Financial genius who revolutionised sport

 

Although he was never more than a good amateur golfer, Mark McCormack, who has died following cardiac arrest aged 72, has figured at or near the top of virtually every poll of the world's most influential sportsmen.

Today's world of year-round golf and tennis tournaments, millionaire sportsmen-entertainers, endorsements and image rights, corporate sponsorship, executive boxes and hospitality suites, billion-dollar Olympic Games and junk sports can all be traced to the moment McCormack, a young lawyer in Cleveland, Ohio, agreed to do a favour for his friend, the golfer Arnold Palmer.

From that handshake agreement, "Mark the Shark" built an empire including the world's largest agency, the International Management Group (IMG), and Trans World International (TWI), which produces more sports television than most broadcasters. McCormack represented everyone from Tiger Woods to the Pope, from the Williams sisters to the model Giselle Bundchen, from Placido Domingo to the Nobel Prize.

He offered clients a complete service, including endorsements, financial management, and ancillary business opportunities. Palmer, whose earnings as a golf pro totalled roughly $3 million, remains in retirement one of the world's top-earning sportsmen, his name on everything from clothing to golf courses: until recently his was the most licensed image in Japan.

Although his base was always the US, McCormack's influence is just as profound in Britain, where he represented the sporting calendar's two most prestigious events. He began selling Wimbledon's television rights in 1968, and nine years later approached the Royal and Ancient Golf Club, where his impact on the Open provides a case study in his operation. He immediately increased the rights fees received from American television tenfold, and maximised revenue worldwide.

Today, TWI supplies the television feed to the world's broadcasters, providing even the BBC with broadcast and support facilities. IMG sells sponsorship, often to companies they advise, and provides corporate hospitality. They represent a good proportion of the golfers taking part in the Open, and to top it off, McCormack himself would serve as a commentator for the BBC.

In the 1980s, reinventing himself as a management guru, McCormack published such books as What They Don't Teach You At Harvard Business School (1984). These revealed a contradiction between his avowed commitment to satisfying both parties in any negotiation, and his fierce desire to win every battle. Petty tactics for gaining the upper hand, such as never returning phone calls - in the pre-e-mail/text message era - were offset by strategies aimed at constantly expanding the profitability pie.

McCormack accomplished this with his unmatched creativity in squeezing income out of every area of sport, and increased his benefit from it by a vision of vertical integration in which, as with the Open golf, all aspects of the events fed into the same synergistic source.

Rising daily at 4.30 a.m., he scheduled his life in 15-minute intervals, often boasting he could tell you exactly what he would be doing in any quarter-hour, six months in advance. He famously consumed forests of yellow legal pads, on which he listed things to do, and was notoriously reluctant to end a day until every item was crossed off.

His second wife, tennis pro Betsy Nagelsen, once quipped her husband did not sleep, he "accomplished rest".

He was born and grew up in Chicago, where his father, a descendant of the philosopher David Hume, published farm journals. The poet Carl Sandburg was his godfather, and wrote a prescient poem about him, Young Mark Expects.

At six, he was involved in a near-fatal car accident, and began playing golf as therapy; it became his springboard to success. He was a high-school champion, but playing at the College of William and Mary, Williamsburg, Virginia, he met Palmer, and realised that he would never match him.

Although good enough to qualify for the US Open, he pursued a law degree at Yale, and after military service, began practising law in Cleveland. He met his first wife, Nancy, on a golfing blind date, and while playing a social round with Palmer, by now a successful pro, offered to handle the myriad appearance and endorsement requests he received. Palmer soon steered Gary Player and Jack Nicklaus his way. McCormack realised quickly the Big Three's marketing potential.

This was the early 1960s, when American sport was being transformed by television. McCormack sensed that television sportsmen were worth the money paid to entertainment stars, and that as television's appetite for sport grew insatiable, no sport or event was sacrosanct.

He moved from golf to tennis, where he started with Rod Laver. His influence on the sport is so massive that IMG eventually bought the Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy, controlling, as it were, the means of production.

He made early inroads with the international sports that made up the Olympic Games, eventually representing many organising committees, federations and, at one point, even the IOC itself, in television negotiations. IMG opened offices in country after country; TWI produced Trans World Sport, a magazine programme seen across the world, and clients flocked to both.

There were setbacks, including a famous rebuff by Margaret Thatcher, after a story had been leaked to the press linking him with the Iron Lady's post-Downing Street career. Thatcher, like Ronald Reagan, wound up with a rival agency.

In recent years, IMG moved into team sports, again starting with a few big names but also buying whole agencies, a pattern McCormack repeated when he moved into the arts.

Having snapped up the US classical music agency Hamlen and Landau, McCormack made a bid for the London-based firm of Harold Holt, which was accepted. It was then kept on hold for more than a year while IMG went through Holt's books. When a second, much lower, bid was then rejected, Holt's youngest director joined IMG, bringing their most successful artists with him. Overnight, IMG became the world's second biggest music agency.

McCormack's first marriage ended in divorce, and in 1986, he married Nagelsen, who had joined IMG as a client, aged 18, in 1974. The couple's daughter was born in 1997. His two sons and a daughter by his first marriage all work for his companies. Because McCormack allowed his managers a great deal of leeway, the question of his succession is problematic. But no one will replace the unique drive which McCormack brought to bear on sport, creating a world-wide empire in the process.

Mark Hume McCormack: born November 6th, 1930; died May 16th, 2003.