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Legends of Sport Feature : Sports Agent and Entrepreneur Leonard Armato

From Left: Shaquille O’Neal with Agent Leonard Armato

From the Legends of Sport website, written by Andrew D. Bernstein

Sports agent and entrepreneur, Leonard Armato, is known for representing elite athletes Shaquille O’Neal, Hakeem Olajuwon and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. His resume includes creating the sports marketing brands of Golden Boy for Oscar De La Hoya and Dunkman for Shaq.

Leonard studied law and combined his passions for both the legal field and sports media to form Management Plus Enterprises.

“You got to do something you’re passionate about. I always wanted to help people because my dad was a professor and loved to share knowledge with people. Being a trial lawyer wasn’t for me,” Leonard said.

Leonard says his mentor, former USC basketball coach Stan Morrison, helped push him towards his current career. “He said, ‘Well, you play basketball, you understand the mentality of an athlete, why don’t you become a sports lawyer, and help these people who are losing all their money and who only play three, four years and then have nothing, help them make the transition from professional athlete to business person.’”

Leonard’s first client was former USC and NFL defensive legend Ronnie Lott. He recalls meeting Ronnie and selling him on himself as sports lawyer despite his lack of clientele and without backing from a large firm.

“I said, ‘Let me make you an offer you can’t refuse. I will work for you for 30 days for free. You don’t have to pay me a dime. I will prove to you that I’m the very best for you. And if at the end of 30 days, you don’t agree with me, I will walk away. You have no obligation whatsoever.’ And it caught him off guard.”

Leonard’s pitch worked and he devoted “24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year,” to proving his value with his first client and eventually turning sports management into a business. Leonard quit his litigation job to pursue sports management and help athletes transform the way they market themselves.

“One of the things I’ve always enjoyed doing in my career is looking for challenges and trying to do something innovative. When I saw Shaq, I thought because he’s really unique. Maybe we can transform the way that athletes and celebrities are marketed,” Leonard said. He explains that Michael Jordan was the gold standard of endorsements and promoted products but Leonard wanted to push the boundaries for his athletes.

“Michael Jordan was the endorsement king. His agent did a great job of doing deals for him where you make a bunch of money endorsing Nike products, you make a bunch of money endorsing Fruit of the Loom, or Gatorade, or McDonald’s. But I started to think, well, maybe an athlete could be a brand, and he could own his own intellectual property, and ultimately license it to all different partners.”

Leonard compares his approach to David Stern’s management of the NBA and explains how he built value among his clients by first creating a sense of community.

“Through feeling a part of the community, you can build more value in the brand. What we did was shocking, I’ll never forget, the first deal we did was two deals, they were Reebok and Pepsi. Both of them agreed to put a lot of marketing behind Shaq. I got Lee Clow, who is a legendary creative, to create a logo that we would own and license to Reebok. He created the Shaq Dunkman logo and the associated logos. We licensed it to Reebok. We licensed it to everybody who was in business with us and said, ‘You got to use this in your advertising and that will help build value in that brand.’ It all kind of worked.”

In addition to working one-on-one with clients, Leonard is responsible for creating the AVP tour: The first professional beach volleyball league and tournament.

“When I was a young sports agent, I used to play beach volleyball with friends. Before it was a pro sport, some of them asked me, ‘Oh, can we organize and become more professional.’ Back in the mid -80s, I created the AVP revival tour and it was quite successful. It was like the first lifestyle sport and it grew and exploded.”

After a hiatus, Leonard returned to the then-struggling AVP and helped launch it into a higher level of sport.

“The thing that I did, which I’m kind of proud of, is I put men and women together under one umbrella and with equal prize money, and equal television time for both men and women. It sort of grew. The next iteration of AVP which really launched beach volleyball is a women’s sport.”

“I’ve spoken a lot about inequality in sports when it comes to gender. Men’s sports in our society are given so much more exposure, credibility than women. So with beach volleyball, when we made prize money equal for men and women and made TV time equal for men and women, I think that was a big step. In the Olympic Games, women’s beach volleyball gets a good audience and people love watching it,” Leonard said.

Recently athletes have used their influence to discuss social issues and show their support for BLM, women’s rights, and many other topics.

“Everybody should be able to use their platform to promote good, and promote things that are going to change the world for the better. I think athletes should speak their mind and should exercise whatever political viewpoints that they want,” Leonard said.

“The last point I want to make is that athletes today have an opportunity that they’ve never had before, they have a powerful engine, so that they are now media companies that can have a direct relationship with consumers and fans, and that’s a huge opportunity. The engine that they have, whether it’s the NBA, or the NFL, or marketing partners, is sort of fuel for them to grow their audience. And by growing their audience, they grow their influence. And I think LeBron is a great example of that. He’s got tremendous influence, and he’s got 125 million people that he can reach directly across all those platforms. That’s power, and you have to use that power for good.”

Hear more behind-the-scenes stories from Leonard’s career and client list, plus his memories of Kobe Bryant. Listen to the Legends Of Sport podcast, and watch the full YouTube video featuring Leonard‘s interview and career journey now!

Published on November 29, 2022

Written by Leonard Armato