CAA Sports scored big at the NFL Draft in late April, with a record 11 players picked in the first round—the next most by an agency was three. It was a huge win for the football division, which is led by uber-agents Tom Condon, Jimmy Sexton and Todd France.
But while the public focused on CAA’s new high-profile clients, the agency’s executives were scattered throughout the draft’s Arlington, Texas, home, AT&T Stadium, toiling for myriad nonathlete clients. Former Dallas Cowboys tight end Jason Witten and ESPN’s Joe Tessitore were in a luxury suite, the ink barely dry on deals that would make them the new voices of Monday Night Football. Pizza Hut was at the draft, its first NFL event since it replaced Papa John’s as an official sponsor of the league. The WWE was close to wrapping up a blockbuster $2.35 billion TV deal with a number of competing network executives who were already at the stadium. TV executives were cooking up a pay-per-view golf event between Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson, while discussions were taking place regarding construction of sports venues in Milwaukee, San Francisco and Las Vegas.
The common thread: CAA was involved in all of those deals. CAA Sports is only 12 years old, but has a deep bench of talent that has decades of experience creating the most powerful, connected force in the sporting world. Revenue climbed sixfold over seven years from $49 million in 2010 to $300 million last year, and 2018 is set to be CAA’s biggest year yet after it gets a cut of the $5 billion worth of deals it closed between May and August.
The agency’s roots g0 back to the mid-1970s when Michael Ovitz, Ron Meyer and three other William Morris agents left to form Creative Artists Agency, which eventually ranked among the most powerful in Hollywood. Private equity firm TPG bought a 35% stake in 2010 and raised it to majority control four years later.
CAA Sport’s most public dealings still revolve around the playing contracts of superstar athletes such as Chris Paul, Drew Brees, J.J. Watt and Dwyane Wade. Since July, four NBA clients and a pair of NFL stars (Matt Ryan and Aaron Donald) have signed agreements worth at least $130 million each. But increasingly the non-athlete divisions of CAA Sports are closing the biggest deals.
The media division, headed by Alan Gold, and sports broadcasting arm, led by Nick Khan, worked together to broker three major sports-related deals for clients this summer. WWE was an Endeavor client, but the wrestling promotion company turned to CAA because of potential conflicts, as Endeavor was in the market for a new broadcast agreement with its own UFC property, acquired in 2016 for $4 billion.
“Our people had intel on what we thought the market could bear,” says CAA Sports co-head Howard Nuchow. “We got WWE to understand there were some more dollars in there. We gave them reads on the market over a long period of time.”
CAA delivered WWE an above-market deal with Comcast’s USA Network for Raw and 21st Century Fox’s Fox Sports for SmackDown Live, reportedly worth a combined $2.35 billion over five years, more than triple the old pact. CAA apparently did have a read that was different from anybody else’s. WWE’s stock has doubled since rumblings of the deal started in mid-May, putting $1.45 billion in paper profits in the pocket of WWE chairman and CEO Vince McMahon.
“Media rights are a very fast moving and complex marketplace that are evolving in real time and our team has been leading a long time,” says fellow CAA Sports co-head Michael Levine.
Golf is the one sport where CAA does not represent any athletes, although it has advised on a number of media deals for the PGA Tour and the PGA of America. But when it came time to negotiate the TV component this summer of the historic head-to-head November match between Mickelson and Woods, CAA was the choice to do the deal, despite the fact that the two golfers were respective clients of major CAA competitors Excel Sports and Lagardère Sports.
“It is clear to me that with the caliber of guys CAA has assembled, the agency wants to be a lightning rod in the sports arena,” says Peter Guber.
The result was a worldwide media rights agreement with WarnerMedia’s Turner division for “The Match.” The Woods-Mickelson live event (including pay-per-view) and accompanying content will be distributed across a range of Turner and AT&T platforms. “We had just been involved in some of the biggest media deals of the year,” says Nuchow, “and were very comfortable with what most of the network heads were looking for in terms of programming.”
The cherry on top for CAA’s media division was a seven-year deal with ESPN in August for the boxing promoter Top Rank, a longtime client. The pact is billed as “the most comprehensive, exclusive rights agreement in the history of boxing.”
Levine, 46, and Nuchow, 48, run a global operation with Nuchow based in Los Angeles, while Levine patrols CAA’s offices in New York’s Chrysler Building. “Vino” and “Howie” to everyone in their orbits are natural-born salesmen and dealmakers, who still like to “get dirty” at the negotiating table.
The pair were hired together in early 2007 to run CAA Sports and immediately started expanding beyond representing athletes.
“Howard spent 10 years helping build Mandalay, and he wouldn’t have left to make shoe deals for footballers,” Peter Guber, his ex-boss and mentor, told Variety at the time. “It is clear to me that with the caliber of guys CAA has assembled, that the agency wants to be a lightning rod in the sports arena. They want to be the first stop for anyone who wants to play in the sports arena.” Levine and Nuchow’s first hire was Paul Danforth to lead CAA Property Sales, which is responsible for some of the agency’s biggest scores.
Danforth’s division helped launch several of the most prominent sports venues of the past decade, handling the sponsorship sales for Yankee Stadium, Levi’s Stadium and Madison Square Garden’s renovation. Its latest high-profile act is Chase Center, the new $1 billion San Francisco home for the Golden State Warriors that’s is set to open in 2019.
When CAA signed Golden State as a client, Guber was in the room as a Warriors’ co-owner. Guber, who has known Nuchow and Levine for more than two decades, pulled them aside and only half-kiddingly said, “Don’t screw this up.” CAA didn’t. Danforth’s team, working in conjunction with the Warriors, secured $2 billion in revenue from sponsorships, luxury suites and “membership fees” for season-ticket holders, a record for a sports arena.
The centerpiece is the record 20-year arena naming rights deal with JPMorgan Chase worth an estimated $400 million. Separate divisions of CAA represented Chase, a longtime CAA consulting client, and the Warriors at the negotiating table. Was that a conflict? Not in the eyes of Levine and Nuchow. “In a deal like that, the scrutiny is so much greater on the job that is being done by each side that you have to outkick the coverage,” says Levine, adding that neither side got everything they wanted in the deal.
“CAA knows everybody and they are in everything,” says Aaron Rodgers. “They are able to connect the dots better than any representation I’ve ever had.”
CAA was wired into the sports world through its athletes and brands wanting to be a part of sports, but the 2016 acquisition of ICON Venue Group opened the agency to a new clientele. “The ICON acquisition allowed us to connect with teams at the ownership level,” says Levine.
ICON acts as the project manager for new sports venues, a kind of “super general contractor,” per Levine. It built the Milwaukee Bucks’ Fiserv Forum, which opened last month and will handle the surrounding mixed-use development. MLS stadiums in Nashville and Atlanta are CAA projects, as well as the Las Vegas Stadium and practice facility for the Oakland Raiders with their move to Sin City for 2020. ICON is also responsible for the Warriors’ new home.
And CAA’s athlete business continues to attract new talent. In addition to the NFL draft picks, CAA reps 11 picks from the 2018 NBA Draft and the first two-way MLB player in a century in Shohei Ohtani, who just finished his rookie year with the Los Angeles Angels.
The agency also added two-time NFL MVP Aaron Rodgers to its roster for off-field work last year (Athletes First still handles Rodgers’ NFL contracts). One of the first things Rodgers and CAA did together was with ICON client Milwaukee Bucks. Rodgers is a deity-like figure in Wisconsin for his role as an All-Pro quarterback with the Green Bay Packers. He wanted to establish some more roots in the area by buying a “super, super, super minority ownership stake” in the Bucks. Rodgers says it was a dream of his to buy a piece of the team ever since it was sold to Marc Lasry and Wes Edens for $550 million in 2014. He tried twice before to purchase a minority stake but says his previous agents couldn’t get it done.
“CAA allowed me to have an easy conversation with the Bucks,” says Rodgers. “The deal came together in no time. It was super easy—like I always thought it should be.”
Rodgers has also tapped CAA’s reach to connect with his favorite authors and feed his passion for documentaries, with an interest in being on the producing side of them. “They know everybody and they are in everything,” he says. “They are able to connect the dots better than any representation I’ve ever had.”
Connections are what CAA Sports is all about. In the Forbes SportsMoney Index (which tracks how links in the sports world fit together to create wealth) CAA is 9th overall and the top agency, with 54th-ranked Excel Sports the next highest agency. CAA heads Forbes’ annual ranking of sports agencies with $9.4 billion in contracts for its athletes, more than double Wasserman. Eleven of the top 50 most powerful agents are from CAA; Wasserman is next at five.
CAA’s connections were on display in June with an exhibition golf event for Rodgers and NBA client Chris Paul. Gridiron stars faced off against those from the hardwood in a Ryder Cup format. State Farm was the main sponsor and TNT aired a one-hour special. The dates for the 2019 event are already booked. “They take my passions and turn them into fun things,” says Rodgers.
The agency is pushing deeper into sports with a new executive search business and a social impact group to advise companies on how to spend their dollars in a socially conscious way. But one of its major concentrations is outside the U.S., where CAA’s sports business is still in its infancy. “We are just starting to hit the international front in a bigger way,” says Nuchow. “It is the early days, and we are planting flags”
To date, CAA has worked with top international teams (Chelsea FC, Barcelona) and players (Cristiano Ronaldo, Harry Kane). It is expanding its footprint in handling sponsorships for two premier properties in racing’s Formula 1 and soccer federation UEFA. CAA Acquired Chinese sports marketing agency Momentum Sports this summer and folded it into CAA China. The deal helped the agency expand the audio company Bose to China (Rodgers is also a new ambassador for Bose).
© 2018 Forbes | This article was written by Kurt Badenhausen and first appeared in Forbes 9 Oct 2018.