Mark McCormack met Arnold Palmer while playing golf against him in college, and Palmer made a lasting impression. Palmer had it all — forearms like a middleweight boxer, waistline like a Balanchine dancer, charisma like a Hollywood star. He crushed the ball off the tee, too, even if it wasn’t always straight.
After Wake Forest, Palmer headed off for a career in professional golf. After William & Mary, McCormack went to Yale Law School. They kept in touch, a friendship was born and soon a partnership grew that would change the face of sports and business.
If Palmer was golf’s first true superstar, then McCormack was the sports world’s first true superagent, a person who saw value in Palmer beyond his birdies and eagles. While athletes had done radio and television ads prior to 1960, it was McCormack’s founding of IMG that year that was a moment that changed the game.
When Palmer became McCormack’s first client — the deal was struck with a handshake — McCormack launched the idea of an athlete as a global brand. While Palmer was winning tournaments just as the popularity of the game was booming, McCormack was combining his love of golf and business and recognizing the power of television.
While Palmer was playing major championships, McCormack was negotiating major endorsement deals, deals that would ultimately make Palmer (and McCormack) very rich men. In Palmer’s first two years with McCormack, his endorsement earnings grew from $6,000 to $500,000, the kind of success that the golf world (and later the entire sports world) took notice of. Palmer won the Masters, played golf with presidents, and pitched Pennzoil and Hertz rental cars in his spare time.
Soon McCormack signed Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player, two of Palmer’s greatest rivals. Rod Laver of tennis and Pele of soccer followed. Nick Faldo, Greg Norman, Pete Sampras, Tiger Woods and other legends came next. While the head IMG office was in Cleveland, as many as 84 satellite offices sprang up around the world. It was that kind of reach that prompted Sports Illustrated to once hail McCormack as “the most powerful man in sports.”
What might have happened to IMG had McCormack’s first client been somebody less skilled and less charismatic? It’s an interesting question, but it misses the point. McCormack recognized Palmer’s talent and potential as a pitchman, he earned Palmer’s trust, and he let Palmer worry about his golf swing while McCormack handled his business portfolio. McCormack succeeded precisely because he had the ability to identify athletes with marketing appeal, and he knew what to do with them once he signed them up.
He deftly handled his clients’ business affairs, pairing them with successful companies and maximizing their off-the-field earning power, so that the athletes could focus on competing. They had little to worry about with McCormack minding the store.
In his book, What They Don’t Teach You at Harvard Business School, McCormack wrote: “Whether I’m selling or buying, whether I’m hiring or being hired; whether I’m negotiating a contract or responding to someone else’s demands, I want to know where the other person is coming from. I want to know the other person’s true self. Business situations always come down to people situations. And the more – and the sooner – I know about the person I am dealing with, the more effective I’m going to be.”
McCormack got to know Palmer in college and saw in him a potential that the world would later come to know, a potential that McCormack helped Palmer realize.
“He was smart – that was number one,” Palmer said of McCormack in Business Week in 2004, one year after McCormack’s death. “Number two, he never forgot anything, and he kept track of everything.
“Mark picked pretty good people [at IMG] along the line, and they set a standard that was pretty high. They are, without question, the best in the world. They have the right connections and they produce results.”
And it all started with a handshake.