People

Subscribe

Stay Connected

Subscribe

Advertise With Us

Learn More

Skip to content
Save Now
Join People Perks and save up to $1,200 a yearGet 1 month free

Archive

For Arnie, Ilie and 123 Top Pros, Mark McCormack Is the Man with the Golden Goose

Posted on

Evonne Goolagong is on maternity leave from tennis. Nevertheless, because of a financial genius named Mark McCormack, she will—without lifting a racket this year—earn more than $250,000. Soccer star Kyle Rote Jr. was a virtual unknown until he won TV’s Superstars (a McCormack-produced show) and signed up with McCormack’s company. Now Rote endorses shirts, pants, table games, soft drinks and, because he is a devout young man, even a revised edition of the Bible. His income in 1977 will be in six figures. Golfer Laura Baugh, Ultra Brite’s “How’s your love life?” girl, has never won a major tournament, yet with McCormack’s management she is the wealthiest player in women’s golf.

“Don’t call me an agent,” McCormack insists. “Agents can be ripoff artists. What we provide is complete financial counseling. If a client wants it, we will put him on a budget, pay his rent, invest his money in the stock market, negotiate his contracts and feed his cat while he’s on the road. You name it, we do it.” For this service, McCormack’s International Management Group in Cleveland gets 25 percent of a star’s income.

A black Cadillac pulls up in front of McCormack’s $350,000 house in Pepper Pike, a Cleveland suburb. It is 5:30 a.m. and McCormack, meticulously groomed in a Savile Row suit, steps into the back. His secretary, Judy Chilcote, is waiting to take dictation, often terse instructions to his staff which they call “bulletins.”

Thirteen hours or so later McCormack and Judy return in the dark. Occasionally she comes in and they work until well past midnight. “He expects everyone to run,” she explains. “He’s demanding, and God forbid that you make a mistake.”

McCormack is at home only about 90 days a year. For the rest, he travels. In one recent month he spent 29 days making calls in London, Stockholm, Copenhagen, Nuremberg, Munich, Paris, New York, Tokyo, Auckland and Sydney. Wherever he goes, he carries a yellow legal pad on which he lists things to do. As each task is accomplished, he crosses it off and writes a note to himself about the results.

At IMG headquarters in Cleveland, Chairman of the Board McCormack, 46, is often referred to as “The Jolly Blond Giant.” He is indeed light-haired and 6’3″ tall, but he is by no means always jolly. Out of his hearing he is known as “Mark the Knife” and sometimes simply “that s.o.b.” The one-man agency that he formed 16 years ago to handle the financial affairs of golfer Arnold Palmer is now an international conglomerate with 12 divisions, 300 employees and 250 clients. In addition to his athletes, McCormack also represents authors and broadcasters, counsels business executives on investments and owns the television rights to many sporting events, including the Wimbledon and U.S. Open tennis championships.

Success has made McCormack a very wealthy man. Last year he earned an estimated $600,000. In addition to the Cleveland home, he has condominiums in Orlando, Palm Desert, Calif. and the island of Fiji and a townhouse in a fashionable mews in London. When he travels he stays in the finest hotels, eats at the best restaurants and is invited to all the right parties.

McCormack has one interesting idiosyncrasy. In addition to the yellow legal pad, he carries a leather-bound black notebook in which he keeps track of almost everything that happens in his life—from the number of days he has spent with his children during the past year (156) to the address of one of his favorite restaurants in Paris (L’Escargot, 38 Rue Montorgueil). Once Arnold Palmer teasingly observed that McCormack looked haggard and ought to get more rest. McCormack took out his little black book, studied it and then said seriously, “Why, that’s odd, Arnold. This year I’ve had 304 hours’ more sleep than I did at the same time last year.”

The rapid growth of McCormack’s company has not been entirely smooth. Jack Nicklaus left IMG six years ago because he felt it was giving Arnold Palmer preferential treatment. Goolagong, Ilie Nastase and golfer Jan Stephenson, to name a few, have complained that IMG doesn’t work hard enough for the 25 percent (or more in some cases) that it takes. Yet they remain clients.

A bitter rival in golf representation, Ed Barner, chief executive officer of Uni-Managers International, says, “Mark just can’t be all things to all people. How can he represent both the Princess Hotels around the world and Ilie Nastase, who is paid to endorse the hotel chain?”

“Whenever I’m faced with a situation like that,” McCormack explains, “I lay the cards on the table. It worked that way during the players’ boycott at Wimbledon in 1973.” Because IMG produces the Wimbledon matches for TV and represents several of the players too, McCormack was, in effect, sitting on both sides of the bargaining table. “We must have done a good job because everyone is still with us,” McCormack says proudly.

Competitors in the management business call McCormack the John D. Rockefeller of sport, and suggest that he sometimes operates like a 19th-century robber baron. For instance, McCormack acknowledges that he hires IMG clients for sporting events his company produces. “Why shouldn’t I? We created it, so our people should benefit,” he says. But, as broker for the athlete and the event, can he represent both aggressively? As an example, golfer Hale Irwin, an IMG client, was paid $5,000 to appear on the IMG television show Challenge of the Sexes. For a round of golf by Irwin on a show produced by anyone else, IMG probably would have demanded twice that amount.

McCormack claims that “the only way to survive in this business is to surround yourself with people brighter than you.” As a result, he vigorously recruits employees at institutions like the Harvard Business School, where he also has lectured in a course titled “Starting New Ventures.” He lures young men to IMG with the promise that they will get more management responsibility there in one year than they would in 10 years on Wall Street. “I don’t think anyone would ever accuse me of failing to delegate authority,” he says. “With all the traveling I do, it is virtually impossible for IMG to be a one-man show.”

Yet some of his employees complain that they are not given credit for the big deals they close. “Mark is the star of the corporation,” grouses one. “You can’t even hire a secretary without his approval.” An executive who turned down a job at IMG says, “I’ve been around McCormack’s guys for a long time now. He has them on staff for two reasons: to make as much money as possible, and to keep a smile on the client’s face at all costs—if that means kissing it, do so.

“Because of him, there is no corporate structure. Say you’re a car maker and you want an athlete to endorse your product. If you call the guys who run tennis, you’ll get a tennis player. The golf people will give you a golfer. Ask McCormack if he isn’t the glue holding the company together.”

“It’s true that at one time, each division would have gone its own way if I’d died,” McCormack replies. “But I think we’ve solved that problem. We now have a board of directors, and we function like any other corporation.” However, even though on paper it appears that Jay Lefave is the number two man in the organization, no one at IMG is really certain. “It could be Ian Todd or Bud Stanner,” says an executive. “We probably won’t know until McCormack dies and we see who survives.”

The son of a farm magazine publisher in Chicago, McCormack took up golf at age 6 while recovering from a fractured skull because it was less strenuous than other sports. He won the city prep championship and played on the golf team at William and Mary. After Yale Law School he married Nancy Breckenridge, spent two years in the Army and then went to work for a Cleveland law firm.

He had known Arnold Palmer since they played golf against each other in college (Palmer at Wake Forest). In the late ’50s, as Palmer was beginning to move into big money, McCormack approached him with a couple of promotion ideas. Palmer liked them and asked lawyer McCormack to look over contracts he had signed with a sporting goods company. McCormack concluded that they were poor deals, and Palmer asked his friend to take over his finances.

When McCormack’s business began to flourish in the early 1960s, he resisted the pull of New York, where most such firms gravitate. “It would mean tearing up roots,” he says. “We’ve always thought that Cleveland was better suited to our life-style.” Because he travels so much, his wife and children regularly join him in farflung cities around the world. But their favorite spot is the Bay Hill Club and Lodge, in Orlando, which McCormack and Palmer own. The family spends both Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays there.

“For all that the children have been indulged,” says Nancy McCormack, “they are remarkably unspoiled.” Son Breck, 19, is a freshman at Stanford. Todd, 16, is a golfer who jokes that he isn’t sure he wants his dad to represent him if he ever turns pro. And daughter Leslie, 10, is becoming a skilled gymnast.

“There’s no question that Mark’s traveling has been hard on me and the family,” says Mrs. McCormack. “If we hadn’t gotten used to long-distance conversations, we wouldn’t have much contact.” Despite his protracted absences, McCormack is clearly head of the household. “He’s much too domineering to allow me to play both mother and father to the children,” says Mrs. McCormack.

Only once has McCormack’s pace slowed. In 1974 he fell on a cobblestone street in Spain and bumped his head. Within a few weeks he was suffering from severe headaches. “He saw a dozen doctors, but none of them could determine what was wrong,” says Mrs. McCormack. “When I caught up with him in London, he was exhausted. He’d just sit and stare at the wall all day long. If it hadn’t been for a New York doctor who stopped by our house in London looking for Wimbledon tickets, Mark might be dead now.”

The headaches were caused by a subdural hematoma, a localized buildup of fluid between the skull and the brain. Between July 8 and 22, a surgeon in London drilled five holes in McCormack’s head and drained the fluid. By the end of the month Mark, ignoring the advice of his doctors, took a vacation in Scotland with his family. Then he returned to England to broadcast the first Colgate European Women’s Open golf tournament for the BBC. It was an event IMG had organized.

His wife says, “I plead with him to slow down, but I guess that’s impossible for a man like Mark. Now he wants to streamline ‘his corner’ in the living room so he can sit in his easy chair, open mail and discard it, write bulletins to himself on the legal pad as we talk and answer the phone when it rings. I know it sounds crazy—and I guess it is. But I don’t think he’s ever considered it work. He’s having too much fun.”