Pat DiCesare and Sonny Vaccaro. Two friends my mom once knew who grew up in a small town and made it big…and big’s an understatement.
When last we met, Pat was working at a record store and Sonny was a football coach…
Late 1950s – 1960s…
Pat and some hometown pals formed the Doo-Wop group, The Penn Boys, with Pat doing the songwriting and record producing. He would later even write a song for the Del-Vikings. In 1958, Pat formed Bobby Records, named for their first recording artist Bobby Vinton.
In Sole Man, the ESPN 30 for 30 documentary about Sonny Vaccaro, Pat DiCesare mentions that one day he and Sonny were hanging out in Sonny’s uncle’s bar (my mom knew the place and identified it as the V&M Lounge, a place that she also hung out in and remembered), and Sonny asked Pat why he didn’t go to college. Pat said the next thing he knew he was going to Youngstown State – Sonny just had a way of making things happen. While there, Pat got into the concert promoting business and was soon working as a record distributor for the man who would become his mentor: concert promoter and agent, Tim Tormey. It was with Tormey that DiCesare promoted the Beatles’ concert in Pittsburgh on September 14, 1964, during their first U.S. tour
Sonny Vaccaro, meanwhile, was finding success in a different area. Around 1964, he had the idea to get all of the best high school basketball players in America together to play in an All-Star game in Pennsylvania, something that hadn’t been done before. Together, in 1965, Sonny and Pat founded the Dapper Dan Roundball Classic, the first national championship high school All-Star basketball game. It became a huge success and sold out every year. Colleges started coming to scout out potential players. Sonny, who seemed to know everybody, became friends with the coaches and players alike.
While Sonny was building a name for himself in the high school basketball circuit, Pat was climbing in the music industry. His mentor Tim Tormey joined with Dick Clark in 1965, giving DiCesare the opportunity to branch out on his own, forming a company he called University Attractions (later called Pat DiCesare Productions and then DiCesare-Engler Productions in 1973 after partnering with drummer and promoter Rich Engler).
In the 1970s, Pat developed exclusive leases with several major venues in Pennsylvania. DiCesare made a name for himself as THE concert promoter in Pittsburgh, bringing in acts like Janis Joplin, The Doors, The Who, The Rolling Stones, and Led Zeppelin. With Engler, he bought up real estate, most notably the 3,500-seat Stanley Theater, which became the highest grossing auditorium in the country. There, DiCesare brought in acts like Bruce Springsteen, the Clash, and Willie Nelson. If you saw a rock concert in Pittsburgh in the 1970s, Pat DiCesare probably had a hand in it.
Circling back to Sonny, in 1976 he realized he wanted to branch out and contacted a shoemaker he knew in Trafford. He had a new idea for a shoe…
At that time, Nike was making athletic shoes, but had nothing to do with basketball. Sonny got himself an appointment with the Nike executives and pitched his idea for an athletic shoe. They turned the idea down, but were interested in Sonny, this basketball whisperer and grassroots phenomenon. He asked Nike to give him free shoes to give to his players to wear. Nike, recognizing the level of sway Sonny had in this area, agreed. Sonny started signing coaches who would encourage the kids to wear Nike’s shoes and, in return, the coaches would get paid by Nike. In Sole Man, Armen Ketyian of CBS Sports states, “In the span of 12 months he basically owned college basketball.”
Back to Pat, in the 1980s he dabbled in the Las Vegas concert scene, but eventually found his way back to Pittsburgh where he continued promoting major concerts. He sold the Stanley Theater for a cool 12 million and purchased several new venues.
Meanwhile, in 1984, Nike was looking for athletes who could become icons for their brand, thinking that they would select 3 and split the money between them. But Sonny had other ideas. He had an athlete in mind who was not on Nike’s radar and he wanted to give the money, in its entirety to this one kid:
Sonny acted as a go between for Nike and Jordan. He won Jordan over with the promise to name a shoe after him, Jordan signed, and the Air Jordan was born, making Nike $100 million in sales and Michael Jordan a household name.
Nike sponsored the ABCD camp that Sonny ran for high school basketball players. Sonny brought in his favorite coaches to look at the talent. Though nothing done there was illegal, many had doubts as to how ethical it was to have players promote Nike by wearing their shoes, but not get paid for it. Sonny knew how to work push the envelope without breaking it and stayed above board, taking pride in the fact that he never steered kids toward certain schools.
1990s and beyond…
Though Sonny was in large part responsible for pushing Nike’s brand forward, in 1991 they fired him. Sonny hadn’t felt that he had been getting enough credit for his contribution and Nike, whose sales were up 1800% from when Sonny started with them, assumed they could get on without him. But Sonny was not one to be crossed…and you couldn’t keep him down. When Adidas called, asking Sonny if he could help them find their own Michael Jordan for marketing purposes, Sonny agreed. A high school kid named Kobe Bryant was invited to the ABCD camp and he impressed Sonny so much that he knew this was their guy. Adidas signed Kobe under Sonny’s recommendation and now had the ammo to take on Nike.
The rivalry between them ramped up when Nike hired one of Sonny’s best friends (and best man at his wedding), coach George Raveling, who had worked with Sonny in the basketball camps. Nike had the money, but Sonny had the influence, charisma, and reputation that had gotten him this far. They competed to find the next Michael or Kobe…and finally found their guy, LeBron James. Sonny wanted Adidas to give him $100 million and Adidas agreed, but when Sonny looked over the contract he found that Adidas had gone lower. LeBron ended up signing with Nike for $90 million and Nike sales skyrocketed once again. Sonny left Adidas shortly after that, worked for Reebok for a few years, and then left the shoe business completely in 2007.
…but his story is not over.
After looking back at the system he, in large part, created, Sonny was able to see the big picture…and didn’t like everything that he saw. In some ways, he had created a monster. So he quit Reebok and became an activist.
Sole Man states, “In 2005, the NBA and its’ players union imposed new age restrictions. New prospects have to be at least 19 years old and one year removed from the graduation of their high school class to play in the NBA.” This rule was, in part, a method of preventing shoe companies from scouting high school players, something that the NBA and others found icky. Sonny, however, was adamantly opposed to this ruling, feeling that kids shouldn’t have to attend college in order to play basketball professionally. That earning a living sans college was something that everyone had a right to as an American citizen. Some kids couldn’t afford college and he felt that this ruling especially targeted them. So Sonny went after the N.C.A.A. He began encouraging kids to play in Europe where there weren’t the same kind of restrictions and started speaking out against the N.C.A.A at college campuses.
Many saw this turnaround as hypocritical. Why would the man who was responsible for commercializing school age basketball and using kids as free advertising while he paid coaches for getting them to wear Nike now say that there was a problem with this? Sonny felt that he was the person who helped the kids, who gave them shoes. Plus, he saw the system he created spiraling out of control. Companies had begun using the players’ images and making tons of money off of them while the kids got nothing.
So how do you take on an organization as huge as the N.C.A.A. and make any kind of difference? You sue them.
Sonny teamed up with lawyer Michael Hausfield and they started forming a case, but they were missing an essential part: a plaintiff.
Enter former UCLA player Ed O’Bannon. O’Bannon was a rising star in the college basketball world whose NBA dreams didn’t pan out. Years later, he was at a friend’s house when he recognized a familiar face in the video game his friend’s son was playing – his own! His initial excitement turned to outrage when he realized that his image, and those of his fellow players, had been used yet they had received nothing while the company made hundreds of thousands of dollars off of them. He knew this was wrong, but he didn’t know how to fix it. So when Sonny Vaccaro mentioned the lawsuit, O’Bannon was keen to join up, becoming Sonny’s lead plaintiff. Vaccaro became a consultant for the case and refused to accept any money for his work. He already had money, now he wanted justice.
The case was filed in 2009 and went to court on June 9, 2014. Two months later, on August 8, 2014, a judge ruled that the N.C.A.A. was in violation of the United States’ antitrust laws. She also ruled that athletes should receive money to cover the cost of college, though she allowed the N.C.A.A. to continue placing limits on the compensation that they were to give the athletes, which disappointed Vaccaro and the team. Still, the ruling was a significant victory for Vaccaro, O’Bannon, and college athletes as a whole. Thanks to Sonny, O’Bannon, Hausfield, and their team, the N.C.A.A. now can’t prevent athletes from getting paid by schools for the use of their images.
Sonny Vaccaro’s influence and legend is wide and complex. He changed high school basketball, he changed college basketball, he changed the shoe industry, he changed the NBA, he made the careers of some of the biggest names in basketball possible…and then he went back and changed it again. Pat DiCesare’s rise was, perhaps, less dramatic, but just as amazing. He helped introduce the Beatles to America and brought the biggest rock bands to Pennsylvania.
Not too bad for two kids from Trafford, PA.
“Sole Man.” Weinbach, John and Dan Marks, directors. ESPN Film’s 30 for 30, season 2, episode 31, 16 Apr. 2015.
DiCesare, Pat. Hard Days Hard Nights: From the Beatles to the Doors to the Stones… Insider Stories from a Legendary Concert Promoter. Headline Books, 2015