Before Palmer came along, athletes might’ve endorsed a product here or there. After Palmer, they made it a fully dedicated, separate business enterprise—and an essential one, considering the lifespan of even the most accomplished athletic career. It all started in 1958, when an agent named Mark McCormack approached the golfer and asked to represent him in his off-course entrepreneurial ventures. “I wasn’t looking for an agent,” Palmer told writer Matthew Futterman. “I had my wife. She was handling everything.” The following year, though, Palmer relented, and the two men sealed the deal with a handshake.
Within two years, according to Forbes, Palmer’s off-course income jumped from less than $10,000 to $500,000. His astounding win at the 1960 U.S. Open, in which he stormed back from seven strokes down on the final day, certainly helped.
With Palmer as his first client, McCormack (who died in 2003) founded his now world-famous company, IMG, and essentially launched a new business category: sports marketing. He drew other athletes and celebrities to IMG, and went on to set the standards in the endorsement industry while almost single-handedly building it. Before the following decade was out, Palmer’s (literal) Mom-and-Pop operation had been transformed into a national brand, an entrepreneurial juggernaut that would grow larger with each passing year.
He attached his name and down-to-earth image to dozens of carefully chosen products, from motor oil to brokerage services to the aforementioned vodka. He did spots for rental-car companies, breakfast cereals, and shoe manufacturers. (Somewhat ironically, he didn’t endorse the iced-tea-and-lemonade drink until 2001, many years after his name had been associated with it.)
He may not have been the first athlete or star to get involved in commercials, but he was without a doubt the most significant one. As the New York Times wrote after his death, Palmer and McCormack transformed “celebrity endorsement from a novelty to an industry.” The pair created the template that every subsequent marketable athlete—from Michael Jordan to LeBron James—would follow.