One of the world’s most successful sports businesses started with a handshake.
Mark McCormack was a 29-year-old Cleveland lawyer looking to get a startup business off the ground in 1960. Seeing the rising value of athletes in the budding television age, he pursued the opportunity to represent and maximize the earnings of golfers, and, needing to make a big splash, he eyed one of the game’s emerging superstars, an old college opponent from Wake Forest named Arnold Palmer.
“[McCormack] asked for a contract. I said, ‘We don’t need a contract. We’ll just shake hands, and you’ve got a client,’” Palmer said in a 2004 interview with Businessweek. “That kind of shook him up a little, but he did it.”
Superagents are as much of a part of sports these days as coaches and game plans. McCormack essentially invented the field of sports marketing as the founder and CEO of International Management Group (IMG), which today is the world’s largest athlete-representation firm and the largest independent producer of sports-television programming and distributor of sports-television rights.
“Without Mark and without his vision, there’s no way that IMG would be where it is,” says Sandy Montag, senior corporate VP of IMG Sports and Entertainment, who joined the company in 1985. “He truly was way ahead of the industry.”
Born in Chicago in 1930, McCormack always loved sports. He was only 6 years old when he was struck by a car and suffered a fractured skull that kept him from being able to play contact sports as a child. So he gravitated towards golf, which quickly became his passion, and he played collegiately at the College of William and Mary, qualifying as an amateur for the U.S. Open in 1958.
After his undergrad years, McCormack spent time in the U.S. military before acquiring a law degree from Yale and working as a lawyer at a Cleveland law firm. He was drawn back to the sports world when he reconnected with Palmer. Shortly after the famous handshake, IMG added two more superstars in Jack Nicklaus and South African Gary Player, completing what was affectionately referred to around the industry as “The Big Three.”
A Global Vision
Aggressively promoting the Big Three led to a dramatic increase in each golfer’s exposure and value while launching IMG as a corporate superpower. McCormack’s foreseeing a global sports industry made IMG a pioneer institution.
The company expanded into tennis, acquiring such big names as Bjorn Borg and Jimmy Connors — for whom he arranged a series of matches throughout China. Throughout his career, McCormack represented athletes across numerous sports — Pele, Charles Barkley, Monica Seles, Derek Jeter, Tiger Woods — while coordinating special projects for global leaders, such as Mikhail Gorbachev and Pope John Paul II.
“He never became just an administrator or a CEO that just pulled the strings and told people what to do,” says Bob Kain, a founding member at IMG who spent 31 years at the company. “He always kept a few of his own projects, and, up until the end, he would still call me to brag about a deal that he did. It was, like, ‘Mark, you don’t have to prove to me that you know how to sell, man!’ He was always earning his stripes; he never just wanted to be the overhead guy.”
Changing the World of Broadcasting
McCormack laso took advantage of the burgeoning television industry, becoming one of the first to truly utilize the marriage of sports and TV to its fullest potential.
“Mark McCormack was a genious,” said Barry Frank, Executive Vice President, Media Sports Programming at IMG. “Mark realized that in order to capitalize on the value of his big-name clients that television was the main outlet for this kind of growth.”
To tap that market, McCormack started a television division at IMG called Trans World International. It has grown into the largest independent producer, packager and distributor of sports programs in the world. Some of its most popular programming includes Big 3 Golf, American Gladiators, and Battle of the Network Stars, as well as shows promoting Barclays Premier League soccer, the ASP Tour, and World’s Strongest Man competitions.
Trans World International also negotiated television rights deals for the All England Tennis Club, the British Open, the NFL, Major League Baseball, and the NBA.
“Mark’s vision of where broadcasting was going to go was just light years ahead of any one else,” Peter Smith, Senior Vice President, Director International Sales at IMG. “I asked Mark for a job definition at the time of what did he really want me to do as I set up the international side of TWI and he said to me, ‘get on a plane and never come home.’”
McCormack was also the first to propose the concept of a ‘world feed’ to the All England Club, now a practice that’s routine at most international tennis and golf events, as well as the Olympics. The world feed allowed broadcasters to customize content for specific markets and countries, thus attracting more viewers and driving up the rights fees.
Learn by Listening
McCormack was a relentless hard worker and an elite businessman, with both skill sets opening the door to a second career as a best-selling author. His most renowned work, What They Don’t Teach You at Harvard Business School (1986), spent 21 straight weeks at No. 1 on the New York Times bestseller list.
“[The best piece of advice he gave me was] something he told me in my first week of work and something that I remember every day: you learn more by listening than by talking,” says Montag. “He also taught me that, when you are negotiating, always let the other party go first because they may offer you something higher than what you were thinking. Let them show their cards first. He always wanted to have the advantage, and I think he was highly skilled in doing that.”
McCormack’s love of golf blended with his enormous attention to detail. McCormack would take notes on nearly every golf event he attended or watched. Using results and his observations, he created and published his own World Golf Rankings for nearly two decades. His method was adopted as the Official World Golf Ranking system, which is still used today.
“He was just a fanatic,” laughs Betsy Nagelson, an elite tennis player who was McCormack’s second wife and an IMG client beginning in 1974. “He knew every score of every game of every client he ever had, and it wasn’t because he was trying to impress people by knowing it. He just truly loved it.”
In 1990, The Sporting News named McCormack the “Most Powerful Man in Sports,” and he was featured three times by Forbes as one of the 400 Richest Americans (1995, 1998, 2001). He was a member of the World Golf Hall of Fame and the International Tennis Hall of Fame.
McCormack’s mark remains all over the industry he created and the sports he impacted. The Mark H. McCormack Award is presented to the golfer who spends the most weeks at No. 1 in the Official World Golf Ranking for a calendar year.
“He truly affected so many lives, many of whom will never be known about because they’re not superstars or celebrities or world-class athletes,” says Nagelson of McCormack, who died in 2003. “Those are the people that make me feel so wonderful about the man he was. He really cared about the underdog as much as the superstar.”