IMG Media’s Hillary Mandel has an appetite for some of sport’s most lucrative deals. She caught up with James Emmett to chew the fat over the evolution of the influential agency.
CHANCES ARE, if you’re a sports industry traveller on business in New York, top of your to-do list will be to take in a steak and a sporting event. And if you’re a sports industry traveller on business in New York, chances are you’ll be looking to do at least some of that business with IMG, the industry behemoth whose tentacles extend into almost every facet of sport. Fortunately for you, Hillary Mandel, IMG Media’s head of North America, knows what you want.
“I have yet to find somebody coming to town to do business that doesn’t want a gigantic sirloin of some sort,” she says. “Clients want to come and see us, but they really want to see us when we can take them out for fabulous lunches and dinners. So we might have to hit the Palm off of Broadway. If we went there tonight, we could definitely sit in a booth and overhear some deal that was happening. You need a power steak and to take in a sporting event.”
Mandel is speaking in the boardroom of the IMG Media office in the Big Apple’s Hell’s Kitchen district, an area that has become a byword for good food of late. There are terrific views of the constantly regenerating New York skyline to the north and pretty, listed brownstones in the foreground. It’s a formerly run-down, now picturesque part of town and the film trucks that line the street beneath the office attest to that. Barely a day goes by without a film crew shooting something or other on the street below and that, Mandel explains, is because the location is one of the most versatile in the city. You’ve got the well-appointed brownstone facades for your protagonist-emerging-from-typical-New York-abode shots, then just yards away you’ve got one of the city’s most popular parks for crack dealing for your crime shots.
Mandel is, of course, no crack dealer, but what she peddles has proven distinctly moreish for her clients over the years she’s been with IMG. As the agency’s go-to media-rights executive for the US and Canada, Mandel has negotiated some of the most lucrative broadcast contracts for the agency’s swollen portfolio of rights-holder clients. According to Mandel’s official bio, IMG currently has 27,000 hours of content on its books – content that she and her team market and distribute across North America – although she says that by the time this interview comes out, such is the pace of change that the imaginary ticker inside IMG Media is more likely to read 34,000 hours.
Mandel began her IMG career working under legendary agent Barry Frank, working on TV deals for the likes of the International Olympic Committee, the US Olympic Committee, Major League Baseball and the National Basketball Association. Recent successes include the deal that saw the Rugby World Cup on US network TV for the first time with NBC; the $600m (€537m), 12-year deal that saw the R&A switch the Open Championship’s US broadcast rights from ESPN to NBC and the Golf Channel; and Wimbledon’s radical one-network deal with ESPN.
Mandel is speaking a few days before the start of Copa America Centenario – another landmark IMG-distributed property – and a few weeks before her department is due to up sticks from Hell’s Kitchen to join a larger IMG office in the Flatiron building. The company has offices dotted around the city, but since the late-2013 acquisition by Hollywood agency WME, gradual steps have been taken to consolidate the two businesses’ New York operations. Mandel has already found a new go-to restaurant in the Flatiron area – Eleven Madison Park – and her outlook is rosy. “The new theme at this company, which was long needed, is synergy and collaboration,” she explains. “Being where 90 per cent of WME | IMG New York is, is going to be fantastic.”
With the arrival of new co-CEOs Ari Emanuel and Patrick Whitesell, Mandel has now served under five IMG leaders and in five very distinct eras. Although she only caught the final few years of IMG founder Mark McCormack, who died in 2003, she acknowledges that the current regime has reawakened something of the spirit of the place from back then. “It was truly entrepreneurial,” she recounts. “You thought of it. Then you were in that business in about an hour and a half.
“I will say that the company lost its way, 100 per cent,” Mandel continues. “Mike [Dolan] tried to bring it back from the Ted [Forstmann] years to some degree, because that was his job. For 2016, we are where we’re supposed to be; we have the best owner, the best visionaries you need to lead this company to the next place – I think that 1,000 per cent. I respond to what they’re all about. Do I think they get it? One hundred per cent. I think they bring something that was missing, which is the belief that we’re destined to do great things. That’s incredibly empowering and you need more people at the top to say that.”
The office move is part of a group-wide process Emanuel has talked about as ‘unsiloing’; last year Ioris Francini, the London-based president of IMG Media, undertook another part of that unsiloing, as he galvanised his global sales force to distribute not just their regular diet of sporting content, but a little sprinkling of what WME brings to the table too – namely entertainment products. The first project, the distribution of Tom Hiddleston vehicle ‘The Night Manager’ in select territories around the world, proved very successful.
Mandel, who began her career in entertainment, working for HBO and production and distribution company GGP before it was acquired by IMG, is ideally positioned for the evolution that lies ahead.
Her background also provides her with an insightful position on the thorny issue of gender equality in the sports business.
“I stand by the statement that says you feel pretty darn lucky to be working in this business, but the entertainment industry is way ahead of the sports industry in terms of opportunities for women and it not being a big deal,” she says. “You’re going to be in a meeting and there’ll be as many women as men. You’ll see CEOs at big studios who are women. So in the earlier part of my career I didn’t see that there was going to be a roadblock. When I got into the sports piece and put my head down to learn my craft, then I put my head back up and had to go ‘oh my God’. I can’t say that it has been an impediment to success, because that would be wrong, but you are not going to see a lot of people who look like you where you go. From an individual standpoint, you have to make a decision as to whether that’s important to you or not; you have to decide whether you want to be one of 12 people and you’re the only woman there. And almost always the most senior person on your client’s level will not be a woman.”
As she has grown in her role and grown in the industry, Mandel has developed a sense of responsibility to do her bit to build balanced working environments – and that includes talking about gender – and a sense of satisfaction in mentorship that rivals her undimmed passion for deal-making.
“I feel a sense of responsibility,” she says. “Ultimately, we’re a better company if we’re more balanced. I think I have a responsibility to put some sort of stake down and even if I’ve only gone so far up the mountain, I want more people to climb up. I think that responsibility has to do with your own seniority in your career. I think in the early part of your career you’re so one-tracked. It’s about getting to the next place you need to get to and the path is so murky and it’s so di icult; you have to propel yourself. But if you achieve a certain amount of success, somehow your lens becomes wider and you get a dose of wisdom and a little bit of ‘what is it all for?’ And you start to feel a sense of going beyond yourself.”
IMG’s global distribution channels – its sales teams in disparate corners of the world – were firing on all cylinders earlier in 2016, when they were able to sell out all inventory for the Copa America Centenario with just six months of selling time.
The rights were won by a joint bid by IMG and Soccer United Marketing [the commercial arm of Major League Soccer] in a tender process in December following the disabuse of the Argentinean Datisa agency. Datisa had the global sponsorship and media rights to the tournament reclaimed from it, after it was indicted by the US Department of Justice’s (DOJ) investigation into corruption in world soccer.
“Hats off to SUM,” Mandel says. “Everybody was behind the eight ball on this, but they just announced they were sold out. They were selling commercial time and we were doing the rights. We are thrilled, because we managed to hit our targets that were ambitious to say the least, and we hit them in a very short period of time. Give us great content and we’re capable of doing great things, and that’s why we’re a great partner for a content owner.”
IMG and SUM are believed to have guaranteed tournament rights-holders Conmebol and Concacaf just $20m, with a traditional profit-sharing arrangement on top – for a batch of rights that Datisa had initially committed $112.5m. It seems likely, therefore, that IMG will have profited from the ramifications of that particular aspect of the scandal afflicting top-level football.
For Mandel, that is a validation of the principles that have kept IMG from playing in murky waters. “If it’s a dirty pool, you don’t swim in it,” Mandel says. “Those are my ethics and the company is a collection of people who think exactly the same way; our leadership believes in it. Our president, Ioris Francini, and our chairman, Michel Masquelier, the two of them have set the course for how our company operates on a global basis. We have witnessed over the past 10 years incredible disappointment and there were so many times when we saw opportunities and went after them, only to not be rewarded or awarded, and as frustrating as that was, we comforted ourselves with the fact that that’s not our game and that’s not how we play. In many ways, the vindication for doing this tournament today was the steadfastness and the discipline we had to say ‘until it’s done the way we can participate, we’re going to have to step out’. And that’s really what has happened. For some of the people in our Latin American division, it is a vindication, because people have seen what’s been going on for so long. There was no surprise here other than it all finally came to the surface.”
Mandel is clear on the value that IMG brings to any particular rights-holder. Mobilising its unrivalled global sales network, running an open and transparent process, the competition it stokes drives the value of rights fees. Hallway deals spawn resentment – and resentment is not a good sentiment for your marketplace to be harbouring by the time the next rights cycle comes around.
“You still see it popping up,” she explains. “Look at the Fifa decision to renew with FOX and the crying and complaining you heard in the press afterwards. It was exactly that. I’ll lose, but I want to lose fair and square. I don’t want to lose at a meeting I wasn’t included in. Now, every rights-holder has the right to do what they want to do. They won’t be back for a long time; maybe Fifa hopes that everybody will forget. What are you doing to the rest of your marketplace if you choose to operate like that? The NBA just did the same thing; they renewed with Turner and ESPN, and as far as we all know, nobody got a crack at that. It was done without process. When IMG is involved, our value is – my value is – in creating a process. I’ve said this as a validation point to clients: it’s just as important to be able to evolve as the marketplace evolves and creating enemies along the way doesn’t help you. Being able to look every potential partner squarely in the eye to say, number one, we ran a process and this is the decision, and sorry, maybe next time. You’ve got to be able to say it’s just business.”
That attitude is one that has served Mandel well across her career and she is proud to report that her general negotiating stance has softened with longevity in mind. “Your negotiating style needs to be that you’re going to fight another fight,” she says. “It’s not to the death. The deals that I have been on, particularly in our early days here, that ended up being to the death didn’t really end in the right way. I think listening is completely underrated and a critical, critical, critical piece. And it’s listening in both ways: you’ve got to really listen to your client and spend a good amount of time pre-negotiation trying to define objectives, and what’s important. That prep always seems to pay off .”
With that, Mandel is up from her seat to continue packing boxes ahead of the office move. “The WME leadership is bringing a culture that we certainly didn’t have in the time that I’ve been here,” she says. “It’s essential. Personally, I’m as proud to work for WME as I am for IMG, so the six initials together are like a jackpot.”
Hillary Mandel, Head of North America, IMG Media
Hillary Mandel is used to sparking conversations about novelists. Her name is strikingly similar to the Booker prize-winning author of Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, Hillary Mantel, but Mandel has an author in the family too. Her sister-in-law, Emily St John Mandel, has won the Arthur C Clarke Award for science fiction novels. A New York University graduate, majoring in film and TV, Hillary began her career at Time Warner and went on to become director of programming and acquisition at HBO, negotiating with big studios and independent movie producers alike for pay-TV rights.
A senior vice-president of programming and acquisition at IMG since 2003, she now sits on the senior management committee and runs IMG Media in North America. Mandel’s current client portfolio includes representation of college conferences the ACC and the BCS, IndyCar, the USGA, Fifa, the NFL, Nascar and MLS. Last year Mandel led on a deal with the NHL that has seen IMG market global rights for the league and for its reintroduced World Cup of Hockey tournament.