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Volume 20 No. 41
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IMG scores major catch with Els

When veteran agent Vinny Giles decided to get back into the golf business last year, he loudly marked his return by signing hall of famer Ernie Els.

A year later, Giles, 70, has retired again; his company, Pros Inc., is no longer representing golfers; and Els is now IMG’s client.

“I thought the business would be more fun in 2012 than it was in 2006 when I originally retired,” Giles said in an email to SportsBusiness Journal. “I now realize how wrong I was.”

Ernie Els gives IMG an international star.
IMG issued a news release last week saying that it had signed Els, 43, a four-time major champion and winner of this year’s British Open in a surprising comeback tale. Els’ change in representation, however, was at least partly triggered by Giles’ decision not to continue representing players.

Neither company would say whether IMG is paying Pros Inc. for the right to Els’ contract. Industry sources indicated that Pros Inc. and Els talked to several agencies before deciding on IMG, which will take on Els’ full management and marketing.

Whichever way Els wound up on IMG’s client list, the tall South African represents a major catch for the agency’s golf business. IMG’s golf division has been reeling for most of 2012 from the messy departure of four agents, but Els’ signing represents a resounding response.

Els, an international star who has established his own brand by playing all over the world, cited IMG’s “global network of offices” as an attraction to the company. IMG will work with Els to build his already-stout brand through its sponsorship and licensing expertise.

Perhaps as important for IMG, though, is the signal sent by Els’ signing that IMG is still a strong player in golf’s athlete representation space.

“This certainly puts us in a better position than where we were perceived to be earlier this year,” Guy Kinnings, IMG’s co-managing director of global golf, said from his London office.

Kinnings took over his co-managing director post last year after Mark Steinberg — and his star client, Tiger Woods — departed. Together with Singapore-based Robbie Henchman, Kinnings has overseen a tumultuous time for the golf division. Top agent Jon Wagner left in May, followed out the door by three other agents during the summer. A pair of court cases followed as IMG successfully prohibited Wagner from taking players with him, based on non-compete clauses in his contract.

But IMG seems to be emerging from the tough times on the strength of the company’s global position, which was the primary factor in landing Els. IMG also managed to retain four-time PGA Tour winner Sean O’Hair, even though he initially planned to leave last summer, and brought on a handful of young talent coming out of college, including three Golfweek first-team All-Americans: Blayne Barber, Dylan Frittelli and Eugene Wong. The company also announced last week that it has signed HSBC to an extension for its title sponsorship of the Women’s Championship in Singapore. IMG expects to learn this week that its events division has won the right to manage the Kraft Nabisco Championship, the LPGA’s first major of the season.

In Els, IMG will find an already-mature brand that includes his ownership of a winery and a golf course design firm. His sponsors are Callaway Golf, RBC, Boeing, SAP and Breitling watches, though Kinnings said there remains plenty of room for growth, both in the sponsorship and licensing areas.

Because Els has traditionally played all over the world, there is the potential to grow his personal brand into more of a global business, just the way IMG did with Arnold Palmer and Annika Sorenstam.

“Ernie is clearly not complacent with what he has achieved,” Kinnings said. “There is a lot more he wants to do and he will take full advantage of our global assets for his brand and for his legacy. … Ernie’s willingness to play all over the world is an attribute that’s strong for him. He’s had a desire to travel and take the game global. With that comes a certain cachet.”

Kinnings and Henchman will both be hands-on with Els, they said, while London-based Duncan Reid will coordinate global business opportunities with Els’ business manager, Phil Cotton. Clarke Jones, who oversees IMG’s golf division in the U.S., will work on domestic business along with Andy Dawson, who formerly worked for Els but now will be joining IMG in a to-be-determined Florida office.