SBJ/October 8 - 14, 2001/Labor Agents

Firms pant for Shaq after split with agent

Shaquille O'Neal has parted ways with agent Leonard Armato, leaving one of the top talents in all of sports without representation.

O'Neal, who generated revenue in the neighborhood of $300 million in salary, endorsements and entertainment ventures during his 10 years with Armato, would be the prize of any agent or representation firm.

"After an incredible 10-year business relationship where we have broken new ground in sports, marketing and entertainment, Shaquille and I have decided that the best course of action is for Shaq to establish a separate internal organization to focus full-time on his professional affairs," Armato said in a statement.

The breakup is sure to send shock waves through the athlete representation business. Sources said executives of many of the country's top sports agencies are desperately trying to reach O'Neal with proposals.

"Everyone has called," said a source close to the player, who added that while O'Neal might forge a relationship with another agency for future marketing, the star was not seeking a new exclusive arrangement. "Shaq is very independent."

Attempts to reach O'Neal for comment were unsuccessful, but the source close to O'Neal described the split as "amicable" and said it did not involve any plan by O'Neal to sign with another sports agency. The separation was more a matter of O'Neal and Armato "growing apart," said the source.

Lester Knispel, O'Neal's longtime business and financial manager, and Mike Parris, O'Neal's uncle and business adviser, will continue to be involved in his business affairs, sources said. Neither man would comment for this story.

O'Neal will continue to have business dealings with Armato, who in the last year negotiated several multiyear marketing deals for O'Neal, including deals with Official Starter Properties, Nestlé Crunch, Digex, Ford, Swatch, Field of Dreams, Topps and Midway (see accompanying chart). There's been industry speculation in the last few weeks that Armato was close to a major endorsement deal with a company in the fast-food category.

"While we may have accomplished many great things together, it is a perfect time for us both to explore other opportunities," Armato said.

Armato's Manhattan Beach, Calif.-based Management Plus Enterprises Inc. also represents WNBA MVP Lisa Leslie and boxing glamour boy Oscar De La Hoya. He had represented O'Neal since the 1992 NBA draft, when O'Neal was picked No. 1 by the Orlando Magic as a junior out of Louisiana State University.

Management Plus officials "are working diligently to assist Shaquille in this transition, including providing him with one of our employees," Armato said. "I will always be his friend and available to him for whatever he needs."

Armato may be best known in the sports world for conducting a bidding war between the Lakers and the Magic that resulted in O'Neal joining Los Angeles in a $120 million, seven-year deal that in 1996 was the largest contract in professional sports. Last year Armato negotiated a three-year extension with the Lakers worth $88.5 million.

Armato also became the owner of the Association of Volleyball Professionals (AVP) in August.

One blemish on the record of success was the failure of dunk.net, an Internet company that Armato and O'Neal started in early 2000 to sell apparel and footwear, but that went out of business in the dot.com crash.

The source close to O'Neal said the failure of the shoe and apparel company had nothing to do with the breakup with Armato. In May, Armato negotiated a new multimillion-dollar, multiyear deal with Starter.

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