Until his death two years ago at 89, Lew Wasserman breakfasted
with his only grandchild, Casey, every weekend at Nate 'n' Al's,
the fabled Beverly Hills deli. Over pumpernickel bagels and
bacon, the Hollywood agent turned Hollywood mogul would impart
90210 wisdom to the lad. As ruthless as he was revolutionary,
Grandpa Lew freed the stars of the 1940s from the servitude of
studio contracts and, as the head of Universal Studios, came up
with innovative packaging concepts and deal structures that
evaporate net profits--standard Hollywood procedure now.
This is an article from the April 5, 2004 issue
At the precocious age of 29, Casey is out to become the Lew
Wasserman of fringe sports. In 1998 he plunked down $5 million
for Arena Football's L.A. Avengers. Since then he has brokered
the AFL's national TV contract with NBC and a groundbreaking
collective-bargaining agreement, running through 2010, that's
credited with preserving the league's viability.
For Grandpa Lew, talent was a commodity. He'd create a sellers'
market, control commodity supply, then take his 10% off the top.
Mindful of that approach, Casey has lately tried to Wassermanize
the unruly and unprofitable world of extreme sports, hatching a
plan that entailed representing athletes, controlling media and
forming sanctioning bodies in three disciplines to run his own
closed tour. "The current economic system is not sustainable," he
said one recent Saturday morning over cottage cheese and bacon at
Nate 'n' Al's. "Almost every event in action sports loses money,
and most are for sale." The lone cash cow, he points out, is the
X Games, which ESPN owns outright, meaning there are no competing
bids or rights fees.
In his first step toward extreme-sport domination, Wasserman
Media Group last year gobbled up The Familie, the biggest athlete
management agency in extreme sport, and in February, WMG bought
video company 411 Productions to help promote its roster of
extremists. But Wasserman's boldest move was his attempt to sign
up enough athletes in BMX, skateboarding and freestyle motocross
to form PGA-like sanctioning bodies in those sports. Under a
three-year contract offered to riders, these bodies would govern
circuits whose prime financial backer would be Wasserman. In
return for bigger purses, he'd get media rights, which he could
sell to broadcasters, DVD makers and websites.
At the moment the value of TV rights is practically nil. "Action
sports have done nothing to prove they're worthy of rights fees,"
says Wasserman. "The ratings are just not there." So why
negotiate for them? "It's a long-term investment," he says.
"That's one of the benefits of being young."
Lew Wasserman built his entertainment empire by bundling clients
into packages his agency put together for his studio--a seeming
conflict of interest that prompted antitrust regulators to
investigate. To Casey's critics the idea of an extreme-sports
agent forming an extreme-sports sanctioning body while investing
in an extreme-sports competition series seems similarly
conflicted. Many riders feared Wasserman's clients would get
preferential treatment. "You just know they would be plugged 10
times harder than the rest of us," says top-ranked motocross
rider Brian Deegan. "That might have been O.K., but [Wasserman]
refuses to share the pie. Bigger prize money doesn't make up for
cutting us out of potential sponsorship and merchandising money."
Riders also bristled at WMG's demands for limited fields, fewer
events and prohibitions against performing at unsanctioned
exhibitions. "We're way too free-spirited and antiorganization
for that," Deegan says. "Wasserman's tour just didn't cut it."
Ultimately Wasserman's power play failed not for lack of his
Grandpa's chutzpah but for lack of his powers of persuasion. The
series was effectively euthanized last week when NBC Sports
announced plans for the Action Sports Tour, which will pay out
$2.5 million next year, with a $1 million bonus pool. "That's at
least 20 percent less than what we had offered," Wasserman says
icily. Then, sounding like a gracious also-ran at the Oscars, he
purrs, "NBC's tour is exactly what I was talking about--and
exactly what the industry needs."
All in the Familie
These are among the more than three dozen extreme sports stars
managed by Casey Wasserman's The Familie group.
Dave Mirra, BMX 2002 U.S. and Van's Triple Crown vert champion
Ryan Nyquist, BMX Seven X Games medals in dirt and street
Travis Pastrana, Three straight X Games freestyle golds
Tara Dakides, Crossover star's crash made splash on Letterman
J.J. Thomas, 2002 Olympic halfpipe bronze medalist