Marquee Group, an International Management Team That Matches Agents, Promoters and Marketers, May Be the Look of Sports To Come
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Letis can barely contain his enthusiasm for the future of the Marquee Group. "One thought: sports belongs to the public. In the last decade, all you had to do is listen to sports talk radio to realize how much a public thing sports really is and how much it's part of the fabric of the culture. Sports belongs to the public; so does Marquee," he pauses, drawing on his Ashton Cabinet. "You buy a piece of us by buying stock and you own a part of the people that we represent. You're in the deal! And it's late in the game for this--it's almost 2000. People can't own stock in other sport companies. Because we're the only public company; we're for the people. What's the measure of your credibility in sports? There was no measure before. Now there's a measure: how much Marquee stock do you own? That's the measure, and it's going to be the measure." A victorious laugh goes up around the table.
The largest, most genuine laugh belongs to Chet Simmons. The 70-year-old Marquee cofounder has been involved in TV sports since the 1950s, long before people knew what the possibilities for sports programming were. But he's as much at home describing Metallica and Billy Joel--two of the artists for whom Marquee manages tours--as he is describing the fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants style in which TV once covered sporting events.
Simmons's first company was called Sports Programs Inc., which produced sports events independently and had a contract with ABC to produce all their sports in the mid-'50s. The company eventually was bought by ABC, where Simmons worked in the sports department. He left in 1964 to join NBC Sports, where he went from sports director to vice president of sports to the network's first president of sports, from 1976 to 1979. NBC was king then, lording over the sports universe with rights to broadcast Major League Baseball, including the World Series and the All-Star Game, professional football--and Wimbledon.
He witnessed the start-up of ESPN, the first 24-hour sports station, and was its inaugural president. He recalls the date: September 7, 1979. "I had a pretty good feeling what it [ESPN] could be. Once we got national rights to the big four leagues, plus the NCAA rights, I thought it would be a success, and it was." He stayed nearly three years before leaving in July of 1982 for the USFL.
But after a history of sports business start-ups, Simmons says that Marquee has been the most exciting. "I think the residual is as important as the start-up. The start-up is the first year and you're really juiced up and energized and you're inventing new things. [In most new enterprises, though,] after the first year it becomes too much of a pattern....But [with Marquee] year two just kept going--it just kept building itself. The second half of the third year has been even more exciting. Because now we've acquired companies and we're being looked at by several entities. We have a greater, broader vision of what you can do by getting involved in entertainment."
Louis Oppenheim and Arthur Kaminsky are also cofounders of the Marquee Group, having joined in December 1996 when their company, Athletes and Artists, was acquired by Marquee. Since its inception in 1977, Athletes and Artists has been one of the leading sports and news representation-and-marketing firms in the country. It has represented athletes and hundreds of national and regional sports and news broadcasters, including Jim Lampley, Forest Sawyer, Dick Schaap and Len Berman.
Oppenheim, 41, negotiated his first contract, representing Hall of Fame pitcher Ferguson Jenkins, in 1981. Jenkins was then a fading 17-year veteran coming off his worst season, but Oppenheim got him a one-year deal for his return to the Cubs for $300,000 in 1982 and an extension for 1983 which, including unique incentive bonuses for cumulative innings pitched, turned out to be the most money Jenkins had ever earned in his career.
The group of newscasters and broadcasters Oppenheim attracted to Athletes and Artists included ESPN's Chris Berman and Tom Jackson, CNN's Fred Hickman and MSG's Al Trautwig.
A graduate of Cornell University, Kaminsky began his career representing fellow alumnus and eventual National Hockey League Hall of Famer Ken Dryden of the Montreal Canadiens. His early success with Dryden brought through the doors of Athletes and Artists more than 100 NHL players, including greats such as Larry Robinson, Clark Gillies, Billy Smith, Brian Leetch and Adam Oates. His success with hockey players led Kaminsky to represent the 1980 U.S. Olympic gold-medal hockey team and its head coach, Herb Brooks. Eric Heiden, the only person to win five individual gold medals at a single Olympics, has been his client since 1979, along with dozens of other Olympic skating medalists.
The clients that Kaminsky and the others have brought to the Marquee Group have put the sports and entertainment company on the fast track, and they don't plan on slowing now.
"The fact is that everything in the sports, entertainment and news industries is consolidating," Gutkowski says, enjoying his La Flor Dominica torpedo. "That means we will look at anything. We intend to grow by acquisition and we have already demonstrated that we have international ambitions. We will look right across the board for opportunities and won't rule anything out right now and are looking to acquire companies which have strong management. That will add to the stock value."
The smoke from his cigar rises toward the ceiling. The fortunes of the Marquee Group seem ready to do the same.
Ken Shouler is the project editor of Home Run: My Life in Pictures by Hank Aaron and Dick Schaap (Total Sports, New York).
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