In his debut, Wall Street Journal reporter Futterman explains how American professional athletes in a variety of sports morphed from poorly paid to multimillionaire status in the span of just a few decades.
The author devotes the first quarter of the book to the entrepreneurial genius of the fascinating Mark McCormack, a Cleveland lawyer who essentially invented the occupation of full-time sports agent. The obsessive-compulsive McCormack persuaded a young Arnold Palmer to turn over his business dealings to his fledgling agency, International Management Group. Within a decade, Palmer's earnings rose from roughly the equivalent of a schoolteacher's salary to something akin to the earnings of a Fortune 500 CEO. Other golfers went on to benefit mightily, and McCormack went on to represent Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player, as well as many other superstars in other sports. After delineating in fascinating detail how McCormack altered the equation for golfers, Futterman shifts to similar developments—some involving McCormack's agency, some not—in tennis, baseball, basketball, and football. Other than the Palmer saga, the story developed most deeply by the author is that of baseball pitcher James "Catfish" Hunter, whose battle for free agency from an unfair system showed the genius of union leader Marvin Miller, an economist by education. Futterman illuminates McCormack's career through the superagent's death in 2003 and then shifts attention to additional business visionaries who enhanced the earnings and working conditions of undercompensated athletes. Within the master narrative, the author offers insightful miniprofiles of sports commissioners, team owners, and TV network decision-makers who paid for rights that supplemented earnings.
Despite the multiple sports explored and the large cast of characters, Futterman develops his theme seamlessly in a book that will appeal to casual fans as well as those who live and die according to the accomplishments of athletes.