16 May 2013

A Mark that cannot be erased

On the 10th anniversary of his death, Bill McMurdo looks back on the life and legacy of the "Most Powerful Man in Sports," Mark McCormack

by Bill McMurdo

It's ten years to the day that one of my all-time sporting heroes died.

Although he was a decent golfer this hero of mine was no great athlete but his contribution to modern sport is incalculable and resonates on arguably stronger a decade after his passing.

I am referring to the man dubbed as the most powerful man in sport and the Godfather of Sports Marketing - Mark McCormack.

Back in the 1980s when I first got involved in sports marketing and representing footballers, people assumed it was because my father was a football agent.

But that wasn't so. In fact, I actually found what my dad did rather unappealing to be honest. But then I read a book he was reading. It was Mark McCormack's What They Don't Teach You In Harvard Business School. From then on I was hooked and utterly fascinated by the burgeoning sports marketing industry.

McCormack was the daddy of the sports marketing business.

He started off as a lawyer but signed Arnold Palmer up in 1960. His first three clients were Palmer, Gary Player and Jack Nicklaus. He never looked back.

Of course, it was hard to fail with three galactic superstars in his stable but McCormack soon went on to show that his signing of the Big Three was not a matter of luck. McCormack founded a company – International Management Group – which became the main company in the world that married the world of business to the sports universe. IMG also fused several disciplines such as PR, marketing, publicity and financial management into the new industry of sports marketing.

McCormack literally brokered hundreds of millions of dollars worth of sponsorship and endorsement deals, massively enriching his clients including Tony Jacklin, Bjorn Borg, John McEnroe, Ivan Lendl, Chris Evert, Martina Navratilova, Andre Agassi, Colin Montgomerie, Sergio Garcia, Michael Schumacher and Wimbledon.

The bringing together of the worlds of business and sport helped to enhance the profiles of tennis and golf, the two main areas IMG worked in, including prestigious evemts such as The Open and Wimbledon. Millions of new consumers for sports events and equipment were created by IMG's promotional efforts. The increased public profile for sponsors made McCormack the darling of many big-name clients and he liked to recount the stories on how he sold the likes of Rolex on sponsoring events like Wimbledon.

The big money in most major sports today can be directly or indirectly traced to the activities and influence of Mark McCormack, who left a cool $750 million in IMG shares behind when he died aged 72.

Every person who earns a living from sport should be aware that they owe their livelihood very possibly to McCormack. His visionary outlook and creative skills helped to develop new areas for both sports and their commercial partners to explore. In many ways he opened the floodgates of financial backing and direct consumer participation in sport, to say nothing of the millions encouraged to take sport up by watching the inspiring events he promoted.

Mark McCormack was no altruist. As he grew in power and influence he became more ruthless and was known to drive a hard bargain when he had the upper hand. Later in his life he became a Christian, largely due to his wife's influence.

The books Mark McCormack wrote still inspire many and are great primers on streetsmarts in business. In some respects they are the "red pill" that liberates people from the simplistic world of fandom into the real world that sports operates in. Once you've read McCormack you are definitely not in the Kansas realm of the fan anymore so don't read him if you like being naive about what really happens in sport.

Those of us who enjoy sport owe Mark McCormack more than we are aware. Although, for him, sport was a business – and a highly lucrative one at that – his endeavours helped make sure that millions of us get great pleasure from sport today.

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