How Arnold Palmer transformed the business of sport

It is hard to recall that 50 years ago the professional sportsman was little more than a vassal
Arnold Palmer as a member of the American Ryder Cup team in 1965 © PA

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Arnold Palmer did a lot more than popularise the country club sport of golf. A handshake agreement with a young Cleveland lawyer, a childhood foe on the links, helped transform the lot of professional sports people all over the world.

The year was 1958, just after Palmer had won the first of his four Masters tournaments, and the man gripping his hand was Mark McCormack, who had the idea that there was a future in representing men like the golfer, who played for pay. Two years later, he founded IMG, which emerged as the premier sports agency in the business.

In this age of the billionaire sports star, it is hard to recall that half a century ago the professional sportsman was little more than a vassal, owned lock, stock and barrel by teams able to pay them what owners, not players, thought they were worth and to trade them on a whim. Even the superstars were subject to this regime.

It was normal then for journeymen cricketers, baseball players and footballers to take off-season jobs to make ends meet. In tennis, then strictly an amateur sport, player frustration was so great that the likes of Rod Laver, Ken Rosewall and Pancho Gonzales, already household names, broke away to form a professional circuit, even at the cost of ostracism for a decade from Grand Slam tournaments.

But McCormack sensed that the dawning of the television age was going to change all this. There would be audiences on living-room couches exceeding by a factor of millions those who went to live games and they would be consumers of the goods their new idols endorsed. And, as the US grew more affluent, they would be in the market for more than Babe Ruth candy bars, named after the interwar baseball star.

In Palmer, McCormack had the perfect prototypical candidate for this new age. He was working-class, from the steel town of Latrobe, Pennsylvania, and played like a welder, with fearless determination. He was open and gregarious and his fans, known as “Arnie’s Army”, adored him, in real championships and in made-for-TV matchups against Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player. As Lee Trevino, the similarly hardscrabble Mexican-American champion, put it: “Arnie took the machete to the jungle and cut a path for the rest of us.” That path, for Palmer, included being the first golfer to fly his own plane back and forth from tournaments.

In his first two years with IMG, Palmer’s income from endorsements rose from $6,000 a year to $500,000, far more than he could earn by winning 10 tournaments. Tiger Woods would later become the ultimate beneficiary, signing with Nike 20 years ago for nearly $40m a year. (Mr Woods’ fall from grace and form, together with golf’s declining popularity, undoubtedly influenced Nike’s recent decision to discontinue its golf club manufacturing business.) The basketball player Michael Jordan took the Palmer prototype to new commercial levels.

There were other hurdles to be overcome before the professional sportsman began earning his due. Critical in this was the 1975 US Supreme Court ruling, in a case brought by Andy Messersmith, the baseball pitcher, legalising the concept of free agency. Twenty years later, the European Court of Justice followed suit in the case of Jean-Marc Bosman, transforming the economics of football.

This gave birth to the “super agent”, as depicted in the movie Jerry McGuire and reaching real-life perfection in Scott Boras, whose clients include many of the current superstars of baseball. He drives hard bargains — this summer, he extracted $175m over seven years from the Washington Nationals for a pitcher with a suspect right arm.

McCormack died in 2003, his dream already realised, and Palmer, a canny businessman in his own right, passed away on Sunday. Without that handshake, it might never have happened in the way it did.

onohana@aol.com

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