SBJ/March 20 - 26, 2006/Forty Under 40
Published March 20, 2006
VAN WAGNER SPORTS GROUP
By Terry Lefton
• Age: 34
• Title: President
• Company: Van Wagner Sports Group
• Education: B.A., history, Cornell University, 1993
• Family: Wife, Alyson; daughter Charlie, 2
• Career: Started at Athletes & Artists, which became The Marquee Group and then merged with SFX; was senior director of sponsorship sales and talent marketing at SFX Sports Group from 1993-2000; was vice president of business development for Sportscapsule Inc. from 2000-2001; hired as COO of Van Wagner in 2002; named president in 2003.
• Last vacation: Ocean Club, Paradise Island, the Bahamas
• Last book read: “War and the Engineers” by Keir Lieber
• Last movie seen: “Curious George”
• Pet peeve: Being late or unprepared. It makes me uncomfortable.
• Greatest disappointment: Seeing such a great team of people at SFX Sports Group unravel so quickly
• Fantasy job: Playing shortstop or center field for the Yankees
• Business advice: Know what you don’t know and don’t apologize for not knowing everything.
If ever there was proof that there's just one degree of separation in the business of sports, it's Mike Levine's success as president of Van Wagner Sports.
Levine knows everyone in the business because everyone wants to know him. He succeeds, not because of polish, guile or bluster — three elements fueling most salesmen. He's simply a loquacious, affable guy who can put a prospective client at ease in minutes. That means they are more likely to say yes to the guy everyone calls "Vino."
"No one in the business considers him a competitor, and none of his clients consider him a salesman," said Jordan Bazant, a partner in the New York-based sports marketing firm The Agency. "He's a resource."
Levine's been working in sports sales since his first year at Cornell, when his lacrosse coach assigned freshmen to sell programs at football games. An internship in CBS's media relations steered him to the business side of sports and he started at Art Kaminsky's Athletes & Artists in June 1993, without a desk or chair to call his own.
Levine scored early successes by helping land former Princeton running back Keith Elias and then persuading Team USA and Team Canada to do card sets with Fleer before the 1994 Winter Olympics. Soon after, he was A&A's director of marketing. Early on, he tried to hide his youth from clients such as Bill Walton and Chris Berman by dealing with them solely by telephone.
"When we finally met, I couldn't believe he was in his 20s," said Berman, who worked with Levine from 1993 to 2000. "Vino is just a guy people enjoy being around and his love of life and people are obviously serving him well in business."
As A&A merged with SMTI to form The Marquee Group, which later became part of the SFX Sports conglomerate, Levine got experience with property, media and sponsorship sales. With the Internet bug raging, he joined Sportscapsule.com, a startup that offered customized highlight reels.
Many Sportscapsule staffers watched the tragedy of Sept. 11, 2001, unfold from the company's offices on 12th Avenue; the business closed soon after. Levine took a consulting gig with Marquis Jet and tried to sell a fractional jet ownership to Richard Schaps, CEO and founder of Van Wagner Communications. Instead, Schaps hired Levine to help sell Dorna rotational sports signage.
Levine realized early on that selling Dorna was really selling national TV ads. Layering on more traditional sports marketing, along with incremental media and property sales for the likes of the PRCA, U.S. Ski and Snowboard, and USA Gymnastics, the business grew. A recent triumph was selling Allstate-branded nets behind the stanchions at 55 colleges — getting Van Wagner into college football for the first time.
Overall, the business has grown 500 to 600 percent since Levine joined. He was named president in December 2003.
For future growth, Van Wagner is counting on new media sales and developing advertising and sponsorship opportunities in the video-game market.
"We're not just a rotational signage company anymore," Levine said. "We're a national sports sales organization. That gives us a lot of room to grow."