Casey Wasserman wants to add the 2024 Olympic Games to an impressive list of career achievements. Jonathan Rest caught up with him to discuss the LA24 bid, growing up in Los Angeles and the changing face of the agency business in USA and Europe.
Tying down Casey Wasserman is no easy task. After all, he counts 1,500 of the world’s top sportsmen and women as clients of his Wasserman Media Group, the sports and media company that has enjoyed exponential growth since he founded it in 2002.
If that isn’t enough, he offers his advice and expertise as a board member of numerous influential companies, and plays an active humanitarian role with the Wasserman Foundation. Casey Wasserman: sports agent, businessman, philanthropist. And for the next 18 months, you can add bid leader to the business card.
Wasserman, Los Angeles born and bred, is chairing the bid to bring the Olympic Games back to his city in 2024. And, while sports agents are renowned for being hard negotiators, this was not the case with Wasserman when it came to LA2024.
“For me it was a pretty easy decision,” he tells Sportcal Insight over breakfast (omelette and bacon – extra crispy – for the record) at a five-star London hotel.
“I love, was born and raised, and made my life and career in Los Angeles. I love the city. I’m very passionate about LA and a big believer in the future of Los Angeles. The Olympics were an important part of my childhood. The opportunity to take my skills and relationships, obviously our amazing mayor and his leadership, and put those together to do something that is frankly a once in a lifetime opportunity was really special. I was more than happy to jump in.”
Dealing with multi-million sports stars on a daily basis – some 20 per cent of NBA basketball players are on WMG’s books – Wasserman is arguably the most powerful figure in Californian sport and one of the most well-known figures in the industry across USA.
Now the man who counts the Clintons among his close friends (Tony Blair is an acquaintance) is playing the role of global diplomat, regularly pressing the flesh with International Olympic Committee members.
Sportcal Insight first met Wasserman at a meeting of the Olympic movement in Washington DC in late October, 2015. He spent the week alongside Los Angeles mayor Eric Garcetti meeting with key IOC officials – not with the intention of making an overt LA2024 sales pitch, but just to listen to their demands and concerns.
The Garcetti-Wasserman politician-sports agent double-act made for compelling viewing.
So is the-grey suited world of the Olympic movement one the tanned, good-looking 41-year- old is feeling comfortable in?
“Our business at WMG is a lot broader than just sports stars,” he says. “I understand the business and the language of sport, and I feel very comfortable, at least so far, being in the movement.
“This is about a lot of listening and learning, as opposed to a lot of talking. It’s hard to listen with your mouth open. It’s important. This is the world they live in, they have much more experience than we do, and all we can do from that is benefit and learn.
“This is about connecting with and earning respect and trust individually over a period of time. That is not a process you outsource. That is a process you own.”
The importance of making and retaining relationships is something that was imposed on Wasserman from a young age by his grandfather Lew, fondly dubbed the Last Mogul of Hollywood. Wasserman senior’s influence on his grandson’s life cannot be overstated. Lew played the role of surrogate father to Casey Myers – he later changed his name – following the breakdown of his only daughter’s marriage.
Wasserman is widely considered, even in tight-knit LA circles, a private person, but while he noticeably perks up when pressed on WMG’s future, or the wider sports industry sector, he doesn’t shy away from personal questions about issues that helped shape his life and career.
Of his grandfather’s impact, Wasserman says fondly: “He was, long before I was, keenly aware that I wasn’t going to have a relationship with my father and made a very conscious decision to make a commitment to play that role in my life, and not to play that role in my life some of the time, but all of the time.
“It wasn’t about once a week. It was every day, all day commitment he made for the rest of his life. And that without question was the most incredible thing he did for me. That parental influence is super important.
“Having said that he also happened to be an unbelievably successful businessman and so to be able to have a father figure, a mentor and a friend be such an important part of my life every day for the first 24 years of my life was pretty extraordinary.”
Lew died in 2002, the same year that WMG was formed. The company grew with each new sponsorship deal signed and each new sportsman on the books.
Cynics have suggested that the change of surname to reflect his influential grandfather’s served to open doors for Wasserman junior, but the response is quick, unequivocal: “I waited until I was 18 to change my name because you don’t need parental consent when you’re 18,” he says. “I probably saw my father 20 times in my life. People can be as cynical as they want but there’s not a human being who knew me and my grandfather that didn’t know he was my grandfather, no matter what my name was.”
WMG is now a powerhouse in the sports and entertainment industry, covering athlete management (it is the largest soccer players representation agency in the world), media rights, sponsorship and consultancy.
So did the Wasserman name bring it with added pressure? “There’s nothing I’m more proud of than being his grandson but that is not who I am,” Wasserman says. “Hopefully the work I have done has proven that I am capable of doing my own thing, on my own terms, based on my own work.”
That work has been relentless. Last year alone, WMG was active in 15 countries around the globe, with over 1,885 event days, and negotiated over 150 deals in 53 international markets.
In November 2014, it brokered the largest contract in the history of American sports for Giancarlo Stanton, as the slugging outfielder signed a 13-year, $325-million contract with Major League Baseball’s Miami Marlins.
Seven months later, WMG negotiated the largest contract in NBA history for its client Anthony Davis: $145 million over five years to stay with the New Orleans Pelicans, to be exact.
There’s been success in golf, too, with Australian Jason Day winning his first major, the PGA Championship at Whistling Straits in August.
The plaudits, of course, do not go to Wasserman alone, but he has created a structure in a relatively short timeframe that has enabled his agents to be among the most-revered in world sport. How?
“Part of being a CEO is managing an organisation and managing people. We have 600 people. My job is to identify the most talented, most capable people and managing the businesses we have. I think we have that. Our ability to recruit, retain is based on our culture and our environment and I’m very proud of our track record in that.
“Being a CEO is much more about identifying great people and giving them the opportunity and to create a culture. You can’t be the CEO and remove yourself from the details though. My job is to be a resource, whether that is for good or challenges, and at any time a client, whether that is an athlete or a brand, needs me, I’m available, and if they don’t need me our people are super- talented and more than capable.”
As with all entrepreneurs, the Wasserman CV features some low points. His Los Angeles Avengers franchise pulled out of the Arena Football League, the US indoor American football league, in 2009. There was also a failed project to build an NFL stadium in Los Angeles, despite brokering a $700-million naming rights deal with Farmers Insurance.
For Wasserman, “failure is a part of life.” He continues: “If you are not failing, you are not trying. I don’t spend a lot of time worrying about the past. I’m much more focused on what we are doing today and what we are doing in the future.”
That focus is now very much on growth. “Our business will continue to grow because our people have attracted incredible clients and we need to be able to continue to serve those clients well. The sports business has been fortunate in the last 10 years, and I think that will continue.
“That does not mean there won’t be ups and downs, that’s in every industry, but I think most people would trade places with the sports industry any day of the week given the challenges they face in their industries.”
In November 2014 WMG strengthened its European soccer player representation business with the acquisition of Dutch agency Sport- Promotion – which represents a range of Netherlands international players, such as Daryl Janmaat, Marco van Ginkel and Daley Blind – from Rob Jansen, a respected agent who is also president of the European Football Agents Associations.
It is a model that Wasserman is keen to replicate. “We pride ourselves on sitting in Los Angeles and not being myopic about the world,” he says. “Without question football is the biggest sport in the world. I’m proud of the fact that we are by far the biggest football agent in the world, and yet you can’t do that just by sitting in Los Angeles, and you also can’t do that just by sitting in London.
“Certainly you can manage the business out of London, but to be the biggest soccer agent in the Netherlands, we had to go buy Robbie Jansen’s business and his leadership and position in the marketplace.
“If there are opportunities that are similar to that in other markets, we will absolutely pursue them. It is a very important part of our business and a very meaningful opportunity.”
Wasserman is fiercely defensive of his team and his industry. While agents’ work is sometimes glamorised in USA, where they are regarded as vital cogs in the workings of the sports industry, they are often viewed with suspicion in Europe, principally in soccer, for instigating player transfers or lucrative contract renewals. They are, in many people’s eyes, ‘Mr 10 per cent’.
The perception irks Wasserman. The tone of voice is calm and the pleasantries remain, but the message is direct: “The agents in the UK at the core of our business were part of SFX [the major soccer agency]. SFX was a publicly-traded company, there was a high level of transparency in that kind of business, and I couldn’t be more proud of our football agents here. They are extraordinary talents doing business the right way. Every business has people who do things the wrong way, and I think the only thing you can do is judge people on what they do.
“Our football agents act with honesty and transparency around the world. Bad actors deserve bad reputations, and that is not unique to being a football agent.”
The sports agency business has always been a competitive one, but you get the sense that Wasserman does not spend time worrying about others (if he could even find the time in the day to do so).
He firmly believes that there is only one thing you can control in your life - your own effort. “There’s always going to be lots of competitors,” he says. “We are very focused on our business and how we do our job and if we do those two things well, we’ll continue to be successful, and if we don’t, it doesn’t matter.
“Those two things, frankly, aren’t particularly dependent on our competitors, while at the same time a good competitive marketplace makes everybody better.”
Wasserman expects the sponsorship industry in USA to increase in competitiveness over the next decade as major sports leagues move ever closer to allowing brands to advertise on team jerseys.
Jersey sponsorship has been a successful revenue-driver for European sports teams, but Wasserman warns it is not a one-size-fits-all model that can be easily replicated in North America, where there is an emphasis on equality across all franchises.
He explains: “The challenge is how do you do that in a way that creates value for sponsors, how do you do that in a way that is fair, for example in the NBA, for all 30 teams. It is quite complicated, more complicated than people would probably appreciate. Is it sold locally or nationally? Who owns what inventory? How do you handle pricing competition among teams?
“It is a challenge, but I tell you, in 10 years, I’d be surprised if most professional sports leagues in the US didn’t have some sort of commercial inventory on their uniforms other than the manufacturer.”
While Europe has the upper hand on shirt sponsorship, it has been left some way behind USA when it comes to stadium naming rights deals.
Wasserman is quick to dismiss suggestions that sports fans in Europe are more opposed to commercialisation than their brethren in USA, where there is a long history in franchise relocation.
He interjects: “I don’t think Europe has a reluctance to name stadiums; football teams have car companies on their shirts, which in America is sacrilege. The issue is building a stadium in Europe where development and construction is hard, and facilities have some historic relevance.
“We were involved when they built the Emirates [Arsenal’s stadium in London]. They had to move a waste recycling plant to build a stadium. Look at what is going on in some of these other cities in Europe, where there are big soccer clubs, to build a new stadium, it’s impossible. I mean how long have they been talking about building a new stadium in Milan for those teams, how long have they been talking about a new Stamford Bridge [for Chelsea]?
“It just doesn’t happen easily. That speaks to the market. It is a hard thing to do in Europe. In the US, development and innovation and those things happen in a different pace with stadiums, so when you build a new stadium you put a new name on it.
“I don’t think there is reluctance in Europe to name stadiums. I just think building stadiums in Europe is really hard, even for things as meaningful as soccer clubs.”
Away from the sports field, Wasserman is a board director of numerous California- headquartered organisations, most recently joining Activision Blizzard, one of the world’s largest gaming companies, which has given him first-hand insight into the rapidly-growing eSports sector.
With tournament earnings exceeding those on offer at tennis and golf majors, will the gamer – once the archetypal spotty teenager in his bedroom – need traditional agency representation?
“I think the mistake is to apply the same economic analysis to eSports as you would to maybe a stick and ball sport,” says Wasserman. “Truthfully, the approach and economics of stick and ball sports are different to individual sports, each individual sport is totally different, so you can’t apply those same opportunities.”
While much of his life is spent in airport lounges travelling to his global properties, Wasserman’s loyalty lies in Los Angeles and in contributing to the prosperity of his hometown.
The Wasserman Foundation, set up by grandparents Lew and Edie in 1952, has poured tens of millions of dollars into local causes, covering the education, arts and health sectors. It also funds programmes for the Los Angeles Fire Department and Los Angeles Police.
For a UCLA graduate (B.A in political science), who lives in luxurious Beverley Hills, the philanthropic work is all about giving something back to the community.
Wasserman calls the foundation the “most demonstrable legacy of my grandparent’s life.” He continues: “Giving back in my family was never an optional thing; it was an important and integral part of my life from a very young age. And the ability to be a steward of that as long as I’m alive is one of my greatest responsibilities.
“Our work is mostly focused in Los Angeles and being able to help the community I care about in a very meaningful way is a big responsibility, and I take it very seriously.”
Leaving a legacy
Leaving his own legacy is not something Wasserman is overly concerned about at this stage in life. Taking on the family business is certainly not being pushed on his young son and daughter.
“I was raised by my grandfather who had a no-nepotism policy. His goal for me was always to make my own path, even if it wasn’t the same industry as him, and I want my kids to do the same. If they want to work in the sports industry they are going to have to earn their way. But they should do what they are passionate about.
“The most important thing in life is to find your passion and pursue it with everything you have. Just because I’m passionate about the business of sport doesn’t mean my kids should be.”
Until September 2017, Wasserman will focus his passions on landing the 2024 Olympic Games for his city. As a 10-year-old at the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles, Wasserman was the envy of his school friends. With his grandfather as one of the co-chairs of those games, Wasserman had the chance to carry the Olympic torch, before being “quite active” as a spectator.
How active is ‘quite active’? “The opening ceremony, track and field finals, Mary-Lou Retton winning [five medals in gymnastics], Stefan Edberg in the tennis, baseball at Dodgers stadium.
“It was a magical time in our city and I was lucky to be there as a 10-year-old.”
So for the successful sports agent, businessman and philanthropist, where would ‘Olympics bid winner’ rank in Wasserman’s list of achievements?
“The chance to do something that is truly special and rare in our world is an exciting thing to do,” he says. “I’m not big on ranking things but it would certainly be a massive achievement in my life.”
And when the process is over, will there be a well-earned rest for the self-confessed “home boy” of Los Angeles?
“Well before this Olympic bid, I was training for a half Ironman,” he reflects. “This [LA2024] sort of got in the way a little bit!”