Question: What do a $700,000 tennis tournament in the United Arab Emirates, Japanese magazine advertisements depicting the son of the British prime minister endorsing whiskey and the investment portfolio of professional basketball player Adrian Dantley have in common?
Answer: All are the creations of ProServ Inc., the far-flung Washington based sports marketing, promoting and legal and financial counseling conglomerate headed by Donald Dell, former U.S. Davis Cup captain.
Cochairman and one of the founders of this week's $200,000 Washington Star International Tennis Championships, Dell directs an organization whose meteoric rise during the 1970s is but one result of the professional sports explosion of that period with its attendent six- and seven-figure salaries and megabucks waiting to be plucked in the form of broadcast commercials and product endorsements.
From a one-room law office overlooking an alley in 1970, the operation grew first into a sports-centered law firm -- Dell, Craighill, Fentress and Benton -- before adding ProServ as a marketing and investments arm.
It is now a multimillion-dollar-a-year business with 14 lawyers and a corps of tax, financial and marketing specialists spilling over two floors of the Brawner building on 17th Street NW overlooking Farragut Square, with branch offices in New York, Sydney, Paris and Tokyo.
A fully owned subsidiary, ProServ Television, produces television broadcast of about 50 sporting events a year, including the French and Italian open tennis tournaments, the Volvo Masters and the Colgate Series Championships. The broadcasts are distributed worldwide.
"ProServ is a very natural outgrowth of the explosion in all sports," says Dell. "I knew the business was going to grow, but I never dreamed it would grow as fast and as far as it has.
"The needs of the athlete have changed dramatically as sports have become more of a business," said Dell, who believes that the superstars in sports now command a following not unlike those of rock music stars.
Beginning with Dell's Davis Cup friends Arthur Ashe, Stan Smith, Bob Lutz and Charles Pasarell in 1970, the firm has steadily enlarged the stable of sports celebrities it represents. It landed four of the first-round picks in this year's National Basketball Association draft -- more than any other agent or firm. The four, Buck Williams of Maryland, Al Wood of North Carolina, Darnell Valentine of Kansas and Charles Bradley of Wyoming, joined a clientele that already included 40-45 professional tennis players, including about half of the world's top 30, and about two dozen of the top NBA players.
Moses Malone, Phil Ford and Dantley are Dell-ProServ clients, as are tennis luminaries Tracy Austin, Ivan Lendl, Ilie Nastase, Gene Mayer, Roscoe Tanner, Brian Teacher and Brian Gottfried; Sonny Jurgensen, and Mark Thatcher, who is a race car driver and the son of the Margaret Thatcher.
Last winter the firm signed figure skater Tai Babilonia, then appearing with the Ice Capades. Raymond S. Benton, ProServ's senior vice president for marketing, says that signing broke new ground.
"We're looking to see what other kinds of celebrities we can service, other sports figures, media personalities, entertainers," Benton said.
Once athletes are signed, Benton said, "We do everything for them, from answering their mail, paying their bills to doing their taxes, handling their endorsements and appearances and finding them coaches."
Former Maryland basketball star Tom McMillen, currently under contract to the Atlanta Hawks, recalls it was the Dell law firm that negotiated his contracts to play basketball in Europe while he studied at Oxford on a Rhodes scholarship.
"The law firm represents me in my contract negotiations. ProServ does my appearances and speaking engagements and handles my investment package. They're very honest and capable and they work very have," McMillen said. The firm is also helping him to find a publisher for a book he's writing on America's insatiable appetite for sports, he said.
McMillen said he's not into personal product endorsement, but many of the ProServ athletes are. Austin, promoting a camera and a soft drink in television commercials, Nastase pushing cigars and Thatcher endorsing whiskey in the Japanese magazine advertisements are the result of ProServ efforts. Endorsements generally net the firm commissions of up to 20 percent; legal work is done at an hourly rate and an annual retainer is charged for handling investments.
In the minds of most of the consuming public, argues Benton, there is little sophisticated differentiation between one competing product and another, and this is where a well-known athlete can make a difference.
"A professional athlete's endorsement can be instrumental in strengthening an existing image or in establishing a new position in the marketplace," said a ProServ prospectus to potential advertisers.
It is virtually an article of faith in the Dell organization that in the world of professional sports, where an athlete can earn vast sums in a short period of time, the name of the game is not what an athlete makes, but what he gets to keep.
"A kid out of college with a $2 million contract is in partnership with the government. He is sometimes surprised to learn that what he really has is a $1 million contract," Dell said.
To direct the investment portfolios of its athlete-clients, ProServ six years ago signed Dean Smith, who has a masters degree in business administration at the University of Southern California.
"The overall goal is that when a player retires, we will have maximized their financial security," said Smith, who is said to invest upward of $10 million a year on behalf of ProServ clients in projects such as real estate, gas and oil.
"We think the first criterion is that it has to be a sound investment," said Smith, no relation to the North Caroline basketball coach. "There are a lot of tax-aggressive investments where you can put up $100,000 and you get $400,000 in tax writeoffs. But if you invest $100,000 in something and in five years it's down to zero it doesn't do that much good to save money on taxes."
The firm also advises its clients in the conduct of their personal lives. When former Maryland basketball star John Lucas was having problems in his personal life and was failing to show up for games and practices with the Golden State Warriors, he talked frequently with David Falk, a lawyer who handles a subtantial amount of the organization's basketball business.
"We get closely involved in the lives of our clients," Falk said. "I like to believe this has really helped a guy like John Lucas because he freely talked to us about things he might not have wanted to talk about the someone else. not have wanted to talk about the someone else.
"There are players I speak to almost every day. Adrian Dantley is one of them. The level of trust and confidence we can build up enables us to do our job better. There is a great sense of pride to me that not only is a guy out there playing well, but he is also learning about his own business affairs."
Representing and counseling athletes is only one side of the Dell-ProServ operation. Since the day in the late 1960s when Dell approached The Washington Post and the Washington Star with the idea of a major tennis tournament in Washington (the Star brought the idea and The Post turned it down), he has been heavily involved in promoting sports contests around the globe.
Take, for example, the tennis tournament in Dubai last November. As Stephen Disson, who handles special projects for the ProServ operation, recalls it, he was sitting in his office one day last spring when the telephone rang. On the line was a man named Aubrey Dismukes, a former helicopter pilot in Vietnam who was then earning his living piloting the royal helicopters of the oil-rich sheiks in the United Arab Emirates.
The ruling sheik in Dubai, Dismukes explained to an incredulous Disson, was intereted to having a tennis tournament in Dubai and he was willing to spend money to pull it off. The event would be world class, of course, and the sheik would put up $680,000 in prize money and spend $1 million building a tennis stadium that could seat 3,500. Could ProServ supply the players and run the tournament?
"Everyone else he approached kind of laughed him off," Disson said. "But I pursued it and we met with their lawyers at Wimbledon that year and made a deal. They built the tennis stadium in 99 days.
ProServ lined up 16 players, including Mayer and Nastase, and 30 Wimbledon linesmena and umpires from England, who traveled to Dubai at the sheik's expense. In the best Wimbledon tradition, strawberries and cream were imported from Australia at $5 a bowl.
Each compeitor received a minimum fee of $25,000 with a $125,000 award for the championship going to Wojtek Fibak of Poland, who beat Nastase in the final. It was the largest purse and the largest first place award of any of the tournaments on the professional circuit.
"That's the way the sheik wanted it," said Disson.
Naturally, the tournament was filmed by ProServ Television. "We took it all around the world," said Bob Briner, a former television liaison man with the Miami Dolphins who now heads up the television operations for ProServ.
"We brought it back to America and we sold it in several other countries. But the main signals went to the Arab world."
In the last year, ProServ has arranged to tennis matches of a smaller scale in such diverse places as Mexico City, Kuala Lumpur, Tel Aviv, Caracas, Buenos Aires and Singapore, not to mention Altanta, Dallas and San Diego. This spring in a joint effort with the NBA, it sent 16 top NBA players to Tokyo to compete in three East-West all star contests.
Like the Dubai tennis match, many of those events are filmed and sold by ProServ Television, one of the fastest growing aspects of the Dell-ProServ operation.
This weekend, for example, the ProServ cameras are in Newark, Ohio, for the World Baseball Federation Championships, a competition of high school age baseball teams from eight countries. One of the leading teams is a collection of all-stars from Korea, and ProServ is televising the games via satellite to Korea, where they are being shown on Korean network television.
"High school baseball is very big in Korea," Briner said. "They can get 50,000-60,000 people in a stadium for one game."
As long as 12 years ago, Briner, who is also a former director of athletics at Eastern Michigan University, began televising sports events for Dell, but only within the last two years has ProServ Television been formally organized as a subsidiary. Most of its broadcasts are distributed via cable television, although a few are carried on the major networks.
Briner sees nothing but growth ahead. "There is still no end in sight in this country and more and more of the developing countries are becoming viable television markets," he said.
Moreover, he said, the firm is moving now into dics and video cassettes on which programs can be stored for later use.
Already produced is a four-hour video cassette on the fundamentals of tennis, featuring instruction from Ashe, Lendl and Smith, and a similar project is under way on golf, Briner said.
And now, ProServ is moving into the world of culture. Briner's first effort in this sphere is series of five 30-minute cassettes on the life and works of Rembrandt, but he says that's only the beginning.
"You have to remember, culture is much bigger in other parts of the world than it is in America," he said. "In Japan, a program on a composer or an artist will double the ratings of a sports contest."