The spotlight may be on his athletes, but it got there because of Brian Lammi, who started a minor sports empire from a one-bedroom apartment.

Bundled up in his warmest winter coat, driving through Mother Nature’s harshest idea of February in Wisconsin, Brian Lammi is on so much more than just another sales call.

This could be the one.

The previous week, Lammi, then 29, was in Hawaii’s paradise for the NFL’s 2003 Pro Bowl with his only client, Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Brad Johnson. But sports agents can’t survive on just one guy, Lammi told himself while navigating his Ford Explorer through Interstate 43’s rapidly deteriorating conditions. So, blizzard or not, he’s navigating his way from his Milwaukee apartment to the house of a budding Green Bay Packers star.

The last year-plus spent trying to get the business off the ground had been the challenge of Lammi’s lifetime. First, he separated from his only employer and mentor, a man who then sued him, leaving Lammi with just one client and a dream.

That dream didn’t include visions of attaching giant skis to the bottom of his car, but as Lammi approaches Sheboygan, the thought flickers through his consciousness. Sometimes, it’s funny where the mind wanders during a long, cold drive in the dark. Sometimes, it even fights you.

What do I say when he asks why I only have one other client? What if he says no? Worse…what if he says yes, and I can’t deliver?

Eyes glued to the snow-blown stretches of road, Lammi forces aside the negative thoughts in favor of polishing his pitch. It will have to be perfect.

In Green Bay, the Drivers are waiting. Donald and Betina take turns peeking out of their home’s front window, hoping their guest arrives safely. They hold all the cards in the coming showdown, but they want it to go well. They want this Lammi fellow to have a plan for raising Donald’s profile beyond that of just another football player.

After all, in 2003, relatively few people know about Driver’s compelling story. How he grew up a sometimes-homeless child in the menacingly poor community of Houston’s Fifth Ward, a part of town known as the Bloody Nickel. How he emerged from that to get drafted by the Packers in 1999’s final round, and how the wide receiver made the most of it to become one of Brett Favre’s favorite targets.

This is the story Lammi wants to build upon. And soon after he finally pulls into the Drivers’ driveway, Betina offers him a hot chocolate. Lammi knows he’ll have to convince her, too. She met Donald in college at tiny Alcorn State University, a rural western Mississippi outpost. They’ve been a team ever since, and as Betina’s drink chases away Lammi’s chill, they all get down to business.

There are other, more established agents out there. Why are you the best one for us? Why should we trust you with his brand? Will there be life after football?

“My wife said I should just sign with him,” Driver says today. “I told her ‘I’m going to let him suffer. I’m going to let him drive home in a snowstorm, and I’ll make the decision the next day.’ So he drove home in the snowstorm.”

As Lammi plowed away from Green Bay along I-43, he believed more than ever Driver could be the difference, the man to put him on the agent map. He just needed the chance.

 

As an agent for professional athletes, Brian Lammi negotiates contracts. But probably not the ones you’re thinking of, because he’s a marketing agent.

Traditional sports agents have been around long enough, but marketing agents for pro athletes are still a relatively new breed. And although Lammi may have been once dubbed “Milwaukee’s Jerry Maguire,” his responsibilities are quite different from those of Tom Cruise’s fictional agent.

Player agents like Drew Rosenhaus, who’s negotiated more than $2 billion in NFL contracts between players and teams, garner most of the headlines regarding athlete representation. It’s those contract negotiations that earn players hundreds of millions of dollars in a single deal that people associate with the business. And indeed, the men and women who do those deals have earned their reputations, not to mention their paychecks.

Perhaps the best-known player agent is Scott Boras. In 2013, Forbes estimated his current player contracts at $1.66 billion, netting him commissions of $83 million. Current deals. And he’s been in the business since the 1980s. Boras, you may recall, got former Milwaukee Brewers first baseman Prince Fielder a nine-year, $214 million contract with the Detroit Tigers after the 2011 season.

That is not Lammi’s realm. But after agents like Rosenhaus or Boras have secured their players’ on-field salaries, many athletes try to capitalize on their fame in other ways. Often, that means finding another agent for off-field opportunities. And that is Lammi’s realm.

Whereas traditional agents make their living via small percentages of big deals, marketing agents subsist off a different math, taking bigger percentages from many more smaller deals. Lammi can earn anywhere between 10 and 25 percent of numerous smaller deals for just one athlete. Gain the trust and business of several athletes, and you’ve got a career.

Once Lammi got home through that February 2003 snowstorm, Driver let him know he’d earned a second client. And once Lammi helped Driver’s star shine brighter, other Packers began to notice, prompting the likes of wide receiver Antonio Freeman and fullback William Henderson to sign on.

It was the start of a small sports empire. Today, Lammi represents the off-field interests of Packers star linebacker Clay Matthews and wide receiver Jordy Nelson, among many others. And his roster isn’t limited to football players, as evidenced by clients like Milwaukee Brewers All-Star catcher Jonathan Lucroy.

Lammi also produces local football-centric TV shows in Green Bay, Milwaukee and Chicago, and continues to book national TV appearances for Driver. Perhaps you heard about Driver winning ABC’s “Dancing with the Stars” in 2012? Lammi got him on the show.

“Brian Lammi is at the apex of his game,” says Marquette University sports law professor Martin Greenberg. “He is a most respected marketing agent for athletes and coaches. He has engendered trust among his clients, and represents the utmost in professionalism in an industry that is often castigated.”

All from a onetime aspiring gym teacher.

 

Pickup basketball games are a rite of summer at Brown Deer High School, and it was the site of what remains, to this day, Brian Lammi’s signature athletic achievement. As future Marquette star and NBA forward Steve Novak drove toward the basket, 17-year-old Lammi, at a full sprint, crossed the free-throw lane and swatted the ball away, shocking everyone in the gym.

“What I don’t like to tell people,” the 5-foot-10 Lammi says with a chuckle, “is he was 7 years old at the time. He grew a lot. I didn’t.”

Brian Dean Lammi was the second of three sons born to Alan and Jeanette Lammi on Dec. 29, 1973, in Brown Deer. The Lammis were decidedly middle class, living on Goodrich Lane, just east of Brown Deer High School. When Lammi entered the eighth grade, his parents moved a mile north into the same house they still live in today; a home where Lammi’s lifelong passion for sports was cemented alongside brothers Todd and Mark.

After high school, Lammi enrolled at UW-Whitewater, hoping to play for celebrated coach Dave Vander Meulen while majoring in education, with an eye toward teaching gym. But the coach was not impressed with the undersized point-guard prospect.

“He said, ‘You’re halfway OK,’” Lammi recalls, a smile on his face. “‘If you put on 20 pounds of muscle, I think you might be able to be our 20th guy next year.’”

Lammi’s playing career was over, but his need to still be around sports was not. Acting on a tip from his mother, who saw that UW-La Crosse offered degrees in sports marketing and management, Lammi ditched his teaching aspirations and filed his transfer papers.

“I was, and still am, fascinated by the intersection of sports and business,” Lammi says. “My rationale was that working in sports would beat a ‘real job’ any day.”

UW-La Crosse’s program required Lammi to complete an internship. He wanted one under the tutelage of then-UW-Milwaukee athletic director Bud Haidet, but Haidet initially rebuffed Lammi’s offer to work for free. It took three weeks of Lammi begging for the honor of mopping floors and washing uniforms before the grandfatherly Haidet relented.

That foot in the door was Lammi’s first big break, and it paved the initial steps of his career path. Because one afternoon, while back home from college and playing a round of golf with longtime UWM women’s basketball coach Sandy Botham, she had a suggestion.

“She said,” Lammi recalls, “that I should meet her brother-in-law, Joe Sweeney.”

 

Secret Agent Brian Lammi. Photo by Adam Ryan Morris.

Secret Agent Brian Lammi. Photo by Adam Ryan Morris.

Joe Sweeney is a man who has spent most of his adult life around sports, and he became one of the most influential men in Wisconsin sports.

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In the early 1990s, Sweeney was director of the Wisconsin Sports Authority. One of the Authority’s events was an annual “Sportsperson of the Year” banquet that typically drew about 200 attendees. But when a young Packers quarterback named Brett Favre was honored in 1995, some 1,000 people came.

Favre and Sweeney struck up a conversation, and Favre said he’d like to get some paid endorsements and appearances. “I told him, ‘Brett, you don’t want a couple of deals, you want to build a brand,’” Sweeney says. A couple of weeks later, they played golf. “By the 15th hole,” Sweeney says, “we’d created a sports marketing and management company.”

As Sweeney helped Favre’s brand grow, other Packers, like Lambeau Leap inventor LeRoy Butler, began enlisting Sweeney’s services. Sweeney also landed University of Wisconsin football coach Barry Alvarez and basketball coach Bo Ryan as clients. But as his client list sprouted, by 1996, Sweeney realized he needed help managing everything. That’s when Botham told Lammi to meet Sweeney.

“After a five-minute conversation,” Lammi recalls, “[Sweeney] said, ‘I asked you three questions, you got two of them wrong, [but] I’m desperate as hell,’” Lammi recalls. “He said, ‘I’ll hire you for 30 days for no pay, and I’ll probably fire you within six months.’”

Lammi took it, and survived his brief probationary period. Despite the kid’s lack of experience, having only two employees meant Sweeney could give Lammi an impressive-sounding title, president of Sports Marketing and Management Group (SMG).

Lammi’s career was beginning to blossom during one of the most historic times in Wisconsin sports. That winter, he was in New Orleans with the Packers for their appearance in Super Bowl XXXI. He’d watch them win their first NFL title since Super Bowl II.

Over the next five years, Lammi learned the ins and outs of sports marketing as Sweeney’s No. 2, and SMG’s client roster continued to grow. Not just limited to Wisconsin athletes, it included NFL quarterbacks Steve McNair of the Tennessee Titans and Brad Johnson, who was then with the Minnesota Vikings.

Dan Cary also worked in Sweeney’s office, first as an intern, then as the third member of the SMG team after graduating from Marquette. Cary is the son of longtime Midwest Athletes Against Childhood Cancer Executive Director John Cary. The Carys and Sweeneys have been longtime family friends from the times when the MACC Fund would call on Sweeney for help with setting up clients for cancer fundraisers.

At SMG, the younger Cary and Lammi bonded. “He had such a leadership quality,” Dan Cary says, “and the way he ran with different projects was something great to see.”

And as the years wore on, Lammi thought about leaving SMG to start his own company.

Lammi had built a particularly close relationship with Johnson, who saw him go from being a complete neophyte to a seasoned veteran. The first time they worked together, Lammi was still an intern and Johnson was doing simple autograph signings around Minneapolis. Things would grow from there.

Johnson was so impressed by the young agent’s worth ethic, he helped push Lammi toward the idea of opening his own agency. “We had been together for a bunch of years, I was just doing all of my deals with Brian, and he wasn’t getting all the credit for it,” Johnson says. “I told Brian that if he was ever going to make it in this business, he was going to have to go do it on his own.”

 

In the fall of 2001, at age 27, Lammi exited Sweeney’s SMG firm and became the sole proprietor, and employee, of Lammi Sports Management. His office was his one-bedroom apartment at Milwaukee’s Yankee Hill development. And, at the time, he made the move with Sweeney’s public support.

“[Lammi] is like a son to me, and I’ll do anything I can to help him succeed,” Sweeney told the Milwaukee Business Journal in October 2001. But public support gave way to behind-the-scenes acrimony.

Brian Lammi found a different way to get himself into the game. Photo by Adam Ryan Morris.

Brian Lammi found a different way to get himself into the game.
Photo by Adam Ryan Morris.

Although neither party will say what transpired to cause the rift, court documents confirm that Sweeney sued Lammi in June 2002 over issues related to his departure from SMG. What is known is that Johnson signed with Lammi immediately, and that the Oct. 4, 2001, issue of trade publication Sports Business Daily lists former Packers Edgar Bennett and Santana Dotson – who had been SMG clients – as clients of Lammi Sports Management. But in 2002, a settlement was reached that allowed Johnson to be Lammi’s first – and only – client.

Sweeney, while happy to talk about his life and business for this article, abruptly cuts off any questioning about his relationship with Lammi. “I bless him and I wish him well,” Sweeney says tersely. “There are ways to leave a job and there are ways to not leave a job.”

Similarly, Lammi did not wish to discuss the specifics of his departure from SMG, but did say he was appreciative of the chance to begin his career there. “I learned a lot working for Sweeney at a young age,” Lammi says. “Unfortunately, disputes are not uncommon when agents leave a firm to start a new one.”

Prior to Lammi’s SMG departure, Cary had left SMG for a job with AT&T. But Cary realized he missed working in sports, and especially missed his conversations with Lammi. So in 2004, Lammi hired Cary to be his growing firm’s general manager.

Today, he’s chief operating officer of Lammi Sports Marketing.

Cary downplays being caught in the middle of the Sweeney-Lammi dispute, noting that he’d left before it flared. “Joe was at my wedding; Brian stood up in my wedding,” Cary says. “Obviously, I’ve worked for Brian for over 10 years, so I have tremendous respect for him, but Joe gave me my start in this business. I love Joe, and I love his family.”

Eventually, Favre also left SMG, as the aging QB decided to pull back from his off-field endeavors. And in 2008, Sweeney closed SMG’s doors. Today, he serves on the board of directors for the BMO Harris Bradley Center and writes books about marketing.

“In many ways,” Sweeney says, “[being an agent] was a young man’s game.”

 

Sitting in his apartment/makeshift office on Lammi Sports Marketing’s first day of business, Brian Lammi wondered if he’d just made a tremendous mistake. It was four days after 9/11.

“There were some times early on,” he says, “where I thought, ‘What the heck did I just do with my life? People understandably didn’t want to talk about sports.”

But at least things were working out for his sole client. Johnson, whom Minnesota traded to Washington after the 1998 season, signed as a free agent with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2001. In his second season there, he led the Bucs to Super Bowl XXXVII in San Diego. For the marketing agent of a Super Bowl QB, there were people to meet and deals to do.

Lammi met with executives from Disney, who might need to film Johnson for their popular “I’m going to Disney World” ad in the game’s immediate aftermath. He met with the Milk Marketing Board to see if they wanted Johnson for a milk mustache ad.

By halftime, Johnson and the Bucs led 20-3. As the third quarter melted into the fourth, Lammi knew that his client was about to be one of the most sought after athletes in the world. So he barely had enough time to enjoy Johnson’s crowning moment, beset as he was with interview requests from ABC, ESPN, the “Today Show,” sports writers and radio hosts.

Lammi and Johnson tried filling them all, and after a couple of hours passed and the networks had turned off their cameras, there simply wasn’t anyone left to talk to. “By the time we walked out, the team bus was gone,” Johnson remembers. “It was me, my wife – who was seven-and-a-half months pregnant with our son Jake – our other son, Max, and ‘Big B.’” That’s Johnson’s nickname for Lammi.

They flagged down a familiar face to help, a Disney executive whom Lammi had befriended and just happened to be leaving at the same time. With no other transportation in sight, everyone crammed into the exec’s car.

During the ride, Lammi’s mind wandered back to when Brad almost lost his starting quarterback job before the season, and even further back to how Brad encouraged him to break out on his own. He marveled at how loyal Johnson had been through the rough early-going of his one-man marketing operation.

As they approached the hotel, just one order of business remained. Johnson asked the exec to make a quick pit stop so he and Lammi could toast their success. “He saw me go from nowhere to being a starter to winning a Super Bowl,” Johnson says. “We stopped at a convenience store to celebrate with a 12-pack.”

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The beer may as well have been champagne. “It was surreal,” Lammi today admits. “But it was also the first time I thought to myself that this business was actually going to work out.”

 

Two weeks after the Super Bowl, Lammi was navigating his own personal Pequod through that Wisconsin winter storm to land the man who’d become his Moby Dick. As important as Johnson had been to Lammi’s foundation, Donald Driver was Lammi’s key to exponential expansion.

For Driver, the partnership meant a second career as an off-field pitchman and paid endorser. For Lammi, it meant having a bankable and beloved rising star upon which to build his infant business.

In many ways, just by being his client, Driver was also endorsing Lammi, which opened the doors to the Packers locker room. And his success with Packers clients like Freeman, Henderson and defensive end Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila (KGB to his fans) made it easier to branch into other sports.

[quote]Perhaps you heard about Donald Driver winning ABC’s “Dancing with the Stars”? Lammi is the man who helped get him on the show. [/quote]

If a sport has fans in the U.S., chances are Lammi has represented someone who plays it. He’s worked on deals for NASCAR driver Bobby Allison and former U.S. World Cup soccer player Marcelo Balboa. He’s represented Olympians Dan Jansen and Bonnie Blair, the NHL’s Ryan Suter, and the NBA’s Spud Webb and Jimmy Butler. And Lammi was lining up endorsements for Brewers catcher Jonathan Lucroy well before he became a 2014 MVP candidate. The list of people he’s worked with stretches into the hundreds.

Meanwhile, his Packers ties are as strong as ever, evidence by his professional relationships with what seems like half the current team – Clay Matthews, Jordy Nelson, fullback John Kuhn, kicker Mason Crosby, and offensive linemen Josh Sitton, David Bakhtiari and Bryan Bulaga, to name just a handful.

But it’s unlikely any professional relationship will match what Lammi has with Driver.

During the first decade of their partnership, the affable Packers wide receiver became a paid local spokesman for McDonald’s, Target, Goodwill Industries, Nokia, Time Warner Cable, Kwik Trip, AirTran Airways and Sharpie pens. Then, as the end of

Driver’s playing career drew near, a career in which he became Green Bay’s all-time leader in receptions and receiving yards, he and Lammi faced the inevitable question: what’s next?

The improbable answer: ballroom dancing.

The conversations with “Dancing with the Stars” producers began not long after Driver and the Packers won Super Bowl XLV.

The show had a history of tapping athletes, particularly NFL players, as competitors. Hall-of-Fame running back Emmitt Smith had even won the championship in the show’s third season, and longtime Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Hines Ward won Season 12. “So they asked if Donald was interested,” Lammi says, “and of course, he was hurt.” Driver sprained his ankle during the Super Bowl, and it just wouldn’t heal fast enough.

Undaunted, a year later, Lammi reached out to a contact he’d made when setting up Brad Johnson’s Disney World commercial. Disney owns ABC, which airs “Dancing with the Stars,” and Lammi reiterated Driver’s interest. He also contacted WISN-TV general manager Jan Wade, who sat on an ABC affiliates board, to see if she would put in a good word.

“He kept pushing and kept pushing,” Driver says of Lammi. “I never thought I’d get the opportunity again. And then the phone rang.”

Even when the DWTS folks returned Driver’s interest, it still wasn’t a sure thing. Driver was leery of having to relocate to Southern California throughout the show’s taping. Already away from the family home in Dallas for football season every July through January, Driver, a devoted family man, cherished his offseasons. But Lammi laid out the benefits.

“He said it would be a great opportunity for not just me but for my family,” Driver says. “He said that this could make my brand bigger than what it already is. He was right.”

The tipping point for Driver was when the entire family decided to rent a condominium in the Los Angeles area; his wife Betina and their three kids, as well as Donald and Betina’s mothers, relocated for the run of the show.

For 10 weeks, Driver practiced with professional dance partner Peta Murgatroyd during the day and came home to his temporarily relocated family at night. On Monday nights, he and Murgatroyd competed; on Tuesday nights, the results were revealed.

For Lammi, that meant weekly red-eye flights between Milwaukee and Los Angeles. Although Driver’s family had relocated, Lammi’s could not: His wife, Nicole, was far along in her pregnancy with the couple’s twins.

On average, 16 million households were tuned in to each show, making ‘DWTS’ consistently two of the top five watched shows of each week. And on May 22, 2012, Driver and Murgatroyd became Season 14 champions, earning the coveted mirror ball trophy, and earning Driver something that eludes most professional athletes – mainstream star status.

“Everywhere I go, people always recognize me from ‘Dancing with the Stars,’” Driver says. “There are a lot of women out there that don’t know that I played football, but knew that I was on ‘Dancing with the Stars.’”

And there have been other, more tangible payoffs. Driver’s post-football gigs have included regular segments on ABC’s “Good Morning America,” co-hosting Katie Couric’s nationally syndicated talk show, coaching teams on NBC’s “The Biggest Loser” and ABC’s “Extreme Weight Loss,” and judging the Miss America Pageant.

Ironically, the only thing Driver hasn’t done is football commentary, but it hasn’t been for a lack of opportunities. Despite numerous offers for him to be an analyst, Driver chooses instead to concentrate on life beyond the NFL.

“He’s made every one of these opportunities possible,” Driver says of Lammi, who long ago became more than just a business partner. Driver says Lammi is family. “He’s somebody that I would trust if anything ever happened to raise my kids. I love him, truly.”

 

Lately, it’s been Lammi who’s been asking himself what’s next.

He’s built the sports marketing firm that bears his name, taking it from a desk in his one-bedroom apartment to running the marketing efforts of dozens of the Midwest’s most recognizable sports names. At age 41, he’s pretty far into a game that Joe Sweeney said was best-suited for young men. And as the ‘what’s next’ question comes up, Lammi gazes out of his Third Ward office window and thinks aloud about the road ahead.

“This is a high-touch industry,” Lammi says, meaning that players want their actual agents to be available, not underlings. Lammi notes that even Rosenhaus employs only three other agents for his dozens of clients.

The world’s largest talent and player agency, Creative Artists Agency, has nine satellite offices to supplement its Los Angeles headquarters, but each office only employs two or three agents. “I think we want to continue to be cautious about how many people [in the office] our athletes are dealing with,” Lammi adds.

But his business keeps growing. More athletes are signing on to boost their off-field visibility, boost their income, and plan for life after their playing career. Lammi’s nine full-time employees are the most he’s ever employed.

[quote]Lately, it’s been Lammi who’s been asking himself what’s next. [/quote]

“We’ve thought about opening a small office in Illinois and having a Chicago presence,” Lammi says. He has already represented former Bears linebacker and likely Hall-of-Famer Brian Urlacher, along with Bears star wide receivers Alshon Jeffrey and Brandon Marshall.

But does a desire to expand to Chicago also indicate an ambition to go national, or even global?

He admits to thinking about opening a satellite office in a warmer climate. Although he calls himself a “Wisconsin boy through and through,” neither he nor his wife, who was living in Arizona when they met, are fond of the Wisconsin winters.

Could that be another step toward becoming an even bigger player? After all, Creative Artists Agency began with folding card tables acting as desks and the principal’s wives taking turns working as the firm’s receptionist. Global firm IMG was founded by Mark McCormack, a Cleveland attorney who struck up a friendship with golfer Arnold Palmer and began setting up business opportunities for him in the 1960s. And Joe Sweeney’s SMG agency, the one that gave Lammi his start, began over a round of golf with Brett Favre.

Three floors below Lammi’s office window, Amtrak’s Hiawatha train rolls past on its journey to Chicago.

“I guess what the future holds,” he says, “you never know.”

Freelance writer Doug Russell is a sports radio host on WTMJ. Write to him at letters@milwaukeemag.com.

‘Secret Agent’ appears in the February, 2015, issue of Milwaukee Magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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