Arnold Palmer and the Creation of Sports Marketing


It is rare that you can identify a moment when an industry was born.

Ford had the Model T.
Apple had the Mac.
And IMG had Arnold Palmer.

Mark McCormack met Arnold Palmer while playing golf against him in college. Palmer made quite an impression with his “forearms like a middleweight boxer, waistline like a Balanchine dancer, charisma like a Hollywood star.”  Not just that, but he was a go-for-broke golfer that hit it miles and was destined to win Major Championships.

Palmer may have had the game, but it was McCormack with the vision.


By pitching the idea of an athlete as a global brand to Palmer, they struck up a partnership – not by a handshake as many claim, a myth that McCormack fabricated – to create the world’s first Sports Marketing Agent. McCormack’s theory was that; “the stars of Sport were the gasoline that made the engine go.” Fans wanted to connect with their favourite sports stars but simply couldn’t, making them a grossly undervalued property.
So in return for Palmer securing exclusivity as his only client, McCormack was now representing Arnold Palmer’s commercial affairs under the new Sports Agency called IMG.

Their first two years together, 1960-1962, saw endorsement earnings increase from $6,000 to $500,000. On the course, Palmer won the Masters and played golf with Presidents, whereas off the links, he endorsed Pennzoil and Hertz rent-a-cars.

This kind of growth encouraged others to take notice. So much so that Gary Player and Jack Nicklaus signed with IMG, with Rod Laver and Pele to follow.
Running alongside this phenomenon, was a global revolution that served as the Nitros Oxide into Vin Diesel’s engine; Television.
Alastair Johnson, Palmer’s longtime agent at IMG outlined that suddenly Palmer was “brought into people’s living rooms, whether he was endorsing tomato ketchup or airlines.” Therefore turbo charging McCormack’s idea of quantifying the value of sporting athletes.
Consumer demand + brand investment = endorsement.  

Over the course of his life, Mr Palmer earned an estimated $875 million through endorsements, appearances, licensing, and golf course design. That places him only behind Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods in lifetime earnings, and in 2016 (a full 14 years after he retired) Arnie was still the 5th highest earning golfer on the planet.

His recent tragic passing is a chance to reflect on a true legend of the game of golf.
One thing is absolutely sure, even though Arnie is not still with us, he will still be earning many millions long after we all are no longer here as well.


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