 minutes, Leinart had gone from being the cornerstone of a college dynasty to clipboard holder of a team that hasn’t won an NFL championship since 1947.” Then Leinart turned out to be the last first-round pick to reach a contract agreement. He missed two weeks of crucial training camp when he and his agents decided to hold out for a big contract. The fans hated it. The media hated it. The team hated it. Also came news that Leinart had fathered a child out of wedlock and headlines about his highly publicized off-the-field lifestyle of club-hopping. He starred in a Desperate Housewives ad shown during the Super Bowl. He appeared shirtless in People magazine’s “100 Most Beautiful” issue. After the draft, he hosted a raucous party at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, where Paris Hilton danced on a white leather bed. The two were romantically linked and photographed shopping and partying a deux. The Arizona press reported that local speed cameras have caught Leinart’s car 4 times in recent months.
CAA boasted that Leinart, before even playing a down, reportedly had secured marketing deals with Nike, Qwest Communications and the gaming company THQ totalling $5 million. When Leinart finally signed with the Cardinals, Condon told the press it was a six-year deal bringing the rookie up to $51 million, $14 million guaranteed even if he tanks in the NFL. This financial security pacified Leinart’s other football agent, Chuck Price, whose name in addition to Condon’s is reportedly on the standard representation agreement filed with the NFL Players Association. (Price is not with CAA and is still very much in Matt’s life, I’m told; he’s a Leinart family friend.)
Which is why Condon’s taking Leinart away from Steinberg was a deliberate high-profile move that signaled war between CAA and other sports agents. The Hollywood agency de facto declared it was hellbent on going after superstar athletes’ sports contract business, no longer content to just market sports stars. True, athletes can be a valuable source of content supply for motion pictures, television, video games, Internet and marketing. And agents can take an equity position in projects generated for the athletes (who aren’t barred by those pesky Hollywood guild rules that prevent agents from representing talent and simultaneously producing stuff with clients — a conflict of interest that made IMG so wealthy). CAA has learned with Leinart it’s not enough just to sign star athletes: it has to keep them as marketing clients.