Donald Dell: Ace Agent
If not for an assassin’s bullet, pro tennis and sports marketing pioneer Donald Dell might have been a politician instead of a member of the tennis hall of fame.
■ The Dell Executive Tree
■ Donald Dell: Up close and personal
This is the fifth in a series of profiles of the 2013 class of The Champions: Pioneers & Innovators in Sports Business. This year’s honorees, and the issues in which they will be featured, are:
Feb. 4: Ron Shapiro
Feb. 11: Pat Williams
Feb. 18: Roy Kramer
Feb. 25: Rosa Gatti
March 4: Donald Dell
March 11: Harvey Schiller
Kennedy seemed on his way to a successful presidential bid. Had that been the case, Dell says he would have joined the administration of the man he taught to play tennis, or run for Congress himself.
“Bobby had agreed to do two fundraising dinners for me,” Dell recalled, sitting inside the D.C. office where he now presides as group president for Lagardère Unlimited.
What a different landscape the tennis world, and sports marketing in general, would be had Dell chosen politics.
As someone who established the Association of Tennis Professionals in 1972, along with Jack Kramer and Cliff Drysdale, Dell is held in reverential esteem within the tennis world. “Nobody has done more than Donald for tennis,” said Gordon Smith, USTA executive director and chief operating officer. “He’s a founder of professional tennis, as we know it.”
Despite being a top-five U.S. player during his on-court heyday in the early 1960s, Dell never made more than $300 a week as a pro. “We owe him a lot for making tennis as big as it is,” said Mike Bryan, whose lifetime professional winnings as part of the world’s top doubles team with twin brother Bob total nearly $10 million. “He’s the figurehead of pro tennis and someone who had a big vision for the game.”
The Bryans have been represented by Dell since turning pro in 1998.
As a founder of ProServ, a seminal sports marketing agency built during the rise of tennis’ “golden age,” Dell left indelible impressions on the athlete representation and sports marketing agency businesses.
|Executive Editor Abraham Madkour talks with Assistant Managing Editor Tom Stinson about Donald Dell and the 2013 class of Champions of Sports Business.|
“Donald Dell was a pioneer with the concept of the modern sports agency,” said Mike Principe, CEO of The Legacy Agency and former executive vice president at SFX Sports, where one of the first deals he worked on was the acquisition of ProServ in 1997. “Synergy is now the most overused word in sports and marketing. Donald was great at that before anyone knew what it meant. He would produce a tennis event, populate it with his athletes, sell the sponsorships and broadcast rights, and often he would be one of the TV commentators.”
There are those, including Dell, who say only half-jokingly that he created a professional tennis circuit because of his own frustrations.
“Even the top players then weren’t getting more than $1,000 [per tournament],” Dell said. “The term ‘tennis bum’ was prevalent, and I got tired of that. I wanted my brother [Dick] and others to be able to say, ‘I play pro tennis.’ Honestly, that’s what motivated me.”
|Dell, shown at left during a second-round Wimbledon match in 1965, was a top-five U.S. player in the 1960s who also captained the U.S. Davis Cup-winning teams in both 1968 (right, second from left) and 1969.
Dell continued to play throughout law school, even missing graduation for a Davis Cup match in Tehran.
Once out of law school in 1964, Dell worked as an associate for Hogan & Hartson for 18 months, but he admits to getting a little bored. Sargent Shriver was running the Peace Corps and recruited Dell. After spurning his initial offer, Dell signed on to be Shriver’s assistant as he launched the Office of Economic Opportunity, an agency responsible for administering President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty. Quickly, Dell went from legal research and writing briefs to traveling the world and meeting with world leaders, including Johnson, during 1967 and ’68.
“In 17 months, I learned more about life, human nature and politics than I have learned since,” Dell recalled. “It was a real education.”
Politics again gave way to sports in March 1968, when Bob Kelleher, who helped lead tennis into the modern open era while serving as president of the U.S. Lawn Tennis Association, asked Dell to captain the Davis Cup team. Shriver urged him to take the position — one which cast the die for his career in sports. While Dell was Davis Cup captain, his U.S. team was undefeated, winning the first two of five consecutive world titles.
Dell’s timing couldn’t have been more perfect.
As the major tennis tournaments were opening to professional competition, he was living and traveling with the top American players. Even without any tennis agents, the opportunity was clear. Dell was the right man at the right place at the right time.
“I become the Davis Cup captain the year the game goes open,” Dell said with a laugh. “What are the odds of that?”
Dell originally brought his idea of specializing in sports to his old firm, Hogan & Hartson. They liked it enough to offer him a floor to house the practice along with accountants and tax specialists, “but the name was still going to be theirs,” Dell recalled.
At the time, IMG was the only sports agency. Dell repeatedly had tried to get Davis Cup teammate Arthur Ashe to sign with IMG. After a third meeting with IMG founder Mark McCormack, Ashe said he wanted to be represented by Dell, adding that he was sure Davis Cup teammate Stan Smith would be
|(Top) Dell shares a laugh with tennis great Tracy Austin in 2009. (Above) A poster from the glory days of ProServ offers a glimpse at some of its clients, who included Michael Jordan, Patrick Ewing, Arthur Ashe and Jimmy Connors.
So in the first of many parallels between Dell and McCormack, Professional Services Inc. — later shortened to ProServ — opened in 1970 with Ashe and Smith, the two top U.S. tennis players, as clients. Ten years earlier, focusing on golf, McCormack had founded IMG on the backs of Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and, later, Gary Player.
“My goal when we started was to try and make tennis as professional as golf,” Dell said. “That’s where we ended up.”
As the best players on the undefeated Davis Cup team moved in-house and professional tennis boomed, Dell and ProServ made net gains with an enviable monopoly position.
“The timing was unbelievable,” Dell said. “For two years, I was the only agent in tennis.”
Also developing was the overall sports marketing field, one that IMG had largely kept for itself. As TV outlets boomed, first through independent stations, then from cable TV outlets, they set in motion massive expansion in pro sports.
“It was a Wild West, with a lot of opportunity,” Benton said. “Donald was always a good dealmaker, but I don’t think we had any geniuses, we just outworked everybody.”
What is now an exceptionally mature sports marketing business was nearly unheard of at the time, especially in professional team sports.
“A lot of people forget that when we started out, sports marketing really didn’t exist,” said Maidie Oliveau, a ProServ employee from 1979 to 1983 who is now counsel for the Los Angeles office of Arent Fox. “Almost every deal was new ground for us.”
When you ask those who know and have worked with Dell what has made him a success, salesmanship inevitably is the first quality mentioned. After nearly 30 years with Geico, CMO Ted Ward has seen every sales pitch possible.
“Donald is a master of relationships and the old-school sell that goes with that,” said Ward, who has worked with Dell on a variety of tennis sponsorships. “That’s a bit of a lost art.”
Said Craighill, Dell’s law school roommate, “Donald was always very persuasive. People walk away from their first conversation with him feeling that Donald is their best friend. And Mark McCormack always said all things being equal, people will buy from people they like.”
That Dell is still doing deals 40 years after ProServ was launched is testimony to his people skills.
“Looking at all the different sides of the business Donald has been involved in, you could say that he is the closest thing we have in sports to a Renaissance man,” said NBA Commissioner David Stern. “He always represented his clients fiercely, but at the same time, he always knew that he could be on either side of a negotiation.”
Or, as Dell says: “You don’t have to win every point. The trick is leaving something where people want to do business with you again.”
Among Dell’s most memorable deals were Michael Jordan’s second Nike contract and Stan Smith’s 40-year-old Adidas endorsement, which yielded the top-selling tennis sneaker ever.
|Dell holds his plaque after being inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 2009.
Enumerating Dell’s contributions to tennis isn’t difficult. Even former IMG President and CEO Bob Kain, once Dell’s fiercest rival in the tennis recruitment game, now lauds him.
“He was Coke and I was Pepsi,” said Kain, now a senior adviser to CAA. “I actually feel that Donald should have been in the Tennis Hall of Fame first [he was inducted in 2009], and Gene Scott  second and Mark McCormack  third, and I knew them all well.”
However, enumerating Dell’s contributions on the agency side is not as easy.
At its peak in the early 1980s, ProServ was IMG’s chief rival, with 200-plus athletes under contract from multiple sports, including Jordan, Dave Winfield, Denis Potvin and Jimmy Connors.
However, IMG continued to grow. ProServ, on the other hand, split in 1983, with Craighill and Fentress bolting to form Advantage International. Advantage was purchased by IPG in 1997 and later combined with other agencies to form Octagon, becoming IMG’s biggest rival.
The Dell and Benton-led ProServ was acquired in 1999 by The Marquee Group, then led by former Madison Square Garden President Bob Gutkowski.
“Clearly, Dell was one of the guiding forces of sports agencies,” Gutkowski said, “but because ProServ broke apart, a lot of his legacy has to do with how many great people came through his shop to do great things.”
The ProServ family tree is one that still has deep roots in sports marketing, populated with powerful names aside from the founders, such as Pac-12 Enterprises President Gary Stevenson, longtime sports and entertainment agency chief Mark Dowley, former Yahoo interim CEO Ross Levinsohn and Star Games founder and president Jerry Solomon, among many others (see box, Page 33).
Dell gets credit from many in the industry for having a vision of a multifaceted sports business and for pioneering global sports deals long before both became commonplace in the industry.
When ProServ negotiated some of the first worldwide sports rights pacts for global marketers such as Adidas and Coke, for World Cup and Olympic rights, “every deal was new ground,” said Oliveau, who worked on them. “Now sports sponsorship is a very mature business, but that was a grand vision for its time and it was accomplished on a global scale.”
Later, Dell and ProServ were involved in some of the earliest naming-rights deals, including FedEx Field, Philips Arena and Staples Center in 1999.
“He saw all the possibilities for a sports marketing agency very early on,” said Genesco Sports Enterprises CEO John Tatum, who began his career with Advantage in 1988.
Industry types will forever ponder why IMG stayed intact and ProServ didn’t. Perhaps that stems from the differences between McCormack and Dell.
“Donald was a great trailblazer and entrepreneur, he just didn’t turn out to be a great builder, like Mark,” said Kain, the former IMG chief executive. “Donald wasn’t a manager as much as he was a terrific hands-on agent and sports marketer.”
It’s also important that ProServ started as a four-person partnership, while IMG was always McCormack’s roost. “McCormack owned everything at IMG, but his great strength was that he delegated,” said Benton, now CEO of the Junior Tennis Champions Center in College Park, Md. “He gave other people authority, and that was always Donald’s biggest problem. That’s why Mark kept people and Donald did not.”
Gutkowski had a unique vantage point, having purchased ProServ when he was president and chief operating officer of The Marquee Group.
“Dell and McCormack were both visionaries,” he said. “It comes down to being able to deal with egos, and McCormack was more successful at that than Donald. Ultimately, it gets down to how you share your money and authority.”
In hindsight, Dell says, “I copied a lot of what Mark did. Eventually, my personality was too strong once we got really big. People thought of it as Donald Dell’s firm … they felt my personality was too strong and they wanted to do it themselves.”
|An agent for 40-plus years as well as one of the executives who helped shape sports marketing, Donald Dell sits in his Washington, D.C., office.
ProServ had broken into basketball in 1971, signing its first hoops client, Collis Jones of Notre Dame, whose mother happened to hear Dell speak at a political luncheon.
Years later, it was Dell who signed Michael Jordan out of North Carolina in 1984. Dell had an affiliation with UNC coach Dean Smith, which got the agency nearly every Tar Heel hoopster of note for 14 years, including Jordan and James Worthy. A relationship with Georgetown coach John Thompson didn’t hurt in getting him Patrick Ewing, for whom ProServ negotiated what was then the largest contract in NBA history.
David Falk expanded the business even further in the 1980s, and ProServ was the predominant NBA agency. Then in 1992, after 18 years with Dell, Falk left the firm to form FAME, taking his clients with him, including Jordan. It remains an infamously contentious professional divorce, to the point that Falk is not even listed in the index of Dell’s 2009 book, “Never Make the First Offer.”
Some who worked with him say Dell could have kept Falk from walking by paying him as much as Dell was making. For his part, Dell prefers to discuss the situation only in the broadest terms, citing confidential agreements.
“That’s a big problem in this business,” he said. “Everyone wants to go do it themselves after you’ve invested in training them. No one says thanks, and then they try to take clients and employees on the way out.”
As part of a roll-up of sports agencies in the late 1990s, Falk sold FAME to SFX. Subsequently, SFX bought The Marquee Group, which put Dell and Falk under the same corporate umbrella again.
Sports, politics, finance … in the world of sports marketing, some large portion of which was discovered, charted, designed and developed by Dell and men like him, there’s often less than one degree of separation. To that point, Dell’s learned over the years that politics and sports are not dissimilar.
“They’re both very competitive and all about understanding why men behave the way they do,” he said. “In my law school class, I tell them right away that negotiation is all about human nature. Sports are exactly the same way.”