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MARK H. McCORMACK, 1930-2003

Visionary Agent's Sports Stars Scored

May 17, 2003|Dan Arritt | Times Staff Writer

Mark H. McCormack, the lawyer and marketing genius who transformed the landscape of professional sports by pioneering lucrative endorsement contracts for major athletes and events, died Friday in a New York City hospital of complications from a heart attack. He was 72.

One of the most powerful executives in sports, McCormack was founder, chairman and chief executive of Cleveland-based International Management Group, a full-service agency that handles the business affairs of some of the world's most celebrated athletes, entertainers and other public figures. He had been hospitalized in a coma since Jan. 16, when he suffered the heart attack.

A prolific writer, nonstop globe-trotter and avid golfer, McCormack's rise in the sporting world began 43 years ago, when he reached a deal to represent golfer Arnold Palmer. Their contract was, for a time, a firm handshake, and McCormack immediately set out to prove his belief that corporations would pay enormous sums for celebrity athletes to endorse their products.

He was hugely successful from the start, increasing Palmer's income by hundreds of thousands of dollars within the first two years of their business arrangement.

"I have lost one of my closest friends," Palmer said Friday in a statement. "And the world of sports and entertainment has lost one of its great giants."

McCormack was one of the first to merge the rapidly growing television industry with the sports world, enhancing the marquee value of specific athletes as well as the names of such historic sporting events as Wimbledon and the British Open. He was gifted at creating made-for-television sporting events ranging from the Skins Game, a top-name golf competition, to the American Gladiators, the highly stylized physical competition between fairly average contestants and not-so average "gladiators."

"He [was] a guy who changed the way Americans think about the business of sports," said Rick Burton, director of the Warsaw Sports Marketing Center at the University of Oregon. "He changed the athlete/agent landscape more dramatically than anyone."

McCormack had an eye for talent -- in sports and in business. He recruited Hughes Norton out of Harvard Business School and made him his assistant at IMG. Norton, who was golfer Tiger Woods' first agent, is now a consultant to IMG after 28 years at the company and says McCormack's instincts about the business side of sports were unrivaled.

"He realized that athletes retired and athletes go into slumps and athletes get injured, so he went beyond representing the athletes and began representing the sports entities," Norton said. "In other words, Bjorn Borg might retire at 26, but Wimbledon goes on. Arnold Palmer might go into a slump, but the British Open goes on forever."

"That's the biggest and brightest example of his genius."

McCormack stepped in and forged landmark deals with both Wimbledon and the British Open, covering worldwide television rights, marketing and merchandise.

"He convinced Wimbledon he needed to represent the All England Club in selling its television rights, to make use of his tennis expertise and television contacts," Norton said.

McCormack's leverage helped Wimbledon sell its U.S. television rights for up to $20 million and worldwide, as much as $50 million. Both properties had been worth only a fraction of that before McCormack took charge.

In addition, McCormack advised both Wimbledon and the British Open to come up with a marketing logo and use it to sell merchandise. He also insisted that Wimbledon television coverage provide a commercial spot for merchandise as part of the television rights deal, at no cost to the All England Club.

"Nobody ever thought of that before," Norton said.

And McCormack was responsible for turning dozens of athletes, along with himself, into some of the richest and most influential figures in the world. With a net worth estimated at $700 million, McCormack was a regular on the annual Forbes magazine list of wealthiest people.

Woods might be his most famous client -- and his richest .

In 1997, when Woods was 21 and won his third consecutive U.S. Amateur Championship, Norton negotiated an unheard-of $45-million endorsement deal for the golfer with Nike. In 2003, it's a package worth at least $90 million, according to estimates, and Woods' entire endorsement portfolio, under the guidance of agent Mark Steinberg, carries a value of close to $120 million.

Woods' prize money on the PGA Tour is a fraction of that -- $6.9 million in 2002.

McCormack "was a genius when it came to sports marketing.... If it wasn't for him, obviously, we wouldn't be in the position we're in right now," Woods said from Gut Kaden, Germany, were he was playing in the Tour Players Championship.

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