Mark McCormack

Sports and entertainment super-agent
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Mark Hume McCormack, lawyer, business executive and sports agent: born Chicago 6 November 1930; chairman and chief executive officer, International Management Group 1964-2003; married 1954 Nancy Breckenridge (two sons, one daughter; marriage dissolved 1984), 1986 Betsy Nagelsen (one daughter); died New York 16 May 2003.

Mark McCormack was not just the original super-agent; he invented a whole new area of business in sports marketing and management. He was the man who put commercialism into sport. His company, the International Management Group (IMG), was founded on a handshake but became an empire with a turnover of more than a billion dollars.

Sports Illustrated, the American magazine, called McCormack the "most important man in sports". It was claimed he was the "godfather of golf". Something similar would apply in tennis. He was also called less flattering things, like "Mark the shark". This reputation grew from incidents like the one at the Open Golf Championship in 1969.

The British player Tony Jacklin had just won and Bollinger wanted a photograph of the champion with a bottle of their champagne. McCormack turned the bottle round so the label would not show. The rationale was simple to McCormack. "If Bollinger want to photograph Jacklin with their champagne, having just won the Open, that has value to them and they ought to pay for it."

When McCormack branched out into promotion of events and television rights, as well as player representation, he faced criticisms of conflicting interests. His contention was that he had never harmed a particular sport. The globalisation of sport, with the participants' huge rewards and 24-hour satellite channels, may well have happened eventually but McCormack was the first to see the potential.

As a golfer, McCormack was good enough to once play in the United States Open and to represent his college, William and Mary. After attending Yale Law School and then joining a prestigious law firm in Cleveland, Ohio, McCormack started to set up a few exhibition matches for some of the golfers he knew from the amateur scene who had now turned professional.

Soon McCormack suggested to Arnold Palmer, whose charismatic personality fuelled interest in golf in the States and, later, in Britain, that he become his business manager. Palmer had won his first major championship in 1958 at the Masters tournament. Late in 1959 the pair sealed their gentleman's agreement with a handshake and the following year Palmer won the Masters for a second time and his first US Open title.

In the same year, 1960, McCormack founded IMG, becoming its only chairman and chief executive officer. Within two years Palmer's endorsement earnings spiralled from $6,000 to $500,000. Gary Player and Jack Nicklaus soon joined IMG and the company grew with their successes. With clients such as Tiger Woods, who earned $60m a year as the world's best golfer, and Venus and Serena Williams, growth continued into the new millennium.

The head office of IMG in Cleveland became one of 85 in 33 countries. Nick Faldo, Greg Norman, Colin Montgomerie, in golf, and André Agassi, Pete Sampras, Martina Navratilova and Monica Seles, in tennis, were all clients. Norman, like Nicklaus, took off to set up his own company but others, like Palmer and Seles, whom McCormack helped return to the game after a stabbing incident in Germany, enjoyed career-long relationships.

Latterly clients came from all parts of the entertainment industry, including the models Heidi Klum and Tyra Banks, the singers Dame Kiri Te Kanawa and Placido Domingo and even the physicist Stephen Hawking. A literary agency was set up and a financial consulting company with Merrill Lynch.

Often McCormack would set out to sign up a sport's iconic figures: Palmer, and then Woods, in golf, Rod Laver in tennis, Jackie Stewart in motor racing, Jean-Claude Killy in skiing and Wayne Gretzky in ice hockey. Later he ran sporting academies, with David Leadbetter in golf and Nick Bollettieri in tennis. In 1967, McCormack set up a television arm, Trans World International (TWI), which became the biggest single producer of televised sport in the world.

From 1968, he handled the television and marketing rights for Wimbledon, a role he also provided for the Open Golf Championship. The Pope, the International Olympic Committee, the Mayo Clinic, the New York Yankees and Cisco Systems all benefited from IMG expertise, while TWI host websites for many companies, including Manchester United. IMG also bought the French football club Strasbourg.

McCormack's ideas went further than just representing sports stars. He promoted events for them to play in and got TWI to televise them. In golf, he founded the World Match Play Championship at Wentworth in 1964 (first winner: Arnold Palmer), and the Skins Game in 1983. In 22 years of promoting official events on the European Tour, IMG injected $92m in prize money, a healthy percentage won by its own clients, 10 per cent of which went straight back to the company.

In 1986, McCormack married for the second time, to the tennis player Betsy Nagelsen. His three children from his first marriage all work at IMG. McCormack showed little sign of slowing down; he was usually up before 5am. One naïve employee in the London office, told he would be receiving a call from McCormack in the States at 10am, was startled to find out that meant British time.

Modern technology may have made his company work, but it was not for McCormack. All his appointments and phone calls were logged on yellow legal pads and contact cards. Every part of his day, including naps and relaxation, was itemised on his schedule. He kept his watch 10 minutes fast so as to be punctual for every meeting, the sort of practise he wrote about in his books on business, among them What They Don't Teach You at Harvard Business School (1984) and Never Wrestle With a Pig (2002).

He never relinquished his grip on the company. "We call it 'The Event'," he once said of his death. "I don't think about 'The Event' a lot although I'm forced to do it at family meetings all the time."

He never considered selling the company. Nor of retirement:

Why should I? I love what I do, I love getting up in the morning and creating, I'm proud of what I've done and as long as I think I can continue, as long as I think I can enjoy it, I will do it.

Andy Farrell