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E.M. Swift
May 21, 1990
Mark McCormack, founder and CEO of International Management Group, rules his empire as both agent and impresario
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May 21, 1990

The Most Powerful Man In Sports

Mark McCormack, founder and CEO of International Management Group, rules his empire as both agent and impresario

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How all-encompassing has the world's largest sports (and then some) management company become? IMG promoted Pope John Paul II's 1982 tour of the British Isles. It represents the Nobel Foundation, the Mayo Clinic, Ringling Brothers and violinist Itzhak Perlman. IMG contacts more than 1,200 companies a year in North America, tempting them with marketing ideas and concepts. Want to sponsor a golf tournament in Spain? A tennis tournament in Hong Kong? How about an opera tour of England, Japan and Australia? A super-series of ski races, with Phil and Steve Mahre taking on the world? The America's Cup? Stars on Ice? Or is the world gymnastics championships more your style?

IMG employs more than 1,000 people in 43 offices in 20 countries. Its revenues have increased from $25 million in 1975 to a projected $707 million in '90. IMG revenues grew 430% during the '80s, and while IMG officials expect, even want, that expansion to slow—they only recently lifted a six-month hiring freeze—their company is so well positioned internationally that a significant cooling-off period is not in the forecast. "The company is growing in immense leaps, almost too fast," says McCormack, 59 and still very much the man at the helm, although he has passed much of the day-to-day operating decisions to his top level of managers. "But it's hard to stop it, because if there's an opportunity and you don't fill it, someone else will, and you're creating unnecessary competition."

It is more or less routine for athletes represented by IMG to play in IMG-promoted tournaments that are sponsored by corporations to which IMG serves as consultant, with the TV coverage produced by a company that IMG owns. In business, this is a form of vertical integration and is much applauded, but it raises legitimate concerns about where the line between the best interests of sport ends and the best interests of IMG begins.

"You have to understand that in the sports business, these various cross-representations are the norm, not the oddity," says Seth Abraham, head of HBO Sports, which has bought cable TV rights to the last 15 Wimbledon championships from IMG. "There's nothing nefarious or corrupt about it. If I was unhappy with Mark, I wouldn't be talking with him. If the All England Club was upset with Mark, then presumably they'd fire him."

"I think the conflict-of-interest issue is overplayed," says Frank Craighill, a founder of Advantage International, a competitor of IMG's in the field of athlete representation. "Maybe Mark McCormack is a little greedy, maybe he wants too big a piece of the pie. Fortunately, the market is so huge it really is impossible for one agency to have a monopoly."

It is huge, and it is growing every year. Predicts McCormack: "In the 1990s, Southeast Asia is going to be the growth area for all sports. South America, the decade after that. And Africa, the decade after that." If you were competing against IMG, you would do well to heed McCormack's words. Because wherever McCormack has decided to steer IMG, the sports world—and the big money that accompanies it—has followed.

It all started with golf. The son of a farm journal publisher, McCormack grew up in Chicago, where he began playing golf as therapy after suffering a skull fracture in an auto accident. He won the Chicago prep title and went on to play number one at William & Mary. It was there, during a match with Wake Forest, that McCormack first met Arnold Palmer, the ace of the Demon Deacons team. After graduating from Yale Law School and serving a hitch with the Army in Augusta (where he snuck in a few rounds at Augusta National), McCormack joined the Cleveland firm of Arter & Hadden. He met his first wife, Nancy, on a blind golf date (their three children, Breck, 32, Todd, 29, and Leslie, 24, are all employed by IMG), and in addition to his work for the firm, McCormack began booking exhibitions for pro golfers. Before long, players were asking McCormack to review their endorsement contracts. One of those who turned to McCormack was Palmer. In 1960 McCormack hung out his own shingle, with one client, Palmer, a Calvinistic work ethic and a gut feeling that corporations—not just in the U.S. but all over the world—would pay a lot of money to have their names associated with famous athletes.

In short order McCormack snared unprecedentedly lucrative exhibitions and endorsements for Palmer. After word got out about Palmer's good fortune, McCormack signed two more golf clients, Gary Player and Jack Nicklaus. Suddenly, the Big Three were winning every tournament in sight, and the sports management business has never been the same.

"There are three reasons for IMG's success," says Dustin Murdock, a former vice-president of IMG's golf division, who left in 1985 after nearly six years and is now a partner in the Van Cleef Companies, a real estate and investment firm. "First, there is a lack of competent competition. In client representation, there are a lot of mom-and-pop operations, which is fine because one or two guys can manage a stable of athletes. But when it comes to owning events, administering events, financing cable deals, you need to be more than just a small company. Second, Mark McCormack. He is the best in the business, the most imaginative man I have ever seen. And third, the sports business attracts quality people. Everybody wants to be in sports, and McCormack demands that his people be aggressive, smart and imaginative. He treats his people well. He pays them. He will accept ideas readily, and if you do well, he will leave you-alone."

Not all IMG employees, past or present, are as generous in their assessments of what it is like to work for McCormack. In the words of some, he can be "vicious," "vindictive," "a manipulator" and "Machiavellian." One former IMG executive says that the Cleveland offices were equipped with speakerphones, which McCormack used to eavesdrop on conversations. McCormack denies using the phones for that purpose, although he admits that they could have been used that way. And while nearly everyone agrees that McCormack is more mellow now than he was a few years ago—a personality evolution most attribute to the happiness he has found with his second wife, tennis pro Betsy Nagelsen, whom he married in 1986—he is still a demanding, intimidating chief executive who prides himself on his grasp of corporate minutiae.

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