Globe

In pro tennis management, IMG is the reigning champion

May 27, 2012

By KOSUKE INAGAKI / The Asahi Shimbun GLOBE

IMG is a major American sports management company, representing tennis stars such as Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Maria Sharapova and Japan's own ace, Kei Nishikori. What influence does this industry giant have on the world of tennis?

* * *

On March 27 in Miami, two men stood under sweltering, summer-like sunshine and listened to the rapturous applause of the crowd, having just fought a grueling tennis match lasting 2 hours and 10 minutes. The occasion was the fourth round of the Sony Ericsson Open men's singles. The victor this time was Spanish tennis hero Rafael Nadal, world No. 2 and winner of 10 Grand Slam titles. His vanquished opponent--the Japanese ace Kei Nishikori.

Though rivals on that day, the two men share a common bond. Both are represented by the largest sports management company in the world, IMG, with the U.S. firm taking care of sponsorship negotiations and other aspects of management for the pair.

IMG has a strong presence in the world of tennis. The firm represents seven of the top 20 male tennis players in the world (as of April 23) and six of the top 20 female players, a client list that also includes Roger Federer, David Ferrer, Maria Sharapova and Li Na.

"Though our company started off in golf, we now obtain around 25 percent of our sports business turnover from tennis, as opposed to around 20 percent from golf," explains Fernando Soler, head of tennis at IMG.

ROSTER OF TOP ATHLETES LEADS TO RAPID GROWTH

IMG was founded by lawyer Mark McCormack in 1960. Originally established to manage pro golfer Arnold Palmer, the company achieved rapid growth from the 1970s through the management of a number of top male tennis players, such as John McEnroe and Bjorn Borg.

Though IMG doesn't open its books to the public, a glimpse of its value was revealed in 2004--the year after long-standing President McCormack died--when the company was acquired by an investment firm headed by U.S. billionaire Ted Forstmann for $750 million (around 7.9 billion yen at the time). The firm has continued to expand ever since.

IMG undertakes contractual negotiations on behalf of its clients in areas such as advertising, TV appearances, ticketing, and the provision of shoes and other equipment, with the company receiving around 20 percent in commission. As a rule, IMG doesn't touch prize money, a tennis player's core source of income.

The firm has 80 offices worldwide and around 3,000 staff members, with the tennis department in its Japanese branch employing four people. The Japanese office also manages top figure skaters Mao Asada and Miki Ando.

IMG is deeply involved in the event side of things, too. In addition to managing the broadcasting rights for the Wimbledon Championships and the Australian Open, the company also attracts sponsors and plans on-site events for the Australian Grand Slam tournament.

IMG also has a strong presence in culture and arts as the company is the world's largest supermodel management firm and runs PR for the New York Collection (Fashion Week).

As well as producing TV programs, the company handles the rights to "Arnold Palmer" brand wear and goods bearing the "Wimbledon" logo.

FROM TRAINING TOP ATHLETES TO NEGOTIATING COMPETITION ENTRY

IMG is involved in more than 20 pro tennis tournaments a year, both men's and women's.

"We have many rivals in the world of tennis player management," says Soler. "We also have many competitors when it comes to running tournaments and attracting sponsors. Our strength lies in the fact that we are involved in all three areas."

The true extent of IMG's influence was revealed at a tournament held last September in Basel, Switzerland, when Nishikori truly came into his own as a pro tennis player.

After entering the tournament as a wild card, Nishikori beat a succession of tennis greats, including world No. 1 Novak Djokovic, with the Japanese player eventually finishing runner-up and rising to 24th in the world rankings.

Though Nishikori is now seeded at Grand Slam tournaments, it is easy forget he was only ranked 54th in the world as of last September. Only 32 players can play in the Basel tournament, so right until the last minute it was doubtful whether he would make the cut.

"The organizers told us that Kei wouldn't be playing if more top-ranked players ended up taking part," reminisces Olivier van Lindonk, the IMG man in charge of arranging tournaments and sponsor contracts for Nishikori. "We were negotiating like mad."

Wild cards are usually given to lower-ranked players from the host region, but as Van Lindonk quite openly states, the tournament's star player is local hero Roger Federer, who also happens to be represented by IMG.

"Our company's influence in the tennis world helps when it comes to negotiations," says Van Lindonk.

Nishikori left home for Florida during the summer of his second year of junior high school. Once there, he trained at the IMG Academy, an IMG-run training facility for young athletes. Even before turning pro, Nishikori was benefiting from personal contacts he had made through IMG. He first played tennis with Nadal at the age of 16 and was the Spaniard's practice partner in the run-up to the French Open, with Nishikori actually ending up winning the men's doubles in the junior competition. His pro tour debut was also in the IMG-run Sony Ericsson Open, where he participated in men's doubles. During this time, he also worked as Federer's practice partner.

"The experience of playing against top athletes when I was 16 or 17 is definitely something I carry with me today,” says Nishikori, looking back on that time. “Nadal used to hit the ball so hard."

IMG'S ENORMOUS POWER RAISES SOME EYEBROWS

Neil Harman, a tennis correspondent for The Times newspaper in Britain and a 30-year veteran of tennis reporting, takes a somewhat cooler view of IMG's activities.

"Not only does it manage star players like Federer, Nadal and Sharapova, as well as a number of major tournaments, its executives also sit on the board of the pro tour circuit's governing association," says Harman. "Would it be that strange if some decisions swung in IMG's favor?"

The March tournament in Miami is owned and organized by IMG itself. One of the 96 women who made it into the main women's singles draw this year was wild card Heather Watson, a player ranked 129th in the world.

"The reason she made the cut is because she is an IMG player," says Harman.

When these criticisms are put to Van Lindonk, he comes out fighting.

"This kind of envy does exist,” says Nishikori’s manager. “But even if IMG did use its muscle to give a player a chance, if he or she was not good enough, there would be no 'next time.' At the end of the day, only the best players survive in this world."

In Van Lindonk’s view, IMG activities have benefited many in the tennis world, including rival firms.

"IMG has spent a fortune building stadiums for tournaments or setting up special tennis TV channels,” he says. “We have worked hard for many years to make the pro tennis tour the success it is.”

* * *

MEMO

The IMG Academy training institute (Bradenton, Florida)

●Target sports: 7

●Size: 1.8 million square meters

●Tennis courts: 55

●Golf course: 18 holes

The Academy also has a driving range and a practice green

●Baseball, lacrosse and American football fields: 3 of each

The Academy also has 4 baseball practice infields, 12 batting cages and 15 pitching mounds

●Soccer fields: 13

●Basketball gyms: 2

●Training room: 1,000 square meters

●The Academy also has student dormitories with on-site schooling facilities

Enrolled students (ages 13-18): Around 750

Short term residents (including adults and professionals): 12,000 a year from more than 80 different countries

●The tennis academy costs around $70,000 a year (about 5.6 million yen). This includes lesson fees, dormitory rent and schooling costs.

●Graduates who turn professional: 2 percent

Over 90 percent of all graduates go on to university

By KOSUKE INAGAKI / The Asahi Shimbun GLOBE
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