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The Visionary
S.L. Price
May 26, 2003
He created sports marketing and changed the worlds of golf, tennis and television. How will IMG survive the loss of its brilliant founder?
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May 26, 2003

The Visionary

He created sports marketing and changed the worlds of golf, tennis and television. How will IMG survive the loss of its brilliant founder?

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The silence was bad, of course, but everyone was used to his silences. It was one of Mark McCormack's most famous negotiating tricks: Stay quiet, let the other guy grow uneasy, and to cover his awkwardness he'll talk, reveal himself, give you an edge before the first cup of coffee is served. Even when that tactic became a clich�—after the people across the table from him had read his books, and his words were taken as gospel by business students and by every young carnivore churned out by McCormack's colossal International Management Group—it still worked. In 1989, as Dick Ebersol, the newly minted head of NBC Sports, hurried to his first meeting with McCormack at the French Open, he kept warning himself: Don't babble, and for God's sake don't give anything away. They sat. McCormack didn't say much. Within 10 minutes Ebersol, with no authority from his bosses at General Electric, was outlining his vision of the future of sports and how NBC was going to dominate it and wondering, by the way, if there was some way NBC and IMG could merge? "I looked in his eyes," Ebersol says, "and they gave me nothing back at all."

So, no, the fact that the 72-year-old McCormack lay speechless for four months before dying last Friday in a New York City hospital wasn't completely out of character. What most struck the friends and relatives who sat reading him e-mails, books and prayers in a vain bid to talk him out of his coma was the idea of McCormack lying there with a tube jammed into his throat, doing...nothing. "You're always going somewhere," a friend once complained to him. McCormack never saw the problem; this was a man who, after all, scheduled playtime with his children and set up casual phone calls months in advance. This was the agent cum entrepreneur who, after one handshake with Arnold Palmer in 1960, spent a lifetime of 18-hour days flying, meeting and scribbling endlessly on a yellow legal pad, angling his way into a singular place in sports history.

"He did more to change the field of professional sport than anybody," says Donald Dell, who in 1970 copied McCormack's blueprint and founded the agency ProServ (later bought by SFX Sports Group), beginning a bitter 27-year rivalry between the two companies. Who won? Put it this way: When Dell began lecturing on sports law at the University of Virginia, he asked McCormack to be his first guest lecturer. "To my shock, he accepted," Dell says.

It made sense: McCormack liked victory laps. The yips had killed his ambition to be Palmer, but after signing Palmer to an exclusive representation deal with that handshake, McCormack singlehandedly created the field of sports marketing by attacking business with the mind-set of a jock. He never lost his adolescent pride in being the first, the best and the biggest; he kept score, needed to be No. 1 and usually was. Mark the Shark—the first agent to marry athletes to big business and the first to grasp the need to go global—built IMG into the $1.3 billion gorilla of sports (and its TV arm, TWI, into the world's biggest independent producer of sports television) and made himself and his clients very rich. Palmer, still bound to IMG by that handshake, is now worth an estimated $200 million.

In the '70s McCormack was dubbed the most powerful man in golf; in the '80s, the most powerful in tennis. Thirteen years ago this magazine threw in the towel and declared him the most powerful man in sports. No one argued. IMG may represent talent, but it also owns or co-owns nine tennis tournaments, has a hand in marketing or televising all eight Grand Slam events in golf and tennis and partially financed the creation of China's pro basketball league. Even as McCormack cluttered the TV dial with trashsports such as The Superstars and World's Strongest Man, he saw the virtue of representing hoary institutions such as the All England Club at Wimbledon and the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews, respecting tradition yet leaving both venues covered with his fingerprints.

The sneaker commercial, the luxury suite, the stadium with a corporate sponsor, the athlete demanding to be shown the money, Tom Cruise begging Cuba Gooding Jr., "Help me...to help you"—all that, and plenty more both good and bad, came from long-ago firings of McCormack's machine-gun mind. Yet after suffering cardiac arrest during minor surgery at a Manhattan dermatologist's office in mid-January, McCormack lay immobile, his brain choked by a lack of oxygen. "That's what's so, so hard," his wife, former pro tennis player Betsy Nagelsen, said 10 days before his death. "It's not so much the limbs; if he spent the rest of his life in a wheelchair, that wouldn't matter. But not to have his brain functioning...."

Yet in one sense, McCormack's condition was oddly symbolic. He personified the industry he created, and both sports marketing and IMG have been dealt punishing blows recently by the slowing economy and by other factors ranging from Sept. 11 to mystification about what the next big thing will be. IMG began cutting staff late in 2001, laying off about 13% of its workforce, but that didn't save the company from a demoralizing 2002. Its plan to become a player in European soccer sputtered into full retreat; its 1998 investment of $75 million in the tennis stadium at Indian Wells, Calif., spawned multimillion-dollar losses; its winter-sports division sagged. The sport in which IMG has its biggest footprint—pro tennis—is in decline.

While no one predicts the demise of IMG, it's clear that what was once considered the company's unmatched asset—its size and scope—has become bloat. Despite its presence in Chinese basketball, IMG underestimated the Yao Ming phenomenon and did not sign Yao himself. (He went to agent Erik Zhang.) And despite the proximity of the agency's Cleveland headquarters to LeBron James's high school, last week IMG failed to land the likely No. 1 NBA draft pick, who signed instead with Aaron Goodwin.

"[IMG] has to change the way it does business," says one industry observer. "Look at extreme sports: Back in the day that wouldn't have snuck up on them. But they got into it late. It used to be that nobody could compete with IMG, because they were everywhere. Why they're not everywhere anymore, I don't know."

While quick to dismiss rumors (happily disseminated by IMG's rivals) that the company is hemorrhaging money, newly appointed co-CEOs Alastair Johnston and Bob Kain admit that the days of expansion are over. Properties, employees, events, salaries—all are candidates for the chopping block, and the only question seems to be how bloody a mess it will be. "It depends on what end of the sword you're holding," says Johnston, a 30-year employee who formerly led IMG's golf and international divisions. "We don't have a whole lot of the same emotion Mark had. Mark did not like putting people on the streets. I'm not suggesting Bob and I will be cannibals, but we've got to take a more objective view of these things."

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