Mark McCormack

Mark McCormack
Pioneer sports agent

In 1954 the Law School graduated another individual who, like Charles Fraser, was to make a significant mark in the world of golf. Mark McCormack (Yale Law School Class of 1954) was voted the “Most Powerful Man in Tennis” by Tennis Magazine and the “Most Powerful Man in Golf” by Golf Digest. In 1990, Sports Illustrated called him “The Most Powerful Man in Sport.” When he was inducted in the World Golf Hall of Fame in 2006, McCormack was called “the man who invented modern golf … and who reshaped all of sports.” Here’s how this came about.

McCormack was born in western Pennsylvania and went to the College of William & Mary. He played on the college golf team and was good enough to qualify for the 1958 US Open at Southern Hills. To keep his game in tune, one would assume that he played the Yale Golf Course while he attended the law school. After graduation he joined a prestigious law firm in Cleveland. However, his entrepreneurial skill and energy led him within two years to start a company, National Sports Marketing, that booked golf exhibitions for some of the leading pros of that era.

Arnold Palmer was also from western Pennsylvania. They first met in 1950 when the Wake Forest University golf team played against William & Mary. In 1956, McCormack was in the US Army, stationed at Camp Gordon in Augusta Georgia. He attended the Masters and delivered a putter to Palmer, from their mutual friend, Bob Toski. McCormack first broached the subject of National Sports Marketing representing Palmer at the 1959 Carling Open, a PGA tournament in Cleveland. Several months later Palmer told McCormack that he wanted someone to do more than book Monday golf exhibitions. Palmer wanted “one man” to handle all his business affairs “exclusively.” Palmer’s model for this person was Clifford Roberts, who managed the affairs of the Augusta National Golf Club and of President Eisenhower. Even though McCormack had to give up National Sports Management, he agreed to become Palmer’s agent and manager. The deal was done with a simple handshake. Not long thereafter, with Palmer’s blessing, McCormack signed a talented South African newcomer, Gary Player, and a young American professional, Jack Nicklaus. Either inadvertently or with incredible foresight, McCormack had signed the “Big Three” who would dominate golf for decades and promote the sport’s global appeal. For this endeavor, he founded a new company, the International Management Group, known by its initials, IMG.

McCormack increased his first three client’s endorsement value by creating a made-for-tv event, ‘Big Three Golf’, which served as a marketing tool for both the game and his star players. With an eye for the best talent, McCormack was constantly expanding his company. The first tennis player he signed was Rod Laver; his first hockey player was Gordie Howe, and his first skier was Jean-Claude Killy! He also grasped the concept of vertical integration. Outside the United States there are some tournaments where IMG has designed the golf course, built it, and managed it. Then it managed the tournament and, through its tv arm, Trans World International (TWI), televised the event in which most of the competitors were IMG clients. When McCormack created the World Golf Ranking in the mid 1980s, it was derisively dismissed by some as an attempt by IMG to get more attention — and more money — to its non-American players, like Norman and Faldo. That was true, but it is also true that those players deserved more attention, and the World Ranking is now used by every major championship in determining its field.

The company has also grown to be a major player in the football market as well as representing athletes from rugby, cricket, motor racing, and a host of other sports. IMG’s TWI is the world’s largest independent television sports production company and rights distributor. The group also owns and represents many major sporting events around the world, operates several sports academies, and runs agencies for classical music artists and fashion models.

Golf, however, remained McCormack’s game. In 1996 he showed again that he hadn’t lost his touch when IMG became the agent for new pro, Tiger Woods. In the next decade, Tiger won sixty-six tournaments including twelve major championships. McCormack’s first task for Palmer in 1959 had been to try to renegotiate his $5,000-a-year contract with the Wilson Sporting Goods Company. He failed at that, and Palmer was not able to start the Arnold Palmer Golf Company until the Wilson contract expired in 1963. IMG’s first task for Woods was to negotiate his initial Nike contract for $50,000,000. Palmer became the first golfing millionaire; Tiger is on his way to becoming the first sports billionaire. Maybe Sports Illustrated had it right — Mark McCormack was “The Most Powerful Man in Sports.”

Print Friendly, PDF & Email