VP Heaton leaves, shrinking IMG's influence further

Luke Donald

Luke Donald

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The defections at IMG continued this week when Jon Heaton, a vice president in the IMG Golf division, gave notice July 4 that he would be leaving the company.

Heaton, who represented Steve Stricker and Annika Sorenstam and was the U.S. face for the company for World No. 1 Luke Donald, leaves a big hole compounded by IMG's other personnel losses in the past year.

Since May 2011, when Mark Steinberg left IMG, taking Tiger Woods with him, the outbound flow has accelerated. Jon Wagner, a senior vice president and co-managing director of the Americas for IMG Worldwide, left two months ago, quickly followed by Kevin Lynch, a vice president, and Jeff Stacy. At least eight agents in the golf division have left since billionaire Theodore Forstmann purchased IMG Worldwide in 2004.

Heaton’s departure prompted Cleveland-based IMG to file a breach-of-contract lawsuit in Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court on July 6. IMG contends that Heaton could not compete against his former employer per the wording in his non-compete agreement.

According to an IMG statement, the court granted IMG a temporary restraining order to restrict Heaton from competing against IMG.

In the statement, IMG disclosed that Heaton was leaving for Excel Sports Management, Steinberg's new employer.

A phone message left with Heaton and a text message sent to Steinberg were not immediately returned.

IMG would not comment beyond the statement confirming the court's restraining order against Heaton, citing the pending legal dispute.

The legal wrangling between IMG and former employees started when Wagner left and the focus turned toward his non-compete agreement. At the time, his clients included Donald, Trevor Immelman and Sean O’Hair.

On May 7, IMG filed a request for a temporary restraining order in Cuyahoga's Common Pleas Court. The court sided with IMG, prohibiting Wagner from representing any current IMG clients or competing against IMG for clients.

Since then, Lynch and Stacy have been added to the lawsuit, and Heaton likely will be included soon.

A pre-trial conference is scheduled for July 10 in Cleveland regarding a contempt-of-court allegation by IMG against Wagner, possibly stemming from what IMG contends was inappropriate contact between Wagner and Immelman. During a sponsor day at CordeValle resort in San Martin, Calif., on the Monday after the U.S. Open, Wagner, Immelman and David Fry attended and were videotaped together by a private investigator who sources say was hired by IMG.

Still pictures from the video were submitted to the court as evidence of Wagner’s violation of the temporary restraining order.

Wagner would not comment about the pre-trial conference, but Immelman was not pleased by the allegation and what he sees as a violation of his privacy.

“I was caught totally off guard when I heard about the pictures,” Immelman said via phone. “I’m trying to do my best efforts for one of my long-standing partners, Old Mutual and its guests, and pictures were being taken. I understand there are legal issues outstanding, but I felt like it was crossing the line.”

The loss of another top lieutenant in Cleveland leaves few agents left in the golf division. Clarke Jones and Ben Walter, who recently returned to Ohio from the London office, and David Livingston are left as the primary faces of IMG Golf in the U.S.

Donald, who is traveling to the U.K. to defend his title in next week's Aberdeen Asset Management Scottish Open, was unavailable for comment about the latest move. However, Donald has the most to lose with Heaton’s departure. He has three large sponsorship deals – Mizuno, Titleist/FootJoy and Royal Bank of Canada – expiring at the end of 2012.

When Wagner left in May, Donald took a wait-and-see approach to how things would play out. “Obviously I have a new lead guy," Donald said during the Wells Fargo Championship in Charlotte, N.C., "and I think that it's an opportunity for them to really show what they can do for me."

Now with another change in his representation team and deals to be negotiated, Donald may have to look deeper into his commitment to IMG.

According to sources, IMG Golf in the U.S. has shrunk in the past 12 years from 60 employees to 13, and the representation business has become a shell of its former self.

During Forstmann's reign, the legacy business of player representation was mostly replaced by the event business, which was evidenced by the defections of former agents Peter Malik, Jay Danzi, Chris Armstrong and Steinberg. Now with Wagner, Lynch, Stacy and Heaton gone since Forstmann’s death, the question left for IMG Golf: Can it handle Donald’s needs?

“I think it's changed a little bit, certainly a little bit less focused on just client service,” Donald said of IMG in May. “I think that business has changed in general, not just with IMG, but 10 years ago there was two or three options for me; now there's 40, 40 guys out there probably managing different players. So I think that's just the nature of the business in general.”

Donald is right. IMG is not the only management company experiencing change.

In January, Lagardère Unlimited, a division of Lagardère Group, a French company, purchased Gaylord Sports of Scottsdale, Ariz.

In the past month, Brian Newton, the agent for Nick Watney, Jeff Overton and Bryce Molder, left Lagardère Unlimited and retired from the business. In the wake of that move, Overton signed in June with The Legacy Agency of New York, and Newton’s departure potentially puts Nick Watney in play.

At the same time, Legacy signed John Huh and Jason Kokrak to representation contracts.

It seems that one former player is staying with IMG for the long haul. According to Mike McGee, the managing director of the Annika brand of business, Sorenstam was notified of the move on Friday that Heaton had left the company and was moving to Excel – not by Heaton but by IMG.

McGee, who is Sorenstam's husband and the father of her two children, characterized the arrangement between Heaton and Sorenstam as little more that a point of contact between the retired LPGA star and IMG and not a per se agent and that the departure of Heaton means little to the relationship between her and IMG.

“We are committed to IMG,” McGee said.

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