- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 18, 2003

For years, Mark McCormack loved to tell the story of how he agreed on a handshake to be Arnold Palmer’s representative in 1960 and, in turn, single-handedly created the occupation of big-time sports agent.

A Cleveland lawyer and one-time star amateur golfer, McCormack offered to take on Palmer’s business contracts and fan mail. An early clothing endorsement deal was worth the grand sum of $4,000, and negotiations were fierce over additional $500 payments for extra exposure of the company’s logo.

Forty-three years later, sports agents are earning exponentially more than the highest-paid athletes of the 1960s and have become personalities and corporate icons unto themselves. You have hard-nosed agents like David Falk and Scott Boras who have been credited or vilified, depending on your point of view, for radically changing the entire salary structure of a league. You have softer-edged agents like Leigh Steinberg who get Hollywood treatment. You have shady, even incarcerated agents like Tank Black who are tragically lured by the almighty dollar.

And you have a bevy of global sports marketing corporations that took athlete representation to Wall Street and turned it into a multibillion dollar enterprise.

McCormack, who died Friday at 72 after long being in a coma induced by heart failure, ultimately was responsible for it all.

Before McCormack, many star athletes used friends and business associates to handle simple contract negotiation and endorsement deals. But the business discipline then, if it could be called that, was unrefined at best. Players like Yogi Berra and Mickey Mantle often were paid in vast quantities of the product they were pitching instead of cash. Fraud and embarrassing, buffoonish ads were commonplace.

McCormack came in with a far different approach. Under the company name of International Management Group (IMG), McCormack accurately foresaw the explosive growth of TV sports and the utility of sports for corporate America to reach male consumers. He used both as potent tools to strike ever-increasing salaries and endorsement deals and in turn helped change the economic landscape of pro sports.

More broadly, McCormack saw no reason athletes could not be carefully managed celebrities operating on a similar plane as Hollywood’s brightest stars.

“The modern sports star system started with Mark. He created it,” said Donald Dell, who created District-based ProServ and now serves as senior vice president of SFX Sports.

Over the subsequent four decades, McCormack landed just about every major name there was as a client, particularly in golf and tennis. Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods, Bjorn Borg, John McEnroe, the Williams sisters, Derek Jeter, John Madden and Jeff Gordon all are represented by IMG.

The company now has 80 offices in 32 countries and an unquestioned position at the top of the sports management heap. More than a dozen leading newspapers and magazines have dubbed McCormack one of the most important and powerful men in sports.

“This is a clear example of a person taking something small and making it huge,” Boras said. “For a single American to turn an idea like this into a international corporation, that’s quite a statement on a man’s life.”

Some agents, including Boras, also made a point of not doing what IMG did. Much of IMG’s growth in recent years owes to wildly successful expansion into licensing, TV distribution and digital media. An IMG subsidiary, TWI, is the world’s largest independent producer and distributor of sports programming and created dozens of events, such as the Skins Game and “The Superstars.” IMG also operates a modeling agency, develops golf courses, runs an events division and even owns a literary agency.

Such aggressive, corporate-style growth has been both good and bad for the sports industry. SFX Sports, one of IMG’s key rivals, has endured a rocky transition from an autonomous business to a part of the giant Clear Channel conglomerate, losing some top clients and personnel in the process.

“I’ve had similar opportunities to branch out like that,” Boras said. “But it was the personal relationships with ballplayers, going to the park, that really motivated me early on in this business and still does.”

Cynics will argue the blood is on McCormack’s legacy as a superstar deal maker every time a Tank Blank-type agent cheats an unsuspecting client or demands a contract far beyond his client’s ability.

But IMG faced only a handful of major fallouts with clients in McCormack’s long career, most notably an acrimonious split with Greg Norman in 1994. And McCormack’s legion of friends and competitors are quick to point out the high personal standards with which he conducted himself and that he demanded from his employees. A tireless worker, McCormack often rose before dawn to start his workday and easily committed reams of information to memory.

That work ethic and strict attention to conduct and detail, arguably, is McCormack’s most powerful legacy in a sports world that has turned off so many fans.

“He set the absolute standard in ethics and professionalism,” said Dell, who knew McCormack for 35 years. “He was fanatical about being punctual. He was fanatical about fairness. It was almost like a fetish to him. If you worked for Mark for any length of time, there was going to be a certain way, a certain style about you and how you conducted yourself.

“It’s a sad and lonely day without him and really unfair to see his career end like this.”

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