In Business Q and A
Andre Agassi, founder of the Andre Agassi Charitable Foundation
Interviewed by Michelle Swafford / Staff Writer
Photo by R. Marsh Starks
Most people know Andre Agassi for his numerous accomplishments as a professional tennis player. It is his career fame and childhood connections that are making the Las Vegas native a big player in the local business world.
At age 35, Agassi continues to play professional tennis but donates much of his free time and money to the Andre Agassi Charitable Foundation and the Andre Agassi College Preparatory Academy. He is also an investor in Pure nightclub, Sedona restaurant and the Poster Financial Group, which is selling the Golden Nugget.
Forbes magazine last year ranked Agassi as the seventh-highest paid athlete at more than $28 million a year. His endorsements and business partnerships include Nike, Canon, 24 Hour Fitness Club and Genworth Financial.
Agassi has not decided when he will retire from tennis but is confident that his business career is just beginning. He talked with In Business Las Vegas recently about his foundation, charter school and other business opportunities.
: You formed the Andre Agassi Charitable Foundation in 1994. Why was the foundation formed and is it meeting your expectations?
The foundation was formed 10 years ago because I sort of chose to start my foundation during my career. I thought it would be a great way to leverage opportunity and relationships and bring awareness to a cause that I believe in, which is creating hope for children who don't have it. We started with a number of different projects -- Boys & Girls Club, Child Haven, Assistance League. We've clothed over 2,000 children a year through Assistance League. We realize the best way to change a child's life is to educate them, which led to our pride and joy, which is the College Preparatory Academy. The foundation has exceeded every expectation we've had.
How much input do you have on how foundation money is spent and how do you select the charities that benefit from the foundation?
We've already selected the charities a long time ago. When you talk about significant dollars we have a board of 15 people that allocates those funds appropriately, but the goals are pretty clear and putting the right people in place is crucial.
Last year your Grand Slam for Children's benefit raised $6.1 million for your charities and the foundation, which was down slightly from 2003. Are those charitable giving patterns likely to continue?
In 2003 we raised $12.6 million because we raised $6.3 million and we had Ty Warner match the whole thing. You're talking about a generous person who steps up and says I'll double whatever you make. We definitely don't count on that every year but certainly appreciate it. We've been very successful with our event so much so that we are now being more concerned about the evening representing everything we want it to be for everybody so that year after year we can do this, which means cutting down the auction a little bit so that it's more efficient and more of an overall enjoyable evening, which is going to cost a few dollars but we'll make that up in the long run.
Are the donations on track to finish your charter school and establish an endowment to maintain it?
Oh yeah. We have the endowment already, and we have our capital campaign that we're still on the home stretch of. But we have every expectation of finishing the school on time and already have an endowment that will fund it forever.
Las Vegas does not have a perception as being very charitable. Do you agree with that perception and has your foundation had to overcome that challenge?
My experience is entirely different. This community has helped us raise over $50 million in the last 10 years. I think Vegas is a city that dreams it, believes it and does it. I think it's the same way with charities. We've even seen other athletes and people come to Vegas to hold their events at the hopes of creating the same awareness or enthusiasm.
Forbes magazine says you are the seventh-highest paid athlete including your endorsements. What do you consider when you choose which companies to lend your face and name to?
It has to be authentic. It has to be something you believe in. It has to be something that you accept as part of your life. It has to be something you value beyond an endorsement, and that's pretty much where it starts. Then it's a function of how you plan on building the brand together and if you have the same ideas about partnership and branding.
When you endorse a product, what does that require you to do? Do you have to use only that brand for that type of product and are you obligated to sell your family and friends on it?
For me, it's not about being paid as a piece of meat, if you will. It's about building relationships and partnerships with companies that you believe in and that believe in you. I wouldn't be involved with a company if I didn't believe in the product. There's no real black-and-white print as to how I would need to show that support. It's an unwritten understanding that we're part of the same team.
You have longstanding relationships with Canon and Nike. Why did you choose to partner with those two and why have you stuck with them? How long are the agreements with those companies?
Well they've stuck with me for so long -- that's probably a better way of saying it. Nike was with me in the beginning. I was 15 years old. Canon when I was 17. It feels good to have relationships that there's a win-win involved so much so that you continually push forward in what you stand for together and it's a reflection of the testament of everything I hope to create. With Canon it's been a yearly renewal. We've renewed like 15 times and the same with Nike. We had a long deal; we're back into another deal.
Have your endorsement preferences changed as you as a person and your career have evolved?
As I've developed, grown and changed so do the things I believe in. There are realities in my life that have become much more a part of my thought process. For example, being with Genworth (Financial) and now having children, you think about their future. You think about your future. You think about all those things. A classic example of it is being part of companies where you can actually be a part of the process. For example, with Aramis designer fragrances, the efforts I put in first hand to try and create a fragrance have been an interesting experience for me. It's something I value now and might not have valued 10 years ago.
Last year you signed your name to the 24 Hour Fitness Club. Why did you associate your name with that company, especially since it has no tennis courts?
They came to me awhile ago -- years ago -- it's been an ongoing process for about four or five years now. Again it's about being authentic and fitness is such a real part of my life and has been in my career in life as well as my wife's. It's also my appreciation for what they bring to communities. They bring the message of health and fitness into people's lives. I just think it's been a perfect marriage in that sense. As far as putting tennis courts in it, for me it's not about playing tennis necessarily for people. It's about getting the message of exercise and health for their life. That might mean taking a walk or racquetball, it might mean swimming. It's about making a healthier people.
What is the link between your endorsement deals and your charitable causes?
There is a link between my endorsement deals and my foundation. I made a point of starting my foundation during my career for the sake of leveraging relationships and bringing commitment and involvement with companies and people to generate monies and awareness. Some companies are much more committed to that than others. It all depends on what makes them tick. Genworth is going to be the presenting sponsor for the Grand Slam for Children for example, which helps underwrite an event that costs a lot of money to put on. Aramis was that way for two years. We've been trying hard to get Nike involved and that hasn't seemed to work out yet.
In 2001, you launched the Andre Agassi College Preparatory Academy to help high-risk students. Is the charter school meeting your expectations? What would you like to see happen next for the school that currently houses second to eighth grades?
The charter school is doing an amazing job. It's sort of the soul and the culture that's through this school that has surpassed my expectations. There's such a pride that's taken by the students and the faculty. We have a big commitment to see it through here, and then it's going to be where are they are going to college. I would love to see these children not just graduate, but also go on to fulfill their dreams of college.
Do your plans include opening additional charter schools to educate additional high-risk kids?
I think this is a blueprint, sort of a footprint to change education as we know it in our country. I think we can't ever stop dreaming about how our society needs more of these schools and communities coming together to make this happen, so I would love to see that. I try to be good about not biting off more than I can chew at one time.
Why is education important to you and why did you start the charter school?
Education is important because it prepares somebody, it equips somebody, to make decisions for their own life, to handle their own life, to change lives. You never know when one of these children can grow up to affect thousands of kids.
Many economic development experts say quality education is key to attracting high-paying companies to Nevada. What are your thoughts on this and how can Agassi Prep help?
While there might be a lot of benefits to having a high level of education, none more so than seeing a child receive a high standard of education. Nevada is 49th in the country for the amount of funding that's allotted for each child. It's terrible. We're leading all the wrong stats: high school dropout rate, teen pregnancy, on and on and on. To prove that this school can work here in this environment would be a great asset to affecting people of all walks of life, but none more important than the children.
In your opinion is the business community generally supportive of local schools? What could be done to improve that relationship?
I can speak to my experiences. I've gotten a tremendous amount of support from the local community as well as businesses. This is a great community that has made this possible. I think this foundation has highlighted the importance of involving the community more. As the city grows, so do all the unfortunate things: poverty and crime. There needs to be a stronger bridge between the growth and success of our city with the inner city and I think that's being established.
What other civic or social issues are you passionate about?
Andre Agassi College Preparatory Academy. There's probably a lot so let's just focus on this one.
You are an investor in Pure nightclub at Caesars Palace. What is it about that business that attracted you as an investor?
Being partners with people you went to school with. It's amazing when I look around my life in Las Vegas and being part owner at the Golden Nugget with Tim Poster and Tom Breitling -- who I knew since I was 12 years old -- and Robert Frye -- who I grew up with in this city -- and Pure nighclub. It's fun having these relationships that have carried on for so long. I think Vegas is one of those few places left in the world where the best business can still be done on a handshake.
You also invested in Sedona restaurant. What drew you to that project and are there plans to invest in additional restaurants?
Adam Corrigan -- I went to school with him. I've known him since I was 12 years old and he's experienced in that field of business and I invest in people. I've enjoyed that whole process.
Are there other restaurants that could come out of this?
Yeah, it's possible.
You were an investor in Poster Financial Group, the company that is selling the Golden Nugget. Are you likely to invest in the gaming business again?
I hope so. I love this town. I love what it represents. I love what it's meant to people in their lives and what it's meant to this community. It would be a privilege for me to have an excuse to get back involved with gaming.
You were one of the athlete investors in the Official All Star Cafe on the Strip before it closed. What did you learn from that experience?
To invest in people, not in things. I was actually trying to forget about that one.
How much do you rely on the expertise of your manager, Perry Rogers? Do you make the final decision on his recommendations or is it a team decision?
He says no to so many things that I never hear, but anything he says yes to, I know about and sign off on. It's been a great partnership. That's the luxury of having your best friend since you've been 11 years old run your business. At the end of the day, it's a great excuse to spend a lot of time together.
You've been honored multiple times for your community involvement. How important is humanitarianism to your success as an athlete and a businessman?
It's its own thing for me. Nothing is more important than changing a child's life -- so that's my focus. That's what it has meant to me. There's no bigger reward than seeing a child with hope and dreams in their eyes. It's also been a great opportunity to make people aware of the needs that do exist and to be some sort of opportunity for people to come together.
When do you plan to retire from professional tennis and what would be your focus then?
I don't know and I don't know is the simple answer. A lot of thought has to go into that decision and certainly none more important than discussing that with my family.
Speaking of your family, would you and your wife consider sponsoring a professional tennis tournament in Las Vegas?
Not as an investment. I would love to be a part of being able to bring professional tennis to Las Vegas, but this city is a city that's hard to compete for entertainment. We're pretty spoiled here in Las Vegas with entertainment so to take up a facility for a week with tennis you would have to make sure it was the right thing and certainly a very big tournament.
Michelle Swafford is a business writer for the Sun and its sister newspaper, In Business Las Vegas. She can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org
or at (702) 259-2326.
Andre Agassi forever