Entrepreneur builds sports business by listening

One thing leads to another. Or, as Lonnie Cooper puts it, “listen and evolve.”

That’s what Cooper has done for 25 years as he built his Atlanta sports agency, CSE, from one to 126 employees by capitalizing on related niches, one after another.

Lonnie Cooper

Lonnie Cooper

Looking back, it’s quite an impressive — and logical — string of services, possibly a textbook case on integrating various opportunities without growing too fast or abandoning the core business.

He was aided, I think, by the relatively small and connected world of sports, which often enjoys high profit margins and functions on word-of-mouth recommendations. Still, I haven’t heard of too many local businesses that have developed quite like this.

“It’s very systematic,” Copper, a 56-year-old Waycross native, said. “Be methodical and listen [to clients].  … Take it step-by-step.”

First, Cooper represented former Atlanta Hawks guard Spud Webb in contract negotiations with the team. That led to former Hawks coaches Mike Fratello and Lenny Wilkens, who hired Cooper for endorsement representation. That led to representing Wilkens in contract negotiations with the team.

That led to representing a host of other NBA coaches, which was an unfilled niche at the time. Once he started representing coaches, Cooper could no longer represent NBA players because there was a conflict of interest. So the NBA coaching business led him to NCAA coaches. And since basketball players were off limits, he focused on representing baseball players through the years, from John Smoltz to Jason Heyward.

And that led to two key questions that became the foundation for another expansion — What do players do after their career ends and what do coaches do when they get fired?

Broadcasting, of course. That led to a new niche representing former players and coaches in media negotiations, as well as professional broadcasters like Ernie Johnson Jr.

If you’re representing them in contracts, why not endorsements? And if you’re representing broadcasters, players and coaches in endorsements for marketers, why not get in the marketing game with both feet, helping companies pitch their products, too?

Finally, if athletes and companies are pitching products, why not have a studio to produce the commercial spots? And, if you’re doing commercials, how about TV production and Internet marketing?

To be sure, it wasn’t a straight linear progression like I’ve just described. There were plenty of peaks and valleys. But through it all, Cooper said listening to clients talk about their current and future needs was the key. All of us, especially entrepreneurs, can get consumed by the immediate tasks at hand. Cooper never did.

For example, as Smoltz was phasing out of pitching for the Braves, Cooper talked to him about the next phase of his life. Smoltz was interested in broadcasting, so Cooper helped arrange small broadcasting gigs that turned in larger ones, with Cooper negotiating the deals.

Despite the bitter emotions that can develop in the heat of contract negotiations, Cooper said he always tried to put them aside and move on.

“I don’t burn bridges,” he said. “We built this [company] as a marathon.”

- Henry Unger, The Biz Beat

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4 comments Add your comment


April 12th, 2011
5:48 am

Hard work and perseverance mixed in with innovation. A sure winner. Congratulations!


April 12th, 2011
9:13 am

25 years in the Agency arena is quite an accomplishment. Lonnie’s business ethics and ability to see beyond the current landscape have paved the way for this agency’s continued success. In today’s environment, it is quite refreshing to see hard work and commitment to service be recognized in the marketplace.


April 13th, 2011
3:38 am

Hopefully he negotiates Jason Heyward a long stay in Atlanta.


April 14th, 2011
2:57 pm

I really need to meet this man, and ask him a few questions!!