SBJ/June 11-17, 2012/Labor and Agents

IMG deals with golf exits

Questions circle company after agents’ departures

Guy Kinnings stood in front of the players’ locker room at Quail Hollow Club, beads of sweat dotting the Englishman’s brow on a warm May afternoon.

The co-chief of IMG’s global golf business had just completed a walk through the driving range to chat with some of IMG’s key clients.

Though rare for an executive at his level to visit an otherwise routine PGA Tour stop, London-based Kinnings was needed in Charlotte to quell the increasing concerns IMG golfers had about agent Jon Wagner’s sudden departure, the latest in a string of messy splits from IMG.

Wagner had been co-managing director of IMG Golf Americas, teaming with Clarke Jones to oversee all North and South American business. His exit to start his own company made him the fifth high-ranking executive within IMG Golf to part with the company in the last year, starting with Tiger Woods’ agent, Mark Steinberg.

IMG responded by filing for a restraining order against Wagner, which was granted temporarily in Cuyahoga County (Ohio) court, to stop him from signing IMG golfers or agents. The case will resume with a hearing on July 10. Two other agents who left IMG, Kevin Lynch and Jeff Stacy, are listed as defendants with Wagner.

IMG’s Guy Kinnings (left) with Luke Donald and IMG’s Robbie Alter, is answering questions that started with the exit of Steinberg (below).
Photo by: GETTY IMAGES (2)
“You never want to find yourself in a position of having to explain staff departures, but the reality is that corporately IMG Golf has never been stronger, when you look at the people we have and the assets we can tap into globally,” Kinnings said. “Sometimes you have to remind people that we have a strength in golf like no other and it comes in the form of a truly global business.”

But a look at the agency landscape in golf indicates potential shifts in the business. An industry once dominated domestically by IMG
is now considered increasingly more competitive, with Wasserman Media Group, CAA Sports, GMR Marketing, Lagardère Unlimited and others working to expand their golf business, at least in part, because they see an opening provided by the volatility at IMG.

As golf insiders head to Olympic Club this week for the U.S. Open, there remain those perfectly giddy that IMG appears to be staggering from the run of staff departures, while others bemoan the perceived cracks in the foundation set by Mark McCormack years ago. IMG Golf has evolved out of what McCormack started — a boutique golf agency — into a multifaceted global golf business that involves licensing, TV production and distribution, consulting, hospitality and course design.

But player management is where it all started. Four of the five executives who parted with the company were prominent agents who helped build a player base of more than 100 golfers around the world.

Standing next to the stately Southern clubhouse at Quail Hollow, Kinnings acknowledged the question circulating the club that May day, and since.

“People want to know what’s going on with IMG Golf,” he said.

Last week in a wide-ranging interview, Kinnings and Robbie Henchman, the Singapore-based co-managing director of golf, went about answering that question. They said golf trade magazines that have used words like “upheaval” and “turmoil” in headlines to describe the current state of IMG Golf “don’t know the details,” Kinnings said. He claims that they don’t account for the enormous business IMG Golf does overseas in TV production and distribution, consulting, licensing and events.

“Those headlines are easy to write because we’ve had some departures, but that doesn’t take into account the scope of the business,” Kinnings said. “Every company in golf aspires to have just a little of the business that we have.”

Added Henchman: “We’re still the behemoth of the industry.”

Despite the departures, Henchman’s right. IMG represents more golfers, owns and operates more tournaments globally and easily produces more hours of golf programming on TV than any of its rivals. IMG is the TV production and distribution partner for both the European Tour and the Asian Tour. The consulting base includes HSBC, Rolex, Volvo, Dunhill, Diageo, Chevron and General Electric, among others, and the agency runs hospitality and pro-ams around the world.

With those revenue streams all feeding from golf, though, player management and events remain the two most prolific sources of income. The events business has more than tripled in the last 10 years, with most of its growth coming in the Asia/Pacific region under Henchman’s guidance. Of the 40 events that IMG owns or operates around the world, half are based in Asia.

But the fractures that have formed domestically from the loss of so many top agents have competitors taking a closer look at golf. Lagardère struck earlier this year, buying Gaylord Sports Management, whose top client is Phil Mickelson. Wasserman acquired SFX’s player management roster of more than 30 golfers late last year to go with its consulting business. CAA Sports hired Pete Bevacqua from the U.S. Golf Association and acquired MG Sports Marketing in October to bolster its golf portfolio, and it
is looking deeper into the event business.

When Wasserman announced last month that it was creating a formal golf division with plans to expand its business internationally, some IMG executives were heard saying, “Oh, like we’ve been doing for the last 50 years?”

But IMG Golf has taken on a weathered and worn look in the last 12 months.

It all started in May 2011 when IMG parted with Steinberg after a contract dispute. Woods left with
Arnold Palmer (top), Annika Sorenstam and Padraig Harrington are all part of IMG Golf’s still sizable client base, and the company has added several young international stars.
Photo by: GETTY IMAGES (3)
Steinberg, although two other prominent clients, Annika Sorenstam and Steve Stricker, stayed with IMG. Then last fall, Bart Kendall, the head of IMG Golf’s consulting practice and an 18-year IMG veteran, was let go as the firm eliminated Kendall’s job.

Wagner’s split with IMG came last month, shocking those in the industry because he had been named co-managing director for IMG Golf Americas less than a year earlier. Reports followed that IMG Golf’s client business had been reduced from 40 employees to 13. “Totally untrue,” Kinnings said, who added that there are 40 employees in the Cleveland office, of which 25 to 30 work on client business. That number has remained roughly the same over the last 18 months, Kinnings said, as some agents have moved or been reassigned to replace those who left. Many more work on client business through sales, licensing and other IMG divisions internationally that touch golf.

“Our focus is still very much on the client business,” Kinnings said. “If you flash back to five years ago, the number of players, especially in the U.S., might be slightly smaller, but there’s much more of a geographic spread in both the men’s and women’s games. And so, what you’ve seen is that we’ve added resources all over the world.”

Player management is much more labor-intensive, and the returns, while lucrative, typically require a greater investment in manpower than consulting or events, those in the business say.

“Player management has always been the root of that business and, in my opinion, those roots have been chopped a little bit,” said Mac Barnhardt, CEO of Crown Sports Management, which represents close to 20 pro golfers. “Yes, you can make a lot more money in those other businesses like licensing and consulting. But the player management business that Mark McCormack started opened the doors to everything else.”

The departures, combined with IMG’s growing emphasis on college sports, have left some in the golf division uneasy about the future. IMG formed its college division through more than $300 million in acquisitions since 2007, and the college division is growing rapidly, accounting for nearly half of the company’s operating profit, industry sources say. Golf’s impact on the company’s bottom line has receded to 10 percent to 15 percent, well down from 25 percent in 2009, sources say. Certainly, much of that can be traced to Woods’ loss of endorsements since his 2009 sex scandal, which prompted companies such as Accenture, AT&T, Gatorade and others to part with him.

While IMG declared several years ago that it would pull out of athlete representation in team sports, it has remained committed to the agent business in golf and tennis, even though it saw another change recently when Tony Godsick, a 19-year veteran tennis agent at IMG, split with the company earlier this month.

Kinnings has often spoken with admiration about the vigor with which IMG has pursued the college business, saying it speaks to the overall strength of the company. But others have privately expressed concern that golf’s place within IMG has deteriorated as the bosses keep their eye on the college ball.

Wagner, a longtime golf industry executive, was a cornerstone of IMG’s golf business, both as an agent and an expert on the events business. At least two of his clients, Sean O’Hair and Trevor Immelman, the 2008 Masters champion, have said they want to go with Wagner, who has started his own shop in Cleveland called Milestone Sports Group. IMG is not letting O’Hair and Immelman out of their contracts, unless the court dictates it. Other IMG clients, such as the world’s No. 1-ranked golfer, Luke Donald, have said they will stay at least through their current contract, but the ongoing tug of war over clients has left IMG in defense mode.

While IMG says it is merely enforcing the non-compete clause in Wagner’s employee contract by taking him to court, the case has added another layer on what’s an increasingly messy situation.

Wagner did not respond to repeated messages.

While the lawyers sort that out, IMG Golf has moved forward with personnel shifts to cover for the departures. Jones goes from co-managing director of IMG Golf Americas to managing director, while David Livingston, an IMG Golf senior vice president and former Procter & Gamble executive, will take on more of Wagner’s old duties.

Jon Heaton, who returned to Cleveland from a stint in London last year, has responsibility for Donald and other golfers. Ben Walter, who also spent time in the London office, just recently returned to the U.S. and will assume more of the agent duties, as will Kevin Hopkins.

“We’re looking to grow that part of the business,” Kinnings said of the client side, which includes Donald, Sorenstam, Camilo Villegas, Jason Dufner, Padraig Harrington, Natalie Gulbis, Michelle Wie, Sergio Garcia and IMG’s first client, Arnold Palmer. It also has successfully signed some of the game’s hottest young international stars, such as Italy’s Matteo Manassero, Japan’s Ryo Ishikawa and Brit Tom Lewis, showing the agency remains strongly relevant with the next generation of stars.

“We’ve reorganized to make sure we’re fit and ready to drive the business on,” Kinnings said. “Some of these situations have been difficult to deal with, and that happens when you have personalities involved. But moving forward, we’ve got the very best players in the world and we’ve got the leaders in their markets.”

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