News services on the internet ran a couple of sentences at the most and the television and radio stations barely mentioned it.
Mark Hume McCormack had been in a coma following a cardiac arrest four months earlier, so his death in 16 May 2003 at the age of 72 was hardly a shock.
In his perversely dispassionate way, McCormack would probably have approved of the understated coverage given by many sect ions of the media to his passing. Even though he had held the worlds of sport and entertainment in thrall for the previous four decades, he believed his focus was always on delivering maximum value to his clients.
He amassed a personal fortune estimated at $1 billion and his Cleveland-based company International Management Group, which grew from a handshake with Arnold Palmer in 1959, turns over double that amount annually. It is now an empire with 2,500 employees, 86 offices in 33 countries, and a client list ranging from Tiger Woods to Roger Federer, from the Kennedy Space Center to the Pope.
McCormack had many opportunities to sell IMG, most notably to Rupert Murdoch who reportedly offered $500m in the mid-1990s, but reject ed them all. Even with the three children from his first marriage, daughter Leslie and sons Breck and Todd, and his second wife, the former tennis player Betsy Nagelsen, all working for the company, he never contemplated retirement and handing over the reins. “Why should I? I love what I do,” he once said. “I love getting up in the morning and creating. I’m proud of what I’ve done and as long as I think I can continue, as long as I think I can enjoy it, I will do it.” Therein lay the crux of his philosophy. How could the man who once advised aspiring businessmen to “be the best , learn the business, and expand by applying what you already know” possibly let anyone else take charge?
The marketing formula with which McCormack exercised control over events, sponsors, prize money, players, merchandising and broadcasting has always attracted resentment - right back to the early 1960s when he packaged Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player as the Big Three and created his own TV company, Trans World International, to film their matches. Years later, another McCormack idea evolved into the official world golf rankings.
Wimbledon and the Open Championship - gargantuan festivals of British summer sport where the exhibition tents and corporate hospitality facilities dwarf the courts and the course – are monuments to McCormack’s global vision.
Long ago, McCormack’s ability to have several fingers in the pie led to the nickname Mark the Shark, but he always riposted by enquiring: “Have we ever done anything bad for sport?”
The truth is McCormack changed the face and scale of sport as well as its values, but whether he was good or bad is clearly a matter of opinion.
Business Age said of the erstwhile Yale law graduate: “McCormack invented the sports business. It was he who first realized that, within the golden triangle of sport, sponsorship and television, lay vast wealth, just waiting to be tapped.”
Ken Schofi eld, the former executive direct or of the PGA European Tour, agrees. “His legacy is international sport as we know it. I would not go as far to say that without Mark McCormack golf and tennis would not have developed as international sports – Mark would not expect that - but the reality is they would not have developed as quickly and efficiently without him. He saw the bigger picture for his company and his athletes, and I can think of no greater tribute.”
IMG is forged in McCormack’s image. He rose at 4.30am most days, adopted a fiercely hands-on approach towards his executives and flew 250,000 miles a year to attend meetings. Above all, he craved personal contact with every aspect of his business. His negotiating technique was simple and direct : “You have to look into someone’s eyes and be interested in them as human beings.”
After inventing the World Match Play Championship, which has been played at Wentworth in England every year since 1964, he even joined the BBC’s television commentary team. Not surprisingly he wrote several books, the most famous of which was entitled What They Don’t Teach You at Harvard Business School.
But the Renaissance man was very much his own man, and no doubt he would have wished Palmer’s words to serve as his epitaph. “Say what you will about the man but the plain fact is that Mark’s business savvy has made us both materially successful beyond our wildest dreams. Through good times and bad, he’s never broken the faith of that long-ago handshake. At the end of the day, if you really know me, that’s what has meant so much to me.” An epitaph that represents a considerable improvement on the news bulletins at the time of his passing.
When young Mark McCormack was struck by a car as he crossed the street in his home town of Chicago, the accident set in motion a series of events that created a major sea change in golf and sports.
While McCormack eventually recovered from his injuries, doctors advised against playing any contact sports. His father, Ned, assuaged his disappointment by buying him a set of golf clubs, and a life-long love affair with the game began.
McCormack learned to play alongside his father and his godfather, the poet Carl Sandburg, and eventually played on the golf team at Virginia’s College of William & Mary. It was there that McCormack first came across a young Wake Forest golfer named Arnold Palmer.
During the 1959 Carling Open in Cleveland, Ohio, McCormack and Palmer met again, this time with McCormack working at a local law firm and Palmer an established professional golfer.
McCormack informed Palmer that he was considering starting up a business wherein the company would serve as personal business managers to handle professional golfers’ personal affairs.
Palmer thought the idea was a valid one. He had heard that Clifford Roberts served as President Eisenhower’s “ultimate inner-circle man, advisor and protect or, friend and counselor, through good times and bad, thick and thin, and President Eisenhower entrusted him implicitly.”
With that mutual understanding, McCormack and Palmer shook hands to consummate their relationship – no paperwork required.
“I’ll be your Clifford Roberts,” Palmer recalled McCormack saying.
The fact that no paperwork putting their “deal” in writing was ever required is testament to McCormack’s character. This handshake essentially formed IMG and the arena of sports marketing.
“There was no contract between us because Mark knew my word was my bond and there would be no turning back on my part,” Palmer wrote in his book, A Golfer’s Life. “The same was true of him, I knew, and those stories that you’ve heard about us never formalizing our business relationship in printed legalese are true.
“That handshake was the beginning of our relationship and pretty much all the contract either of us required to get down to business.”
HALL OF FAME CITATION
Fittingly, Arnold Palmer was invited to deliver the tribute to his late friend Mark McCormack at a recent induct ion ceremony at the World Golf Hall of Fame. Below is the full text of his speech.
“I can’t begin to guess how many times I’ve shaken people’s hands around the world. Thousands perhaps, maybe millions, with a man on the street and some of the most important people in the world.
“One of those handshakes, though, I can’t think has meant more to me and my career than the one I had nearly 50 years ago with Mark McCormack.
“I’m sure that many other great golfers and celebrities in sports fields would say much the same about Mark and IMG, and what they did for their careers. Beyond the individuals, it is certainly true that the game of golf owes a great deal to Mark.
“Think of the tournaments he created, the involvement in the corporate world that he brought to tournament golf and to the wealth that was produced in the game, literary history of professional golf that he put into print with his comprehensive books covering every tournament, any consequence that happened in the world of golf, the world golf rating system that he devised which is now the most important statistical yardstick in the game of golf.
“That’s far from what he did for the game and those who are involved in it. On a personal basis, there were two sides to Mark. One is pretty well known; Mark was a brilliant, hard-driving business executive and negotiator. He was the right man at the right time in the world of sports marketing.
“His other side is little known, mainly because he wanted it that way. Mark was a very generous man. He did many kind and helpful things behind the scenes for people, particularly those people who were down on their luck. Actually this is a bittersweet moment for me to have a role in Mark’s induct ion into the World Golf Hall of Fame, though it’s particularly satisfying for me at the same time because he is eminently qualified for this honor.
“In fact, in a recent conversation I had with George Steinbrenner, when he was talking about Mark, he said, ‘I agree that Mark probably should be in more than one Hall of Fame’. On a sombre note, though, I regret very much that this honor did not come to him while he was still here to enjoy the occasion with his family and friends.
“As one of his friends, on behalf of his family I thank the World Golf Hall of Fame for including Mark McCormack in this great honor.
“I think most of you know the relationship that I have had with Mark and it’s one that I’m not sure that any of us ever thought would go on as long as it did. I started with talking about the handshake and what that handshake meant. It’s very difficult to tell someone what that meant and what it has meant to me, what it meant to Mark and to his family, and to all of them who are here tonight.
“To them I say congratulations, and I am sorry Mark is not here to accept this great thing. But I hope that all of you understand what that has meant to them and to Mark in his absence.
“It’s a great pleasure for me to be here to say thanks to the Hall of Fame for inducting Mark McCormack, and I also congratulate those others who are receiving the honors tonight - Vijay [Singh], Larry, [Nelson], Marilynn [Smith] and Henry [Picard], all friends of mine and people who I have and had a great deal of respect for.”