Pretty much forever, one question has hovered over Casey Wasserman: Would he ever be the power hitter that Grandpa Lew was?
It didn’t matter that Wasserman was considered a nice guy, something for which his grandfather, the super-scary agent and studio boss Lew Wasserman, was not especially known. When boys grow up in Hollywood as Casey did — rich, surrounded by celebrities, with VIP concert tickets a phone call away — they often emerge as world-class jerks. Casey somehow came out a mensch.
Yes, that’s nice. But could Wasserman ever follow in his grandfather’s footsteps as a force in business, civic and politics?
It is no longer a question.
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Wasserman, 39, is chief executive of the Wasserman Media Group, a sports-focused management and marketing firm. Founded 11 years ago, this $150 million business is now one of the largest sports agencies in the world, negotiating lucrative television and endorsement deals and handling naming rights for billion-dollar complexes, including MetLife Stadium in New Jersey. Nike, Pepsi and Microsoft are corporate clients, and individual clients include Derrick Rose of the Chicago Bulls and Andrew Luck of the Indianapolis Colts.
Astoundingly, Wasserman Media represented the No. 1 overall draft pick last year in five professional sports: men’s and women’s basketball, baseball, soccer and football.
“There’s a sense of permanence about Casey,” said Adam Silver, the incoming commissioner of the NBA. “You know you are going to be dealing with him for a very long time.”
Wasserman has also become a big deal behind the scenes in his hometown. That new $116 million medical building at the University of California, Los Angeles? He had it built, with his foundation providing significant financing. A $300 million movie museum will soon rise on Wilshire Boulevard, a partnership of the Oscars organization and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, where he serves on the board. The alliance was his idea.
“I only see him growing in stature, and he’s already one of the most civically active philanthropists in the city,” said Antonio Villaraigosa, the former mayor of Los Angeles, citing the tens of millions of dollars that Wasserman and his foundation have funneled to the city’s beleaguered public-school system.
Wasserman also sits at the center of continued efforts to build a stadium that would bring the National Football League back to the Los Angeles after an 18-year absence.
“His influence extends far beyond what you see on the surface,” said Roger Goodell, the NFL commissioner.
As for political influence, well, put it this way: Hillary Rodham Clinton likely did not have a two-hour breakfast with Wasserman a few weeks ago just to shoot the breeze. Wasserman is a trustee of the Bill, Hillary & Chelsea Clinton Foundation. He is also a significant Democratic donor and fundraiser.
He started Wasserman Media in 2002 using family money. He was early to see the potential of action sports (snowboarding, skateboarding, surfing), and that division of his firm has grown from an $800,000 annual business a decade ago to a $16 million one today.
Wasserman also learned how to wield a checkbook. His company has made at least 10 significant acquisitions over the past decade. Perhaps the most important was in 2006, when he paid an estimated $12 million to acquire the practice of Arn Tellem, the superstar agent.
Now, a big decision looms for Wasserman — one that he will surely be asked about at Allen & Co.’s annual media and technology jamboree, which begins on Tuesday in Sun Valley, Idaho. IMG Worldwide, the world’s largest sports agency, is on the block. Will Wasserman bid?
He figures that his agency — which is profitable, although he declined to say to what degree — has enough internal momentum to double in size over the next five years. Growth has already been impressive. In 2007, Wasserman Media represented 400 athletes; its client roster now totals about 1,300.
Wasserman declined to comment about IMG. He has privately told confidants, however, that he might be interested in pieces of that company, whose operations range from athlete training to fashion-show management.
“Casey is not interested in immediate gratification or being the biggest,” said Tellem, who now oversees the team sports division of Wasserman Media. “He’s about focus and being a leader.”
Tellem said Wasserman infuses a personal touch that is missing at what he called “faceless” agencies.
“Casey sticks his neck out,’’ Tellem said. “People know there is a person who is responsible at the end of the day.”
Tellem pointed to April, when the basketball player Jason Collins, a Wasserman client, revealed his homosexuality. Among the many who expressed public support for Collins was President Obama — something that was not an accident.
Behind the scenes, Wasserman had phoned Bill Clinton, who had his staff reach out to Valerie Jarrett, the senior White House adviser.
As Wasserman contemplates a bid for IMG, he must weigh a challenge coming from an unlikely corner: Hollywood. The two biggest talent agencies, Creative Artists Agency and William Morris Endeavor, are both likely IMG bidders. Creative Artists, in particular, has been muscling into sports as the movie business shrinks and star wattages dim. Another movie company, Relativity Media, has also been coming on strong in sports; last year, it bought the football agency Maximum Sports Management and SFX Baseball.
“Sports will continue to be more and more valuable while movies and television will become more and more challenged,” Wasserman said. “Sports is predictable and unreplicable in a world where almost nothing else is.”
Wasserman, who is married with two young children, works from an office near UCLA. But he conducts much of his business in the field. Last month, he flew to Philadelphia and hung out around the putting green at the Merion Golf Club, where the U.S. Open was about to begin.
Wearing aviator sunglasses, Wasserman warmly greeted clients like Kyle Stanley and Rickie Fowler. U.S. Golf Association officials pulled Wasserman aside to ask for help with a new ad campaign. Perhaps one of his young players would participate?
After some banter that took place outside of my earshot, Wasserman said brightly, “We will see if we can make it happen.”
While almost no one will say anything negative about him on the record — perhaps a sign of how influential he has become — some of his fellow Hollywood scions in particular grouse that Wasserman’s nice-guy persona is a well-practiced shtick.
A few current and former employees say he can be controlling, aloof and impatient. Others fault his decision at 18 to change his surname to Wasserman from Myers, calling it a cynical effort to capitalize on his grandfather’s legacy.
Wasserman disputed that notion.
“It was a simple reflection of the facts: I was raised by my mom and my grandparents,” he said.
His parents divorced when he was 7, and his father, Jack Myers, largely exited his life. Myers, an avid golfer, died in 2010 and is partly remembered for a guilty plea in a 1990 drug-money-laundering case.
“If I had any interest in trading on my grandfather’s success, I didn’t need to change my name to do it,” Wasserman added.