Champions: Barry Frank, the dealmaker
Barry Frank, in his New York office, never intended to work in sports. He was an actor and saw himself as a creative person.
His love was drama, and he had some early success as an actor. He played a recurring role as a bellhop on the TV show “Robert Montgomery Presents” and the lead in a Sunday morning program called “Frontiers of Faith.” But he gave up acting in the early 1950s after failing to land the lead three different times in an Elia Kazan direction of “Tea and Sympathy” on Broadway. Living in New York, Frank realized a life on the stage was unlikely, but had no other ideas on what he wanted to do at the age of 22. Pressured by his mother to go to school and find a profession, he enrolled at Harvard Business School. The school gave him connections he never imagined, and he tapped its alumni base to land a job in television at CBS. He later caught the eye of ABC Sports President Roone Arledge, who hired Frank as a programmer.
In the decades that followed, he became a powerful figure in sports media, turning IMG into a leader in media rights negotiations, broadcast representation and show creation. He negotiated record-setting Olympic TV rights, he represented broadcasters John Madden, Jim Nantz and Bob Costas, and he helped conceive shows ranging from “Superstars” to “American Gladiators.” To it all, he brought a keen instinct for leverage, an eye for excitement, and, almost always, a flair for the dramatic.
“He likes what we call megillah, but you’d call a production,” said Sandy Montag, IMG corporate vice president. “I always remember being in his office trying to figure our way out of a jam. It was always good for the client, but it was usually dramatic.”
What is remarkable is not simply what Frank’s done, but what he has done in so many different areas of the media business. “He has a spectacular ability to compartmentalize,” said Nantz, of CBS Sports. “He could be working on the ‘World’s Strongest Man’ competition in South Africa, trying to put the final pieces of the puzzle together for an ACC-ESPN deal, and have any number of individual contracts in negotiation or about to expire, and at the same time be trying to sell the final [ad] units at the Skins competition in Maui. He’s juggling all this at the same time … and what he’s working on with you is the most important thing to him. That’s talent.”
Setting. The office. Frank sits in an oversized, black leather chair. As he recalls details of his life, he occasionally stares out the window. It’s January in New York, but the sky is blue. Steam rises from pipes on nearby buildings outside IMG’s office in Hell’s Kitchen.
Frank: As I was looking graduation down the throat, I went through the Harvard Business School graduate directory, and there were nine people who worked in entertainment. One was a guy by the name of Ed Saxe at CBS. ... Saxe decided they had a big problem. When a producer came in to do a show on CBS property, he had 12 different studios to choose from. Each had a different studio manager who each had his own price for hair and makeup, etc. Saxe asked me to create a rate card.
Reporter: Did you like it?
Frank: I hated it. I was an actor. I saw myself as a creative person. I didn’t see myself as [an] accountant, a bean counter. … [But] I got lucky again. [A friend] offered to get me a job at J. Walter Thompson. … I interviewed and got a job on the Ford account. Ford was one of the biggest buyers in sports. Through that job, I became friendly with Roone Arledge and others. … Roone taught me what not to do and what to do. … “Make the other guy in any negotiation feel like he’s the most important thing around” was one of the things I learned.
“Have you hired him to represent you?” Frank asked.
“No, but we probably will,” the director said.
“Don’t do anything yet,” Frank said.
Frank’s office shelves are full of collectibles and awards, including an Emmy.
In previous negotiations, the network negotiated the dollar amount first and then negotiated what rights it received. As a result, the networks had all the leverage in negotiations.
Frank put an end to that. He drafted a single contract that spelled out what rights the networks would receive for the 1988 Olympics. ABC, CBS and NBC signed that contract before negotiations began, making price the only issue left in negotiations. Frank had a novel idea for that, too. He pitched the networks on continuing negotiations until there was more than a 10 percent price differential between the top two bidders. “We don’t want to have someone lose this by a few dollars,” Frank said.
The networks agreed to those terms. Bidding opened at $125 million and rocketed to $300 million. “They all started to bitch that the price was too high,” Frank said, recalling the negotiations recently. “We said, ‘OK. You can take away the 10 percent differential. We’ll have single rounds. The minimum bid was [at least] a million dollars more than the last bid anyone had made.’”CBS fell out of the bidding, but Frank wanted to lure them back to the table. He caught CBS Sports President Neal Pilson in the hallway of the Beau Rivage Palace hotel in Lausanne, Switzerland, where the negotiations were held, and invited him back to the table.
“I know you’re out,” Frank said, “but why don’t you come downstairs and put in an envelope anyway.”
“I can’t do that,” Pilson said.
“There doesn’t have to be anything in the envelope,” Frank said. “Just hand in an envelope.”
Though Pilson and CBS passed on the invitation, Frank still managed to ratchet up the final price. ABC ultimately paid $309 million, an increase of more than four-fold from the previous high paid by a U.S. network. The deal, which was chronicled in a front-page story in The Wall Street Journal, cemented Frank’s reputation as an expert rights negotiator.
“[Olympic rights] probably wouldn’t have gotten as high as they did as fast as they did without Barry,” said Dick Pound, an International Olympic Committee member who was involved in the bidding process for the Calgary Games. “He understood the value of bidding and the huge advantage of exclusive rights.”
In the years that followed that monumental deal, Frank and IMG led negotiations for six more Olympic Games and represented the NBA, NHL, MLB, BCS and the ACC. Frank brought an eye for leverage to each negotiation. Even small properties, like the Professional Bull Riders, benefited from his work.
In 2001, PBR Chief Executive Randy Bernard came to Frank because the property had sold its television rights years earlier to a producer named Allen Reid, who refused to sell them back at what the PBR considered a reasonable price. As far as Bernard could tell, the PBR had no leverage. He asked Frank to read the contract and see if the PBR was missing something.
Said Bernard, “He called me up and quoted some Shakespeare. I asked him what it meant. He said, ‘Basically, we’ve got them by the nuts.’”
Frank, who loves to quote Shakespeare, told Bernard to tell Reid that until he decided to sell at a reasonable price, the PBR would allow no cameras below the highest seat in each arena; it would prevent cowboys from doing on- or off-camera interviews; and it would allow no replays during events. Reid eventually sold the rights back for $6 million, half of what he’d been asking, and Frank negotiated a $5.5 million rights deal for the PBR with OLN (now Versus) and a time buy on NBC. The deal was profitable in its second year, Bernard said.
“It was a very heavy hand Barry played,” Bernard said. “If he hadn’t done it, I would bet today the PBR would still be playing at fairs across the country and 60 percent smaller than it currently is. We put a tremendous amount of faith in Barry that he was right, and he was.”
Setting. A French restaurant on New York City’s restaurant row called Le Rivage. Copper pots and landscape paintings of the countryside hang on its exposed brick walls. French music plays softly. Frank, now wearing his suit jacket, sits at a small circular table. The reporter sits across from him, scribbling notes in a Steno pad.
Frank: Calgary was a good example of something I learned myself, which is just keep after it if it’s something you really want; keep pushing for it. … The number was so totally shocking. No one thought we’d do more than $150 [million].
Reporter: I want to talk to you about something else, and I’m just going to cherry pick from big career things. … How did you get into the agent business?
Frank: It was such a simple story. When you hear it, you will say, “That led to all of this?”
Meet the agent.
In 1978, John Madden retired from coaching football, and Barry Frank called him almost immediately. The two had worked together not long before on an episode of a show IMG produced called “The Superteams,” and Frank thought Madden had potential to become a great TV personality. Frank asked Madden if he’d considered broadcasting.
“No,” Madden said. “Virginia [Madden’s wife] owns a little bar. I’m going to spend a year just watching the people come in and out of the bar. Maybe in a year.”
“OK,” Frank said, “but in a year, no one will remember John Madden.”A few days later, Madden changed his mind, and Frank cut a deal that put Madden in the CBS broadcast booth for four NFL games. After each game, Frank went over a tape of the broadcast with Madden and weighed in on Madden’s strengths and weaknesses.
Madden quickly became the voice of football in America, and when his deal with CBS ended in 1994, every network wanted to sign him. Then-ABC President Bob Iger and ABC Sports President Dennis Swanson wanted Madden to become the lead color commentator on “Monday Night Football” and scheduled a dinner with Madden and Frank at IMG’s Upper East Side office in hopes of persuading the broadcaster to join the network. Toward the end of the evening, Iger offered Madden a deal worth $9 million to $10 million over four years. The size of the offer surprised both Frank and Madden, who shook hands on it almost immediately.
But nothing ends that easily with Frank, and two days later, he took a call from Rupert Murdoch. Fox was preparing to broadcast NFL games for the first time that fall, and Murdoch wanted Madden because the Super Bowl-winning coach would confer credibility to Fox broadcasts.
“I’m sorry,” Frank said. “We’ve already done a deal with ABC.”
“Is it signed?” Murdoch asked.
“No,” Frank said, “but we’ve already shaken hands on it.”
Murdoch persisted and asked what it would take to get Madden. Frank threw out the most absurd number he could think of at the time: $10 million a year.
Fox eventually offered Madden a four-year deal worth more than $30 million.
“I called John,” Frank said, recalling the negotiations. “He said, ‘$8 million? They’ll pay me $8 million? Take it!’”
Frank relayed the news to Iger about the Fox deal. When Iger protested that ABC had a deal first, Frank said, “I know, but this isn’t my money and it’s not your money. It’s John Madden’s money. What do I do? It isn’t me. It’s my client.”
Madden hadn’t been Frank’s first TV client, but this deal was the biggest and most significant broadcaster deal Frank ever did. There were others, too. He identified Bob Costas when the two were working at CBS in the mid-1970s, and he approached the broadcaster a few years later when he was at IMG, telling Costas he needed an agent. He took Costas to NBC in 1980, where he was reportedly paid about $300,000 a year. By 1987, Costas’ salary reportedly topped $1 million, increasing to $2 million by 1993 and $3 million by 2001.
But Frank did more than secure money. He also negotiated a deal that made Costas NBC’s Olympics host.
“We probably have a 75 percent share of the top talent in sports broadcasting: Jim Nantz, Greg Gumbel, Bob Costas, Kirk Herbstreit, Mike Tirico,” IMG’s Montag said. “Barry started that.”Setting. Le Rivage. A waitress clears two bowls of French onion soup and places a plate with a triangular slice of quiche in front of Frank. He picks up a fork and cuts into it.
Reporter: How long did it take to repair the relationship with Iger after that?
Frank: A long time. … We were at Jim McKay’s funeral. He walked over to me and said, ‘How are you?’ I said, ‘I’m OK. How are you?’ He said, ‘I’m OK. Let’s let bygones be bygones.’ I presume that meant what’s done was done.
Reporter: You worked in TV, you went to the agency [IMG], you went back to TV, you went back to the agency. What are you more suited for?
Frank: I prefer a place where I can be creative and making something happen that hasn’t happened before. The wonderful part of IMG was Mark [McCormack] would let me do whatever I wanted. If I wanted to do a canoe race down the Hudson, that would be OK.
Meet the creator.
In the late 1960s, Dick Button first approached Barry Frank at ABC with his idea for a competition and show that would determine the world’s best athlete. The two-time Olympic figure skating champion had never been able to shake his belief that he didn’t deserve to win the 1949 Sullivan Award as the country’s best amateur athlete. “When I got up to bat [in high school], I didn’t get to first base,” Button said recently. “How could I be the best amateur athlete?”
ABC passed on the concept, but Frank never forgot it. After joining IMG in 1970, an oil filter company approached the agency looking for something new to sponsor, and Frank immediately thought of Button’s show. He approached Button about partnering on the show, and Button agreed to provide the idea if IMG provided athlete, sponsor and production support. All Frank had to do was sell a network on it.
Target No. 1 was Frank’s former boss at ABC, Roone Arledge. Knowing that Arledge was often so busy at work that he failed to give some ideas full consideration, Frank invited him for a round of golf. Frank spent nearly five hours pitching Arledge on the idea. Eventually, he bought it. The two-hour special, “Superstars,” debuted in 1973, and some form of it has been on TV ever since.
It wasn’t the only show Frank had a hand in creating. A few years later, when he was president of CBS Sports, a college friend, Jerry Adler, showed him footage of an overgrown, muscle man snapping quarters in half with his fingers. Adler thought the trick could be a halftime clip during a football game. Frank asked what the muscle man planned for his next trick.
“He wants to jump off the Golden Gate Bridge,” Adler said.
“No way,” Frank said.
The image of a muscle man performing superhuman feats stuck in Frank’s mind, and after returning to IMG in 1978, he dreamed up the idea for an annual competition pitting muscle men against each other to determine who would be called the World’s Strongest Man. He sketched out challenges where competitors would run with refrigerators on their back and later lift a platform holding Los Angeles Rams cheerleaders. The first show survived a lawsuit from one injured contestant, but it thrived in the years that followed. Today, 34 years later, it’s still on the air.
Frank’s work on those shows and others ranging from “American Gladiators” to “Survival of the Fittest” earned him and IMG notoriety as the kings of “trashsports,” a phrase Sports Illustrated coined to describe what it considered to be far-fetched, made-for-TV competitions. Collectively, the shows had a cultural impact that continues to this day.
“The real sports people turned their noses up at all of it, but it’s still surviving,” Adler said. “Now you’ve got all these second cousins. You could call ‘Survivor’ ‘trashsports’ if you wanted. It became a genre. And he helped create it.”
Setting. Le Rivage. It’s after 3 o’clock and most other lunch patrons have long since gone. The waitstaff busies itself preparing tables for dinner. Frank has finished lunch, and only his napkin and the remnants of dessert, crème brulée, remain on the table.
Frank: My favorite show is still “Survival of the Fittest.” I developed the idea for it on a drive home from my country club. I love the outdoors. I started thinking about climbing and rappelling and rafting. I started thinking, “Why couldn’t this be a show?” I had more fun doing that show than anything I’ve ever done. I’m trying to bring it back now. I have a sponsor interested. That’s my No. 1 project for this year.
Reporter: At your age, you still set annual goals like that?
Frank: I have to have annual goals. That’s what keeps me going.
Reporter: Do you think you’ll ever retire?
Frank: I still enjoy it. I don’t know what I’d do if I didn’t do this. Do I wish I could take an extra week off in Hawaii? Yep, I do. But do I still have the best Rolodex at IMG? Yep, I do. The short answer is I’ll retire when I’m not having fun anymore.
The wisdom of Arledge and McCormack
“I don’t use that term lightly,” Frank says. “I mean geniuses.” Frank worked for Arledge, the longtime president of ABC Sports, as vice president of sports programming for six years (1964-70).
He worked for McCormack, the founder of IMG, for more than 30 years (1970-76 and 1978-2003). He was close to both of them and says he learned more about business from them than anyone else he’s ever worked with.
Here are some of the lessons he gleaned, in his own words:
Lessons from Roone:
• Don’t treat people like they’re animals. At the bottom, we’re all the same. People all get up in the morning and put their suit on and go to work and try to make a living to feed their family. To make somebody wait for three days to get a simple answer (to a question), and I know the answer and I can give an answer in 20 seconds on the telephone … Don’t do that. That’s how he was wired, but it’s important to treat people with respect.
• Don’t make quick decisions. You may change your mind tomorrow. One thing about being bright is you tend to want to go quickly because your mind is three steps ahead. You think, “I can do this, easy.” You give quick answers. You agree to things. You don’t agree to things. You make decisions too quickly. You don’t always weigh your answer taking into account all that you do know. Take your time and get it right. There are no medals for finishing it this afternoon.
• Make the other guy in any negotiation feel like he’s the most important thing around. Roone gave people total, abject attention in negotiations.
• There’s no question you don’t need to know the answer to. Roone would make sure I knew them. It was the kind of stuff
Lessons from Mark:
• Think big and think of things that haven’t happened before.Mark would think of ways to do things I would have never thought of. Mark made the single biggest decision of anyone in our industry when he realized that sports were an international business, not just a U.S. business. We were morons thinking football was the be all and end all. For 99 percent of the world, football doesn’t mean shit. He went out and got Wimbledon. He went out and got the British Open. It was Mark’s idea to build marquees at Wimbledon. That’s become a multimillion-dollar enterprise.
• Create a cadre that you can count on.Not an I’ve-got-your-back cadre, but an I’ve-got-a-good-idea cadre. I’ve-got-your-back is important, but after a while, you get smart enough that you have your own back. We had something called “the dinner committee” at IMG. That was a group of people whose average years of service was 27. We met three or four times a year. That’s why we had this incredible company. I’ve never seen a collection of senior executives like Mark McCormack had.
• Relationships are at the heart of business. Mark had a favorite saying that I use time and again: “If I’m doing a deal, all things being equal, I’ll do business with a friend.” I believe that to the bottom of my soul. Sometimes your worst enemy might make the best offer, so it doesn’t always work, but I think relationships are the most important single aspect of business.
• Expand the deal. If you sign someone for their domestic deal, why not ask who handles their foreign rights? Mark would look at all aspects of a deal to make sure we explored every possibility there was with a client. That was particularly true with the Olympics, where we started doing domestic rights.