Mark McCormack and Roone Arledge: Visionaries of Sport and Marketing

PART I: Mark McCormack and a Lesson in Negotiation

The father of sports marketing.  The man who sealed the greatest and arguably the most important deal in the history of sports with a simple handshake.  The man known for being one of the toughest negotiators and shrewdest businessmen in the industry.  The visionary who, in Cleveland in 1960, founded the largest sports marketing firm in the world that today extends its services to the management of artists, models (i.e. Kate Moss), expositions, speakers (i.e. Jack Welch)… the list is far too exhaustive and would prove much too exhausting to continue here.  Instead, in this section we will talk about how Mark McCormack (1930-2003) used his mastery of negotiation and boldness to change the world of sports forever.

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Silence and Shrewdness

Silence.  It can be a time of reflection and tranquility or listening and planning.  For Mark McCormack, it was one of his greatest tools in the formal conversations held in boardrooms and casual talks with colleagues on the golf course.  He would let the person across from him do all the talking and give it all away by asking a few questions and listening intently.  Discreetly.  Silently.

His greatest rival for nearly 30 years, Donald Dell of ProServ, would later say that “[McCormack] did more to change the field of professional sports than anybody,” according to S.L. Price’s piece “The Visionary.”  With an athlete’s sheer determination and ferocious competitiveness, McCormack pushed himself and his employees to the limit in order to be the best.  His first deal was sealed over a game of golf with the great Arnold Palmer in 1960 that today is worth $200 million.  Over the decades following that fateful day and as the value of such deals became more apparent, negotiations have resembled the easy atmosphere of that afternoon at the links less and less and gradually become the usually long and drawn out affairs that involve excruciatingly complex discussions on ROI (Return On Investment) and careful attention to metrics and benefits we find in publications like the Sports Business Journal.  Because McCormack pretty much wrote the book on sports marketing and management, his firm, International Management Group (IMG), is worth well over $1.3 billion dollars as we begin the second decade of the new century.  Since those early days in Cleveland, McCormack’s IMG has represented talent and either owned or co-owned nine tennis tournaments and marketed/televised eight golf and tennis Grand Slams – IMG even contributed to the creation of China’s professional basketball league.  These are only a few of IMG’s assets.

All of this did not come haphazardly.  McCormack’s silence helped him gain the advantage in negotiations as his counterparts talked too much and unwittingly revealed their plans.  It also made it easy for his clients to communicate their needs.  Regarding the former point, though, it was known throughout the entire industry that this was his greatest negotiating tool and Dick Ebersol, just after beginning his stint as head of NBC Sports in 1989 and on his way to a meeting with McCormack, reminded himself: “Don’t babble, and for God’s sake don’t give anything away.”  Price’s article describes this occasion in detail and how Ebersol eventually gave away his plan to merge NBC with IMG.  (FYI, Ebersol’s plan never came to fruition)

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PART II: Roone Arledge and His Imagination

The father of Monday Night Football.  In 1970, just 10 years after Mark McCormack’s IMG started signing athletes and hosting sporting events all over the world, Roone Arledge (1931-2002) made pro football America’s new pastime.  Surely, Johnny Unitas led football into the mainstream in the 1950s through his heroics on the field and artistry as the leader of a Baltimore Colts team that defeated the New York Giants in the nationally televised 1958 NFL Championship Game, which was also dubbed the “Greatest Football Game Ever Played.”  The stage was set and televisions all over America were tuned to the game of the week.  However, it was after Joe Namath shocked the world when he delivered on his guarantee that the New York Jets would defeat Unitas’ Colts in Super Bowl III in 1969 that the NFL had its perennial superstar.  Men followed his exploits on the field and women everywhere swooned; consequently, it was ABC Sports’ Roone Arledge who realized that the league was ready for prime time.  It was 1970: it was time the world watched football from Arledge’s eyes.

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His Vision Becomes Ours (and Thank You, too, Mr. Namath)

In the late 60s, Arledge quickly realized that sporting events televised in the evening, such as the Olympics,drew large numbers of viewers.  Essentially, Arledge developed/created Slo-Mo replays, Instant Replay, up-close camera angles, ABC’s “Wide World of Sports,” Monday Night Football and the first commentator team for the weekly spectacle that came on the heels of Namath’s spectacular rise to fame in the NFL, and according to an article by Ed Sherman in Professor Jeff Bail’s “Principles of Sports Marketing” course reader (exact source unknown), Arledge also took television coverage of the Olympics beyond just a series of sporting events by changing the production format.

In his article, Sherman refers to NBC Sports Chairman Dick Ebersol’s take on Arledge’s success.  Ebersol said of his colleague and teacher: “Roone saw two things… sports was ready for prime time and the athletes should be portrayed as personalities, not just sports figures.  It’s amazing TV didn’t see this.  Before, it was just between-the-lines coverage… He turned the way sports are done inside out.”  Arledge certainly had the right guy for that in Joe Namath… what a personality he was and still is!!!  I would argue that two of the four greatest things to ever happen to the NFL – in no particular order – were Roone Arledge’s creation of Monday Night Football and Joe Namath’s talent and personality (the third is Johnny Unitas and the fourth is the merger with the AFL.)  With Namath launching the football through the night sky and the team of Howard Cosell and Don Meredith doing the commentary upstairs, viewers had the complete package of spectacular performances on the field and storytelling in the booth.

Joe Namath gave women a reason to watch football and helped make the NFL more popular to more people and groups around the world.  However, it was Roone Arledge who, with all of his great contributions to TV and sports, gave Americans a reason to not be so sorry to see the sun set on Sundays and look forward to Monday evenings.  He gave a day back to everyone who bemoaned the return to work and always longed for just one more night of leisure.

Cam Suarez-Bitar.

As always, thank you for your readership and all thanks go to God for giving me the opportunity and good health to do my work.  If you have any comments, please feel free to share.

Lastly, I hope that, like me, you take from this article that in order succeed, one must use silence wisely, follow the athlete’s example of how to pursue a goal and attain it, and how true boldness and a commitment to one’s vision and faith in one’s imagination are essential elements of success.

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