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Unhappy With Management Firm, Lendl Plans to Start Own Agency

December 15, 1987|JULIE CART | Times Staff Writer

Ivan Lendl, whose relentless tennis style has made him worth close to $50 million, has finally found someone he trusts to handle his money.

Himself.

Lendl is expected to announce this week that he is leaving ProServ, the management firm that has represented him for eight years, to form his own firm. His firm will perform promotional, financial and management services for athletes in much the same way as ProServ, the International Management Group and Advantage International do.

Lendl hinted as much last week at the Masters championships, saying he would make an announcement soon.

He has a multi-year contract with ProServ, which is believed to have a clause specifying Oct. 15 as a date on which Lendl may give 60 days' notice if he intends to leave the company. That makes today a red letter day.

At 27, Lendl will be getting into a business that is among the most competitive in sports. It is also a business few athletes get into while still at the top of their games.

Lendl joined ProServ in 1979, when he was a promising junior from Czechoslovakia, well before he broke in the top 10. Now, he is the undisputed No. 1 in men's tennis, has 70 tournament titles and is second only to John McEnroe in all-time victories.

At ProServ, Jerry Solomon, who handled Lendl's affairs for six years, would not comment on Lendl's possible move.

"There's definitely been talk about changes," Solomon said Monday, adding that such talk is part of normal negotiations. "We certainly have a valid existing contract."

Much of the speculation about Lendl's defection centers on the relationship between Solomon and Lendl, which has been described as strained.

"I think our relationship remains close and strong," Solomon said.

Lendl recently won an unprecedented fifth Masters title, tennis' year-ending, rankings-determining event. Lendl won $583,000 at the Stakes Match a few days before, and including prize money and bonuses from winning the Masters, Lendl made $1,593,000 in a little more than a week.

Any client who can earn $1.6 million in nine days is a client ProServ and other agencies wouldn't want to lose. Losing Lendl would mean more than losing an old friend. It would mean losing an old and familiar paycheck.

Sports agents take a fairly standard fee from clients for their services--from 3% to 6% for negotiating a contract, usually for an athlete in a team sport; 10% of prize money, and 15% for endorsements. There is also considerable income from exhibition and appearence fees in which the agent shares.

Consider that Boris Becker, who is ranked No. 5 in the world, made $5 million in endorsements in 1986.

Lendl's income from endorsements is in that range, which would have given ProServ, for Lendl's endorsements alone, $750,000 last year. Lendl has earned more than $2 million this year in prize money, which is more than $200,000 for ProServ. His money from exhibitions is in the seven-figure range, more money for ProServ.

Income generated from Lendl alone may be supporting ProServ's tennis division.

Lendl has apparently been asking himself some probing questions in the last year. Why would Lendl give that fee money to an agency when he, as one of the most cunning of professional athletes, believes himself capable of handling his own financial affairs?

Although Lendl may need help in sifting through lucrative endorsement offers, he hardly needs to pay an agent to seek them out.

But does ProServ need Lendl? If a promoter wants to put on a tennis exhibition and calls ProServ for Lendl, the agency has more leverage to get its other tennis clients into the event. That way, an agency may use a top player as a magnet to draw business to the firm and spread the wealth to players who might not otherwise get the endorsement or play in the exhibition.

And, if athletes in other sports see someone of Lendl's stature at ProServ, they may, as Michael Jordan did, decide to sign up.

Not all tennis players are affiliated with major agencies. John McEnroe and Boris Becker, for example, are independent.

Whenever an agency has a top client and loses him, there is an immeasurable loss in prestige to that agency.

"It's not something that we like to see happen," Solomon said. "But the perception outside is worse that the reality inside. The business has grown far beyond the reliance on any No. 1 athlete."

His argument is that ProServ, which is a diversified, multifaceted company, does not rely on Lendl or Jordan, or any other single athlete, for survival.

Still, these are trying times for ProServ. The agency has been the subject of speculation since its president, Ray Benton, resigned last summer. ProServ, which sponsors 50 events per year, was thought to be overextended.

ProServ has gone from handling primarily tennis clients to promoting, sponsoring, packaging and marketing events in tennis, golf, baseball, football, volleyball and cycling. In October of 1986, ProServ Television was launched, and, according to some, further drained the company's resources.

There is also speculation that Lendl has been dissatisfied with the work of Solomon, formerly the head of ProServ's tennis division.

Solomon used to spend most of his time working with Lendl and his projects. It was Solomon, in fact, who engineered Lendl's public relations campaign, seeking to soften Lendl's often dour image.

Solomon has been promoted to executive vice president and chief operating officer for ProServ, however, and insiders say Lendl is angered that he's not getting more of Solomon's attention.

"I have always spent and continue to spend a great deal of time on (Lendl) and his affairs," Solomon said. "I certainly don't travel with him as much as I used to. But I would hope we have grown up and have less of a reliance on that."

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