On his Twitter page, Casey Wasserman describes himself as a "sports executive, philanthropist." Even given the space constraints of Twitter, that would be like Jackie Robinson describing himself as a "trend-setter." Under the auspices of its founder/chairman/CEO, WMG has grown to become one of the most prolific and influential firms in the U.S. in terms of sports marketing, sponsorship, naming rights, digital content sales and athlete representation and endorsement deals. Now, as the 36-year-old native of California, explains, an aggressive strategy is in place to expand WMG's influence worldwide.
By Barry Janoff, Executive Editor
(Posted August 19, 2010)
Wasserman Media Group, founded in 1998, is not your grandfather's sports and entertainment marketing company. Which is saying something considering that Casey Wasserman's grandfather was Hollywood legend Lew Wasserman, whose six-decade career as arguably the most powerful talent agent and studio executive ever (at MCA, which through a plethora of business deals is now NBC Universal) included representing such stars as Bette Davis, Jimmy Stewart, Henry Fonda and Ronald Reagan.
In addition to being a driving force in sports marketing, sponsorship, naming rights, digital content sales and athlete representation and endorsement deals, divisions of WMG also focus on mergers and acquisitions across media and sports industries; and developing, marketing and distributing sports entertainment content through TV, retail and digital platforms. Among those who work under the WMG umbrella is a Who's Who sports power players, such as Arn Tellem and Richard Motzkin. The list of athletes represented by WMG includes hundreds of players from Major League Baseball, the NBA, soccer, golf, action sports and elsewhere, such as Landon Donovan, Pau Gasol, Derrick Rose and Chase Utley.
Among its more recent corporate sports deals, WMG worked with executives of the New Meadowlands Stadium in New Jersey to acquire cornerstone partnerships with Pepsi, MetLife, Verizon and Anheuser-Busch's Bud Light for the $1.6 billion home of the NFL's New York Giants and Jets. Wasserman also is using his considerable financial and political synergies to try to build a stadium and to bring an NFL team back to Los Angeles.
Wasserman Media Group is headquartered in Los Angeles but also has other offices in the U.S., London and Mumbai, India. WMG has started to intensify the presence of its New York office with the recent hirings of John Brody, formerly MLB's svp-corporate sales and marketing, to lead Wasserman's global sales division and develop new business ventures; and Brian Cull, who had been director of partnership marketing for the NFL, as svp-global sales.
Among his other endeavors, Casey Wasserman spearheads The Wasserman Foundation, which was founded by Lew Wasserman in 1952 and has since provided financial support to organizations focused on advancing and promoting education, environmental responsibility, health and welfare and the arts; and sits on the board of such organizations as New York University, The William Jefferson Clinton Presidential Library Foundation, Los Angeles Philharmonic and the USA Bid Committee, which is seeking to bring the FIFA World Cup to the U.S. in either 2018 or 2022.
Wasserman spoke with NYSportsJournalism.com about a wide range of timely topics, including Landon Donovan, the state of the sports marketing economy, the World Cup, LeBron James' decision and WGM's global expansion strategies.
NYSportsJournalism: Wasserman Media Group has an extensive roster of NBA players. What are your thoughts about what has happened regarding player movement over the summer and LeBron James' decision to join the Miami Heat?
Casey Wasserman: More important than anything is the power and connection that sports has with consumers. It may be unlike any other piece of the media business. And this proved it again. That a single athlete could drive that much attention to a decision that in the past had been pretty benign. I think less about what he did and how he did it, but more importantly its place in our society both in a cultural and business way. And the story continues to grow and grow.
NYSJ: What about the domino affect that James' decision caused and how it could shift the balance of power in the NBA both on the court and from a marketing perspective?
CW: It's great. Despite lots of other ideas, big teams doing well and dynasties in all sports have traditionally been embraced and revered. My view is that it's good, because it makes people talk about it. And in an ironic way, the best thing that might happen is if Miami didn't win the NBA championship. I'm no prognosticator. But people love the whole story, and some people would love it if they didn't win because it's another view of how important teams are in team sports. Time will tell. But the attention is good for everybody.
NYSJ: Soccer is a major part of Wasserman Media. What do you see looking ahead for soccer in this country and for WMG clients such as Landon Donovan?
CW: You can sit in an office in Los Angeles and be myopic about soccer's place in the world. But if you are sitting anywhere outside of the U.S. it's impossible to not see that soccer is the biggest sport in the world. So from very early on we were committed to the sport, committed to being a big player in its growth and a big player in the business side of soccer. Today we are the largest soccer agency in the world by order of magnitude. We have a large business built around soccer — or football if we were sitting in our London office — and we continue to look for ways to expand. Clearly, we have great people [on the soccer side of our business]. Richard Motzkin represents Landon Donovan, Freddy Adu, Tim Howard and many others. We have tremendous leadership in the U.K. and continental Europe. And the opportunities for John's group to [build on] business relationships in the world of European football is clearly something we will go after aggressively.
NYSJ: I know you have some bias about Landon Donovan because he is represented by WMG, but am I right in thinking he could become the biggest U.S.-born soccer player in marketing history?
CW: Yes, he can. He is a remarkable athlete, a remarkable person and, by the way, still young  with a long career ahead of him with many more great things to do. He not only is for the foreseeable future the face of American soccer in the U.S. but also around the world.
NYSJ: Do you see him transcending the sport, much in the way companies use Peyton Manning to attract people who may not even follow the NFL?
CW: Certainly. He clearly has that ability. He already has had a couple of true iconic moments, and those iconic moments get athletes the attention of people well beyond their sport.
NYSJ: You are on the board of the USA Bid Committee seeking to get FIFA to award the World Cup to the U.S. in either 2018 or 2022. How strong is the U.S. bid?
CW: In a technical sense, we are going to put together an unbelievably compelling bid for FIFA to review. We have shown as a country that we have the ability to gather around, embrace and support events of a global nature and give them their stage. We clearly have the infrastructure, whether it's stadiums, airports or hotels. But, ultimately, FIFA, as with any other organization, is going to make a decision based on what they think is best for their organization. No matter who was going to compete against South Africa when they were bidding, South Africa was going to get that bid because FIFA felt it was important. And rightly so for the development of that country. There are decisions that we can't control. So all we can do is put our best foot forward, which factually I know we are doing. And more so than any other time in the history of American soccer, we are putting together a bid and an opportunity that, frankly, is compelling.
NYSJ: What do you see as far as business opportunities with the 2012 Summer Olympics in London?
CW: There are a lot of major global companies that are marketing partners [with the IOC]. In many ways an event such as the London Olympics is hard for us to be in business with because Olympic [executives] tend to do well at this kind of work by themselves. But on some levels it's a great opportunity because those companies will have geared up and spent a lot of time, effort and money for two weeks, and a lot of times after that they look around and ask, "Now what?" And we are there to answer that question for them.
NYSJ: Do you see anything positive coming out of the fact that companies and agencies in many cases were forced to rethink their sports marketing and business methods of operation because of financial challenges?
CW: No question. One of the effects of the economic downturn was, first, a knee-jerk reaction to stop spending advertising money. But when they did, then they woke up and realized, "Our business is actually doing okay and maybe we've actually grown market share." It was an evolution process. It made people do things they probably would not have done under normal economic conditions and it gave them a fresh opportunity to rethink how they do things and why they do things. In my view, that rethink will only benefit sports. Because sports truly is defensible in every way: It matters live. It continues to elevate in its connection with fans. But unlike other kinds of pieces of the media business it has a way to connect through almost every medium in an effective way. A time like that, while it was not fun for anybody in any business, created more opportunities over a long period of time for the business we are in.
"The role of athletes as spokespeople grows from the core out as opposed to artificially creating these people as stars without having a solid base on which to build."
NYSJ: When you look at the overall economy in sports, does it seem to be coming back, perhaps not to where it was a few years ago but at least moving in a healthier direction, when it comes to athletes and the opportunities available to them?
CW: No question that athletes will continue to have opportunities to work as spokespeople. But it is important to remember that awareness and interest starts local and grows from there. People connect with their local stars and then if they become bigger than that then they grow from there. The role of athletes as spokespeople or endorsees grows from the core out as opposed to artificially creating these people as stars without having a solid base on which to build.
NYSJ: You recently hired John Brody from MLB and Brian Cullen from the NFL to join WMG's New York office. What is your strategy there?
CW: Without question, we are building the New York office. We are, and always will be, a Los Angeles-based company. I spend a lot of time in New York. But more importantly, a lot of the people we do business with are in New York. It's where the leagues are. It's where a lot of the buyers are. So expanding our presence there, building the sales group, is very important. Being able to add talent such as John and Brian is not something you can do every day. It's something I've been trying to do for seven years.
NYSJ: John is an East Coast guy. Was there any talk about him working in Los Angeles?
CW: He will be a senior executive at WMG, among the top rung of people. He didn't want to be out of the loop. But he gets that we are good at communicating and being pro-active. I am in New York a lot and he will find a lot of reasons to be in Los Angeles. So it's actually not as big a deal as he first thought when we started the process. So he feels comfortable being based in New York and comfortable that he will be included in all of the senior company decisions that he should be included in.
NYSJ: What are the challenges you are looking at short-term and long-term with building in New York and globally?
CW: The good thing with hiring John and what he brings, he was already in the mix, if you will, talking and communicating and well-known and well-liked among the people we will be transacting with. As is Brian. So that, combined with my interest in always helping people throughout the company and doing what I can to make their jobs better, allows us to be able to get to and communicate with and explain to anybody we need to exactly what we are doing and how we are trying to do it. Our biggest challenge in the short-term is how we allocate our time. There already are no shortage of opportunities. But we need to continue to pick the opportunities that are right for us and right for the people who we are representing so that we can deliver against and in fact out-deliver their expectations. So that's about saying yes to the right opportunities and saying no to others.
NYSJ: There is definitely a shift in how athletes share their information and how the media, fans and consumers get their news. What do you think about Twitter, for example?
CW: The problem with Twitter is that you can actually have an outlet to be a smart ass in real time. I have done it a couple of times. [Laughs.] [The media follows me on Twitter and] they will take one of my tweets and publish it. And tweets are on a whole different level than what you say for articles to be quoted.
NYSJ: As a member of the media, I have to say that tweets are on the record. So anyone in the public eye who tweets has to rethink their thinking with Twitter.
CW: My problem is, my first reaction is that I tend to be a smart ass. I just write [when I tweet]. So I have to think about it but not tweet. It's the 24 hour rule: I'll have to put [my thoughts] in a drawer for 24 hours.