Can IMG make its mark again?

With sports agencies struggling, Abigail Townsend talks to Andrew Hampel about his plans to revive the McCormack empire,
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The Independent Online

What Andrew Hampel, IMG's new managing director for Europe, Africa and the Middle East, is even doing an interview speaks volumes. Not so much on a personal note - although he is reputedly camera shy - but from the perspective of IMG, the sprawling sports agency business founded 40 years ago by Mark McCormack. A private company dominated by its legendary figurehead, it never felt the need to explain itself to outsiders, though McCormack wasn't shy about giving his views. But the days of securing clients over a handshake are gone, and after McCormack's death in May, IMG has had little choice but to move with the times.

"We have got to change," concedes Hampel. "We need to be in front of people to develop relationships, and our target market consists of a group of people who have a lot of demands on their time."

Which is a polite way of saying "must try harder". In 1960, when McCormack agreed to become the agent for golfer Arnold Palmer, he in effect invented sports representation. But since then IMG's market has changed beyond recognition. Sport has become a multi-billion-pound global business with commercially savvy players fully aware of, and happy to exploit, their worth. The agency business is no longer just about player contracts - areas covered now include sponsorship, TV rights and big-bucks transfers, to name just a few - and there are plenty of rivals to IMG's once trailblazing crown. On top of all that, the industry has been rocked by the global economic slump.

Yet Hampel, 43, seems relaxed about the task ahead of him. A rugby Blue for Cambridge (where he played with former England international Rob Andrew), he has been with IMG since 1987, originally joining the legal team from Freshfields. "I didn't relish the idea of spending my life as a City lawyer," he says.

From there he moved on to representing Formula One stars Ayrton Senna, Jackie Stewart and Alain Prost as head of the motor sports division, before adding golfer Ian Woosnam to his roster. In 1999 he become international group vice-president and took over Eric Drossart's MD role last month (Drossart is now chairman of IMG Europe).

Hampel may no longer play rugby, but with a golf handicap of 10, his sporting credentials remain intact. His route into the business is not out of place either: McCormack was a lawyer and the contract-driven nature of sports agencies means a legal background is useful.

Whether an analytical mind and a passion for sport will help him now, though, is open to question. IMG has been hit harder by the economic downturn than its rivals and McCormack's death was a turning point. Concerns were raised about how IMG - rumoured to be $200m (£119m) in debt and losing out to younger, more aggressive rivals - would survive without its figurehead.

Yet the company is trying to change. Drossart may now be European chairman but Hampel does not report to him. Instead, he deals directly with joint chief executives Alastair Johnston and Bob Kain, themselves new to their roles. A strategic review of the business was recently submitted to management in the US and significant changes, such as the sale of the football agency business - home to England manager Sven Goran Eriksson - are being considered.

It is early days but Hampel is upbeat: "The very good thing that comes out of the review is the strength of the core business." This, he says, includes the TV rights and distribution business TWI and the stadiums arm, where clients include Wembley.

He also disputes that IMG was riding on the coat-tails of McCormack and has now been panicked into action: "The review was initiated before Mark died. His death might have changed the parameters, but it was not the cause. It is just, straightforward business practice."

The review looked at "whether a lot of businesses are the right ones to be in and if each of the events, relationships and clients make sense commercially". Hampel will not go into specifics, however, preferring instead to talk in general terms: "We have to look at a new IMG and it is going to look a bit different to the old one. At the most simplistic level, there's only two reasons to do something: it's profitable and it's strategically important."

There are a couple of points he does concede, one of which is that IMG Models is not up for sale. This is one of IMG's jewels - based in New York, it is home to supermodels such as Tyra Banks - and many a suitor over the years has been sniffing round. But Hampel insists the company has no intention of letting it go. Indeed, he believes that in such a tough sports market, having something different to offer corporate clients is very valuable. "At the moment, the market is not one where sponsors are falling over themselves to pay, in terms of prize money. Top of our priorities should therefore be trying to develop a full package."

He also admits that mistakes have been made in the past. No one would quibble over the strength of TWI, and the group has acted for governing bodies such as the Football Association and Fifa. The trouble spot is its football agency business, where it has lost out to rivals. Instead of sexy young stars with a global appeal, most of the players on its books are in Germany and eastern Europe; rival SFX boasts striker and England talisman Michael Owen (as well as David Beckham, though whether the England captain is still represented by SFX seems open to question).

The football business has already been shaken up, with much of it taken under the wing of TWI. "It makes sense and if anything we should castigate ourselves for being too slow to put it there," says Hampel. "It would be fair to say we didn't get it right at the outset. We might have been a little bit simplistic in our overall business model and in understanding the complexities of soccer agency culture. The other thing we did was grow by acquisitions for the first time, and that requires a very different management approach."

Which, many would argue, is exactly what IMG needs too. Hampel's appointment, following on swiftly from those of Kain and Johnston, appears to be part of that and the focus now is on trying to lift IMG out of McCormack's shadow and es- tablish the group in this second phase of its life. And in today's tough market - one that would surely have kept McCormack firmly attached to his legal briefs and as far away as possible from golfers wielding handshakes - that is likely to require Hampel to be a special agent.