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Original Issue

This octopus embraces all

Agent-announcer Donald Dell's tennis specialty: conflicts of interest

Now that Donald Dell has chalked up the French Open and set his sights on Wimbledon, his next commentating gig for NBC, the time is ripe for the TV question nobody seems willing to ask: Inasmuch as Dell serves as the agent for many of the players he covers for NBC, and recently delivered the French Open TV rights to the very network that employs him as an analyst, how can viewers be expected to buy a used commentary from this man? Let's put it another way. However insightful and articulate Dell may be—and he scores brilliantly on those counts—is he credible? After all, he admits to having as many conflicts of interest as John McEnroe has disposable razors.

Dell's Washington, D.C.-based firm, ProServ Inc., handles the business affairs of Yannick Noah, Jimmy Connors, Tracy Austin and about half the remainder of the ATP printout sheets. He's the octopus of tennis, his tentacles reaching everywhere. ProServ administers the Grand Prix tour, the TV rights of which Dell peddled to the USA Cable Network, where he's also a commentator. He still appears on telecasts of events he sells to PBS. And yet we're supposed to believe that he can promote a tournament's interests, his players' interests, his own interests and the interests of unwitting viewers all at the same time.

Dell, the former Davis Cup captain whose organizing talents helped usher in the age of open tennis in the late 1960s, says the crucial point about such conflicts is disclosure. "Tell 'em and forget it" is his motto. He doesn't worry if a player is 1) his, 2) somebody he'd like to have or 3) some ingrate who just crawled into another agent's embrace. Dell says, "I try to call the match exactly as I see it." NBC did mention at the outset of the French Open finals that Dell represents Noah. Dell, whose main function seemed to be to hold Bjorn Borg's mike, never referred to his divided loyalty again. But on USA's coverage of early-round French action, Dell appeared during the final game of Austin's loss to Jo Durie of England without a peep about his relationship to Austin. Minutes later, when Connors joined him in the booth, Dell made several flattering remarks about Jimbo, including one at the expense of McEnroe, who is represented by his father. No word on Dell and Connors often being a duo on the dotted line.

Dell's status as a talking head also puts him in potential conflict as a TV rights negotiator. NBC Sports President Arthur Watson says Dell—"We watch him carefully"—was placed on the French Open for his talent only. But it's curious that the assignment came after Dell had been in a kind of purgatory during NBC's Wimbledon coverage last year (he was brought in only as the result of a scheduling snafu) as well as after he negotiated the sale of the French Open rights to NBC last fall.

That made CBS as angry as Ilie Nastase on his worst day. The network, which had broadcast from Paris for three years, sued the French Tennis Federation and NBC, and charged that Dell, acting as exclusive agent for FTF, had structured the deal against it and circumvented its right to equal any other offer for the tournament. To stay alive in the French Open sweepstakes, CBS had to agree to four conditions, including the promotion of Wimbledon—an unheard-of demand, considering that NBC was airing that tournament—or pay a total of $640,000, much more than the $475,000 NBC had offered. CBS also argued that Dell tried to get a piggyback ride for ProServ's made-for-TV Pepsi Grand Slam as part of the deal. CBS eventually settled for $117,000 from NBC, but no apology from double D.

Dell denies he offered quid pro quos to CBS and says it's illogical to suppose he'd steer the French to NBC to position himself behind the mike. "I'm no swami who waves the magic wand," he says. "I bring two offers—or 10 offers—to Philippe Chatrier [the FTF president]. He's the one who makes the decisions."

Whatever the case, Carl Lindemann doesn't accept the good-soldier routine. Says Lindemann, a former vice-president for NBC Sports who is currently in a similar capacity at CBS: "We bought the French, the Italian and Wimbledon when I was at NBC. He pressed us; he would lobby us for an on-the-air position. You didn't meet with Donald without his saying, 'Why don't you use me?' But for an agent to go on the air where he could build up the tournament or players he represented, I thought that was absolutely unconscionable."

Exactly. Disclaimers aside, the viewer never knows if Dell is putting a spin on the ball, tilting toward one player or the other. If NBC can use Dell on tennis, it might as well use Don King on boxing. Both Donalds promote tournaments, represent athletes and sell TV rights, although, unlike King, Dell has yet to get a haircut from Joe Piscopo.