In 1960, Mark McCormack founded the International Management Group (IMG). In his 43 years as the CEO and sole owner, he built the world’s largest sports and media company. Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods, Monica Seles and many others owe their fame and fortune to IMG. At the beginning of 2003, IMG was in an expansion phase financed by $200 million in bank loans. That January, McCormack suffered a fatal heart attack. He was 72 and the sole owner of the company.
Sports Illustrated called Mark McCormack ‘’the most powerful man in sports.” He was also Golf Magazine’s “most powerful man in golf” and Tennis Magazine’s “most powerful man in tennis.” The Times of London said “he was one of the most influential people in the 20th century.”
McCormack was the founder of the International Management Group (IMG), which would become the world’s largest sports and media company. But, more importantly, he created the industry of sports marketing.
In 1960, when McCormack took on his first client, sports marketing barely existed as a concept, much less an industry.
What was an industry — and a booming one — was television. While only 0.5% of U.S. households had a television in 1946, 55% had one in 1954, and 90% by 1962.
He chose Arnold Palmer as his first client because of his good looks, charisma, and expressive playing style.
After signing with IMG in 1960, Palmer’s annual income skyrocketed from $50,000 to $500,000 and, ultimately, to $10 million. A mindboggling 20,000% increase.
McCormack’s next two clients, golfers Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player, reaped similar rewards. Both were top players who became household names — and earned millions doing it.
THE INDUSTRY THAT MARK BUILT
McCormack was the first to see what television would mean for athletes. The size of the audience expanded from a stadium to the entire planet. Instead of a few famous baseball or football players, more athletes in more sports could gain unprecedented celebrity. McCormack turned his clients into international high value brands.
In the words of Business Age, ‘’McCormack was the first who realized that, within the golden triangle of sport, sponsorship and television, lay vast wealth, just waiting to be tapped. Without his ruthlessness and marketing skills, his clients would be a great deal poorer.’’
In the 40 years that McCormack ran IMG, the “golden triangle” expanded exponentially until it encompassed the entire globe.
In addition to the “Big Three” of Palmer, Nicklaus and Player, IMG, under McCormack, arranged commercial endorsements and managed finances for the likes of Serena and Venus Williams, Andre Agassi, Pete Sampras, Jean-Claude Killy, Michael Schumacher, Charles Barkley, John McEnroe, Joe Montana, Chris Evert, Greg Norman — and even broadcasters John Madden and Bob Costas.
McCormack’s IMG went on to handle licensing, merchandising and television contracts for organizations such as Wimbledon, the Grammys, the United States Olympic Committee, the Smithsonian Institution, the United States Golf Association, and The Nobel Foundation.
By 1990, IMG was the world’s largest sports management company and so all-encompassing that it promoted Pope John Paul II’s 1982 tour of Britain.
All was well at IMG.
DEBT, DEATH AND TAXES
In 2003, McCormack died of cardiac arrest. He was 72. Mark was the only owner, chairman, and chief executive that IMG had ever had. He refused to sell to outsiders, take IMG public, or even offer stock to his devoted top executives. The controlling interest in IMG was transferred to McCormack’s widow, Betsy Nagelsen. She was a retired tennis player turned sportscaster, with no management experience. IMG represented her as a client, but that was the extent of her involvement with the business.
In addition to the estate tax liability, predicted to be in the hundreds of millions, Betsy and the executors had to contend with the company’s significant debt. By the end of 2002, IMG had financed an enormous expansion with loans from 12 different banks. The Wall Street Journal reported it as over $200 million. The banking world became extremely nervous with the company’s founder and leader out of the picture.
As the de facto person now in charge, Betsy faced pressure from multiple fronts: taxes in the hundreds of millions needed to be paid, banks needed assurance about their loans, the company had no clear leadership or decision making power, and of course Betsy had her own financial security to think about. She found herself in a classic no-win situation with realistically only one option — to sell the company.
In the words of a senior IMG executive:
“To keep the company stable, and keep the ownership options open, there were two things Mark could have done. First, he could have made sure there was enough capital to handle family requirements (for taxes and financial security for Betsy). Then, he could have made sure key stakeholders knew the plan in advance. If he had done those two things, his family would have had a significant grace period to maximize the potential value of a future sale. Instead, the company and stakeholders were blindsided by his death. Rather than focusing on maximizing potential value, they had to focus on improving the balance sheet for the sole purpose of an immediate sale.”
If Mark had left Betsy with sufficient liquidity or a viable ownership plan, the transition might have been a clean cut affair. She would inherit money; her three stepchildren (all IMG executives) would inherit the company.
Betsy hadn’t anticipated someday becoming IMG’s key decision maker. She did not have the ability or the desire. Pursuing a career separate from her husband’s was a deliberate choice.
But suddenly, she had no choice. She was forced into the business to protect her inheritance. Meanwhile, her stepchildren — Todd, Leslie and Breck — fought to protect their father’s legacy. And his management team struggled to maintain leadership in the company they had served for years, if not decades.
If you are selling an expertise, how much more do you really need than a desk and a phone? In the early 1960s, I founded the International Management Group (IMG) with less than $500 in capital.
— Mark McCormack
“EVERY OFFICE WAS LIKE ANOTHER CHILD”
IMG’s top two executives, Bob Kain and Alastair Johnston, succeeded McCormack as co-CEOs. Unlike their predecessor, they had no problem halting the company’s growth. They sold assets, laid off 20% of employees, closed offices and divisions, reduced salaries, and slashed bonuses.
“Your founder had a lot of emotion tied to the company,” Kain said. “He was the guy who created it and every division, every office was like another child to him. I think we took more of a business view of it.”
But Kain and Johnston’s “business view” wasn’t enough to prevent IMG’s sale to a buyout firm.
Betsy fielded bids from several interested parties, which included an offer from her stepchildren and an offer from IMG management.
Betsy’s stepchildren, the product of Mark’s first marriage, were all IMG executives. They were willing to explore any option to keep the company in the family, including securing a silent investor to assist with the debt.
Once it was clear that the McCormack estate was going to trigger an outright sale, IMG management also explored investor options which would enable them to buy the business from the McCormack stakeholders.
But Betsy refused the offers of these two parties, despite their loyalty to Mark’s vision. Her stepchildren were eager to continue their father’s legacy. The management team was made up of seasoned IMGers who had served Mark for years, if not decades. Most were ex-jocks and serious sports fans. All had a deep devotion for the business that Mark built. But none had the deep pockets of Ted Forstmann, the successful bidder.
Forstmann Little & Co. was a leveraged buyout firm. Throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s, the firm bought struggling companies like Dr. Pepper and Gulfstream Aerospace and later flipped them for huge profits.
Ted Forstmann was such an icon of Wall Street greed that the 1980s book, Barbarians at the Gate, featured him as a central figure. McCormack was a business builder; Forstmann was a business trader. He was intent on buying IMG and then reselling it for a steep profit.
Sean McManus, former IMG executive and current chairman of CBS Sports, commented on the differences between Mark McCormack and Ted Forstmann:
“Part of IMG’s strength and weakness is that it was so personal to Mark; he ran it out of his love for it….Teddy Forstmann saw IMG as Larry Tisch saw CBS; come in and sell it for a lot more than he paid for it.”
IMG UNDER FORSTMANN: PROFIT, NOT RELATIONSHIPS
Forstmann dismantled the personal service culture of IMG. To him, IMG was just another asset in an investor closed fund, interchangeable with any other.
In McCormack’s IMG, agents formed deep bonds with their clients. “When you’re in the personal-service business, you often don’t have a choice,” Kain said. “You’re going to get involved in every aspect of their lives.”
Jean-Claude Killy, the ski racer, reminisced about Mark’s level of commitment:
“Mark would say, ‘In six months’ time, on September 2 at 10:00, I’ll call you. Six months later at 10:00 he’d call, on the nose.”
To Ted Forstmann, the client was just a product. He was passionate about profits, not people. Todd McCormack, an IMG executive and the only one of his siblings not fired after Forstmann took over, said: “My father loved knowing how many first-round draft picks we had. Ted doesn’t care.”
In running the company, Forstmann’s watchword was EBITDA (earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization).
“I hadn’t heard the term more than once from Mark in 30 years,” said Alastair Johnston, one of the co-CEOs who took over McCormack’s role. “We hear it 10 times a day from Teddy.”
To Forstmann, EBITDA was a tool for selling the company, not building it.
“THE COMPANY IS GROWING TOO FAST”
IMG was a business McCormack started alone in 1960. He shook hands with Arnold Palmer and that was it. They didn’t even sign a contract. McCormack went on to make IMG’s clients extremely rich and his competitors extremely resentful. Cursed by rivals, worshipped by fans, the company was the sports marketing version of the 1927 Yankees. Its dominance was polarizing.
In the eyes of its exclusive client list — the athletes, entertainers, and organizations for whom IMG managed sponsorship, licensing, merchandising and television contracts — the company and its founder were the height of reliability and creativity.
“Everyone else in the sports world, though, has it in for IMG,” wrote Sports Illustrated in 1990. Throughout the ‘80s, IMG revenues increased 430%. IMG grew so fast that McCormack eventually imposed a six-month hiring freeze to limit growth.
“The company is growing in immense leaps, almost too fast,” said McCormack. “But it’s hard to stop it, because if there’s an opportunity and you don’t fill it, someone else will, and you’re creating unnecessary competition.”
HOW DID THIS HAPPEN?
IMG was born because McCormack saw a possibility and jumped on it before anyone else. This was the DNA of McCormack’s IMG. See it first, do it first. A high-octane blend of creativity and urgency fueled ideas like spreading the Olympic Games over three weekends instead of two, inventing the corporate tent for major sports events, and paying American golfers appearance fees to draw them to other tours.
On the one hand, it’s baffling that Mark hadn’t implemented a better succession plan at the time of his death. He was 72, not 42. The man was so meticulous he created seating arrangements and place cards for casual business lunches. He loved sweating the details.
But he loved deals even more.
Negotiation was his sport. He even wrote the book on it — What They Don’t Teach You at Harvard Business School was a bestseller. The president of a Fortune 500 company described him as “the ultimate hustler.”
In comparison to the adrenaline rush of negotiating, or “hustling” (in the words of his detractors), the reflective, collaborative process of implementing an ownership succession and estate plan must have seemed tedious. Remember: creativity and urgency were his fundamentals.
Mark had to be the first to do anything. It’s how he started and ended his career. Days before his heart attack, he was negotiating NBC’s broadcast rights for Wimbledon.
In 2002, he explained to The Times of London why he didn’t want to retire. “I get to play golf with Arnold Palmer and Tiger Woods, tennis with Monica Seles and I get to go to Wimbledon and to Paul McCartney’s wedding.”
Imagine that you’re Mark McCormack in 2002. You’ve just received a clean bill of health after your annual checkup at the Mayo Clinic. You wake up in the morning, and you have a choice of negotiating broadcast rights for Wimbledon, drinking champagne with a Beatle or hitting balls with Tiger. Or you can sit in a boardroom editing an ownership chart with your advisors.
The answer seems obvious, unless McCormack had asked himself the crucial follow up question….
- McCormack had done one less sports deal and instead focused on IMG’s future?
- His widow, Betsy Nagelsen, had been left money instead of shares?
- His family had the liquidity to avoid the estate taxes that pressured IMG’s sale?
- His long-serving deputies had the chance to run the company and protect IMG’s key assets — its employees?