A force in the effort to bring L.A. an NFL franchise, the head of Wasserman Media Group has big plans beyond athlete representation.
Not unlike his late grandfather, the famed Hollywood mogul and MCA chairman Lew Wasserman, 36-year-old Casey Wasserman has outsize ambition. In less than 10 years, his Westwood-based Wasserman Media Group has become one of the world’s largest sports-business companies, with a representation arm that boasts a client list of more than 900 athletes, including Los Angeles Lakers power forward Pau Gasol, Philadelphia Phillies All-Star Chase Utley and Landon Donovan, star of last year’s U.S. World Cup soccer team. The firm’s practices also include corporate consulting for the likes of American Express, T-Mobile and UPS, along with media rights, business development and other concerns. Wasserman has been in the news recently for his effort to bring an NFL team to Los Angeles after an absence of more than 15 years. The married father of two — whose wife, Laura, is the daughter of showbiz superlawyer Ken Ziffren — is working with L.A. Live and Staples Center developer AEG on a proposed $1 billion stadium for downtown L.A., a plan that needs city approval and likely would require the uprooting of an existing NFL team. Wasserman sat down recently with The Hollywood Reporter at his Richard Meier-designed offices — which are filled with modern art and offer panoramic views of his alma mater, UCLA — to discuss his NFL ambitions, the changing landscape of sports broadcasting and lessons learned from his grandfather, whose teachings Wasserman says are part of his daily lexicon.
Given your exposure to Hollywood, how did you end up choosing sports instead?
I’d like to say there was some great moment of decision-making angst. But the truth is, sports — and, actually, the business of sports — has always been what I’ve been most passionate about. I love the entertainment business, but it wasn’t and isn’t my passion.
Is there a piece of advice from your grandfather that you rely on when you’re challenged?
It’s funny because he didn’t have a book of sayings or his rules of engagement or his Business Philosophy 101. His way of teaching me was always through storytelling, interesting connections to worlds long ago that have nothing to do with the world we live in or the entertainment industry or the media business or sports. So really, through storytelling, I picked up his life lessons. There are lots of times where I start a story and say, “You know, my grandfather used to say …”
Why does Los Angeles need the NFL?
My first answer would be that L.A. does not need the NFL, and the NFL does not need L.A. That’s one of those fundamental things that has made it challenging to bring it back because no one is operating from a position of need. There are clearly reasons why there is not a team in L.A., and they’re very much based in the economics of the NFL system, which are that all cities are fundamentally created equal because all media rights are shared. The Green Bay Packers will generate as much media revenue — absent local radio deals — as the New York Giants will, and that’s what makes the NFL unique. So then what becomes a differentiating factor is how much revenue you can derive from the stadium. But that is also a function of how much risk it takes to derive that revenue. So it’s not about gross revenue, it’s about net revenue. And in 1994 and 1995, net revenue in L.A. was meaningfully less than net revenue from cities like Oakland and St. Louis because the cities were willing to entirely subsidize the facilities so that the teams were capturing 100 percent of the revenue. Whereas in L.A., you might generate substantially higher gross revenue, but the cost to build a stadium is entirely burdened on the owner because L.A. does not do those kinds of things. It never has; it never will. So that’s what created the environment.
So why take on that challenge?
This is one of the last unique things to do in the business of sports, to return the National Football League to the city of Los Angeles. I happen to love the city of Los Angeles; I happen to love the NFL — and to somehow be a part of that, a helper in that process, is something I’ve always been interested in.
ESPN launched its 3D channel last year with World Cup coverage. Do you think one day we will all be watching 3D broadcasts of sports?
I don’t think 3D television gets huge adoption until the consumer experience is no different than HD television. Until you can sit down on your couch and just turn on your TV and it’s 3D without anything else happening, I don’t think it’ll be a massive adoption. I’m also not sure that sports is the greatest driver of adoption of 3D television.
Arn Tellem, the famed sports agent and husband of CBS exec Nancy Tellem, joined your company as a principal in the management division in 2006. What’s it like working with him?
It’s almost hard to put into words how meaningful he is to me personally and to us professionally. But ultimately his reputation and his experience and history speak for themselves. I’m fortunate enough to get to call him a good friend.
Watching professional sports, both live and at home, has increasingly become a flashy entertainment experience. Is that a good thing?
It speaks to a larger issue, which is that consumers, when faced with lots of choices, are making decisions based on value derived from the expenditure of their dollars. So sports, in that sense, compete with everything: going to the movies, going to a theme park or getting on a plane and going to Las Vegas. So what sports are tasked with is providing as much entertainment value in the time they have people captive. So from the time a game starts to when it ends, that’s your audience — and yes, there’s a game, and that’s what people are there for, but it’s the surrounding stuff that adds to and enhances the experience. By the way, in Los Angeles, as important a part of the experience as anything else is traffic, parking and convenience. That’s as much an arbiter of success in the city of Los Angeles as cool music during the game.
Staples Center and L.A. Live were quickly embraced by Hollywood. Is the downtown NFL effort getting similar support from the industry?
No question. People don’t question going to downtown L.A. to experience the biggest and best events in the world. So that changes the paradigm. To me, the NFL stadium there is the last piece to the puzzle.
Growing up, did you have a favorite NFL team?
The Cleveland Browns. I lived in Cleveland for a summer when I was 12, and I was a ball boy for the Browns, which few people know. I, like most guys, sit around on Sundays, turn on NFL Sunday Ticket and watch a dozen-plus games every weekend, much to the dismay of my family.