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Volume 23 No. 13
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Timing was everything for trailblazer

Mark McCormack founded IMG and created the business of sports marketing. He died May 16 at age 72.

If Mark McCormack told you he would call at 7:30 a.m., no matter where in the world he was, at 7:30 a.m., exactly, your phone would ring.

"You could pick up your phone in your hotel room and say, 'Hi, Mark,' because you knew who it was," said Alastair Johnston, the new co-CEO of IMG and a friend of IMG founder McCormack for 30 years.

Time was an important commodity for McCormack, and he hated wasting it. He'd wake each morning at 4:30 and be at work by 5. His staff meetings were famously efficient. Never would he be late for an appointment, no matter who it was with.

When taking a meeting in his office, he'd pull off his watch and put it down on his desk in full view, reminding the person in front of him that every second was an investment.

During his younger days, when International Management Group was a small company, McCormack was always in a hurry. Johnston remembers "his lack of patience" and his focus on going to the next job, the next function or the airport. "A lot of his friends would say, 'Mark, you are always going somewhere,' " Johnston said.

But over the years, McCormack changed.

"As time went on and he matured and sports marketing became less of a frontier and more of a predictable landscape, he became a lot more comfortable in being Mark McCormack," Johnston said.

Mark Hume McCormack died May 16 at the age of 72. He suffered a cardiac arrest in New York four months before and had been in a coma ever since.

His three grown children, IMG executives Breck, Todd and Leslie, were at his bedside during much of those four months, as was Betsy, his wife of 17 years. His youngest daughter, Maggie, is 5.

His death brought sadness and relief to his extended family within IMG and the industry. There had been little hope of McCormack recovering, but his passing left many feeling a deep sense of loss.

McCormack's career in sports management began with a now-famous handshake with golf great Arnold Palmer in 1960. The two never had a formal written agreement, but McCormack represented Palmer right up until January. They met for breakfast just a few days before McCormack's cardiac arrest, and, in Palmer's words, McCormack was "in wonderful spirits. The furthest things from our minds was illness and death."

A skilled golfer himself, McCormack played on the varsity team while an undergraduate at William and Mary in Virginia. He qualified for the 1958 U.S. Open as an amateur. He earned a law degree from Yale and practiced law in Cleveland.

Shortly after taking on Palmer as a client, he added up-and-comers Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player, and the three went on to dominate the golf landscape for years. IMG now represents 30 percent to 35 percent of the male golfers in the field of any major golf championship.

The company now consists of 2,500 employees, with 80 offices in 32 countries, and represents the biggest stars and most hallowed events in sports. To rattle off the list inevitably does some superstar an injustice by omission: Tiger Woods and Annika Sorenstam in golf; Pete Sampras and the Williams sisters in tennis; the clubs that run Wimbledon and the British Open; Derek Jeter, Vince Carter, Jeff Gordon and Peyton Manning; John Madden and Bob Costas. And that's just in sports. Violinist Itzhak Perlman, NASA and the world's largest modeling agency also fall under the IMG umbrella.

While some of McCormack's star athlete clients left IMG over the years, some of them came back.

Former PGA champion Dow Finsterwald remembers talking with McCormack about how Nicklaus and several other top golfers had returned to IMG. "He was personally gratified and he felt vindicated," said Finsterwald. "It wasn't the money they were going to generate for the company, it was that he was made to feel that he had done things right."

Ray Cave, former editorial director of Time Inc. and a current IMG board member, first met McCormack in 1960 when he was a reporter for Sports Illustrated writing a story on Palmer. Cave said McCormack truly cared about his clients, "because he felt that was the way IMG would grow and become what it became: dominant in this business.

"It wasn't all altruistic. It was because [he thought] this is the way I am going to grow this thing that matters to me."

Cave said McCormack was far too complex to be embodied in one story.

"He was an innovative genius," Cave said. "He was an entrepreneur. He was different than almost all the executives you ever meet.

"Mark was a visionary, and what he could do is see things sort of three years ahead of time. Other people couldn't do that."

Tom Condon, head of IMG's football division, recalled the day he was hired at the company in 1990. McCormack told Condon to go out and sign as many backup NFL quarterbacks as he could.

"I remember walking away and thinking, 'He wants me to recruit the second string?' and I kind of scoffed at the idea," Condon recalled. "Later that year, 18 starting quarterbacks went down. The next year, all the backups were playing and some of them went on to get great deals."

McCormack's prescience was apparent again in 2000, when he slammed rival sports agency SFX in an interview with SportsBusiness Journal.

McCormack said SFX had overpaid for numerous acquisitions of sports agents and would likely be broken up and sold off in the next few years.

"To me, SFX is a stock play, a securities play," McCormack said. He added that the sports side of SFX would never be successful and that the company's sports executives would quit.

An SFX executive called those remarks "sour grapes," and even some top IMG executives privately wondered whether the statements were ill-advised.

Just months after that interview, SFX was sold to Clear Channel Communications, which later broke its sports group into many pieces. Most of its top executives left the company shortly thereafter.

While McCormack collected the sports world's most powerful clients, he also helped develop some of its top executives.

"We all know that Mark McCormack invented sports marketing," said Arlen Kantarian, chief executive of professional tennis for the U.S. Tennis Association. "He also set the standard for attracting and retaining top executives ... who have grown with IMG over the years."

Johnston has been with IMG for 30 years, co-CEO Bob Kain for 27. Many of the executives and agents under them have spent their entire careers at IMG. Top agents Mark Steinberg and Sandy Montag started at the company as interns.

Kain said McCormack created a culture at IMG that kept executives from wanting to leave. He gave executives a lot of autonomy.

"He let people build their own operations and let them be very entrepreneurial and did not nitpick," Kain said.

For the most part, anyway. There were times, Kain said, when McCormack focused on the small stuff.

"One of the things that amazed me about him was his combination of being a big-picture guy with the ability and tendency to micromanage certain elements," Kain said. "It really is a funny mixture."

The parts of IMG's business that McCormack focused on would vary, Kain said. "It might be cost-cutting procedures or it might be the British Open or it might be FedEx bills," he said.

Kain said one of McCormack's best qualities was that "he was more supportive when you were down than when you were up."

Kain remembered that in the mid-1980s, while he was an executive in IMG's tennis division, he suffered his first major career defeat.

"I lost a million dollars on a deal," he said, "and it was at a time when we couldn't afford to lose a million dollars."

McCormack "was 100 percent supportive," Kain said. "He told me, 'You took an educated chance and you are not going to win every one and we will get through it.' "

But McCormack was not always an easy boss.

"If you had a couple of successes," said Kain, "he would find a way to give you a little whack."

Although he talked little about himself when socializing, McCormack was generous with his advice and wisdom.

He circulated a newsletter around IMG with his selling tips and published a series of business guide books, including "What They Don't Teach You at Harvard Business School," that shared his philosophies.

They included tips such as the importance of chatting during the relaxed moments before a meeting starts or as it ends, because that's when someone lets his or her guard down. "Make the other guy talk," was one of the tenets of the McCormack way. "Stop talking and start listening," he said. "What They Don't Teach You" became a No. 1 bestseller, selling 500,000 copies in hardcover and more than a million overall.

His skills in networking and reading people were legendary. No one has ever put together more deals at the CEO-to-CEO level than McCormack.

Years ago at Wimbledon he met the chief executive at Procter & Gamble. After some informal meetings, the executive returned to the United States, asked his deputies why P&G wasn't in business with IMG, and directed them to change that. Months later, IMG landed a multimillion-dollar deal for client Jennifer Capriati to endorse P&G's Oil of Olay. Oil of Olay was targeted at women in their 40s. Capriati was 14.

Sidney Wood, who won the Wimbledon men's title in 1931 and, at 91, is now its oldest living champion, has a completely different memory of McCormack.

In 1968 he got a call from the budding young athlete representative.

"I'm celebrating a triple client coup," McCormack crowed. "I want to give you a chance to guess their names. Here's a hint: The three all have names that end in a long 'e.'"

Wood was stumped.

"Jean-Claude Killy, Pelé and Twiggy," McCormack revealed, three of the most prominent celebrities of the time.

"Mark is perceived as almost a ruthless manager," Wood said. "With me, Mark was an adorable, funny, funny guy."

The last time they spoke, Wood jokingly suggested that IMG sign him as a client. McCormack responded as if on cue: "That's a good idea. We're trying to corner the market on Woods."