He was a young lawyer from Cleveland with a passion for golf, a brilliant, creative mind and a workaholic nature. In 1960 he signed his first client, Arnold Palmer, and from that sturdy platform Mark H. McCormack launched a business that would become a billion-dollar industry and forever change the landscape of professional sports.
Virtually everything being done today in the management and corporate sponsorship of athletic events, in merchandise licensing and in made-for-TV sports started with McCormack. He was the first big-time sports agent. He founded his company, the International Management Group, on the simple premise that to have their names associated with great athletes, corporations would pay a lot of money. Not hundreds of dollars, which was the going rate for personal appearances when McCormack got into the game, but tens of thousands, then hundreds of thousands and finally the millions that the top athletes earn in endorsements today. McCormack convinced the business world that sports was an ideal marketing vehicle—high in visibility, positive in image and international in scope.
Timing, of course, is everything, and a few things happened in the early '60s that helped create the sports boom that McCormack has so deftly exploited. Television began to bring sports stars into people's living rooms. At the same time, commercial jet travel was shrinking the world. Athletes could travel longer distances to make appearances and play in more events than ever before.
Long before there was much talk of a global economy, McCormack was a global thinker. (Today IMG has 64 offices in 25 countries, amassing revenue of $1 billion annually.) IMG's strategy was to try to sign the best athlete in each country, then use that athlete to open corporate doors in his or her homeland. Gary Player, a South African, and Tony Jacklin, an Englishman, joined McCormack's stable of golfers. Scottish race driver Jackie Stewart became an IMG client, as did French skier Jean-Claude Killy and Swedish tennis player Bjorn Borg.
McCormack tapped into the events his athletes played in. Wimbledon became an IMG client in 1968, allowing McCormack to handle its TV and video rights and licensing deals. He created merchandising logos for golf's U.S. and British opens, then licensed them around the world. The Ryder Cup; tennis's Italian, Australian and U.S. opens; and the European PGA Tour all allowed themselves to be embraced by IMG's golden tentacles. Explaining IMG's expansion into event management, McCormack once said, "Bjorn Borg can break a leg. Wimbledon cannot."
It was also IMG that invented the lucrative, if increasingly ludicrous, phenomenon of made-for-TV sports events, which McCormack could sell by delivering IMG's marquee-caliber athletes as paid participants. The Skins Game and its various spinoffs were IMG creations, as were The Killy Challenge, the Battle of the Network Stars, And American Gladiators. Little was sacred in McCormack's efforts to expand revenues for IMG and its clients. Sport was the fatted calf and IMG a rendering plant. It was IMG that came up with the idea of stretching the Olympics over 17 days and three weekends—which translated into bigger TV audiences and rights fees. IMG insisted on ever-escalating appearance fees for its golf and tennis heavyweights like Nick Faldo, Greg Norman, Bernhard Langer, Ivan Lendl, Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova, fees that sometimes exceeded the prize money for winning a tournament.
Some IMG athletes, though, have fallen victim to burnout. Jennifer Capriati was a multimillionaire before she was 15, but she had made a mess of her life before she turned 18. Golfer Bill Rogers lost his love of the game and his competitive fire by chasing the highest bidders all over the globe at IMG's behest. In recent years both Greg Norman and Curtis Strange, while enriching themselves off the IMG chuck wagon, suffered prolonged slumps while still in their primes.
McCormack's response? His job is to provide his clients with opportunities to cash in on their fame. All they have to do is say no. Palmer, McCormack's original client, is worth hundreds of millions of dollars and is still beloved the world over. And McCormack, alternately charming and manipulative, has—for better or worse, for richer and still richer—presided over a golden age of sport, from which there is no turning back.
JEAN GUICHARD/GAMMA LIAISON, 1987