“I was very concerned,” Dell recalled. “One of the hardest things in business is being able to say, ‘Thanks, but no thanks,’ and really get up and walk. But you have to send a message that whatever terms and conditions you’ve set are important.”
It turned out that French manufacturer Lacoste was looking to attach itself to an American tennis star. Roddick signed with Lacoste and wears the company logo to this day. Dell may have been lucky, but he stuck to his guns.
Through the years, Dell has been at the center of some of the most high-profile deals in sports, including the naming rights contracts for FedEx Field and Staples Center and deals for basketball legend Michael Jordan. Many of those negotiations are outlined in his new book, “Never Make the First Offer.”
But this week, he has been the center of attention as the co-founder of the Legg Mason Tennis Classic, now in its 41st edition. And he is still gleaming from being inducted last month into the International Tennis Hall of Fame. Though he was a former player, the nod was based on his work as contributor to the game.
“It was really exciting for me,” he said. “I won the Davis Cup but wasn’t a Grand Slam winner. And there are 119 voters from around the world. They are knowledgeable people about the sport of tennis. You have to get 75 percent of those actually voting. And that’s a tough standard.”
His list of contributions to tennis is long: founder of the ATP Tour; broadcaster; board member for every tennis-related organization imaginable. But he may be best known as the sport’s first agent and the man who brought a major tennis event to the District.
“A lot of people at the [United States Tennis Association] continue to seek Donald’s guidance in a lot of areas,” USTA president Lucy Garvin said. “He’s a terrific individual and really just a wealth of information. He’s spent the majority of his life promoting the sport. We have great respect for him.”
In reflecting on the Legg Mason Classic’s origins, Dell said he is perhaps most proud of working to build a tennis stadium in Northwest using private money. To raise funds, he helped institute one of the first versions of a personal seat license, raising more than $12 million.
Since the tournament’s founding, Dell has been heavily involved in directing its proceeds to the Washington Tennis & Education Foundation and in forming the Arthur Ashe Experience, a program for top high school varsity players who have also maintained good grades. Most graduates of the program, he said, have gone on to earn college scholarships.
Dell’s path toward working as a sports agent began when he was captain of the Davis Cup team. He had a law degree and had considered becoming a top litigator, but two of his players – Arthur Ashe and Stan Smith – convinced him to become their agent. He represented Ashe most of his career without a signed contract and has had a handshake agreement with Smith since 1971.
Those relationships led to the creation of ProServ, which was acquired by SFX Group, which in turn was acquired by investment firm Blue Equity. Dell holds a major stake in the company and is the television group president for the division known as Blue Entertainment Sports Television. At 71, he is still active in television negotiations for many sports and helps broker a wide range of sponsorship and advertising deals.
He still loves a good negotiation – even when he ends up walking away from the table.
“I’ve been doing this for 35 years,” he said. “The sports industry is small. Everybody knows everybody after a while. They also know your style. And they have to believe you.
“And the only way they’re going to believe you is that if you can’t work it out, you have to say no.”