Keeping his eye on the ball: THE MONDAY INTERVIEW

For more than 30 years Mark McCormack has been one of the most powerful men in world sport. Now, as he tells Ian Stafford, he is preparing to move in on the world game
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P erhaps the most telling indication of football's current status in world sport comes not from the latest satellite viewing figures, nor even from the size of Manchester United's recent kit deal. It arises from the intentions of a 65-year-old American who confesses to understanding little about the game.

Mark McCormack is ready to become a big player.

"It's a new area for me, for sure, but soccer is undoubtedly the world's biggest and most popular sport. Now there's money in it, we should be involved,'' said the man who, through his company, International Management Group, is one of the true power brokers of world sport.

Having dominated golf and tennis ever since he began to act for Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player and then Rod Laver in the 1960s, McCormack is unlikely to be satisfied with the players' pool for the Anglo-Italian cup final. The game has been around for some time, of course, and McCormack could have been in there from the start, when he more or less created big money in other sports. Instead, he bided his time until he felt the moment was right. That moment is now.

"I had a meeting with both Geoff Hurst and Booby Moore right back in the early days when I only had a few names, people like the golfers, and the likes of Laver, Jackie Stewart and Jean-Claude Killy, on my books,'' he said. "It was just after the '66 World Cup final, so those two guys were obviously the ones to know in the game.

"I remember Hurst telling me that his salary at the time was pounds 3,000, which took me back, I can tell you. In the end, I realised my ideas would not fit in with the way soccer worked then. In soccer, I only had one person to negotiate with, and that was the team. In a sport with individuals, such as skiing, I could talk to equipment and sports-car manufacturers, venues, television and so on. Now soccer's gotten so big and the players have become individuals, we're making a major move.''

That move is his intention to act as Fifa's broker for all commercial and television rights for the 2002 World Cup, just as he he acted for many years both for the Wimbledon tennis fortnight, and for the R&A concerning the Open. "We've been making quiet advances in soccer in the past couple of years. We're involved, for example, with the sport in China, South Korea and Russia, but now we've stepped up a gear.''

Meaning? "Well, we've just offered Fifa a billion dollars for all the commercial TV rights. We will get their answer in September.''

McCormack appears confident that it will be enough. "Well, I'd say a billion dollars is a fairly serious number, wouldn't you?"

I t was a sum beyond even the wildest dreams of a young golfer and lawyer from Cleveland when he shook hands with a promising talent named Arnold Palmer 36 years ago.

"I'd love to be able to say I had it all figured out in 1960, but I didn't. I could only see three to five years ahead. I was also very lucky, because Palmer, Player and Nicklaus began to win everything in sight as soon as I signed them, just when television really took off. Then I faced a decision. I could have either stayed with the big three golfers, as Colonel Tom Parker did with Elvis Presley, or taken the idea into other sports. I decided on the latter, and signed up Stewart, Laver and Killy in the late 1960s. After that, peple started coming to me, because the market was crying out for someone like me, and I seemed to be the only one with a track record.''

The second stage in IMG's road to world domination was to expand into television. By creating Trans World International, one of the first major independent production companies, McCormack was able to keep his clients in-house when it came to appearances on screen.

Then came the third, and most controversial stage. "Whereas players can break their legs, sports events go on,'' he explained. "I therefore went first to both the R&A and Wimbledon to help commercialise their events, and then started creating my own events, like the World Matchplay.

Yet even McCormack has been surprised by the explosion of interest in sport, despite playing a major part in it. "To say it wouldn't have happened without me is absurd because of natural evolution, but it's fair to say tht I drew the road maps. I was the catalyst."

In which case hasn't McCormack, rather like Dr Frankenstein, created his own monster, which is now dangerously out of control? Sport and greed often appear to go hand in hand. The participants have become devoid of common reality, while they and IMG rake in untold riches.

Mark McCormack denies the charge.

"People who say to me that I'm too powerful and all-encompassing are never able to point out one thing I've ever done which has been bad for sport. I know I control everything at the World Matchplay, for example, but show me an instance when it's worked to the detriment of golf. Nothing at Wimbledon for the past 25 years has been bad for tennis, has it? None of the fibre or integrity of the event's been lost.''

But what about the earnings now in sport? Hasn't the will to win, for the sake of winning, been diluted?

"I don't think so, no. Sports people don't want to be perennial quarter- finalists. When Monica Seles was playing in the Australian Open quarter- final last month, she had no clue what the difference in prize money was between the quarter and semi-finals. It's the ego element. They want to be champions, and money is a by- product."

Talk of Seles underlines how McCormack likes to maintain the personal touch. "It's fair to say that I was very involved in Monica's comeback. "Betsy [his wife, former Wimbledon doubles champion, Betsy Nagelson] and she have been close friends for years. They play doubles a lot, and during Monica's time off, I got to know her and her family well. I played my part in getting her back on the tennis court, as indeed I am currently involved in the comeback of Jennifer Capriati.''

Sometimes, though, not even the personal touch can prevent a sports star capitalising on what McCormack created. Take Greg Norman, for example. The Australian golfer demanded appearance money to play in last October's World Matchplay, was refused, and withdrew from the tournament.

"We never pay any appearance money at the World Matchplay, it's as simple as that. Once you pay one person, then everyone will want it. I'm sorry Greg didn't play, but you get pounds 50,000 or something for just turning up and losing in the first round, so they don't leave poor."

The issue of appearance money was bad enough, but you suspect that what really irked McCormack was Norman's decision to set up a rival company. McCormack decides to confirm this. "You don't want to lose people like Greg Norman. It hurts your ego more than anything else. You know you're the best, and you know that the job you've done for Norman was extraordinary.'' He repeats the world slowly: "extraordinary.''

"When you write, there must be times when you think your article is fantastic, and other occasions when you know you didn't give any time towards it, and it ends up pretty awful. Well, it's the same in client representation.

"In Norman's case, we were mind blowing. We rewrote the record books. His response to that was, in my opinion, not very loyal. There are times when people could leave us if we haven't done a good enough job for them, but we did a wonderful job for Norman. He took the money we earned him and decided to set up his own organisation.

"OK, more power to him. If he's got more full-time people working for him - several of whom, I might add, he hired from us - then that's fine, but I'm disappointed in him and in that, because we didn't deserve such treatment.''

For all his ire there seems little danger of McCormack's IMG being seriously threatened. He has, after all, just returned from Seoul, where he opened up his 71st worldwide office, making it sound just like McDonald's as he explains this, and shows no signs of slowing down.

"I'm 65 going on 38, and there's still so much to be done," he insists. At least nobody could accuse the man of time-wasting. Existing on just four hours sleep a night, he is the master of the art of time management. A minute achieving nothing is a minute wasted.

I had first-hand evidence of McCormack's attention to detail when his secretary rang to inform me our interview had been postponed. By 10 minutes. He then actually made himself available two minutes after our appointed time. Who knows what I could have achieved in my life during those crucial 120 seconds?

It's not on really, is it?