A mission to excel

“Be the best, learn the business and expand by applying what you already know.”

It could be advice from any business leader at any conference or presentation, but this is the philosophy of Mark H. McCormack, founder, chairman and CEO of International Marketing Group (IMG), the largest sports representation, marketing and licensing company in the world and winner of Ernst & Young’s Entrepreneur Of The Year Award as the 2001 Master Entrepreneur.

As the story goes, IMG had a simple yet poignant beginning. It consists of a young lawyer from Arter & Hadden, a handshake and a rookie golfer named Arnold Palmer. And it begins with McCormack’s idea that golfers could earn extra money off the course to supplement what they earned on the course. The reasoning was that business owners would pay athletes to endorse their products.

From that beginning, and an early client list of Palmer, Rod Laver, Jean Claude Killy and Jackie Stewart, McCormack came to recognize and capitalize on what he saw as “the enormous potential of sports as a corporate communications medium.”

As the father of sports marketing, McCormack devised innovative ways to package and market every aspect of the game. Thus, the sports marketing industry was born.

IMG represents some of the most famous and most highly paid athletes in the world, including Tiger Woods, Joe Montana, Monica Seles and Wayne Gretzky. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Since the mid-’60s, McCormack has practically cornered the market on as many entertainment venues and performers as possible. Performing artists, writers, models, broadcasters, cultural institutions and corporations from all over the world look to IMG to negotiate deals, market events and manage licensing agreements. Clients include Wimbledon, the British Open, Itzhak Perlman, Rolex and the Nobel Foundation.

With 85 offices in 33 countries and 3,000 employees, IMG is involved in an average of nine major events around the world every single day. The size and scope of IMG has surprised even McCormack.

“If someone had told me 30 years ago, when I was traveling the golf circuit with Arnold Palmer, that my little management company would one day be booking violinists and singers in Malaysia, or, for that matter, that we would be involved in classical music at all, I would have shaken my head in disbelief,” he says.

Despite IMG’s size and perpetual expansion, McCormack has stayed the course when it comes to his core business.

“It all starts with the clients,” he says. “They’re the core of our business. Without this core, the fringe opportunities have a way of passing us by. It’s no different in any other operation. If you don’t know your core business, everything you do will inevitably become a fringe business.”

For McCormack, it all goes back to learning the business and applying what you already know. Even as the company expands into new markets and business divisions, McCormack stresses the core value of the company is its relationships.

“IMG understands far better than anyone in the world the relationship between the athlete and their fans, between television and sponsorship and between events and marketing,” he says.

McCormack’s business ability has not gone unnoticed. In May 1999, ESPN’s Sports Century listed him as one of the Top 10 “Most Influential People in the Business of Sports.” Sports Illustrated called him “The Most Powerful Man in Sports.” Golf Magazine and Tennis Magazine proclaimed him, respectively “the most powerful man in golf” and “the most powerful man in tennis.”

Founding and running the largest and most innovative sports conglomerate in the world hasn’t take up all of his time. McCormack has found some free time to write a number of books, including “What they don’t teach you at Harvard Business School,” which spent 21 weeks on the bestseller list.

But the best place to see McCormack’s business knowledge in action is to simply look at what IMG does besides represent athletes. The company continues to bolster its core business by developing or representing every aspect of the entertainment industry.

For example, McCormack has successfully used licensing to add revenue streams, enhance consumer awareness and create stronger brand loyalty. Since 1962, licensing has been one of IMG’s core business activities. Today, it is the world’s largest independent licensing agency. In 1997, IMG Licensing was responsible for more than $5 billion in worldwide retail sales of licensed product.

IMG has also developed its own sports distribution channels. Through its broadcast division, Trans World International (TWI), IMG is the world’s largest independent producer of television sports programming and the world’s largest distributor of sports television rights. IMG’s television production operation in India produced more than 70 percent of all sports programming shown on Indian television. IMG was also the first company to introduce virtual advertising (VA) technology during live televised matches.

McCormack isn’t stopping there. How do you ensure that, as a company, you always have business? Why not create your own client base?

With a strategic merger in 1980, IMG began its comprehensive sports academies. Thousands of potential clients from more than 70 countries attend IMG academies on a multiple week basis throughout the year. The academies cover 190 acres and are used by 700 to 800 elite athletes per week. Nearly 400 students take part in the full-time academy semester programs each year.

It all comes back to McCormack’s ability to innovate and grow with the changing sports business landscape, and is a testament to his ability to find and recognize good ideas and talent.

“To me, Arnold was a pioneer in the spirit of Thomas Edison or Benjamin Franklin,” he says. “Tiger is a pioneer in the spirit of Bill Gates.”

And for McCormack, the idea remains simple.

“The core foundation of IMG’s success has always been and will always be the representation of individual athletes,” he says. “Because it is they who have the power to advance sport to a new level.” How to reach: International Marketing Group, (216) 522-1200

Kim Palmer ([email protected]) is managing editor of SBN Magazine.