McCormack's legacy: fun for the millions

Massive financial success of a very English phenomenon owes everything to an all-American

Lawn tennis, strawberries and cream, Tim's No 1. Yet behind the quintessential English scene that is Wimbledon lies a vision of corporate America with a capital C.

Mark McCormack died last year, but his legacy has taken on a life of its own. The championships may have been born in 1877 but the modern phenomenon was created by McCormack, a modestly talented sportsman and a brilliant and ruthless agent who realised that business and pleasure were the same thing.

As the founder of IMG, the International Management Group, McCormack's influence was so pervasive he was called the most powerful man in sport. The Cleveland lawyer didn't restrict himself to games. His list of clients included Pope John Paul II, resurrecting an old joke about who is that standing next to McCormack on the balcony of the Vatican?

Possessing a hot line to the Pope is impressive, but nothing matches McCormack's achievement in turning Wimbledon's barley water into wine. It was in 1968 that IMG and their television arm, TWI, looked at the All England Club's TV agreements outside Europe. "The company's invol-vement grew ever stronger and more diverse,'' said Chris Gorringe, chief executive of the club. "Mark had a huge devotion to Wimbledon and was the key contact on all aspects of our business.''

Under IMG, TV coverage of Wimbledon spread to 159 countries, and it was McCormack who initiated the world-wide merchandising pro- gramme in 1978 - the club have 20 Wimbledon shops in China alone. The income from licensees, ranging from American Express to Wedgwood, is huge, but then every aspect of Wimbledon fortnight is an accountant's dream. There are queues to buy used championship balls for £1 a time and queues at the banks and cashpoints to refuel the money-making process. The cash flow here is of Niagara proportions, and everything helps to cocoon the players in the extraordinary lifestyle to which they have become accustomed.

At corporate hospitality marquee No 19, tucked around the corner from Court 13, Bob Kain, the president of IMG, is entertaining clients. "I grew up running the tennis business, so returning here is a very emotional experience,'' Kain said. "We are doing Mark proud. Wimbledon was his favourite client and we worked hard to keep the special relationship going. We're handling it with real loving care.''

In 1968, when the championships went open, prize money was £26,150; now it is £9,707,280. Next weekend the men's champion will receive £602,500, the women's £560,500.

Substantial capital has been raised through debentures, and agreements have locked together the interests of the club and the Lawn Tennis Association. The surplus from the championships - they prefer the word surplus to profit - is used by the LTA to develop the game in Britain. In the last 10 years the sums have totalled nearly £300m.

Take Tim Henman out of the equation and where, you may wonder, are the rewards for such prodigious investment? Everywhere, except in producing a home champion.

"Sometimes we represent the best player in the world,'' Kain said. "But Wimbledon is No 1 every year. They continue to run the best tournament in the world while modernising and retaining its unique quality and charm. That's a real hard thing to pull off. Mark understood what Wimbledon wanted to be, and it's much more than just generating income. You have to do good by tennis.''

It all started for McCormack when, in the 1950s, he played college golf against Arnold Palmer. "I had never seen irons hit like that,'' he would say later. When McCormack had the idea of staging golf exhibition matches it was the start of a lucrative relationship with Palmer, sealed with a handshake. "He made birdies,'' McCormack said of Arnie, "while I made revisions to contracts.'' Today IMG have a staff of 2,200 people in 70 offices in 30 countries.

To describe McCormack as a driven man would be like describing Attila the Hun as a noisy neighbour. Where McCormack really scored was in having interests in virtually every square inch on the monopoly board. He would run players, own tournaments and dictate how they were televised. McCormack - the All England Club made their all-American hero an honorary member in 1996 - had his cake and ate it, because he owned the bakery.

Such power and control were beyond even governing bodies. In golf he would invent the World Match Play Championship, invite his own players and pay them appearance money, from which IMG would take a 25 per cent cut. Nice work if you can get it, and he could get it because he patented the idea. When Pete Sampras won Wimbledon, the biggest winner was McCormack. Sampras was an IMG client at an IMG championship.

At Wimbledon, their representatives include Jennifer Capriati, John McEnroe and Chris Evert; in golf they have Tiger Woods; and they also act for the International Olympic Committee, major-league baseball, Manchester United, the Nobel Foundation, Oxford University, the Royal and Ancient Golf Club, Rugby World Cup, Michael Schumacher, the Sydney Opera House, the Spanish Riding School and Wembley National Stadium. There is also IMG Artists and IMG Models.

The company like to think they think of everything. Henman, another IMG client, has been chauffeured around in a special Jaguar of racing green. No common courtesy car for him.

Whatever Tim achieves there will always be Henman Hill, but it's only a small part of McCormack Monument. Anyone for business?

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