SBJ/20090921/This Week's News

Indie-agent for U.S. Open champ savors win

Juan Martin del Potro was not the only underdog triumphant at the U.S. Open Tennis Championships last Monday, with his stunning, five-set upset of heavily favored Roger Federer. Count del Potro’s agent, Ugo Colombini, as an unexpected winner, too.

Operating solo out of Milan, Italy, Colombini, 41, got his start in the business a decade ago with a Florida sports agency that soon after filed for bankruptcy protection, leaving him as a creditor. Since then, Colombini, one of only three people in del Potro’s box during the Open final, has done business with and for a handful of clients, including Victor Hanescu, Juan Monaco and Gilles Muller, along with del Potro. None, however, has been a household name.

With tennis dominated by big agencies like IMG, Octagon and BEST, and newcomers in the business like CAA Sports and Lagardère Sports targeting the sport as well, stand-alone agents are a dying breed. Tennis insiders say it may be unprecedented for the U.S. Open champion’s agent to be someone of Colombini’s pedigree.

Colombini reaches out to Juan Martin
del Potro as the player celebrates
his upset victory.

There is no company to call. It’s just Colombini’s cell phone number.

“It is challenging work, a challenging business. Big companies are involved,” said Colombini, speaking in the lobby of an upscale Manhattan hotel where his client had just met the media the morning after the big win. “Sometimes you get lucky. Let’s put it that way.”

Colombini signed del Potro, 20, when the Argentinean at age 12 was playing on the Nike Junior Tour in his home country. Colombini’s brother, Riccardo, ran Nike’s tennis business at the time, and he credits Ugo with identifying del Potro for the sneaker giant. Despite repeated recruiting entreaties from large agencies wooing del Potro over the years, Colombini kept the shy, 6-foot-6 budding star as a client. In fact, other agents said Colombini is currently talking about moving to IMG with del Potro, talk Colombini does not deny.

“There have been some talks with different companies to try and find some kind of … marketing opportunities,” he said last week, hours after his client’s win. “Those are just talks; nothing is done. For the moment, I am the only agent, and we have the same structures, and there is nothing concrete.”

IMG, which represents Federer, declined to comment.

Ken Meyerson, who runs Lagardère’s fledgling tennis group and who previously headed BEST Tennis, praised Colombini for his hard work.

This year’s U.S. Open set an attendance record for the third consecutive year: 721, 059, up from 720,227 in 2008. The tournament also saw its average viewership on cable increase. This was the first year of ESPN2’s coverage of the event, following USA Network in previous years.
  2009 2008
Men’s final: Avg. rating 2.4 (CBS) 1.7 (CBS)
Women’s final: Avg. no. of viewers 1.828 million (ESPN2) 4.849 million (CBS)
Avg. no. of viewers (cable) 1.004 million (ESPN2) 845,000 (USA)
Avg. no. of viewers: prime-time (cable) 1.479 million (ESPN2) 1.111 million (USA)
NA: Not applicable
Note: Ratings for Tennis Channel’s coverage were not available.
Sources: CBS, ESPN

“It really does amaze me how an independent can single-handedly beat some of the groups who have 10 to 15 full-time agents on payroll,” Meyerson said. “Definitely kudos. I have tried to hire Ugo several times, but [it] never materialized.”

Said another agent, who requested anonymity, “Agents have been lurking around del Potro for awhile, but Ugo has hung on to him throughout.”

In January, del Potro renewed his deals with Nike and Wilson tennis rackets. Colombini declined to disclose the financials, but sources said that with Grand Slam bonuses and top rankings, the deals could be worth millions of dollars annually. With an agent’s cut anywhere between 10 percent to 20 percent, those two contracts could be seen as a financial windfall for Colombini after years of far smaller deals. Del Potro also has endorsements with Sony Ericsson and Pepsi, but just in Argentina.

For Colombini, he’s come a long way from Sports Marketing Consultants, the company he joined in 2000 after a career as a low-level pro on the playing circuit and as a coach. SMC wanted to make a splash in tennis, but it quickly garnered a poor reputation in the sport and ultimately filed for bankruptcy protection in late 2002. The big question for Colombini now is whether del Potro will stay loyal to him, or leave for an agency that can offer global marketing reach.

“For the moment,” Colombini said of his relationship with del Potro, “we are fine.”

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