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Remembering Mark McCormack: A Tribute to a Sports Visionary

By Andrew Knox
The 700 Club

CBN.com1930 Chicago was a bustling city and the birthplace of Mark McCormack. At 6 years old, little Mark was struck by a car, preventing him from playing contact sports, but leading him to golf. No one knew it at the time, but Mark McCormack would become the most powerful man in sports history.

Known worldwide as the father of sports marketing, McCormack’s client list is a who’s who of the planet’s greatest athletes. His company, International Management Group (IMG), has also handled special projects for global leaders such as Mikhail Gorbachev, Margaret Thatcher, and the pope.

IMG client Tiger Woods reportedly earns more than 50 million dollars a year in prize money and endorsements. Tiger would never have seen that type of money if it had not have been for an encounter 50 years ago between a future golf superstar and the future of sports.

"I first met Mark while we were both in college," says four time Masters champion Arnold Palmer. "He was playing on the William and Mary golf team, and I was playing on the Wake Forest golf team. Our next real meeting when we talked at any great length was somewhere in the area of ten years. He was now taking in a new scope of business, and that business was representing golfers."

Palmer would come on board with one condition: he would be Mark’s only client.

"He said, 'I’ll draw up a contract where I’ll represent you personally and you alone.' I said, 'You don’t need to draw up a contract; all you have to do is give me your word and I’ll give you my word and we’ll form the association.' We shook hands, and that formed our arrangement," says Palmer. "Gary Player came to me and said that he had heard of Mark McCormack and wanted to know if it was OK if he spoke to Mark about helping him with his business. After carefully thinking about it, I thought, Oh well, that’s fine."

Says Player, who won the British Open in three different decades, "He signed up Arnold Palmer as his first client, and the second client was myself, and his third client was Jack Nicklaus. Now, you could say that’s luck, but I call Mark McCormack a genius. He was just a brilliant man who understood sports; he understood business; he understood people. You look at Tiger Woods today getting a $2 million appearance fee for playing in a tournament--which is more money than I won in my entire life on the regular tour in the U.S., and when you think about it, Jack Nicklaus and I are the only two players in the world ever that won both Grand Slams, the regular tour and the Senior tour--he makes more money in two or three tournaments than we made in our careers.

Race car driver Jackie Stewart, who holds 27 Grand Prix wins and three world championships, also knew Mark well.

"The automotive industry is the third largest manufacturing industry in the world, and it had potentially more commercial ramifications and opportunities than any other sport I could think of. Here I was just embarking on that, so I knew I needed somebody very good," notes Stewart. "Mark was incredibly strong as a visionary because he could have stayed in golf and just done very well. Skiing, for example, was not a big sport at that time. Jean-Claude Killy was a superstar because he won three Olympic gold medals at Grenoble in 1968, and that was a fantastic achievement. Mark saw the commerciality involved in this very suave Frenchman."

Adds Olympic gold medalist skier Jean-Claude Killy, "He talked to Jackie Stewart. He talked to me. The reason he went to a skier was that I was very, very well known then, so I believe for him it was natural that he would come and talk to me. I don’t think he was talking to skiing. I think he was talking to a skier. He had a strange outfit, strange tie. The color was kind of bright. He seemed to be a nice man. I wanted someone professional who knew the business and who somewhere, even though it was behind a colored tie, had a heart."

Three years ago, Mark McCormack appeared on The 700 Club with Pat Robertson and explained the goal he started with back in the early 1960s.

"I think what we tried to do was to use sports in a way that it had never been used before and to enable us to get companies to be able to use it to entertain customers and to sell their products, because, as you well know, in the last 30 or 40 years, the people that are most looked up to in most parts of the world are sports personalities," McCormack said on the show that day.

But his vision saw way beyond sports. McCormack also put his personal touch on music.

Soprano Kiri Te Kanawa affectionately recalls Mark's influence on the world of classical music.

"The classical world stays quite rigid in its funny little box, but what he did do was break down a lot of the barriers," says Kanawa. "He gave it a sense of people love to be outdoors, very nice venues, and let’s have a picnic at the same time and listen to some very beautiful music. I think that’s what it was all about. It sort of de-snobberized classical music, which is what I’m all about anyway."

Tennis star Betsy Nagelsen signed on with Mark in 1974.

"I had just turned pro, just before I turned 18 years old," she recalls.

At 17, Betsy Nagelsen was ranked as the world’s top junior player. She’d go on to capture five singles titles, 25 doubles titles, and play in the main draw at Wimbledon for 23 consecutive years.

"Mark and I always argue about when we first met, even as just a client. I claim I met him in 1974 when I went to Cleveland with my dad to sign, and he says I didn’t. He’s probably right because he remembers those things a lot better than I do," she says.

Betsy and Mark married in 1986. It was Mark’s second marriage. They have a beautiful daughter, Maggie.

"He just got such great joy out of Maggie. I think he saw himself in Maggie. He saw a little clone of himself," Betsy explains. "Mark didn’t mind laughing at himself either, and Maggie and I got very good at mimicking Mark, whether it was the way he would walk or the way he would do things. Mark would laugh right along with us."

"He had some habits that were different," says Palmer. "His eating habits, for an example, he was a great hors d'oeuvre s man. I used to laugh at him and kid him about it, but he liked to eat with his fingers."

"He loved to pick at things," Player states. "I’d say, 'Mark, try and eat less. Keep in shape.' He’d keep a little card for me and tell me how many sit ups he did in the month of June and how many times he’d been on a bicycle."

Palmer recalls Mark's fantastic memory.

"His three by fives were about the best in the world," Palmer explains. "He could pull a three by five out and tell you how many push ups he did ten years ago or how many sit ups."

"He always said to me--and I’ve never forgotten this saying verbatim--that anybody who tries to remember anything is a conceited fool. If you think about that saying, it's so true," Player notes. "He always said a blunt pencil is better than a sharp memory. He never forgot one single thing in fifty years."

"Integrity, honesty--that was Mark McCormack. He had the best mind I have ever seen, truly," Killy offers.

"I once saw his brain working in a room of a lot of people," says Kanawa, "and what he came up with in a minute and a half was amazing, whereas everybody would take three or four hours to do that."

"He would go to great lengths to maintain relationships," Betsy explains. "I mean, he would call months in advance and ask if they would be free on Tuesday night five months down the road and keep that night free."

Jean-Claude Killy understood Mark's penchant for planning.

"He would say, 'In six months time, on September 2 at 10:00, I’ll call you. Six months later at 10:00 he’d call, on the nose," Killy says.

"He was a phenomenal man and I just can’t tell you how I will miss him," says Player.

"When Mark died, Betsy called me," says Killy. "The minute she said, 'It's Betsy,' I said, 'I’m sorry.' She said, 'You’ve been told?' 'No, but I know what you are going to tell me because I can hear your voice, and I’m sorry.'"

"He was also a man who realized he was endowed with special gifts from God and that what he accomplished was not all in his own power," Betsy said at Mark's New York City memorial service.

"Mark would never say 'I.' Never. Never Ever. I have a more difficult time with that one, but I could admire him for that because he could have an evening long in a Paris restaurant and he could have said 'I' this and 'I' that and 'I am this' and 'I am that.' Never, it was not in him. He was more interested in others," says Killy.

"I think that Mark really began to understand some spiritual things that he’d never really paid much attention to," Betsy says.

When Mark appeared on The 700 Club, he told the television audience, "I’m trying now to do right with my life and be the Christian kind of man that God wants me to be."

Betsy says that about four years ago, Mark decided to read the Bible in a year.

"He read it start to finish," she says, "He never missed a day, completely disciplined."

"[He was] the family man who still had time to read the Holy Bible from the beginning to the very end," notes Stewart at the Hampton Court Palace memorial service in London, England. "Very few people could say they’ve done that at the pace that Mark McCormack lived and to consume it and be able to recall anything of it."

Says Betsy, "He was very proud to tell people he read the Bible from Genesis to Revelation."

"Before eternity, we have a limited amount of time," Mark said on The 700 Club. "I think the maximization and the usage of that time is so critical. I think you’ve got to end your day on time. I think you’ve got to protect your leisure time, your family time, and make it even more important than the most important business meeting you have. I’ve learned that as I’ve gotten older and been thinking about more eternal things than worldly things, and I think it’s stood me very good and I’m a changed person."

Betsy says that Mark was serious about his commitment to God.

"Once he made a decision, he didn’t make them lightly. When he made it, he made it, and Mark absolutely made a decision for Jesus," she says.

"When Mark McCormack passed away, I lost one of my closest friends," said Palmer at the New York City memorial service. "I never regretted for a moment that I had placed so much of my future in his hands."

Mark McCormack"We had a Sunday morning breakfast, and it was fun. We laughed. We talked about old times," Palmer says. "There were various stories where we got into soda battles in hotel rooms and got bills for paying the damage we did squirting soda pop at each other. I’ll miss his sense of humor and a lot of the fellowship that we had over the years. I’ll miss all of that."

Adds Betsy, "One of Mark’s greatest legacies, in my opinion, is that he helped to make other people’s dreams come true, in sports and in life. There’s nobody in this world that Mark loved more than his family, and that includes his three older kids and Maggie. She’s my blessing because life is about Maggie at that age, and she loves life, so in many ways she makes me get on with every single day. I absolutely cannot imagine anybody ever going through any kind of trauma, any kind of crisis, any kind of pain, suffering, without knowing Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, as someone who’s ultimate mercy and grace is sufficient. I can’t even begin to think what that would be like. Not to say there haven’t been tears and there hasn’t been sadness and there hasn’t been grief and mourning, and there will be more of it. I miss him and I could cry now, but God is good. God is good."

"I’m so honored to have been his wife, and Maggie and I will hold him in our hearts and in our minds forever, and we’ll do our best to make him proud of us," Betsy said at the Hampton Court Palace memorial service in London, England.

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