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Steve Flink: Dell's Business Book Filled With Tennis

10/5/2009 12:00:00 PM

by Steve Flink

It is essential to be clear about Donald Dell’s excellent new book (“Never Make the First Offer (Except When You Should): Wisdom From a Deal Maker”) from the outset. Although he has been a central figure in tennis for more than forty years, and the pages of his book are sprinkled throughout with stories about the game and its inhabitants, Dell is writing primarily about the world of business, and the art of making of deals. He covers a broad spectrum, offers a cavalcade of anecdotes and instructive material on a wide range of athletes, and brings his unique set of insights to analyzing the mindsets of power brokers who have sat across from him at the bargaining table.

Dell’s book, co-authored by John Boswell, is essentially about the inner workings of life and the people who play it for a living. But I have to tell you this: it is a book that tennis fans and followers must read to gain a deeper understanding of how deals are structured for players, and what is happening behind the scenes for competitors who are surrounded by stress. No one is better qualified than Dell to put into perspective the necessity of client managers for tennis players and other athletes who will not perform at their highest levels unless they have the right people behind them shaping their business affairs and steering them as often as possible in the right direction.

I interviewed Dell last week about the book, and found the man who founded ProServ in 1970 to be as compelling as ever as he spoke about his professional life. “The primary purpose in writing the book,” he told me, “was twofold: the publisher wanted a business book as opposed to a memoir or something just about my life in tennis. And secondly, I wanted to write something that had a broader interest base than just tennis. The idea is for somebody to read it and come away with five or six tips that were helpful to them. Obviously the stories and anecdotes are from my life and they are all real and true. For better or worse, it is a business book, not a tennis book, but a lot of the stories I tell are about tennis.”

Perhaps the most compelling story in the book surrounds none other than Jimmy Connors, an eight time Grand Slam tournament champion Dell represented as an agent from 1983-91. Connors turned 31 during the 1983 U.S. Open, but made it to the final in New York. He was due to face Ivan Lendl--- the same man Connors had ousted to secure the 1982 Open--- in the championship match at 4PM, but about three hours earlier Dell received a phone call from Gloria Connors, Jimmy’s mother and lifelong coach.

As Dell wrote in his book and reconstructed for me, “Jimmy’s mother called me at 1PM and said she wanted Jimmy to be defaulted because he had an awful stone blister between two toes on his right foot and he could hardly walk. I ran out to where Jimmy was trying to practice and he was limping badly. So he came into the locker room and everybody from his entourage was there along with his wife Patti. I saw the whole group and asked if we could clear the room so I could talk to Jimmy alone. Jimmy told me there was no way he could play. I said, ‘Look Jimmy, you are 31 years old and you may never get back into a US Open final again. If I can get your foot shot up so it is numb and you can run, do you want to play?’ He asked me how I could do that and I explained that I had a doctor [a New York Jets team trainer he had invited to the tennis] in the next room and ‘he can shoot you up right before you go out on the court for the final, but the tricky part is it lasts about 90 minutes and then wears off so we might have to do it a second time.’”

Connors agreed to pursue that plan. Dell got the consent of U.S. Open tournament director Billy Talbert, who reluctantly went along. So Connors got his injection before the match, and, as expected, the pain in his foot returned after about an hour and a half. He was entitled to a bathroom break, and Dell had made provisions for that critical moment when Connors left the court for his second shot. As Dell recalls, “The problem was: how do you block a bathroom in a public facility. The doctor was hiding in that bathroom. Jimmy walked in and got his shot and I was in my box at courtside in Louis Armstrong Stadium. And as Connors was walking off the court with the supervisor Ken Farrar who had to accompany him to the bathroom, Lendl figured it out. He started screaming at Farrar to watch Connors’ foot. He was screaming that Farrar should not let anyone touch Jimmy’s foot. Farrar knew we were doing something but that was all he knew. Billy Talbert had told him that whatever he did, he should not interfere when Jimmy went into that bathroom. In any case, I had a big cop sitting right in front of that bathroom door. The whole thing was amazing.”

Indeed it was. Serving at 5-4 in the third set with the score locked at one set all, Lendl reached set point but double faulted, and never won another game. Connors was victorious 6-0 in the fourth set, claiming his fifth and final U.S. Open, and last major, in the process. An afternoon that had started as a nightmare for Connors had turned into an evening dream, and Connors could hardly believe how it had all unfolded. Later that night, Dell attended a party held for the U.S. Open champions at a hotel in New York.

As Dell recollects that party now, he says, “It was late, somewhere around 11PM, and I saw Jimmy there. He immediately pushed me into a bathroom, grabbed me by the shoulders, and burst out crying. He said, ‘I never would have won this tournament and I never could have played today if it hadn’t been for you.’ He was really emotional, sobbing and hugging me, incredibly happy about what had happened. He just didn’t want anybody to see him in that emotional state, which is why he pushed me into that bathroom.”

In “Never Make the First Offer”, Dell recalls another instructive story about Connors. One year Connors was staying at Dell’s home with his wife during a tournament, and Dell arranged a business meeting with several other associates the day before the event began. Some of those agents started launching into ideas, but Connors was clearly uncomfortable and agitated by the situation. Dell cut the meeting short, and after everyone left, apologized to Connors for the lack of preparedness of his associates. I asked Dell to elaborate on that incident and its ramifications, and he replied, “I could sense that Jimmy felt put upon by asking him to do this and wanting him to do that. I could see how agitated he was because I had a good feel for Jimmy so I knew what we had to do.”

Before Dell published this book, he knew there was sensitive material he needed to clear with some of the subjects. The 1983 foot injections for Connors was a story that had never been publicly told, so, as Dell explains, “I called Jimmy in California even though I don’t represent him now, and I told him that I didn’t think that U.S. Open story made him look bad, but that people might criticize him or me for letting him get shot up before the match and then again during a bathroom break during the match. I said I didn’t have to run the story but if I did I wanted him to agree with it. I told him exactly what I was going to write and he said it was fine and I should go ahead and write it. Our lawyers were very concerned about that story and wanted his approval, or it probably wouldn’t have been in the book.”

I wondered whether or not Dell was surprised that Connors did not object to that story being brought out into public view. Dell responded, “Yes and no. It surprised me because I wasn’t close to Jimmy at the time I was asking him this. I liked Jimmy and represented him for nine years. I thought he might say, ‘Hell no’, or ‘What’s in it for me?’, but he did not do that. In a way, I believe having that story in the book makes Jimmy look good.”

As we concluded the Connors portion of the book interview, Dell said, “I don’t know if Jimmy likes the book or not. I haven’t asked him. I wrote on the book that Jimmy was my most difficult client but he was probably the best competitor I ever saw and he sold more tickets than anybody in the history of tennis, which I honestly believe. People did not necessarily like Connors but he fought like hell and they loved that. I always liked Jimmy but Gloria was the boss. She was the heavy. I liked Gloria but truthfully didn’t like her values, but her objective was very clear: it was everything for Jimbo. She would kill you if you got in the way but she was very nice to deal with for me and we became very good friends.”

Every year during his years of representing Connors, Dell would sign a one year deal with Connors. At the end, Dell was in his car when he received a phone call from Gloria telling him that she had three things she wanted to review with him: her son’s schedule in Japan was too crowded and had to be altered; his Converse tennis shot needed to be fixed because it was too narrow around the little toe; and finally she and Jimmy were going to change agents. As Dell recounts in the book, he asked her to start with No. 3!

In our interview, he provided a more expansive view of what happened. “She told me, “says Dell, “that Jimbo felt he was working for ProServ rather than ProServ working for him. I asked her what the hell that meant. I pointed out that we had made Jimmy $27 million off the court, and that had nothing to do with exhibition fees or prize money. We had not done a bad job at all so I wanted to know what the problem was. And she said that Jimmy was so close to Ivan Blumberg [who handled day to day operations for Connors]. What she was really saying was that we could get Jimmy to honor things and keep his word that nobody else could do because Ivan was so close to him, and I think she resented that a little bit.”

If Connors was his most difficult client and perhaps the most challenging person he represented, Dell would not argue with the notion that Stan Smith has been at the other end of the spectrum as a relationship he treasures and values more than any other. When Dell founded ProServ, he signed up Smith and Arthur Ashe on handshake deals, and they set his career in motion. Dell was their Davis Cup captain in 1968 and 1969, and the bond he developed with both players carried over into their business dealings. To this day, Dell proudly represents Smith.

In the book, Dell describes what went into the renewal of Smith’s Adidas shoe deal several years ago. Smith had been involved with Adidas since his heyday in the early 1970’s, but Dell mentions in the book that when Stan retired in 1978 that he[Dell] reluctantly agreed to change from a 3 percent royalty on all Stan Smith shoes to a flat fee with a ten-year contract. He believes now that was a mistake, but it was what it was. Dell had no way of knowing that three decades later Adidas would be selling eight different Stan Smith models of shoes.

In any case, Dell wanted to make amends for Smith losing that royalty way back when. So when he began negotiating Smith’s contract four or five years ago, he was determined to get his client a royalty again. During the initial negotiations for Smith’s latest contract, Dell was told by the head of licensing for Adidas that they were not going to grant the former world No. 1 a royalty at this stage of his life; Smith was, after all, 57 at the time. The outlook for Dell and Smith and the royalty looked bleak, until one serendipitous moment changed everything.

As Dell recalls, “Stan was getting nervous because nothing had happened for six months. He thought Adidas was not going to give in. Suddenly, out of the blue, the guy who I was dealing with turns it over to another guy and puts him in charge. He gave it to a guy running the tennis division. I told the guy who was taking over we weren’t doing it without a royalty and he said that he thought a royalty was fair. I almost dropped the phone and said, ‘You do?’ He said that yes, as long as it was a reasonable royalty it was fine, that it was not going to be what it was when he was a Wimbledon champion. And as a result we got a small royalty and Stan has never forgotten that because we signed a ten year deal which is now in the sixth year, and there is an automatic rollover for four years so he has got another five years to go. The royalty has turned out to be millions of dollars over the years. This was a happy ending. We waited them out. You don’t always have a happy ending.”

Dell pauses for a moment, and then adds, “Last year, Adidas sold $65 million worth of shoes in the Stan Smith model and he is now in eight shoes. It is comparable to the Jack Kramer wood racket for Wilson for all of those years. Stan is on so many models where he is getting a small royalty and he is clearly their biggest product seller because the Stan Smith green tab has his name on the back and the white leather shoe is the biggest selling shoe in the history of tennis, and they will tell you that. It has sold millions more than any other. And the funny thing is that today’s group of buyers may not even know who Stan Smith is. They may think it is like Chuck Taylor on the old Converse shoe, but it becomes a brand name and people will come in and say they want the Smith shoe.”

Over the span of his career, Andy Roddick has been represented by Donald Dell. Ken Meyerson is Roddick’s right hand man and regular agent, but Dell has overseen many if not all of Roddick’s major deals including Lexus, American Express, and Lacoste. In the book, Dell tells an illuminating anecdote about the Lacoste deal and a clause they wanted put in the contract stating that they had the right to reduce his mid-seven figure deal annual guarantee by 75% if Roddick dropped out of the top fifteen in the world. Dell brought that up to Roddick, who said, “Hell, if I ever drop below number fifteen, I’m going to retire from tennis anyway and Lacoste can do whatever it wants.”

I asked Dell for his assessment of Roddick as a human being, and he responded, “When Andy was younger, he was a little bit of a know it all. When he was 21, 22, 23, he could be a smart-alec, as if he knew more than anybody. But he was always smart as can be and articulate, and since he married Brooklyn this year, she has really brought out the best in him. He is very happy but he is softer now and he is very resilient. Andy really trains hard and he is intensely competitive. I admire him a lot.”

As our interview was ending, I asked Dell how he felt tennis fans would respond to his book. He answered, “I hope I have given the readers balance in this book. I am not talking about how guys played, or whether or not they served-and-volleyed. I am talking about business transactions and how they occurred in tennis. I hope readers can learn about these athletes and tennis players as people, and learn about them in the context of how you negotiate certain things and what their attitudes are about keeping their word, honoring their commitments, and having integrity. The great champions, the Jack Kramer’s of this world, honor their word and show that you don’t have to be a jerk to be a champion. We lost a giant in Jack Kramer recently, and he never got his due these last twenty years. He just kind of faded like MacArthur, but Jack Kramer created the pro sport in tennis, and I tried to pay homage to him in this book.”

Some day, perhaps five to seven years from now, Donald Dell should write a memoir of his life. He was inducted at the International Tennis Hall Fame this year with good reason; few leaders have contributed more to shaping, modernizing, and advancing tennis as Dell. Tennis followers would do very well to pick up a copy of “Never Make the First Offer”: his words bounce off the pages vibrantly; his stories are told freely, powerfully and cogently; his thoughts are organized, entertaining and precise. I have no doubt that you will enjoy this book every bit as much as I did.

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