- Arash Markazi, ESPN Staff Writer
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They sat together every Saturday and Sunday morning -- the Hollywood mogul and the wide-eyed kid soaking in his every word.
Lew Wasserman would walk through the glass doors of Nate 'n Al, the famed Beverly Hills delicatessen which has doubled as Hollywood's cafeteria for the past 65 years, with his grandson, Casey, by his side at 7:30 a.m. They would quickly be seated at table 31, Lew's favorite booth, located just in front of the wooden pole in the middle of the diner, with Lew always facing the door, his oversized, black-rim glasses visible from a block away.
Wasserman's order never changed. It only doubled when he brought in his young protégé. On weekends he would order two pumpernickel bagels, a hefty scoop of cream cheese and a couple of slices of bacon. He would then proceed to make his favorite breakfast for himself and Casey, spreading the cream cheese inside the bagel and meticulously crumpling the bacon on top.
Lew and Casey would have breakfast nearly every weekend from the time Casey was three years old until the day Lew died in 2002 at 89 years old, when Casey was 28. The two-hour breakfasts were more than simply quality time between a grandfather and his grandson; they were the 25-year education of a man who would one day become almost as influential as his grandfather, in a field Lew Wasserman loved and with which he wished he had been more involved.
When it comes to the NFL's return to Los Angeles there is no shortage of questions. Paramount among them, of course, is the obvious one: Will it ever happen? After 16 years without an NFL team, the skepticism in the city surrounding every fairy tale rendering and hopeless proposal is certainly understandable.
There is perhaps only one consensus amongst those who have followed this soap opera. If the NFL ever does return to Los Angeles, Casey Wasserman will likely be involved.
You won't find Wasserman at many news conferences for the currently proposed downtown stadium, which would replace the old West Hall of the Los Angeles Convention Center next to Staples Center, although the 75,000-seat, retractable roof complex was his brainchild.
You won't read many stories of him promoting the virtues of the venue to politicians and league officials, although he has done just that behind closed doors to individuals he doesn't think of as politicians and league officials but rather as friends and confidants.
You won't see or hear much from Wasserman until he feels there is something to be seen or heard. That's just the way he is.
And just the way the fiercely private Lew Wasserman was, as well.
"He influenced me in countless ways," Casey Wasserman said of his grandfather. "My earliest days of passion around the NFL were tied around going to Super Bowls with him and experiencing the sport with him. My connection to football really started around him."
Lew Wasserman is remembered as Hollywood's last great mogul, equally the most powerful and feared man in show business at the height of his tenure atop MCA, but he easily could have carved a similarly imposing figure as a sports owner. On at least three separate occasions Wasserman nearly purchased a stake in an NFL team in Los Angeles.
MCA founder Jules Stein reportedly nixed a deal Wasserman had with Los Angeles Rams owner Dan Reeves, a deal which would have given Wasserman 50 percent of the team in the early 1960s, because Stein didn't believe it would have been an appropriate move for him and the company. In the early 1980s, Wasserman served as a court-appointed mediator while Al Davis tried to move the Oakland Raiders to Los Angeles and one of the possible outcomes would have made Wasserman a part owner of a Los Angeles expansion franchise with the Raiders staying in Oakland. Nearly a decade later, Wasserman considered buying a minority stake in the Raiders if they relocated to Hollywood Park before Davis eventually moved the team back to Oakland.
Lew's last attempt at buying into the NFL had little to do with his need to be involved with the league he loved. His hope was to get Casey, who was a student at UCLA at the time, a front-office position so he could learn the inner workings of an NFL franchise and one day run his own team with the same zeal Lew ran MCA.
When Lew's friend and right-hand man Sonny Werblin left MCA in 1965, completing a successful 33-year run with the company during which he ran and revolutionized the television department, Werblin and four associates purchased the New York Titans for $1 million. Werblin later changed the name of the team to the New York Jets and spent $427,000 to induce University of Alabama quarterback Joe Namath to pass up the established NFL for the upstart Jets and the much-maligned American Football League. Werblin would mold the image of "Broadway Joe" just as he had molded the images of clients such as Elizabeth Taylor and Johnny Carson and built the team which would usher in the NFL-AFL merger and the Super Bowl. As Howard Cosell once said of Werblin, "He single-handedly changed the face of sports in America." Werblin would later build and manage the $340 million Meadowlands Sports Complex in New Jersey and become the chairman of Madison Square Garden, momentarily rejuvenating the moribund New York Knicks and Rangers during his tenure. Werblin's post-MCA career always highlighted the one area of the company Wasserman was never able to build.
"Lew was intensely competitive even within his own company," said Dennis McDougal, who authored the Wasserman biography "The Last Mogul." "When Werblin split off and made this leap into professional sports that ticked off Lew. One of Lew's dreams during the last 25 years of his career was to turn MCA somehow into a sports super power in addition to dominating TV, radio and motion pictures. But that was a dream he was never able to achieve. He was never able to take MCA into big-time sports and he was never able to get MCA to purchase a television network. Those were the two big failures in an otherwise incredibly sterling career."
Lew had long hoped to have a son to whom he could one day leave his empire. In a rare interview with Los Angeles magazine in 1979, Wasserman went so far as to say, "I was unfortunate not to have a son, only a daughter." His daughter, Lynne, would marry stockbroker Jack Meyrowitz in 1970. Six months after their marriage they changed their last name to Meyers. Four years later they welcomed their son, Casey Meyers. When Casey was 7 years old his parents divorced and he was essentially raised by his mother. The undisputed father figure in his life was Lew. Lew was the father Casey was missing and Casey was the son Lew had always yearned for.
When Casey turned 21 in 1995 he changed his last name to Wasserman. He had a strained relationship at best with his father, who had moved to Palm Desert, Calif., and was convicted of acting as a courier in a 1989 money-laundering scheme, and Casey was essentially raised as a Wasserman for as long as he could remember. On his 21st birthday he also received a multimillion dollar trust fund and was named the president of the Wasserman Foundation, the family's charitable organization, which has assets exceeding $230 million.
It would have been easy for Casey to kick back, become a socialite and degenerate into tabloid fodder like many other trust fund babies in Hollywood, but he was too much like Lew, who was a workaholic until his dying day. Lew's legendary 60-hour workweeks and commitment to philanthropy still shape Casey, who is on a dozen boards of directors and donates millions to charities ranging from the arts to educational programs.
The only area Casey didn't follow in his grandfather's footsteps was getting involved in show business. Lew was fine with this after seeing where his company and the business was going after selling MCA in 1990 to Matsushita Electric, a Japanese consumer electronics conglomerate now known as Panasonic, which sold it less than five years later to now defunct liquor giant Seagram.
(Interestingly enough, talent agent and Creative Arts Agency founder Michael Ovitz, who idolized Lew growing up but grew into an enemy, brokered the sale of MCA to Matsushita, and would later lead the group which was Los Angeles' last real hope for an NFL team in 1999.)
Lew nurtured the idea of Casey one day changing the landscape of sports.
"The ways he influenced me in life paint how I do everything," Wasserman said recently from his office overlooking Wilshire Boulevard. "It's how I approach lots of ideas and opportunities whether they be football or non-football related. My approach to business, my approach to relationships and my approach to problem solving is all driven by him."
Lew's influence drove more than business decisions in Casey's life. Casey would marry movie music supervisor Laura Ziffren, the granddaughter of one of Lew's closest confidants, Paul Ziffren, a prominent attorney who died in 1991 and who had played a major role in bringing the 1960 Democratic National Convention and the 1984 Summer Olympics to Los Angeles.
Even though Lew never owned an NFL team, he was always around NFL types, which meant Casey was always around NFL types. Lew would take Casey with him to the Super Bowl every year where he and his wife Edie would be guests of their longtime friend, NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle.
When Casey was 10 years old he befriended a 25-year-old assistant in the NFL public relations department by the name of Roger Goodell, who became the NFL commissioner in 2006. The two became fast friends and Goodell was the one who introduced Casey to Arena Football League commissioner David Baker and recommended he become the owner of a Los Angeles franchise. The 24-year-old Wasserman would become the youngest owner in sports, buying into the league for $5 million in October 1998 to start the Los Angeles Avengers. Goodell would later send his young friend an oversized picture of the 1932 NFL Championship Game, which was not only the league's first playoff game but also the first indoor football game, held inside Chicago Stadium due to inclement weather. The symbolism was clear -- the NFL playoffs were born indoors and the same would be true of Wasserman's career in professional football.
If Casey Wasserman's weekend breakfasts with his grandfather were the equivalent of going to business school, mastering the art of deal-making through osmosis and guidance, his 10-year run in the Arena Football League was like getting a doctorate in sports management. No one else currently positioning themselves to be involved with Los Angeles' next NFL team has hired and fired a head football coach, named an expansion team and designed football uniforms as Wasserman did with the Avengers. The AFL is not the NFL, but Kurt Warner would be the first to argue it can certainly serve as a breeding ground for success at the next level.
"I operated a professional football team in L.A. By no means was it the NFL, but I understand what it takes on some level to build and operate a professional sports enterprise in Los Angeles," Wasserman said. "Obviously as a part of that I had experiences with lots of NFL owners because they owned Arena Football teams, too. The only way to get experience is to do it and from that perspective I have experience."
Wasserman didn't just turn the Avengers into one of the AFL's signature franchises, he quickly moved up the ranks within the league's offices. He was named the chairman of the league's labor committee and saved the 2000 season after owners voted to cancel the season when they couldn't come to a labor agreement with players. Wasserman's all-night negotiating session to save the season and potentially the league was reminiscent of his grandfather's ability to resolve labor disputes in Hollywood. He also chaired the committee which negotiated television deals to get the AFL unprecedented national exposure on NBC and ESPN.
In the long run, however, Wasserman wasn't able to save the AFL which suspended operations in 2009 in the midst of a difficult economic climate. He shifted his attention to the Wasserman Media Group, a sports and entertainment agency which he founded in 2002 and now operates out of nine cities across the world, from its home base in Los Angeles to satellite offices in New York, London and Mumbai.
Launching a new company in a very competitive industry, dominated by the likes of IMG and the William-Morris Agency, Wasserman managed to land some of the best and the brightest from each division in sports, beginning with naming rights and marketing firm Envision in 2002 and action sports athlete representation firm The Familie in 2005. Wasserman then acquired the NBA and MLB player representation practices of former SFX Sports CEO Arn Tellem in 2006, followed by the acquisition of the soccer, rugby, marketing and events divisions of SFX Sports Group, Europe, making WMG one of the dominant players around the world.
"He's more than money, I can tell you that," said Darren Rovell, CNBC's sports business reporter. "He's more than a guy who has money and just wanted to be cool and start a sports agency. There are a lot of people who have money and decided to start a sports agency just to be jock sniffers and he's not in that class. He's a very smart guy and very strategic. He's a businessman before he's a sports businessman."
In addition to representing more than 800 athletes in more than 20 sports, Wasserman clients include the New York Jets, the New York Giants, T-Mobile, American Express, Tottenham Hotspur of the English Premier League and Northern Trust. The company, which was selected to sell the naming rights to the New Meadowlands Stadium after brokering the historic $180 million deal to name Emirates Stadium in London, home of the Arsenal Football Club, continues to specialize in athlete representation, property sales and corporate and property consulting.
"My goal was to build a meaningful sports business that operates at the highest levels in the areas of business that we compete in," Wasserman said. "I have an intense desire to be successful and I'm extremely competitive. I'm fortunate enough to wake up every day and go to sleep every night working in a business that I'm passionate about. If I wasn't passionate about it I'm not sure I'd be working as hard."
Casey Wasserman says he doesn't remember his first foray into bringing the NFL back to Los Angeles. He says he has no recollection of the news conference on May 16, 2002, inside the Chick Hearn Media Room of Staples Center, where a 28-year-old Wasserman sat between billionaire developer Ed Roski and AEG president and CEO Tim Leiweke to announce plans to build a football stadium next to Staples Center.
"I'm not sure what press conference you're talking about," Wasserman said.
Back then the proposed stadium, which looked like a smaller version of the New Meadowlands Stadium, would seat 64,000 and cost $450 million. It was Wasserman who pitched the plan to prospective partners Roski, Leiweke and supermarket mogul Ron Burkle. Roski and Burkle had unsuccessfully tried to bring the NFL back to Los Angeles before and had all but given up on the idea of building a new stadium for an NFL team when Wasserman came to them with the idea of building a stadium in South Park along 11th Street. The plan seemed like a no-brainer. They had purchased options for the land, Goodell was prepared to earmark the project for $150 million from the NFL's stadium fund and Los Angeles mayor James K. Hahn endorsed the project at the news conference, saying, "I'm really excited to bring the NFL back to Los Angeles. The plan you outlined represents the best chance we have to do that."
It seemed the NFL was destined to return to Los Angeles. Leiweke at one point even looked at the baby-faced Wasserman, who despite being the mastermind behind the project was ignored by most of the media who were more interested in speaking with established figures like Roski, Leiweke and Hahn. "If this works, Casey gets all the credit," Leiweke said. "If it doesn't, he gets all the blame."
Of course, it didn't work. It never seems to work in Los Angeles no matter how perfect the project appears. The proposed stadium actually flamed out quicker than any of its predecessors. Not even a month after the news conference to announce the project and unveil artist renderings of the stadium, AEG and the rest of the partners withdrew their plan amidst political opposition (Hahn and council member Jan Perry would be the only elected official to publically endorse the proposal) and unexpected competition from the Coliseum, which the NFL had already said was not a viable option for a team.
Just before losing out on bringing the NFL back to Los Angeles, however, Wasserman suffered the toughest loss of his life. On June 2, 2002, Lew Wasserman died of complications from a stroke. It was the first family member Wasserman had ever lost and it was unquestionably the most important figure in his life. To honor his late grandfather, Wasserman's Avengers wore black "LRW" patches on their jerseys the rest of the 2002 season; that season the team made the playoffs for the first time in its history.
As difficult as that one-month stretch was, Lew Wasserman had always preached the importance of persistence and anticipation to his grandson and Casey wasn't about to give up on his dream of bringing the NFL back to Los Angeles after one failed attempt.
"This is a complicated problem to bring a team back to L.A.," Wasserman said. "Frankly the solution we had back then was a complicated solution which required a lot of different things to fall into place to have success, which makes almost anything impossible. It's not complicated why two teams left and if you're not solving the problem why two teams left you're never going to solve the problem to attract a team back."
The idea seems so clear and simple to Wasserman, as he describes it now. He can't help but begin his sentences with "Look" and insert "Right?" after every statement to make sure it's as clear and simple to you, as well.
Wasserman had driven past the old West Hall of the Convention Center countless times over the past decade while going to Avengers games at Staples Center, but something was different this time as he drove around the hall before a meeting with Leiweke about two years ago.
"I don't know what made me think any differently that time than any other time," Wasserman said. "Maybe because it was during the daytime and usually when I go to Staples Center it's at night for an event."
Suddenly the detached West Hall, the oldest and most rundown part of the Los Angeles Convention Center, stuck out like an eyesore as he looked around at Staples Center, the Nokia Theatre and L.A. Live, now complete with the JW Marriott and Ritz Carlton Residences. Wasserman began looking at the area and picturing what a modern football stadium would look like in place of the relic that currently stood there.
"It seemed like an obvious place," Wasserman said. "If it fit it would make great sense, but I had no idea if it would fit or not."
After sketching a few outlines and drawing up a few versions on his computer, Wasserman took the idea to an architect who overlaid all 31 NFL stadiums over the site and amazingly enough they all fit, Wasserman said.
Wasserman took the idea to Leiweke, who was not only intrigued by the location and the business it could create for L.A. Live and, most importantly, AEG's newly built hotels and residences across the street, but by the retractable roof. They were no longer talking about an open air stadium for 10 NFL games but a climate-controlled events center which could host 50 events, ranging from conventions and trade shows to Super Bowls and Final Fours.
"One of the reasons there's not a team in L.A. is people have failed to make economic sense of the opportunity and one of the ways to make the economics more interesting is to create a venue that has a much more diverse capability to host events and has more economic generating power," Wasserman said. "Putting it where there's already an infrastructure is a huge advantage and putting a roof on it and connecting it to the convention center is the other way. Those two things make the economics of this idea unique relative to other ideas presented in L.A. and therefore give this a better chance of success."
Leiweke first met Wasserman at a political function at Casey's grandfather's house in 1996. In fact, most of Wasserman's influential friends past the age of 40, from former president Bill Clinton to former Dodgers owner Peter O'Malley, can trace their dealings with Casey through an introduction by Lew. Casey, however, has been able to sustain and grow those relationships long after a fleeting introduction with a charm and an air about him which prompted GQ magazine to compare him to Tom Cruise and the Kennedys.
While Lew often ruled with an iron fist and struck fear in the hearts of many he did business with, Casey carries himself with a refined kindness which belies the cutthroat business he has thrived in. Even those who have traded barbs with Leiweke and questioned the downtown stadium have a hard time finding anything bad to say about Wasserman.
"I think Casey has been very successful in his career," said John Semcken, vice president of Majestic Realty, who along with Roski is currently looking to build a football stadium in the City of Industry. "Of all of us, Casey actually owned a team that many other NFL owners owned and Casey's friends with the [NFL] commissioner. Casey does have some significant knowledge of football and how the operations work."
It's the reason Leiweke jumped at the chance to build a football stadium with Wasserman in 2002 and the reason he's willing to go to bat with him again now.
"He's well respected, he's well liked, he's well connected and he's experienced," Leiweke said. "I've never heard anyone say anything bad about Casey. Maybe his wife once or twice while she was mad at him, but Casey is extremely well respected."
At a recent charity event in Beverly Hills, O'Malley and Larry King gushed over Wasserman and the possibility of the kid they've known since he was knee high bringing the NFL back to Los Angeles.
"Casey would be a great owner," said King, who was a Sunday morning regular at Nate 'n Al's along with the Wassermans. "They don't come any better than Casey Wasserman. He learned from the best in Lew."
Wasserman's dream to build a football stadium was first hatched over those Sunday morning pumpernickel bagels with his grandfather growing up. If his dream becomes a reality, he will be spending many Sunday mornings in the fall walking around the completion of his vision, telling his children about their great grandfather and how dreams can come true. It would be the kind of fairy tale ending to a Hollywood story Lew Wasserman made a living putting on the silver screen.
Arash Markazi is a columnist and writer for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter.