Going One-On-One With Andre Agassi

Andre Agassi
Andre Agassi

Andre Agassi’s credentials are impressive.

Eight grand slams, an Olympic gold medal and a permanent place in sports fashion and endorsement.

But what you might not know that Andre Agassi will probably go down as an even better philanthropist.

For years now, Agassi – along with Lance Armstrong – has consistently been the best at “getting it” when it comes to his charity. Unlike many athletes, he raises a lot of money and has low overhead costs so that he can make that money really work.

Now Agassi is doing an even better thing by not only giving back to the community, but by being part of an organization that has banded athletes together as part of a mission to be better givers. That organization, Athletes for Hope was awarded a $400,000 grant by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation today.

I spoke to Agassi about this and a variety of business topics.

Darren: How is Athletes For Hope doing?

Agassi: We’ve signed up about 500 athletes in about a year’s time. Myself, Lance and Mia (Hamm) have been reaching out and we just got a bunch of the Portland TrailBlazers who want to be a part of it. We’re just trying to build this thing up as big as we can.

Darren: You’ve been a leader in the charity space, raising tens of millions and giving tens of millions away. You’re Andre Agassi College Preparatory Academy is a model school. Some people will say you might do more now than in your tennis career. How did you do it?

Agassi:I feel like it’s a daily effort to get it right and to make sure what I do in the next 20 years trumps the last 20 years. I keep pushing for the things I believe in. I used tennis as a vehicle and I got attracted to education because I saw how it could change the lives of children.

Darren: Athletes For Hope is doing a great thing in that athletes have for so long failed at the basic rules of giving. They set up charities to put their name on something good and sometimes just wind up abandoning it as it loses money. Why is it so hard to get right?

Agassi:It’s difficult. If you want to be successful in any business, you have to put a lot of time into it. And an athlete’s time is a rare commodity. If you want a charity to work, it has to be a full-time commitment and then some. That’s why Athletes For Hope is big because it’s not only for people who don’t have the wherewithal to build their own foundation but will also serve as a great way for athletes to learn the process and what they should value. They are now surrounded by an army of us.

Darren: The ATP just hired former Nike executive Adam Helfant, who actually negotiated some of your deals at Nike, as executive chairman and president. Where do you think men’s tennis is from a business standpoint?

Agassi:There’s huge potential, but we’re unfortunately at the low end of where it can be. Things change around us, but it’s hard in tennis. And it’s only getting tougher with people having 500 channels to watch. What we have to do is move as a unit, which is tough given that you have a group of a lot of young guys who aren’t on any sort of team, live all around the world and have different concerns that they care about. But you can’t galvanize the world if everyone is out there on their own.

Darren: Why has the PGA Tour been able to do that then?

Agassi: There are a lot of differences. I think their participants, are, for the most part, a bit older. Their game better translates on television – if you don’t want to watch the match that’s on television, you turn it off. If you don’t like the player that’s hitting in golf, you’ll see someone else in a couple minutes. And don’t forget about the charity part. In these pro-ams they have in golf, you can watch and feel how good a pro is when you play with them. They can still shoot five under par with you. I just did a charity event and I was hitting with the guy, but there’s no way they can feel how good I am. Their pace isn’t the same and my pace isn’t the same. So that doesn’t translate as well, either.

Darren: Roger Federer said that the Australian Open should be delayed so that players could compete in the Persian Gulf events and locally before playing in their first slam. What’s your response to that?

Agassi:The older you get, the more breaks you want. That’s the truth. But, in all seriousness, it makes sense. There are too many events to play in and bodies can’t take the grind all the time. That’s especially when there are players on tour whose bodies are still developing and they’re putting themselves at risk of short careers because they are giving their all every single week. I’m concerned for guys like Nadal because of that.

Darren: The state of American tennis is far from where it was before you with Connors and McEnroe and far from where it was during your heyday with Pete Sampras, Jim Courier and Michael Chang. Seems like this generation isn’t doing as well as expected. Roddick and Blake are in the Top 10, but between them they have one title. What are your thoughts on where we are right now as a country in men’s tennis?

Agassi:It’s sad because we’re a country of 300 million people. We should have the cream of the crop athletes playing in our sport. But the grassroots support just isn’t where it needs to be. We have so much better of a pool than other countries. We just have to do a better job of incorporating the pros in with the juniors program and seriously invest in making the up-and-comers better.

Darren: Two and half years ago, you and your wife Steffi Graf agreed to develop a luxury hotel and residences at the Tamarack Resort in Donnelly, Idaho. You recently backed out of that project before putting a shovel in the game and with no owner in site, there’s scheduled to now be a foreclosure trial on the property in March 2010. Any regrets with the project?

Agassi:I think it was regretful in terms of timing. We were excited to be designing and building a Fairmont and we’re OK financially because the basic investment was hedged against the housing market. We love it there. It’s where our home is and at some point, it’s going to be a steal for someone to buy. I know we want to be there.

Darren: Around the time you announced the Fairmont Tamarack, you also announced that you were teaming up with AOL founder Steve Case on his Exclusive Resorts business. What’s the latest with that?

Agassi:Well, we teamed up on a project in Costa Rica that was supposed to break ground this year, we’ve put it on hold a year because of the tough times, but it’s going to happen.

Questions? Comments? SportsBiz@cnbc.com