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Tiger the Agent and the Agency

Tiger Woods and Mark Steinberg
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The scene: On his final day as an IMG employee, Mark Steinberg is ranting and raving through the home office. He undresses his erstwhile co-workers for a lack of manners, then implores them to join him as he walks out the door.

“Who’s coming with me? Who’s coming with me?” he wails as the room falls silent, not a single one offering up their services.

He is left holding only a purloined goldfish, until a lone person rises from a desk and accepts the proposal. Tiger Woods, wearing a walking boot on his left leg and brandishing crutches, meekly answers, “I will go with you.”

OK, so real life may not imitate 'Jerry Maguire' and Steinberg may not have had Woods at hello, but he has worked as the sole agent for him since 1999. Now out as the head of IMG’s global golf division, most ensuing discussions will be centered around whether the client will follow his representative out the door of the famed agency.

For the past dozen years, Steinberg has not only been the man behind Woods, but the man behind his brand – for better or worse. He was there when Tiger won the last 13 of his 14 major championship titles and there when he endured ridicule during a highly publicized scandal 18 months ago.

Since then, Woods has experienced uncertainty in both his personal and professional life. He may now be about to experience uncertainty in his business life, as well – and don’t underestimate the importance of that piece to the entire puzzle.

The juicy part of this story is about the relationship between the two men and whether it will continue. About eight hours prior to the announcement that Steinberg was leaving IMG, Woods reaffirmed his commitment to both the agent and the agency. He will now have to choose only one.

There is so much more at play here, though; so many moving parts in the scenario. Steinberg was once described by Wall Street Journal as “amongst the three or four most powerful people in golf.” Sure, that had plenty to do with his relationship to Tiger, but it had just as much – if not more – to do with the fact that he oversaw the entire golf division for IMG.

How far is that reach? The agency either owns and operates or has a consulting relationship with more than 40 golf tournaments worldwide, from heavy hitters on the PGA Tour to a bevy of big-time events on the European Tour to a joint venture that allows it to run 10 tourneys on the Asian Tour.

Dating to Mark McCormack’s founding of the agency, the IMG influence in the sport has been unprecedented and unrivaled. In recent years, Steinberg was the man responsible for it all. He was the decision maker and in every facet of the business, to proffer a cliché, the buck stopped with him.

Insiders will contend, however, that recently he had become too “Tiger-centric,” his responsibilities toward the former No. 1-ranked player surpassing his role as head of the division. The message from IMG offices in the aftermath is that in light of the previous situation, many others were helping to carry that load, the contention being that IMG Golf is bigger than just one person.

The division will now enter a new era, with longtime vice chairman Alastair Johnston continuing to oversee the business, joined by new co-heads Guy Kinnings in London and Robbie Henchman in Singapore.

While Woods’ impending future is the main topic of interest in the short term, there will be bigger and perhaps more important effects of Tuesday’s news in the long run.

With so much influence and power within the game, it will be worth watching how IMG continues to handle its current global business strategies. Employees of the agency maintain that while there will be an “adjustment period,” they should be able to keep the status quo for now.

And yet, in this ever-evolving golf landscape, there really is no status quo. From new tournaments on the PGA Tour to a growing popularity on the European and Asian tours, the game is always malleable and moving in new directions.

The most conspicuous domino that will fall in the wake of Steinberg leaving IMG is that of Woods’ impending future – whether he decides to remain with his longtime agent or agency. That is hardly the only domino, however. It may be both gradual and nebulous, but this move will have repercussions in the golf world well beyond that of a relationship between one player and his representation.
Follow Jason Sobel on Twitter @JasonSobelGC