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It was 1985. A wannabe sports marketer — Lonnie Cooper — approached a wannabe pro basketball player — Spud Webb — outside the Atlanta Hawks locker room. From that one encounter, Cooper went on to represent scores of other athletes and coaches — including Atlanta icons John Smoltz and Lenny Wilkens — in endorsement deals and contract negotiations over the past 29 years.
But Cooper, now 60, built a lot more than a sports agency.
As the owner and chief executive of CSE, formerly Career Sports & Entertainment, he used one contact and relationship after another to build a multifaceted company that represents broadcasters and does strategic marketing for major corporations, including expanding their digital presence. He talks about how he went from working alone in his Atlanta apartment to a Cobb County office building with more than 200 employees.
Q: What did you learn while growing up in the small, southeast Georgia town of Waycross?
A: It was a close-knit community that showed me how to build relationships.
My mother was a homemaker, but she was very involved in the community. My father owned retail liquor stores. Two stores were in the so-called white community and one was in the black community.
As a little boy, I would beg my father every Saturday to take me to work with him. As I got older, I worked in the stores and began understanding business.
I understood supply and demand, and marketing. I understood waste. Our profit margins were only 10 percent. If a bottle of liquor broke, we would have to sell a whole case to make up for that.
Q: During your junior and senior years in high school, the area’s two segregated schools were merged into one. How did that affect you?
A: I knew some of the black families. My father had introduced me while I was working in the store.
There was a lot of tension between the two groups. The principal leaned on me to keep the peace. I was elected president of the student body.
I just kept talking to everyone — let’s figure out how to get along. It was stressful. We had desegregation, the Vietnam War and the draft going on at the same time.
I learned from my mom to see the positive side of every person you meet. I run my company the same way. I don’t think there’s a generic way to look at every employee or every client.
Q: You majored in marketing at UGA, selling ads for your own business to help support yourself while in school. Why did you take a career detour when you graduated?
A: I really wanted go into radio and TV ad sales. That was my dream out of college, but the industry got hit at the time and I went into the scrap metal business.
I bought scrap metal from industrial companies. After three years, the owner died and I bought the business with two other employees. But after five more years, I got out of it. I wanted to get back to my roots in marketing.
Q: How did you do that?
A: I was at an Atlanta Hawks preseason game in October 1985. After the game, I made my way down and waited outside the locker room for Spud Webb.
When he came out, I introduced myself and said, “This is amazing. With your height (shortest player in the NBA at that time) and who you’re playing against, I think there’s some marketing opportunities for you.”
He said, “Hey man, I’m just trying to make the team right now.”
But we talked some more and he said he would be interested if I could bring him some opportunities. We exchanged numbers. I was able to build trust with him.
Q: What’s the lesson here for others?
A: When you see an opportunity, you seize it. He needed me and I needed him.
I didn’t go up to Magic Johnson or Larry Bird. This guy was starting out and I was starting out. He’s 5 feet, 5 inches, and he’s trying to make it in the NBA. The odds aren’t good for him. The odds aren’t good for me, either. But if we do it together, we might build something here.
You really have to believe in yourself and believe in your purpose. Every one of us has to wake up with a purpose, because if you just believe in yourself you’re probably going to be cocky. That’s misguided.
My purpose in going up to Spud was to talk about what can I do for him. He believed that. From that time, I knew I would build a business.
Q: What did you do for Spud?
A: I went to a college buddy who was working in marketing at Coke at the time, Steve Koonin (current Hawks CEO). I told him I represented Spud and he came up with the idea to put him in a marketing campaign for Church's Chicken with the tallest player in the NBA, 7-foot, 6-inch Manute Bol.
The campaign was a leg and a wing (Spud could “fly” to the basket) with a Coke for $1.50. They sold out like that (snapped his finger).
That put me on the map. Then when Spud won the NBA’s slam dunk contest, my phone started ringing.
Q: How did you capitalize on that?
A: Spud introduced me to his coach, Mike Fratello. I started doing marketing deals for him — with Coke, Toyota and a construction company. I got him on a radio call-in show.
Mike told other coaches about me, including Lenny Wilkens. I just mirrored what I did for Mike in other cities with other coaches.
Q: How did you go from endorsement deals to negotiating contracts for the coaches?
A: I had proved that I can build relationships. In 1989, Lenny Wilkens asked me to negotiate his contract with the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Then I started to negotiate other contracts for the coaches I was doing marketing with. I negotiated $1 million for Chuck Daly in New Jersey. Later, I negotiated for Lenny Wilkens in Atlanta — $25 million over 5 years.
My latest is Doc Rivers of the L.A. Clippers — $50 million for 5 years.
Q: What’s the standard commission on an NBA coach’s contract?
A: Four percent.
Q: What’s your annual revenue?
A: I don't tell my mother. We're not a public company.
Q: Rivers was outspoken during the recent controversy over Donald Sterling’s racist comments, saying he did not want to remain coach if the team wasn’t sold to another owner. What sticks in your mind about what he did?
A: Doc is a natural leader. His passion and humility kicked in.
He knew the importance of healing internally, not only with the players but with the employees of the L.A. Clippers. He cared about the ticket sales people and the marketing people, because they were scared. They didn’t know where this was going.
He told them that this was about a man who made a mistake and he’s gone from here. He told them that this was about having a united team. The people felt hope.
Q: You felt a lot of hope while building your business, bouncing from one area of representing people to another. How did you get into representing broadcasters?
A: Fired coaches needed jobs while they were waiting for other opportunities to coach.
Starting in the mid-1980s, I would get them into broadcasting as ESPN, TNT and other networks were expanding their coverage.
Now, we represent over 150 broadcasters.
Q: How did you start representing baseball players?
A: In the early 1990s, the Braves were getting hot and I got introduced to John Smoltz. I started doing marketing deals for him and a few other Braves.
Then I did his contract and have represented him for 25 years in baseball and broadcasting.
Q: How did you go from marketing individuals to marketing entire brands or companies?
A: In the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, Lenny Wilkens coached the dream team. I got him an endorsement deal with one of the Olympic sponsors, BellSouth.
After the Games, the company began talking with me about some strategic marketing ideas. I started working with them as a consultant. That led to working for other big companies, too.
Q: You then expanded into related businesses, including fast-growing digital marketing. Aside from building on each relationship, is there another key takeaway?
A: On every type of representation or negotiation, you've got to listen to the client and determine what your objectives are.
Every person is different in what they need. Are they thinking long-term or short-term? What are the family issues? Do they want security or the most amount of money?
The same with a corporation. Are you trying to build a brand, introduce a new product or increase sales of an existing product? Are you selling to businesses or consumers?
Q: What your best advice for younger people starting out? How should they approach job interviews with someone like you?
A: You have to go in prepared with knowledge of the company.
You have to go in with a specific plan, explaining how you’re going to make a difference. Don’t come in here and say you’re coming to learn. You’re being hired to bring value. Have a specific mindset of what you want to do and can do.
Be very, very sensitive about how you’re looking on social media, because we’re all looking. If you’re posting pictures that your mother shouldn’t be seeing, be careful. Your interviewer will see them, too.