SBJ/May 8-14, 2017/People and Pop Culture

Wasserman’s world

Casey Wasserman’s L.A. story goes far beyond 2024 Games bid

WANT MORE GREAT STORIES LIKE THIS?

CLICK ON ONE OF THESE BUTTONS

ALREADY A
SUBSCRIBER?
SEE IF
YOU LIKE IT
GET IT ALL
(PREMIUM ACCESS)
If you’re part of the campaign to bring the 2024 Olympics to Los Angeles, you’re in the room, or patched in on a conference call. Seventeen employees of LA 2024 are wedged in around a table. As many or more are standing behind them.

The monthly staff meeting is being held on the 10th floor of a Wilshire Avenue office building. Casey Wasserman, the chairman of the organization, sits at the head of a long table. But Wasserman isn’t running the meeting. Looking boyish in a sweater-shirt and gray jeans, he listens quietly as staffers give reports. If you didn’t know he was in charge of the bid, you’d think he was just another staffer.

“It’s past versus future,” someone says about the optics of the bid. “Couldn’t have worked out better.” Wasserman nods. Then a woman standing in the corner holding a coffee mug gives an exuberant update on the publicity effort. “We launched Casey’s video Friday morning,” she says. “It’s performing really well. We have over 300,000 video views and have reached about a million people.” Half-proud and half-embarrassed, Wasserman breaks into a Charlie Brown grin. He throws up his arms in a mock victory salute as the room cheers.

Casey Wasserman at the bid organization’s L.A. headquarters.
Photo by: GETTY IMAGES


Casey Wasserman is known best these days as the face of his home city’s Olympic effort, which has put him in the public eye more than ever before. But the bid campaign is hardly Wasserman’s primary focus. Serving as chairman is a volunteer position; far from getting paid, Wasserman actually has been LA 2024’s single largest financial contributor, donating several million dollars of personal funds. “The Olympic thing is fine,” he says one afternoon in his Westwood office. “But I mean, today I spent literally zero minutes on it.”

Wasserman has more than enough going on without the Games, though much of it isn’t visible to anyone who doesn’t know where to look. He owns no teams and operates no facilities, but his company — formerly Wasserman Media Group and rebranded last year as simply Wasserman — has deep relationships with sports leagues and entertainment entities across the U.S. and around the world. “What people don’t understand is the scale,” Wasserman says. “Roughly 750 employees. We’ll do $210 million of revenue this year.”

“I don’t even consider Casey a sports guy,” says Michael Rapino, the CEO of Live Nation Entertainment, who did two major deals with Wasserman, selling him the SFX sports agency in England and Arn Tellem’s representation business in North America in 2006. “He’s a business guy, an entrepreneur who has built a great business. It has many angles and views to it, which is very hard to do.”

Numbers are important because they’re the best way to gain perspective on a company that seems to be involved, in one fashion or another, in almost everything. According to Wasserman, his company represents more NBA players than anyone else, and more golfers, and as many MLB players, and more soccer players (though that claim has been disputed by rivals): some 2,000 athletes over 40 different sports.

First Look podcast, with Wasserman discussion beginning at the 9:55 mark:


It is strongest in the NBA, where it represents Russell Westbrook and Derrick Rose, and in baseball, where it has Giancarlo Stanton and Nolan Arenado. It represents nearly a third of England’s national soccer team and hundreds of athletes in women’s and action sports. It has a small profile in the NFL, where it represents Andrew Luck and several other All-Pros, but the portfolio drops off sharply after that.

And the representation side of the business isn’t even the more productive one. Some $115 million in revenue this year will come by helping activate relationships with American Express, Pepsi, Microsoft, Nationwide, and other blue-chip clients. In recent months, Wasserman shot a Super Bowl commercial, embedded a client in a television show, renegotiated Anthony Davis’s shoe deal with Nike, and hosted a corporate speed-dating event at the Masters. “There are very few people that I know of who have the relationships with so many different leagues and other sports entities, at a variety of different levels, the way he does,” says NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, who has known Casey for nearly 30 years.

The only grandson of the late Hollywood agent and executive Lew Wasserman, Casey grew up intrigued by the business of sports — and with a grandfather in a position to facilitate that interest. The summer he was 12, Casey lived in Cleveland with Art Modell, who owned the Browns. At 13, he flew to Hawaii to work the Pro Bowl with Goodell, then a 22-year-old NFL executive. He went to the Super Bowl with Pete Rozelle, the NFL commissioner at the time. He palled around with IMG’s Mark McCormack, Lew Wasserman’s best friend.

Perhaps because of that early exposure to the famous and powerful, he’ll pick up the phone and call anyone, whether he knows them or not. And just about everyone will call him back. “I can say confidently that there’s not an executive working in L.A. who wouldn’t take a meeting with Casey,” says Dana Walden, the chairman and CEO of the Fox Television Group, who has been friends with Wasserman’s wife, Laura Ziffren, since they were teenagers. “Mostly that’s because he gets it on such a big level. He would never waste your time. So there’s no door that wouldn’t fly open.”

Like his grandfather, Wasserman thinks big. As an entrepreneur, he’s a matchmaker. He pulls together companies and executives, equities and opportunities, to create value for his clients and his own company where none previously existed. “Casey isn’t necessarily getting the deal done to make that next incremental $100,000 or $1 million,” says NBA commissioner Adam Silver. “He truly is in the business of building relationships.”

Wasserman carries the torch for the LA 2024 Olympic bid at the ASOIF General Assembly in Denmark last month.
Photo by: GETTY IMAGES


LA 2024 has used many of those relationships to position the city as an Olympic frontrunner, whether in 2024 or 2028. For Wasserman, it has also provided a timetable for a career that he has purposefully built to avoid the rhythmic repetition of one season after another that permeates sports. As it did for his distant predecessor, Peter Ueberroth, who used the success of the 1984 L.A. Olympics to become MLB commissioner, an L.A. Games just might provide a pivot point for Wasserman’s professional life.

What does Casey Wasserman want? LA 2024 is helping him find out.

“If we win this Olympic thing,” he says, “I’ll be 50 in 2024. That’s an interesting time to think of a chapter turn. My kids will both be in college. I will have achieved something unique and cool with the Olympics. And the business will either be at a much bigger scale or I will have sold it.”

He pauses. “I think about that,” he says. “I think about that a lot.”

■ ■ ■ ■

On June 5, 1995, when he was 20 years old, Casey Myers hired a lawyer. He drove alone to a courthouse in Santa Monica, where he legally changed his named to Casey Wasserman. “My son changed his name to Wasserman,” Jack Myers told author Dennis McDougal, who wrote “The Last Mogul,” a biography of Lew Wasserman. “I said, ‘Casey, first of all everyone will think you’re a fool if you do that. You look like an idiot.’”

The name change culminated a childhood that was equal parts exhilarating and numbing. Myers, born Meyerowitz, left the family for good when Casey was seven. When Casey was a teenager, Myers and reputed mobster Chris Petti were convicted of money-laundering. But any meaningful relationship Myers had with his son had dissolved long before. “My dad just essentially disappeared,” Casey says, leaning back in his chair. “I think I saw him three times in my life.”

Casey’s mother, Lynne, had grown up as the only child of a famous father. Lew Wasserman was the King of Hollywood, the man credited with creating the star system that came to define the movie industry in the 20th century. He bought Universal Studios and made MCA, originally the Music Corporation of America, a production company. Then he sold it all to Japanese electronics giant Matsushita in 1990 for $6.59 billion. All along, though, his relationship with Lynne was uneasy. “I was unfortunate not to have a son, only a daughter,” Lew once told Los Angeles Magazine.

“My grandparents and my mom had a really complicated relationship, which a lot of times put me in the middle,” Casey explains. “They would take me on vacation, they wouldn’t take her. They would include me in things when they wouldn’t include her. Which made for, as you can imagine, all sorts of complicated situations.”

Casey’s half-sister, Carol, processed the tumult at home in a way that led her to a career in comedy. For Casey, the answer was compartmentalizing. “I’m really good at that,” he says. “I’m not saying it’s the healthiest way to deal with things, but that’s how I learned to do it.”

Fortunately, he had a mentor. It became clear to Lew Wasserman that Casey wouldn’t ever have a father, “not in any traditional sense of the word,” Casey says. “So my grandfather made a conscious decision to be that in my life.”

Lew Wasserman was 60 when Casey was born. He was at the height of his powers. Yet every Saturday and Sunday when both were in Los Angeles, Lew would pick him up at 8 a.m. and take him to breakfast at the Hollywood canteen Nate ’n Al, a Jewish deli. As Casey matured, Lew would go to his Little League games and then his tennis matches at the Brentwood School. He’d leave MCA at 4 o’clock (with no cell phones in those days to stay connected) and inevitably arrive on time.

Lew brought Casey to meetings, introduced him to famous people, and treated him like the son he’d never had. “A hundred percent of the people I see today who say ‘I loved your dad,’ they’re talking about my grandfather,” Casey says. “They have no idea. Nobody knew I had a dad. No one who ever said ‘I loved your dad’ means Jack Myers. Zero.”

Wasserman (in 2000) impresses observers with qualities that his grandfather, movie mogul Lew Wasserman, displayed as one of the most powerful men in Hollywood.
Photos by: GETTY IMAGES
 
But Lew wasn’t his father. “He never had to punish me for a bad grade,” Casey says. “He was enough of a father without having to do the shitty father stuff like, ‘You’re grounded.’ I was very lucky in that sense.” Casey was free to hero-worship his grandfather, and absorb his work ethic and his business sense by osmosis. With his grandfather nearing 80, Casey wanted to stay home for college. “I didn’t know if he’d be alive four more days or 15 more years,” he says. At UCLA, he started a company that made T-shirts and hats with his childhood pal James Perse, now one of America’s top designers, who had dropped out of Denison University in Ohio and moved back home.

After Lew Wasserman sold MCA to Matsushita, he became one of America’s richest men. He was contractually bound to MCA after the sale, and the company had a no-nepotism policy, but that suited Casey fine. “I wanted to get my Ph.D. in sports,” he said. “To do that, I felt like I had to do something. I couldn’t just tell my grandfather, ‘Oh, invest in this.’ You don’t learn anything that way. And I wanted to make a reputation. Good or bad, I wanted to be judged by my actions.”

With his grandfather’s backing, Casey applied for a Los Angeles franchise in the Arena Football League. In October 1998, the team — the Avengers — was approved. “And they said, ‘OK, see you in April of 2000,’” he says. “And I was kind of like, ‘Now what?’”

He didn’t have an office or an employee. He didn’t have a coach or a practice facility. He didn’t have a lease at the Staples Center, or anywhere else to play. He had never owned a business other than the T-shirt company. He had never even had a full-time job. “I was 24 years old,” he says. “I had nothing. And no matter what you do, you’re playing a game on April 9, 2000. We were on that field whether I liked it or not.”

Over the next 18 months, Casey Wasserman came of age. “I had hired good people,” he says. “We got on the field, and people showed up, and we played a game. And we somehow fed the other team and got them to the airport. I looked around and I was like, ‘Wow, that was pretty cool.’”

■ ■ ■ ■

The stars are out at a cocktail party high above Boston, where many of the panelists for this year’s Sloan MIT Sports Analytics Conference have gathered on a Thursday night for informal networking. Wasserman throws the Sloan kickoff party every year, just as it holds a dinner in conjunction with the NBA All-Star Game, and an event at the Masters. They help brand the company as a connector. Introducing clients to important, interesting people might create business opportunities, giving the relationship added value. And if two clients team up and do business together, well, that’s serendipity.

Compared to many faces in the room, Casey’s is anonymous. And the way he carries himself, a short, slender, unprepossessing guy in a pullover and sneakers, makes him seem anything but formidable. At one point, the chief scientific officer of a biotech company called Orig3n, approaches. “And what do you do?” she asks.

“I’m in the sports business,” he chirps. “Marketing. Representation.” She looks unimpressed. Moments later, she’s off talking with someone else. Wasserman grins. It has happened before and will happen again.

It didn’t have to be that way. With his backing and connections, Wasserman could have parlayed his ownership of the Avengers into a big-league franchise, perhaps even an NFL team in his hometown. For years, his name was mentioned as a potential owner. He had the connections, the background, and the access to capital. “I couldn’t have owned it myself,” he says. “But I could have gotten the money.” And he’d presided over an Avengers franchise that ranked among the most successful in its league.

But the cyclical nature of sports teams felt stultifying to him. You plan for a season, sell tickets and sponsorships, maybe make a new radio or television deal. They play the games, win some and lose some. One way or another, it ends. And then you have to do it all over again.

None of it fit Wasserman’s personality. “I’m a big believer in hiring great people, empowering them, not micromanaging,” he says. “If you do that with a sports team and you get it right, there’s not a whole lot to do. The business of a team doesn’t fundamentally change. I enjoyed the mental part, but every year the same cycle? Not for me. Some people love it. I didn’t love it.”

Photo by: GETTY IMAGES


In 2002, Lew Wasserman died at 89. Later that year, Casey founded the Wasserman Media Group. He didn’t have a template for what he would do beyond acquire companies that worked well together. You can think of it as the sports version of Berkshire Hathaway meeting MCA, with a nod to IMG. Or you can just think of it as Casey looking for something different and challenging to do every day of his life. “One of the odd things about never having really worked anywhere else is that I have no perspective about what anyone else does,” he says. “Or how they do what they do.”

That left him free to forge his own path. He is adamant that he isn’t simply following his grandfather’s lead. “My grandfather was an agent for talent,” he says. “I’m not. There’s not a single client out of our 2,000 athletes who think I’m their agent. Not one.”

Instead, he likes identifying companies that fit well with his, both functionally and culturally, and going about the process of acquiring them. He likes using his relationships to do deals that create incremental value. What he doesn’t like are the routine details of running a business. So early on, he empowered Mike Watts, who’d worked with him at the Avengers, to do that. “When you start out, you kind of just do everything,” he says. “And along the way you figure out not only what you like to do but what you’re good at doing, and you structure the company that way.”

In 2003, Wasserman Media Group acquired The Familie, and opened an action sports division. In 2006, he bought SFX, went into business with Tellem, and became a major player in world soccer through a London office. He solidified his baseball presence by buying RKL, and opened a women’s sports division.

A year later, he bought Raleigh-based OnSport, which got him into the corporate consulting side of the business. All along, Casey served as curator and incubator, integrating new businesses and cross-pollinating them to foment new ideas. He perceives his value in connecting the dots, bringing ideas and partners together to create value. “Because I sit in the one chair that sees everything,” he says. “And often the dots don’t even need connecting. They just need a little … pushing.”

What Wasserman does on a daily basis may be defined best by what he doesn’t do. “We have three agents whose contracts are coming up in the next six months,” he says. “If I get involved, it means something has gone way off the rails.” He also very rarely sits in on athlete recruiting meetings, or entertains players — even the biggest stars, Westbrook or Luck or Didier Drogba or Nolan Arenado — when they pass through Los Angeles. “If they asked me, I would,” he says. “But in the end, they don’t think it adds value to the process. But when it comes to the renewal of a shoe deal and we’re asking for a lot of money, yeah, I call the people and engage in that process. And I don’t care if the athlete ever knows I did that.”

“He knows when to step in and push on the button and when not to,” Goodell says. “He’s there to find common ground. He doesn’t feel the need to tell them how to get there, he just wants to lead them down the path. He doesn’t allow his ego to get in the way.”

In 2012, Wasserman had the first draft pick in the NFL, NBA, MLB and, for good measure, MLS. To understand Casey, you have to know that he didn’t attend any of the drafts. “I don’t want to be the guy hugging the player when he gets drafted,” he says. “I’ve actually never been to the NBA draft, and we’ve had the No. 1 pick twice.” But if an employee asks him to fly somewhere to help close a deal, he doesn’t hesitate, whether that’s Baltimore or Bombay. He’ll jump on his private plane and do what needs to be done.

Then he’ll fly home, often traveling through the night so he can drive his 14-year-old son to school the next morning or attend his 12-year-old daughter’s basketball game. “For all the travel I do, I’m a homebody,” he says. “I go where I need to go. I have an interest in seeing what’s around me, but I don’t want to waste the time doing it. I’d rather be home with my family.”

For some, Casey’s success has been mitigated by his grandfather’s name, and the obvious advantages that accompanied it, both financial and more nebulous. “I didn’t start out rich like Casey,” says Jonathan Barnett, who runs the Stellar agency that competes for soccer clients against Wasserman. It’s true that, for Wasserman, money will never be a problem. That has allowed him the luxury of running his company without concern for annual, let alone quarterly, profit statements. And it has enabled him to take chances, expanding overseas into world soccer, or betting heavily on action sports. His agency also received a $100 million investment from Madrone Capital Partners, a group funded by the Wal-Mart-founding Walton family, in 2014. Wasserman confirms the investment, but says only that they are a minority partner.

But not all of his efforts have worked. Early on, he launched a music management venture, DC Music, that included Coldplay’s manager, Dave Holmes. He created a film production company, Studio 411, to make action sports videos. He bought up rights for competitions in Olympic sports that he would distribute digitally, through a company he created called Sportnet. There’s a reason why, in all likelihood, none of those names seem familiar now.

Such failure provided him with an education. “For most of my childhood, I assumed that everything my grandfather ever did worked out,” he says. “But later I learned that it’s exactly the opposite. The more you try to do, the more will inevitably go wrong. And through that process, I learned that the people who succeed are just infinitely better at processing, dealing with, and moving on from that.”

One afternoon, he sits at his desk signing cards for his employees. In the early years of the company, he’d write personal notes to every employee on notable anniversaries of their first day with the company — after one year, three years, five years. As the company grew, that became more difficult — and, eventually, impossible. “If we do an acquisition and we take 100 people,” he says, “that means you have 100 notes to write on the same day.” The notes he’s signing now have been printed from a basic template. At most, he’ll be able to add a few personalized words. It’s the price he pays for success.

■ ■ ■ ■

On the day in 2013 that Eric Garcetti took office as mayor of Los Angeles, he sent a letter to USOC President Scott Blackmun. He served notice that the city wanted to bring the Olympics back to the United States, which hadn’t hosted a Summer Games since 1996 in Atlanta. Soon after, Garcetti called Wasserman and asked him for a list of potential CEOs for the effort.

Wasserman had no reason to get involved. But as it happened, Blackmun had once worked as his lawyer and was a close friend. And, wouldn’t you know, Larry Probst, the USOC chairman, had been his boss when he was 17 and working as a summer intern for Electronic Arts. But when Garcetti passed along Wasserman’s list, both Blackmun and Probst recommended somebody who wasn’t on it.

“They say you should be the CEO,” Garcetti told him.

Wasserman told him he already had a job. “And that’s a shit job. I don’t want it.” Weeks passed. Garcetti called again and said that if Wasserman didn’t accept, the city would have no chance at winning. “You have to do it,” he said.

Wasserman eventually agreed, but only if he could do it on his terms. He’d use his people. He alone would raise the necessary money. “This is not a committee,” he told Garcetti. According to Patricia Feau, his chief of staff, Wasserman sat down, made 60 phone calls and raised $60 million to fund the effort. “I went home, walked in the door and said to my husband, ‘You won’t believe what Casey did,’” she recalls.

IOC President Thomas Bach (center) watches a presentation by Wasserman and L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti at the Rio Olympics.
Photo by: GETTY IMAGES


The USOC chose Boston. But when that city reneged on its bid, Los Angeles ended up as the candidate. That put Wasserman on the hook until at least this September, when the IOC will vote for the 2024 host city and perhaps also the 2028 host.

If Los Angeles gets either the 2024 or 2028 Games, Wasserman knows that he’ll be expected to stay on. He likes that his grandfather was one of the chairs of the 1984 Olympics. And he really does love Los Angeles. “Not just that I was born and raised here,” he says.

But beyond that, his Olympic involvement has mostly involved obligations — such as missing the NBA All-Star Game because he’s in Sapporo courting delegates at the Asian Winter Games, or sitting down to dinner with President Trump — as he’s tentatively scheduled to do — after serving as a vocal supporter and fundraiser for Hillary Clinton. It also has ramped up what was already an arduous travel schedule, adding trips to Fiji and other far-flung destinations that take time from both his business and his family.

Now that he’s in, though, he’s determined to win. He sees it as any other election, and he courts the voters — the IOC’s 89 members who can vote in September — like a candidate. They probably aren’t going to pore over the specifics of the bid proposal, he believes, and they’re prohibited by the IOC’s ethics laws from visiting the cities. So the determining factor is likely to be how they feel about him. “I hope they like me,” he says.

It turns out that Wasserman is good at politicking. That shouldn’t be surprising; he has made a career out of finding common ground. “Adding a personal touch,” says Tellem, who left Wasserman in 2015 for an executive position with Palace Sports and Entertainment and the Detroit Pistons. “That’s who he is. Always trying to find a way to make a connection.”

One example is a Midwestern businessman Wasserman met in Los Angeles at the end of the 1990s. E. Stanley Kroenke had just bought a piece of the NFL’s Rams. “He was a young man from Los Angeles who’d been around all the glitz and glamour,” says Kroenke, now one of the most powerful franchise owners in sports. “I was nobody. Yet he was so personable and warm-hearted to me, some guy from the Midwest who he didn’t know at all. I’ve never forgotten that.”

“There’s a special empathy he has for people because he has been through so much himself,” Silver says. “I think that’s one reason people feel so close and connected to him. Why he has so many best friends.”

Wasserman and Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti (center) chat with Olympic power
broker Sheikh Ahmad Al-Fahad Al-Sabah.
Photo by: GETTY IMAGES


That some of the most influential people in American sports not only know and trust Wasserman but actually like him may help his eventual segue away from that business. Lew Wasserman was both a major Democratic donor and a confidant of Ronald Reagan, and his grandson was raised around politics. Casey met Bill Clinton while still a teenager, and they talk frequently. (During the recent presidential campaign, Bill even called him for advice. “He didn’t take it,” Wasserman says. “But that’s fine.”)

One morning recently, Wasserman was eating breakfast at the Montage in Beverly Hills — scrambled egg whites with mushrooms and onions, sausage, wheat toast, avocado on the side. As he was paying the bill, he saw former U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer at a nearby table. Never one to miss an opportunity to connect, he walked over and extended a hand. Since leaving the Senate, Boxer has started a PAC and is looking for donations. Wasserman, too, has been making sales pitches of one kind or another his whole adult life. The body language was striking: As Boxer pitched him, he was subtly pitching her, too.

He has talked about a possible run for mayor in the future, or even governor. In that sense, LA 2024 is something of a trial run for a man who has seldom sought the spotlight.

“Doing this isn’t my identity,” he says of Wasserman the agency. “So if someone offered me a trillion dollars for the company or something ridiculous like that, I’d probably take it and go run for office. That’s about the only other thing that drives me, to give back in a meaningful way. It’s one of the few things beyond what I do now that piques my interest. I think I could do what I’m doing, or some version of what I’m doing, for a long time. I still think of myself as a kid. But you can’t keep growing a company forever. If it’s just about keeping the engine running after a while, I’m not interested.”

What does Casey Wasserman want? That’s about the only thing he hasn’t figured out. “He has the potential to do so much,” Tellem says. “He has really good judgment and a great feel for people. Where that will lead him, I don’t know. It will be fascinating to see.”

Return to top

Related Topics:

People and Pop Culture

Video Powered By - Castfire CMS Powered By - Sitecore

Report a Bug