The Critical 'I'

Read. React. Repeat.

Saturday, May 17, 2003

The sports and entertainment worlds (are they really separate and distinct?) lost a trendsetting pioneer yesterday. Mark McCormack, the head of the marketing and representation powerhouse IMG, died at age 72.

Depending on your viewpoint, McCormack represented the best, or the worst, of modern-day sports entertainment. It's hard to accurately gauge the kind of impact he and his company had on the business of sports. It's safe to say, though, that had McCormack not helped Arnold Palmer reap a bonanza of endorsement and sponsorship deals, based on Palmer's cache as one of the top golfers of his time, then the concept of athletes marketing themselves for maximum marketplace value would have been much slower in developing. The idea of using popular sports figures in moneymaking ventures off the field didn't originate with McCormack. But those deals almost always were originated and directed by team/league ownership, and they kept it on a short leash. After seeing the success of Palmer, other athletes, across different sports, saw there was gold in them thar hills.

I think it's significant that McCormack cut his teeth in pro golfing. Consider: In the sports world of the 1960s, the major sports leagues (baseball, football, hockey, basketball) had a stranglehold on their players. The last thing owners in those sports wanted was for their players to start a lot of self-promotion, which would inevitably lead to demands for increased salary. Had McCormack tried to launch his business with Micky Mantle, Don Drysdale or Gordie Howe, he never would have gotten off the ground.

But as luck would have it, he had no problem with Palmer. Golf and tennis players were much more like independent contractors (like today), and had a lot more latitude in managing their careers. There was no heavyhanded league interested in holding back player marketing--if anything, the PGA and USGA were more than happy to let the players pump themselves up. Since there are no team owners in those sports, no one was worrying about having to pay salaries to star players.

If you think about it, the birth of high-powered talent marketing really spurred the growth of bigtime sports. After other golf stars raised the visibility of golf, tennis stars followed the trend. Baseball and hockey players started to get organized. The NFL, under Pete Rozell (who undoubtedly was inspired by what was going on in the rest of the sporting world), started to get its act together. Rival leagues like the AFL, WFA, ABA and WHA fed the expanded desire of long-shut-out cities and fans to get a piece of the major league sports action, and their success led to expansion in all four major leagues. Media took notice and fueled further growth. And all along the way, the stars of the show--the athletes--gradually got their share of the proceeds (whether they're now getting too much, or not enough, of a share is a subject of constant debate).

McCormack guided IMG beyond sports into practically other entertainment circles. The client list includes a star-spangled roster of models, movie stars, broadcasters, musicians and (by the way) athletes. Some of the names to ogle at include:

Michael Schumacher, Jennifer Capriati, Chris Evert, Martina Navratilova, John McEnroe, Joe Montana, Charles Barkley, Jaromir Jagr, Sergei Fedorov, Tiger Woods, Gary Player, Sergio Garcia, Nancy Lopez, Elizabeth Hurley, Liv Tyler, Itzhak Perlman, Gisele Bundchen, Tyra Banks, Kate Moss, Scott Hamilton, Kristi Yamaguchi, Michael Johnson, Picabo Street, Jim Nantz, (FOX broadcaster) James Brown