Lifetime Achievement Honoree: Barry Frank
If Barry Frank had gotten the job he desperately wanted, his epic career in sports broadcasting, and all the lives he impacted along the way, never would have happened.
In fact, Frank wasn’t even thinking about a career in sports as a recent graduate of the Harvard Business School in the early 1960s. All he knew is that he wanted out of a job creating the first rate card for CBS’ operations.
“It was like watching the grass grow,” Frank said.
Frank applied for a position at J. Walter Thompson that wasn’t sports related in Chicago. He didn’t get it.
“I was crushed,” Frank said. “I was thinking, ‘If I can’t get that job, what’s going to happen to me?’”
However, Frank received another opportunity at J. Walter Thompson a few months later. This time, he got the job, which called on him to work on the Ford account. At the time, Ford was the largest buyer of advertising on sports TV.
“All of the sudden, I was in the sports business,” Frank said. “While I played sports and followed sports, it never entered my mind that I would actually be in sports. It was a total surprise.”
At that point, Frank’s life completely turned, and ultimately, so did the course of sports broadcast history.
Frank would go on to be a multi-dimensional force as a content creator, television rights negotiator and talent representative. During his time at IMG, he negotiated some of the most important contracts in the sports television business, including representing the IOC in seven Olympic Games. He is the agent to some of the biggest names in sports TV. If not for Frank, John Madden might be recalled only for what he did as coach of the Oakland Raiders.
In addition, Frank created a number of highly successful, not to mention iconic, made-for-television shows including The Superstars, The Skins Game, World’s Strongest Man, American Gladiators and many others. He worked under Roone Arledge at ABC Sports and also served as the head of CBS Sports.
For his unparalleled body of work, Frank is the recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award for Sports at the 39th Sports Emmy Awards.
Frank admitted he was taken aback when long-time friends Jim Nantz, also a Frank client, and CBS Sports Chairman Sean McManus broke the good news to him over lunch in New York.
“I was shocked,” Frank said.
There is no question that Frank deserves the honor.
“Barry Frank is a master at finding the right talent and building a sports program that captures the attention of the entire nation,” said Chuck Dages, chairman of NATAS.
“When you look at the list of events that he brought to fruition and the roster of on-air and production talent he represents, it’s safe to say that no one man shaped modern sports television more than Barry Frank,” said Steve Ulrich, SVP of the Sports Emmy Awards.
“His stature and influence is unrivaled in the industry,” McManus said.
Nantz used one of Frank’s signature shows to describe the scope of Frank’s career.
“If they had a Superstars for sports broadcasting, and you entered Barry as a contestant, he would have high marks in so many different categories,” Nantz said. “He would be the ultimate ‘Superstar.’”
When asked what the award signifies to him, Frank said, “It’s a lifetime working in sports, caring about what I did, caring for people I worked for, and realizing my ambition.”
Frank, a native of Dayton, Ohio, points to two “geniuses” who helped shape his career: Roone Arledge and Mark McCormack. Through the Ford account, he met Arledge, who eventually hired him to work at ABC Sports.
Frank joked that Arledge operated under the theory of “Put off everything you can do until tomorrow because things will change or go away.” Frank noted the piles on Arledge’s desk always were growing because he didn’t like to make decision until the last possible moment.
“It annoyed a lot of people, but that’s how he operated,” Frank said.
Yet beneath the clutter, there existed a mind that would transform sports on TV.
“Roone understood the American audience better than anyone I’ve ever known,” Frank said. “He knew what they liked and didn’t like. He also knew that the viewers, by nature, are rooters. We will choose a side to root for (while watching sports on TV).”
The lessons helped Frank come up with his first break-through show. After joining IMG in 1970, Frank was approached by an oil company looking for a show to sponsor. Frank immediately thought of a concept: figure skating legend Dick Button had to determine the world’s best athlete. Arledge, though, previously had turned it down. Frank decided to take another shot, and after a long round of golf, Arledge accepted.
Thus was born The Superstars, which featured top stars in all sports and had them compete in activities like bowling, swimming, and biking to see who was supreme. Pole vault gold medalist Bob Seagren won the first competition in 1973. The big winner, though, was ABC, which generated huge ratings for the series.
“It worked because the action was good and understandable,” Frank said. “Also it worked because there was somebody for the viewers to root for. People rooted for their favorites. That was the basis of the show’s success.”
Frank’s TV success led to him becoming president of CBS Sports in 1976. However, he soon realized that taking over for his predecessor Robert Wussler, who went on to become the president of CBS, wasn’t going to work. Frank said Wussler resisted many of his suggestions, preferring to keep things the way they were when he was running sports.
“Never take a job where your new boss had the job before you,” Frank said.
Frank returned to IMG in 1978, furthering his relationship with the second “genius” in his life, Mark McCormack, founder, former Chairman, IMG. Frank said McCormack’s brilliance was in understanding that sports were worldwide, as IMG created highly profitable events outside of the U.S.
Frank also loved that McCormack had “an open mind.”
“That’s the thing I appreciated the most about him,” Frank said. “If I had an idea, he might say, ‘I don’t agree with you, but go ahead try and see if it works.’”
In fact, that was McCormack’s exact reaction when Frank broached the idea for American Gladiators.
“He said, ‘This is a silly idea and nobody will watch,” Frank said.
McCormack, though, allowed Gladiators to be produced, and it went on to be a huge hit.
Frank initially wasn’t interested in representing broadcast talent. However, Chris Schenkel, a legendary sportscaster, (“A prince of man” according to Frank) asked Frank for some assistance in negotiating a contract. Frank wound up tripling Schenkel’s salary.
“It was a three-year deal, and we got 10 percent,” Frank said. “So in the second year, we get a check for 10 percent, and then another for the third year. I start thinking, ‘Damn, this is easy.’ I began to think representing broadcasters might not be a bad business.”
Frank’s new venture saw him contact Madden after the coach left his job with the Raiders following the 1978 season. Frank thought Madden might have some potential as an analyst. However, when approached by Frank, Madden said he was going to take the year off.
“I said, ‘OK, but in a year, nobody will know who John Madden is,’” Frank said. “The following Monday, he calls and says, ‘You’re right. Maybe I’ll try it and see if I like it.’”
An initial 4-game deal with CBS was the start of Madden becoming the most popular game analyst in the history of sports television, thanks to Frank’s vision. Frank’s fingerprints soon would be on other broadcasting superstars. Jim Nantz knows the influence Frank had on him.
Nantz had been doing mostly studio work during the early portion of his career at CBS. Frank, though, pushed for him to do play-by-play.
“He would always say the games are the thing,” Nantz said. “He wanted to see my career built around being at the event. He said, ‘You need to be the guy putting the narrative together for those big moments.’ I have to admit, I wasn’t sure I saw that same vision, but he did.”
Frank then went on to make his mark as a negotiator for some of the biggest deals in sports television. He completely changed the dynamics in representing the International OIympic Committee in negotiations for the 1988 Games in Calgary.
In previous negotiations, the network negotiated the dollar amount first and then what rights it received. As a result, the networks had all the leverage in negotiations.
Frank wanted to do something different. He drafted a single contract that spelled out what rights the networks would receive for the 1988 Olympics. ABC, CBS and NBC signed that contract before negotiations began, making price the only issue left in negotiations. Frank had a novel idea for that, too. He pitched the networks on continuing negotiations until there was more than a 10 percent price differential between the top two bidders.
“We don’t want to have someone lose this by a few dollars,” Frank said.
Frank’s shrewd moves saw ABC shelling out $309 million for the rights to the Calgary Game, up from $91 million for the 1984 Games in Sarajevo. Needless to say, the IOC was thrilled, hiring Frank to do six more Olympic negotiations.
“Calgary was big,” Sean McManus said. “It showed how he can take a property and maximize its value. Barry was not afraid to change the strategy and do something else.”
McManus has had the experience of being on the other side of the table in negotiating various deals with Frank. He said Frank always is tough, but fair.
“Barry realizes for a deal to be good, it has to be good from both sides,” McManus said. “He knows there’s going to be another deal down the line. He’s a man of his word. A handshake from him is as good as a signature on a contract.”
Sandy Montag says he got his education while working for Frank at IMG at the onset of his career in the mid 80s. The lessons helped Montag become one of the top broadcast agents in the business.
“I learned so much about negotiating, leverage, client management, bluffing,” Montag said. “Our clients always knew they would get the best deal humanly possible. At the end of the day, he was just at the top of his game.”
Frank says he had a simple philosophy.
“I always made a habit to know as much as I could (prior to a negotiation),” Frank said. “I always tried to find something the buyer needed or wanted. That is what I consider the creative use of an agent.”
Frank, always immaculately dressed, has a distinct presence. Montag said Frank was known as “the emperor” during his days at IMG. He tells a favorite story of the time Frank put McCormack in his place.
“We used to have a driver, and McCormack had first dibs, and Barry had second,” Montag said. “One day, Mark is looking for the driver, and it turns out Barry had used him to get a haircut. Mark goes, ‘What are you doing?’ Barry says, ‘My hair grows on company time, and I’m going to get it cut on company time.’
“That was his attitude. Barry dealt from a position of strength no matter what it was.”
Now 85, Frank still enjoys putting on the suit and going into the office. When asked by Montag about retiring, Frank told him, “What else am I going to do?”
Frank, though, admits that he doesn’t have the drive that he once had. However, he still likes being in the arena to handle a few clients and to be available for any advice or insights to those who need it.
They will receive insights from an individual who has seen and done it all. When asked to reflect about his long career and its many twists and turns, Frank thinks about the night of his high school graduation.
“I was the class valedictorian,” Frank said. “As I was sitting there about to make my speech, I was thinking, ‘Where do I go from here?’ I was 17, and I thought I was at the pinnacle of my life.
“I never dreamed when I was 17, something like this would happen. I just thought I’d be some small-town shmoe from Dayton.”