Saturday, August 19, 2006

Mark McCormack, Superagent

The founder of IMG managed and marketed athletes from Arnold Palmer to Monica Seles in a way that changed the game profoundly.

In a famous scene in the 1996 film Jerry Maguire, the sports agent played by Tom Cruise is goaded by his client, played by Cuba Gooding Jr., to repeatedly scream into the phone "Show me the money." By the time that film came out, however, the role of the sports agent had long since been transformed into one far more sophisticated than simply negotiating contracts. And while screenwriter Cameron Crowe based the Jerry Maguire character on agent Leigh Steinberg, it was Mark McCormack who ushered in the modern era of sports management and marketing.
McCormack, founder of International Management Group (IMG), believed the popularity and marketability of athletes could transcend borders, cultures, language, even sports itself. McCormack-managed athletes were the first to endorse clothing, watches, and motor oil. They played exhibition matches around the world (you can thank McCormack for golf's upcoming "silly season"). They gave inspirational talks to business at a hefty price tag. And they played golf or have cocktails with corporate titans -- again for a fee.

Whether it was setting up golf matches between a young Arnold Palmer and company chieftains at $500 a game, arranging a series of tennis exhibitions throughout China featuring Bjorn Borg and Jimmy Connors, or promoting a soccer match between Pele's New York Cosmos and the soccer star's former Brazilian teammates, McCormack had a gift for keeping his clients well-known and well-paid.

IMG eventually became so powerful at sports management and marketing that it could promote its roster of stars in ways unimagined by other agencies. By building TWI, the biggest sports TV-production company in the world, IMG could feature its star clients and transport their images all over the world.

McCormack also leveraged his international roster of athletes to arrange matchups that the competitors never would have agreed upon on their own. In 1990, when sports superagents like David Falk and Steinberg were just emerging in the public consciousness, Sports Illustrated named McCormack the most powerful man in sports.

Today, 18 months after McCormack's death, TWI produces 9,000 hours of sports programming a year, and IMG runs an average of eight or nine sporting events around the world every day. And through it all, McCormack built the company organically, never selling the agency's soul just for the sake of growth.

"Before he came along, there were people who represented athletes, but there was no one who approached it on any kind of scale," says Bob Kain, a 30-year IMG veteran who's now co-CEO of the firm. "His competitors in the early days thought locally, maybe nationally, but none saw the global potential of sports the way Mark did."

Born in Chicago in 1930, McCormack was just 6 years old when he was hit by a car and suffered a fractured skull. The doctors said contact sports like football and basketball were out, so golf became McCormack's passion. He starred in the sport at The College of Willam & Mary, and one day came up against a pretty good Wake Forest golfer -- Palmer.

The two hit it off, and it wasn't long before McCormack, subsequently armed with a law degree from Yale and working for a Cleveland law firm, was busy helping Palmer and other pro golfers look over their contracts. In 1960, after a hand-shake management deal with Palmer, McCormack was on his way. "He sort of grew up with Arnold," says Kain. "He always admired the way Arnold dealt with other people, and I think he tried to carry himself that way as well."

After Palmer's signing came deals with South Africa's Gary Player and Jack Nicklaus, giving McCormack a lock on golf's "Big Three." He then branched into tennis and other sports with a global footprint. By 1985, IMG's roster included golfer Palmer, soccer's Pele, tennis players Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert Lloyd, skier Jean-Claude Killy (who became a very close friend of McCormack's), runners Sebastian Coe, Bill Rodgers, and Mary Decker Slaney, baseball star Jim Rice, and football player Herschel Walker.

Athletes knew that at IMG, they stood a good chance of earning just as much off the playing field as on and that IMG would manage everything, from negotiating with team owners to investing their money to making sure they got to appointments on time.

McCormack himself took an intensely personal interest in many of the athletes. Besides lasting friendships with Palmer, Killy, and hundreds of others, McCormack later in his career became a father figure for other athletes, including tennis star Monica Seles. "When you are in the personal-service business, you often don't have a choice," Kain says. "You are going to get involved in every aspect of their lives."

While McCormack's impact on the business world extended to his best-selling books like What They Don't Teach You at Harvard Business School and Hit the Ground Running, IMG continued to be his main passion throughout his life. In his last years he started a fashion agency and a consulting arm within IMG, both now leaders in their respective fields.

He died at the age of 72 on May 16, 2003, in New York, four months after suffering a heart attack. The only man who negotiated deals with a young Arnold Palmer and a young Tiger Woods -- and just about everyone in between -- is gone, but sports fans will feel his impact for many years to come.


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