The Long Read: With a spirit of collaboration, the IMG empire grows and grows

Spurred by a combative leadership duo and a collaborative approach, the 'new IMG' is gathering momentum, writes SportsPro Americas editor Michael Long.

The Long Read: With a spirit of collaboration, the IMG empire grows and grows

Across the world of sport, IMG’s fingerprints can be found everywhere. Fingers in pies is one commonly used way of describing the company’s expansive reach and influence, but then that, of course, is nothing new. 

Such is the scale of the pioneering talent management firm, founded by the late Mark McCormack in Cleveland, Ohio in 1960, the IMG tentacles stretch far and wide. A veritable superpower across multiple industries, its global network of subsidiaries and interests has grown to span everything from fashion, modelling and entertainment, to the promotion of top-level tournaments in tennis and golf, global media and licensing rights arbitrage, US college sport, Indian cricket, esports, MMA, professional bull riding, and just about everything in between.

IMG is, in many ways, an industry trendsetter, one of those established players - like Disney-owned ESPN, the NBA or, increasingly, Amazon - others in sport look to for a sense of where things are headed. That has been the case for years, but it is especially true now that a renewed vigour is emanating from the halls of the ‘new IMG’.

Since being acquired by WME, the renowned Hollywood talent agency, for US$2.4 billion back in late 2013, IMG has taken on a new lease of life, imbued with fresh impetus under the effervescent duo of Ari Emanuel and Patrick Whitesell. Having forged reputations as fearsome agents in the movie business, the pair’s assault on the sports industry has been characteristically forthright, their combative nature and eye for a deal as sharp as the many suits they own.

A US$4 billion buyout of the UFC in June 2016 represented arguably their most high-profile sports acquisition to date. But if that particular deal was a window into the minds of this straight-talking, content-focused double act, more recent moves on the international scene have served clear notice of their wider ambitions in sport.

First, in late September, came the news that IMG would be teaming up with Perform Group, the London-based digital content specialist, to acquire lucrative commercial rights to top club soccer in South America, including the continent’s prestigious Copa Libertadores. For those rights the two agencies combined to fork out a reported US$1.4 billion, and will now create a 50/50 joint venture dedicated to marketing them on a global basis.

Securing that deal was, on reflection, a strategically savvy move, but it was no less opportunistic. After the Fifa corruption scandal of 2015 carved a power vacuum in Latin American soccer, opening the door to previously locked-out agencies for the first time, IMG has moved quickly to position itself as a force in the leading sport in a region where its influence has traditionally centred on Brazil. What’s more, in the neighbouring, notoriously chaotic worlds of Concacaf and Conmebol the company has come to be seen as an edifying, trustworthy partner, perhaps even an agent for change following the indictments of several high-ranking soccer officials and marketing executives.

Soon after that deal’s announcement came this month’s confirmation that IMG College, the agency’s powerful yet underperforming collegiate sports division, had settled on a ‘definitive agreement’ to merge with Learfield, whose influence on college campuses across North America is unrivalled. Simply put, that deal is nothing short of seismic. As well as cementing IMG’s position in a lucrative and growing market, it is set to profoundly alter the landscape of college sports marketing forever, effectively ruling out the possibility of any competitors ever gaining a meaningful foothold in the space.

With the ink still drying on the Learfield merger IMG was meanwhile eyeing new business on the opposite side of the Atlantic. In Italy, it turned out, the agency was close to having an offer accepted for the international rights to the country’s top soccer division, Serie A - rights it had long coveted but had on several occasions failed to secure. This time, an offer of some €371 million per season was enough to seal the deal, virtually doubling Serie A’s overseas rights income and in turn delivering a significant blow to MP & Silva, the league’s incumbent international distributor and, more importantly, an arch IMG rival in the media rights business.

Together, those deals in South America, the US and Europe speak to the global aspirations of IMG under Emanuel and Whitesell, who have also signalled their intentions in China having established a subsidiary there, backed by some heavyweight investors, in June 2016. But, by the same token, they are no less than the industry has come to expect from IMG, whose ability to forge partnerships whilst competing with just about everyone has long been a hallmark of its business.

Looking back, IMG has never been averse to collaboration when it makes sense - and sometimes when it doesn't. Like any large multinational corporation, the company is a global ecosystem unto itself and yet, as an agency by definition, it knows it cannot exist in a vacuum. Its sphere of influence is only as strong as its ability to tap into the network of regional players. Established joint ventures in the emerging markets of Brazil, China, India and Turkey are testament to that collaborative mentality, as are more recent alliances for all-new competitions with the likes of Euroleague Basketball and Turner, with whom IMG has established the ELeague.

This year, that spirit of collaboration has intensified. In July, IMG retained its partnership with the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) for the delivery of the Indian Premier League (IPL), the Twenty20 juggernaut it helped form a decade ago. Just last week, it partnered with the FIVB, volleyball’s global governing body, to announce next year’s launch of the Volleyball Nations League, while in August, shortly before the aforementioned partnerships with Perform and Learfield were made public, the company received a cash injection of around US$1 billion from the Canada Pension Plan Investment Board (CPPIB) and the Government of Singapore Investment Fund (GIC).

Both investors joined a list of big-name backers that includes private equity firms and venture capitalists from the US, Abu Dhabi, Japan and China, ensuring that IMG now feels more international than ever. All the while Emanuel and Whitesell have been taking steps to unify and integrate the many divisions of their burgeoning empire.

Earlier this month that process came to a conclusion of sorts when it was revealed that WME | IMG, the awkwardly titled holding company for WME, IMG, the UFC and a plethora of other assets and joint ventures, was to be renamed Endeavor, thereby reviving the moniker of the Endeavor Talent Agency, the erstwhile venture Emanuel and Whitesell merged with the William Morris Agency to form WME in 2009.

​According to Emanuel, the Endeavor name was settled upon because it is befitting of a firm that “represents the very definition of the word itself”, but the rechristening feels every bit like a seminal moment in IMG’s history. Certainly, the message it transmits is clear: nearly four full years after their takeover, this is now Emanuel and Whitesell’s business, one fashioned in their image and specifically tailored to enact their internationalist vision.

Getting to this point was never guaranteed, of course, even if it has always been the pair’s endgame. In an interview with the Hollywood Reporter last year, Whitesell himself acknowledged how IMG was in “a tough spot” after its former chief executive, Teddy Forstmann, passed away in 2011. The company had been on the market for two years, he noted, and while its global network and sprawling portfolio were arguably unmatched, it was in pressing need of upheaval - the kind only Emanuel and Whitesell’s unique brand of cultural and organisational TLC could provide.

“Part of leadership is actually getting in and fixing it, getting the culture right, getting the right people,” Whitesell recalled. “We think we're pretty good at that. IMG had challenges as far as how it was organised, how it was run, not the underlying assets.”

According to Whitesell, the new owners’ approach would remain that of an operator, not an investor like Forstmann, “a private equity guy”. “We have a long-term horizon because we're not intending to ever sell it,” he said. Still, there was much speculation within the industry as to what the pair would do and whether they’d succeed. Some questioned their ability to make their mark, but those doubts quickly dissipated when the new owners got to work with several major acquisitions and an internal restructuring process.

A spate of layoffs in various departments and the departure of several senior IMG executives, including the company’s former chief executive, Mike Dolan, was swiftly followed by several new hires. Mark Shapiro and Ioris Francini, the heads of content and media respectively, were promoted to co-president roles, signalling the refocusing of a business intent on bringing together previously disparate and far-flung operations.

As Shapiro himself has noted, Emanuel and Whitesell’s ability to effectively stitch together the myriad strands of an increasingly diversified IMG has been among their standout successes. “One of the smartest things Ari and Patrick did was to incentivise collaboration”, he has said, noting how employees have been encouraged to draw on other divisions of the business to open up new revenue opportunities and better serve the company’s clients.

That is, of course, Emanuel and Whitesell’s team-spirited, target-focused way. Memorably, the duo allowed 23 of their star celebrity clients to buy stakes in their newly consolidated holding company, but their real masterstroke has been to distill down Endeavor’s many areas of expertise - talent, media, digital, events - into what they ultimately all are: entertainment content.

The result is a single-minded business that has morphed into a more ferocious beast and yet, at the same time, has been tamed and transformed. Now IMG appears an entity that is leaner and meaner than ever, one that, as with other units of the Endeavor empire, is ever-ready to pounce on the next untapped opportunity.

Michael Long is SportsPro's Americas editor. Follow him on Twitter @_MichaelLong.