Bush evidence mounts
By Charles Robinson and Jason Cole, Yahoo! Sports
January 10, 2008
A former business associate of the failed marketing agency that attempted to secure Reggie Bush as a client told Yahoo! Sports he spoke directly to Bush about the company's business plan before the running back completed his junior season at the University of Southern California.
Such an action would have violated NCAA rules and is the latest in a series of facts uncovered in a Yahoo! Sports investigation that indicate Bush and his family had an improper relationship with New Era Sports & Entertainment.
Ben Delanoy, CEO of Next Level Sports Marketing, said Bush indicated he would be part of New Era in a conversation in late 2005. Delanoy told Yahoo! Sports he was secured by New Era to develop Bush's web site for the agency in late 2005. Delanoy said he spoke with Bush in early December 2005, before Bush was awarded the Heisman Trophy and weeks before he played in his final game for USC.
The latest findings come just days before the release of a book which details numerous extra benefits allegedly received by Bush and his family during his USC playing days. If the NCAA finds Bush and his family accepted the benefits, the Trojans could face sanctions, including forfeiture of victories, and Bush could lose the Heisman Trophy. The Heisman Trust would rule on his eligibility for the award.
New Era was founded in November 2005 by Lloyd Lake and Michael Michaels with the intent of having Bush as its marquee client. Lake and Michaels have said they provided Bush and his family with benefits including $291,600 in cash, a car, travel and rent-free living in a home while the player was at USC. When Bush signed with another marketing agency, New Era folded. Michaels settled a threatened lawsuit with Bush for between $200,000 and $300,000.
Bush's relationship with New Era is under investigation by the NCAA, and the running back and his family were served with papers in December to appear for a lawsuit filed by Lake. In his suit, Lake seeks about $300,000 from Bush.
On Wednesday, advance copies of "Tarnished Heisman," a book by Don Yaeger and Jim Henry, started circulating. The book, due to be released Jan. 15 by Pocket Books, details the relationship between Bush and New Era, including transcripts of recorded conversations between Lake, Bush and LaMar Griffin, Bush's stepfather. The recordings, a portion of which have been heard by Yahoo! Sports, include promises by Bush and Griffin to pay back cash and other benefits Bush and his family received from Lake and Michaels.
Delanoy, speaking exclusively to Yahoo! Sports, said he took part in a three-way call with Bush and former New Era agent and officer David Caravantes in early December 2005. Delanoy said the phone call was initiated by Caravantes, and that during the course of it, Bush appeared to be "fully on board" with New Era Sports. During the conversation, Delanoy said Bush voiced approval for several aspects of the web site New Era was planning, which was to include the sale of game-used memorabilia when he went to the NFL.
"Dave (Caravantes) told Reggie that I was one of the top web design marketing companies out there and that I'd be handling a lot of stuff for them in the future. And Reggie said, 'We're cool. I'm down with that,' " Delanoy said.
"I was telling Reggie the revenue that could be generated, looking at it from what I had done in the past with Chad Johnson, Sean Taylor and Willis McGahee. I said: 'Listen, you're one of the biggest names out there. You could be making a lot of money through this thing. We'll get your jersey on sale there and autographed items, pretty much soup to nuts.' I was telling him to save his game-used stuff from USC to sell and that he could be getting thousands of dollars for a pair of cleats. And he was like 'Oh man, yeah, that sounds really good.' And that point, Dave said that (Dave) had actually started working on endorsement deals with shoe companies and things like that."
Asked whether the conversation convinced him Bush was committed to New Era, Delanoy replied, "Yes, totally."
Caravantes, who has been investigated and fined by the NFL Players Association for his association with New Era, denied the conversation ever took place.
"I spoke with Reggie Bush once in my life and that's it," Caravantes said. "That was late one night when (Lake) got him on the phone with me and I just introduced myself and told him I'd be the agent working for (New Era) if the business got going. That was it. Whatever that guy (Delanoy) is saying is absolutely false. It's absolutely (expletive)."
Delanoy's account is the latest alleging ties between Bush and New Era. And Delanoy's claim dovetails with a growing number of witnesses, documents and yet-to-be-released audio records which point to Bush having taken extra benefits New Era while playing for the Trojans.
Aside from Delanoy and interviews with a dozen other sources close to New Era, Yahoo! Sports has amassed a number of internal documents and emails from the agency, illustrating an attempt to build a business structure around Bush's name. The documents show a hastily organized business, one that ultimately crumbled under financial troubles and bickering after Bush signed with other representation.
Among the key internal New Era documents collected by Yahoo! Sports:
• The full "Reggie Bush brochure," a marketing tool which laid out New Era Sports' ambitions and was briefly circulated by Griffin. Copies of the brochure, which had been circulated to Bush's family and New Era employees, were believed to be either lost or destroyed after Bush signed with contract agent Joel Segal and marketing agent Mike Ornstein. However, a copy was secured by Yahoo! Sports in March 2007. In the brochure, Caravantes is listed as New Era's CEO, along with several other individuals listed as officers. The brochure includes dozens of photographs and images of Bush.
• An email from Michaels titled "Building New Era's Business Plan." The multipoint email is three pages and lists Griffin, who was also involved with the business, under the agency's "key personnel" along with Michaels, Lake, and Caravantes. The email was sent to multiple New Era officers on Nov. 14, 2005, more than six weeks before Bush's final season at USC ended.
• New Era's pitch for a partnership with the Sycuan Indian Tribe, dated Nov. 15, 2005. Yahoo! Sports acquired the full package of materials pitched to the tribe, including plans for a "Reggie Bush Celebrity Classic" – a tournament to be held on the tribe's Singing Hills Golf Course. Griffin attended the pitching process of this plan, and affirmed that his stepson was on board with New Era Sports.
• Emails between Michaels and Caravantes illustrating financial problems after Bush signed elsewhere. In the emails, Caravantes complains about the lack of pay for himself and another employee, and questions whether the agency will be going forward after Bush had signed with other representation. At one point in the exchange – dated Jan. 31, 2006 – Michaels states his anger at Bush and Lake, stating "I'm out over $200k CASH with these damn guys!"
• An eight-page training routine that lists Bush's name at the top under a masthead reading "New Era Sports, Inc." The training routine provides a daily breakdown of running, lifting and other preparations typically made prior to the NFL's annual scouting combine, going on in fine detail for 25 days.
• Two responses from marketing firms that Caravantes had contacted about handling aspects of Bush's representation. One was Image Sports & Entertainment, which once held the right to the marketing for Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning. A second was from Mercury Sports Management, which has handled endorsement connections for multiple high-profile corporations.
When contacted by Yahoo! Sports, representatives for ISE and Mercury Sports had differing reactions about New Era Sports and their involvement with Bush.
Michael Radcliffe, one-time CEO of ISE – which is now defunct – told Yahoo! Sports he had been contacted by Caravantes about providing services for Bush. Radcliffe said Caravantes "came across stating that a relationship with the mother of Reggie Bush was close-knit, and wanted to grow the future of Reggie and that they had the deal done with him."
Ken Radcliffe, the former director of marketing for ISE, said Caravantes requested a specific term sheet for the services, with a complete rundown of financial numbers. Ken Radcliffe said Caravantes also repeatedly made assurances about Bush's commitment to New Era being "done" and even offered to set up a meeting with Bush and the running back's family at the Heisman Trophy ceremony.
"They contacted us telling us they had an in with the family and that they wanted to know how we could help them or if we wanted to be a part of it from the standpoint of helping them do some marketing and also doing the memorabilia," Ken Radcliffe said. “They (said they) would be doing the contract. … They also initially said that if we wanted to meet them around Heisman time in New York City they would introduce us to Reggie.
"It blew me away when I heard them say: 'It's a done deal. It's just a formality until after he declares himself eligible to go pro and after the Heisman. It's done.' They seemed to have a lot of information from what they were telling us. They knew certain things. They were going to set up a meeting with us to come down and spend some time with Reggie right before the Heisman ceremony."
Radcliffe said his firm couldn't make the Heisman ceremony and the deal fizzled shortly afterward.
The head of Mercury Sports Management, Jay Schulthess, denied ever sending a solicitation letter to Bush, although Yahoo! Sports obtained one dated Dec. 8, 2005, that is printed on his company's letterhead. The letter began "Dear Reggie, At the request of your advisors and Dave Caravantes, I am writing to you on behalf of my company Mercury Sports Management."
Schulthess denied both sending that solicitation, as well as a follow-up email that Yahoo! Sports acquired, which is listed as having come from Schulthess' work account.
When asked if he was approached by New Era, Schulthess had a lengthy pause before saying: "They didn't approach me. I work in NASCAR."
Schulthess also denied that he approached New Era, saying "I don't know of any exchange between the two groups."
As for Delanoy, he said Caravantes and New Era still owe him $2,954 for his services with Bush's web site. He said he decided to come forward after nearly two years of silence because he believed statements by Bush and Caravantes about their involvement with New Era Sports were " not exactly truthful."
"Basically, when the whole thing started unfolding, and everything about New Era and Reggie was discovered, Dave kind of laid low," Delanoy said. " He told me to lay low, not to mention anything to anyone. He was sure that nothing was going to happen to me. But just in case anyone came knocking at my door or if I received any phone calls, he told me not to mention anything. … He said, 'Don't worry, I'll take care of everything for you. Just lay low. Don't mention anything if any media comes around asking anything.' After it all came out, Dave explained to me that he had no involvement with the tampering that had taken place with Reggie."
Delanoy, 34, said he helps roughly 40 NFL players with their web sites and other marketing.
Delanoy said he initially secured the domain name ReggieBush.com on April 13, 2004, as part of a common acquisition of sites for famous people. Delanoy provided Yahoo! Sports with a receipt for his purchase of the site.
In August 2005, Delanoy said he was introduced to Caravantes. By September 2005, Caravantes told Delanoy they would be working with Bush. After several weeks, Delanoy said he asked to speak with Bush directly and Caravantes eventually set up the call. Delanoy said he exchanged approximately 30 calls with Caravantes, but never met him face-to-face.
Delanoy said he never met or spoke with New Era financiers Michaels or Lake, although Caravantes mentioned them in conversations.
"(Caravantes) would just refer to them as his partners from New Era and how they were investing in the company and when everything got going, (Caravantes) was going to be the head agent in the company. That was my whole take, that his partners were bigwigs who had a lot of money and were looking to put together a sports agency," Delanoy said.
As for the conversation with Bush, Delanoy said he repeatedly asked to speak with Bush.
"I wanted to make sure that this was 100 percent go and that (Caravantes) wasn't just using me to try to recruit him, saying, 'Hey, here's a web site, this is what we're capable of.' So I stayed on (Caravantes) and said that I wanted to talk to Reggie to confirm that it was a go," Delanoy said.
Early one evening on the East Coast (Delanoy lives in Florida), Delanoy said Caravantes called unexpectedly with Bush also on the line. Delanoy said the call sounded as if Bush had been patched in.
"My conversation with Reggie, (Caravantes) was basically explaining to him what my services were and what I would be doing in the future," Delanoy said. "I introduced myself, Reggie introduced himself and we kind of joked around for a little bit. It was a basic conversation and then we got around to what he wanted his web site to be like."
Jason Cole and Charles Robinson are national NFL writers for Yahoo! Sports.
Updated on Thursday, Jan 10, 2008 8:35 pm, EST