SBJ/November 28-December 4, 2011/Finance

Pondering IMG's future: 'Whatever happens will have a trickle-down effect'

In sports agency circles, just as in elementary school, anything involving the biggest kid on the block gets noticed. So whether IMG is not for sale, as the agency steadfastly insists, or if it will end up on a holding company’s roster has been debated in sports marketing circles with regularity since Ted Forstmann purchased the company in 2004, and even more so since it was revealed that he had inoperable brain cancer.

Those on the periphery all have interest in the subject.

“Given IMG’s investments in college marketing, anyone there is paying day-to-day attention,’’ said John Tatum, co-founder and CEO of Genesco Sports Enterprises. “Whether they continue to acquire business or are sold in whole or in part, whatever happens will be a benchmark and set the tone for this business overall.”

Bob Reif, St. Louis Rams CMO and a former IMG executive vice president, agreed the company’s future will influence the agency business. “Whatever happens will have a trickle-down effect on every agency,” he said. “But I don’t think there will be the same urgency to sell that we saw when Mark McCormack passed.”

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Ted Forstmann, 1940-2011

In latter years, and especially under Forstmann’s ownership, IMG has emphasized its size as a competitive advantage, but its very magnitude could be a detriment to any sale.

“The simple question is who is big enough to absorb them,” said Mike Reisman, a principal at Aegis Media-owned sports and lifestyle marketing agency Team Epic. Of the agency holding companies, WPP has been a rumored buyer for 20 years, since CEO Martin Sorrell worked for IMG. WPP and IMG jointly launched a licensing company earlier this year.

“They are an industry bellwether, so of course everyone wants to know where they’re heading,” said Octagon President and CEO Rick Dudley. “But if you are trying to identify [potential] buyers, there are buyers for pieces of the business. I’m not sure there’s a buyer for the whole thing.”

“Any corporate buyer would have to be in the same business — it is just too big otherwise,” said former MSG President Bob Gutkowski, whose Marquee Group was part of the SFX roll-up in the 1990s and who is now a partner with Innovative Strategic Management. “They’ve hung their hat on the college play, but that comes with a lot of guarantees to those colleges, so anyone buying would look closely at that.”

Other suspects are CAA, William Morris and perhaps a media company like Google looking to marry content rights to an established network of distribution.

“Outside of the big [communications] agency conglomerates, a big media company would be attracted by IMG’s content rights,’’ said Frank Vuono, a principal at 16W Marketing, whose Integrated Sports International was also part of the SFX roll-up. “But like any acquisition, there’s a big difference whether it is an individual or a company looking at it. It’s still the sports business — there are still guys buying things like teams for more than a billion just to have fun with.’’
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