How rare is an interview with Peter Johnson?
When the soon-to-be Chief Operating Officer of International Management Group was named the most influential agent in the world by Sports Business Journal in April, he refused to speak with the magazine.
But The Japan Times got the usually media-shy Johnson to sit for an exclusive interview on a wide range of subjects during a visit to Tokyo last month.
In a nearly 30-year career with IMG, Johnson has represented the likes of Joe Montana, Ivan Lendl, Martina Navratilova and Nancy Lopez and helped revolutionize the business of sports representation.
Japan Times: Are the athletes you represent today a lot more business savvy than in the past?
Peter Johnson: I think some are and some aren’t. It depends upon the individual. Some of them are educated and some are not.
The baseball players, for example, they go to college, as do the football players.
The basketball players, a lot of the really good ones, are coming right out of high school, so they have less education and they’re younger.
The tennis players, none of them go to college. Some of them start playing (professionally) when they are 15 or 16 years old. So they just don’t have some of the same experience and worldliness as some of the other athletes.
Who would you say is the sharpest athlete — in a business sense — that you have represented?
Probably Ivan Lendl. He took advantage of his position and his financial situation and runs a number of businesses, including three tennis clubs in Connecticut and also a tennis club down in Florida. He has also been very smart with his investments.
You have been with IMG for a long time. Over the years you certainly must have been presented with opportunities to work elsewhere. What has made you stay on?
The reason I have stayed here for almost 30 years is that most of the senior management that was in place 20 years ago, is still in place today. We have lost very few really good people. I grew up, business-wise, with a lot of these people.
I have also had the opportunity to do a lot of different things and be involved in a lot of different sports. That opportunity was given to me by IMG.
Could I have been a football agent and made more money working out of my house?
Would I have enjoyed it?
Many agents who originally worked for companies and have been very successful, like you, have branched out on their own. Was there ever a time that you considered that?
Not very seriously.
I have liked doing a lot of different things. Frankly, I get bored easily. So I always like to do other things. Now I’m spending a lot of time in Asia.
IMG has a stable of athletes in just about every individual and team sport, yet has only one client — Vince Carter — in pro basketball. Why is the company not more involved in what clearly is a very successful and high-profile sport and do you have any plans to become more involved with pro basketball?
We wanted to have one division where 100 percent of our clients were NBA all-stars (laughs).
Seriously, we had an unsuccessful arrangement with the prior person that was running our basketball division. Around the same time, there was a new collective bargaining agreement that was struck between the league and the union.
The thing that changed, drastically, was that rookies coming into the NBA were put on a rookie wage scale. Depending on where they are drafted, they get a set salary. There is very little negotiation.
Therefore, the players don’t want to pay much for that.
Secondly, with the veterans, if you’re a great player, after five years you are going to get the maximum the team can afford to pay you. Once again, there is no negotiation for that.
Iverson, Shaquille O’Neal, they will get the maximum.
The opportunity in basketball is primarily in marketing. But there are very few players in the NBA that are marketable on a national basis.
IMG represents a large number of coaches. Are any of them NBA coaches?
We signed Mike Montgomery, who was the Stanford coach, last year. He is now the new coach of the Golden State Warriors.
We also represent Terry Stotts, who was just fired by the Atlanta Hawks.
We have six NFL head coaches and a lot of offensive and defensive coordinators. We also represent many coaches at the collegiate level.
We are now the largest coaching agency in the business.
Since the passing of Mark McCormack, IMG doesn’t seem to have missed a beat. Clearly that is a testament to him. What was it that made him so different and so successful in a business where there are so many competitors?
The thing that made Mark different was that he had vision way ahead of other people. He had vision to get involved in different sports, vision to get involved in different businesses. He certainly had an international vision.
He also had the good fortune, early on, to hire some good people and they hired good people. Mark hired people and let them run their businesses. He was not a micromanager.
The downfall of ProServ, for example, which was once one of the big names in the business, a lot of people thought, was due to the micromanagement of Donald Dell.
What is the single most important trait in the field of sports representation?
If it was just one, it would probably be work ethic.
A lot of people think that getting into the sports business is very glamorous.
You may get to go to the Super Bowl or Wimbledon, but when you have to do it 20 years in a row, it is not so glamorous, anymore. There are also a lot of things you do that are not glamorous.
You have been accused of using intimidation to get what you want in negotiations. Any comment on that?
I don’t think I have ever intentionally intimidated anyone. I am a very black and white person and certainly to the point. I am very honest with people and some people like that and some don’t.
I try to do the best job I can for my clients. That is the only thing I am worried about.
Is there any danger of IMG becoming too big?
I think that really is due to the management. If you don’t manage the business correctly, you can get too big.
There is a big difference from a company of 50 people when I started in 1976, to a company now of 2,200.
A year-and-a-half or two years ago (before reorganizing), we had 3,000 people.
What we have done since Mark McCormack passed away, was to reorganize the business to be involved in things we are only really good at doing.
I think we got involved in doing some things we weren’t good at doing, and now those divisions are gone.
If you manage the business and you have good people, whether the company is 10,000 people or 50, I don’t think you can ever get too big.
It has been said that you helped elevate the value of the sports business through the use of appearance fees and having companies pay top dollar to athletes to endorse their products. Do you think, that sometimes — like in a golf tournament — it affects the competition itself when a player is making more just for showing up than the player who wins the tournament?
I think this is an entertainment business. The reason that tennis players and golfers are so well compensated, people like Tiger Woods, Annika Sorenstam or McEnroe, Connors, Navratilova or Evert, is that they really elevated the sport.
People come to see Tiger Woods. They don’t come to see a lot of the other people that are playing, so I think a lot of the professional athletes benefit (through increased exposure) because of the superstars and the superstars get paid what the market value is.
How has the concern over terrorism affected IMG and the events it promotes around the world?
It has affected us. We are very security conscious, quite frankly, all the time.
We had one incident that really hit home for us, a number of years ago, when one of our clients, Monica Seles, was stabbed at a (tennis) tournament in Germany.
It goes to show you that nobody is really safe at any of these events. We will caution our players about going to certain countries and getting into certain situations. But we leave it up to them to decide.
I don’t think IMG owns too many events where it is unsafe for an athlete to go right now.
At what age does IMG begin identifying prospective clients?
It depends on the sport.
In tennis, you have to start quite early. We look for players as part of our academy, which we own. It is located in Sarasota, Fla., and is the largest multi-sport academy in the world. We have tennis, golf, football, soccer and baseball.
We are looking at kids around the world. People approach us all the time about kids that are 11 or 12 years old, because they want to come to the academy.
We don’t represent them at that age, but we certainly start keeping track of them.
In football, it is hard to identify who is going to be a great player.
At the start of their senior year in college is almost too early, sometimes. For example, if the season starts in September, but the NFL draft isn’t until the following April, a lot of things can happen.
How would you market a person like 14-year-old golfing sensation Michelle Wie? Would you worry about overexposure if you were managing her career?
I think the worst thing you can do, for a young athlete, is to have them run around the world doing things off the course.
With someone like her, who we think is going to be around for a long, long time, you go very slowly and very carefully.
She will have two times in her career, probably, where she will be very marketable. One is when she turns pro, because she is a phenom, and secondly, if she ever becomes No. 1 in the world.
The goal is for her to be No. 1 in the world. That is when you are going to make a lot more money for her, rather than when she starts to play.
If you did two or three solid deals for her early on, and not too many different appearances around the world, that is more than enough.
We really start slowly with a lot of people. We have had cases in the past, with the parents of young tennis players, who have wanted them to sign as many deals as possible.
It’s not the kid, but the parents. We have had cases where they have said, “If you don’t do this, we are going to change agents,” that type of thing.
We always caution our people to go slow.
Has IMG had any contact with Michelle Wie?
Yes. We have been talking to her father for awhile. But just talking.
Even though your name is not well known by the general public, you are immensely respected by your peers — one even called you a wizard. What has been your formula for success throughout your career?
I have always worked hard to do what was right for the client.
This is not exactly brain surgery. This is all about having some smarts — street smarts more than book smarts — and getting along with people and always telling the truth to your client, good or bad.
I have always tried to have an honest relationship with clients from the first time we meet.
A lot of agents are totally intimidated by their clients and get ordered around. They end up not doing the right thing, or their clients don’t do the right thing, because they are afraid to say “no” and worried about getting fired.
I’ve never had that situation. The business used to be different. The athletes were much different years ago than they are today.
When you see some of your peers getting a lot of recognition in the press, does it make you want to raise your profile?
No. It makes me want to not talk to the press, because I think a lot of my competitors make fools of themselves.
It is so obvious that what they are trying to do is raise their profile and do it because of ego.
A lot of things they say I know are just wrong. I just don’t know how many good things will come to you if you talk to the press. There are a lot of mistakes you can make when you talk to the press.
I know people that have had problems, so I always found it easier just not to say much of anything.
Have you been burned in the past by the media? Why do you keep such a low profile?
I’m very shy (laughs). No, I have never been burned by the press.
I just don’t like to be out front on things. I don’t think it serves my purpose.
When you were graduating from business school, you wrote a letter to Mark McCormack, after reading an article in Sports Illustrated, and were subsequently hired. Had you envisioned a career in sports administration before that or did it just happen that way?
No, it just happened. When I was going through school, I never thought about what I really wanted. I never had a burning desire to be a lawyer or a doctor or accountant.
With one semester to go in business school, I read this article and said, “Hey, this sounds interesting.” I was in the right place at the right time and I got a job and things worked out.
Do you have a law degree?
What advice would you give to someone that wanted to pursue a career in sports representation?
I think for them to understand that it is not an easy business to get into. It’s not an easy business to stay in.
It takes a lot of hard work. It is not as glamorous as you think it is.
Try and get as much real work experience as you can before getting into the business.
We hire very few people coming out of school. Whether it is undergraduate or other. We don’t hire lawyers unless they have five years of experience in the United States with a big law firm. We don’t hire many MBAs anymore.
We hire people that have some sort of experience — whether is event management experience or sales experience.
One of the best sales guys we have in the United States, before coming to IMG, was a carpet salesman in Florida.
This is a hard business. It is very, very competitive. So you have to have some pretty good sales guys.
You were recently named the most influential agent in the world by Sports Business Journal. How did that make you feel?
I thought it was a little bit embarrassing, quite frankly. I don’t really get a big charge out of it, but I also think it is nice for IMG to be recognized.
Can you define your future plans for Japan?
We have very large businesses in television and film through our division TWI.
We also have a very large business through our licensing group, with our major client here being Major League Baseball.
Also, our golf division has been big here for a long time.
We are hoping, not only in Japan, but in other parts of the world, that the tennis business will come back. There has been a lull for the last few years in that business.
We would like to get more involved with Japanese baseball players.
We would like to look at starting some new properties or new events in Japan.
Outside of Naoko Takahashi, are there any other prominent Japanese athletes that IMG represents?
We still represent (retired tennis player) Shuzo Matsuoka and golfer Riko Higashio.
Are there plans to add more Japanese athletes to the IMG stable?
The client business is a very large one for us worldwide. The probability is depending upon who you represent. We are very selective about who we represent.
We are looking at some people now. We will see if we are going to do that or not.
For decades Japanese baseball prevented its players from using agents, however, that has changed recently. Could this be a new market for IMG to enter?
We sure hope so. We think that relaxing the rules would certainly help us.
Can you give me an example of a top agent — outside IMG — that you respect?
There is a longtime football agent in the United States named Marvin Demoff (former agent of NFL Hall of Famer John Elway).
I have known him for a long time and have respect for him. He does very good contracts. He doesn’t cheat. He doesn’t bad mouth other agents and he also doesn’t blow his own horn, like Leigh Steinberg, for example.
Marvin and I have a good working relationship, even though we compete against each other.
Over the years, there have been many agents in the limelight at one time or another. Some have endured, while others have moved on or faded away. What is the key to longevity in this business?
Not getting too wealthy (laughs). A lot of the agents that have faded away, have sold their firms — in the U.S. — to a big, public company, whether it be IPG or Assante.
David Falk (the agent for former NBA superstar Michael Jordan), who was a good agent for many years, got a lot of money — up front — and then he sort of faded from the scene. Leigh Steinberg, really the same thing.
A lot of these agents that sold their firms, got very, very rich. I don’t think they had much incentive to continue to work hard.
Why would they?
That is also a reason that all of these public companies — trying to become IMG — failed, because of the way they tried to go about it.
IMG is still privately held?
Is that going to change?
It is a possibility.
Can you say a few words about each of the following present/past agents?
Very tough agent. They used to call him “Holdout Howard.” He hasn’t been in the business for a long time. He’s a consultant at Nike.
Very, very good at what he does. Very tough guy. Very smart and well prepared. Top agent in baseball.
A friend of mine. We tried to hire him a long time ago. Quiet. Very competent at what he does, both in basketball and baseball.
What is IMG’s involvement in soccer?
We have a huge business in soccer around the world — primarily in Europe.
In the United States, we represented the sponsorship and television rights for the U.S. Soccer Federation. We have just sold off that contract.
We represent about 150 soccer players worldwide.
We have six Japanese players. We still represent (retired Japan captain) Masami Ihara and five young players.
Next summer we have worked out an arrangement with Manchester United for four matches in Asia. We would like to have one or two matches in Japan. We are working on that right now.
We don’t represent any of the top 10 players in the world, but that is certainly an area we are focusing more on.
Can you define what a good deal is? Do both parties have to be happy in a negotiation?
A good deal is where both parties are satisfied or content. Just as importantly, that the arrangement works out.
Whether it is a sponsorship of an event that has been very good for a corporate customer or a football player getting a large signing bonus to play for a club and the player plays well.
That is the definition of a good deal.