Sponsor search for less prominent PGA Tour events likely to go down to wire

With a fall deadline to announce the 2003 schedule fast approaching, the fate of the PGA Tour’s less prominent events is in serious question.

A multitude of factors – ranging from unfavorable scheduling, weak fields and poor markets, exacerbated by a lingering recession – have made it extremely difficult for tournaments such as the Reno-Tahoe Open, Air Canada Championship and Buick Challenge at Callaway Gardens to land title sponsors and ensure survival.

As of June 20, a tough sponsorship market had left 10 tournaments without title sponsors for 2003 – an uncharacteristically high number this late in the season. Nevertheless, most of these tournaments expressed confidence that their strengths, including marquee fields and rich traditions, will help them recruit a corporate partner in the near future.

Despite the various vacancies, Tour officials say they will have a full tournament schedule. They are remaining quiet about their plans, so it is unknown whether the Tour will accomplish this feat by securing title sponsors or subsidizing events that fail to acquire them. It also is conceivable that the Tour could come out of this situation even stronger by replacing struggling events with new ones in better markets.

For now, Tour executives only offer the company line.

“We have potential opportunities at every tournament that is not secured right now,” said Henry Hughes, senior vice president and chief of operations for the PGA Tour.

The Tour has made substantial progress the past six weeks, strengthening key sections of its 2003 calendar. The Tour’s two major automotive partners each announced sponsorship renewals: Buick will back three events and Chrysler will headline four events, including the Tampa Bay Classic, which has had Buick as a presenting sponsor from 2000 through this year. In several cases, the Tour has lost some longtime partners and recovered nicely with new ones. It lost an event site and a sponsor when it discontinued the Michelob Championship in Williamsburg, Va., but gained a new partner and location for 2003 with the addition of the Wachovia Championship in Charlotte, N.C.

The Tour also said goodbye to MasterCard, which left the Colonial in Fort Worth, Texas, and greeted its replacement, Bank of America. The Western Open in Chicago, which is parting ways with Advil, is expected to team up with Cialis, Eli Lilly & Co.’s answer to Viagra.

But for other events, finding sponsors hasn’t been nearly as easy. Just ask Jim Kline.

The director of the Reno-Tahoe Open sent 50 proposals to prospective sponsors. Only three granted informal meetings and not much more.

“We’re not able to get past the second stage where we sit down with the company and have a face to face where we explain our product,” Kline said. He’s dealing with other issues as well: Reno shares its tournament date with the World Golf Championships-NEC Invitational, which means assembling an elite field is out of the question. Without an exclusive date, Kline loses a major selling point when pitching potential sponsors.

Though many tournament directors said they’ve received help from the Tour in their search for sponsors, Kline says he hasn’t been the beneficiary of such support. On the contrary, he said, one phone conversation with Tour officials indicated the future wouldn’t be promising for Reno. Tour officials asked whether Kline would consider converting Reno into a Buy.com event, something tournament executives are not willing to do.

“We would probably just cease to exist,” Kline said.

With Invensys recently announcing it will be leaving the Las Vegas stop, that event now is one of three consecutive events in October with a title sponsor vacancy for 2003.

“When you look at Las Vegas, you’re looking at an island,” said tournament director Charlie Baron. “It is a resort destination. There are no Fortune 500 companies that are based here.”

Elsewhere, the Air Canada Championship in Vancouver, a late-summer tournament that in past years has been sandwiched between East Coast events is an unappealing trek for many of the Tour’s top players.

“Right now there isn’t a logical solution to this problem,” said tournament director Rachel Harowitz. “Our future is really dependent on a title sponsor. Without one, I think it (2002) would really be the last year for the tournament in its current form.”

In addition to leaving the Tampa Bay Classic, Buick will drop its 13-year sponsorship of the Tour stop at Callaway Gardens after this year’s event. According to Dick Ellis, tournament director for the Buick Challenge, finding a new title sponsor would have been a relatively simple task in the 2000 economy. But Ellis is making little progress now.

Neither, it seems, is the Walt Disney World Resort Golf Classic, which lost National Car Rental after the 2001 event and still is searching for a sponsor.

“Basically every day we come to work, we hope today is the day we find (a title sponsor),” said tournament director Kevin Weickel, who declined to discuss where the October event stands in its search.

Industry experts generally agree that Tour events aren’t overpriced, though many purses are pushing $5 million. Greater Hartford Open tournament director Dan Baker, whose event lost Canon as its title sponsor last week after an 18-year run, noted that many companies have slashed their advertising and marketing budgets. According to the Tour’s Hughes, a title sponsorship costs between $4 million and $7 million.

“There are so many choices out there for a sponsor, and there’s so much (sponsorship) clutter,” said Rick Burton, executive director of the University of Oregon’s Warsaw Sports Marketing Center. “It’s harder these days to break through, so I think companies are a little more cautious about big investments.”

Jim Andrews, publisher of the IEG Sponsorship Report, a newsletter focusing on endorsement deals, said golf is experiencing a challenge that confronts almost every sport.

“I think NASCAR is a very good example,” Andrews said. “A lot of those teams are having real trouble getting companies to pony up money.”

Some events, however, have managed to survive without a corporate benefactor, thanks in great part to strong support from local businesses. The Greater Milwaukee Open will continue to rely on a patchwork of local corporations to make the event work in 2003.

“I think that as long as it works, we will continue to use it,” said tournament director Dan Croak.


























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