Gary DeSerrano was just looking out for his little brother.
Scott DeSerrano, a former Oklahoma State University standout, played in 1992 on what was then the Nike Tour, but was unable to retain his playing privileges. That left few options in the United States, so the younger DeSerrano took his game overseas, playing in South Africa and some in Asia.
Even with a sponsor, the expense of playing abroad, not to mention the hardship of limited success, brought Scott DeSerrano back to Texas, home to the Ninfa’s Texas Tour, a fledgling golf circuit owned by a Houston-based Mexican food restaurant chain. The tour consisted mostly of two-day events with small purses and a short list of sponsors. Still, it presented a viable opportunity for players such as Scott DeSerrano, who hoped to develop their games.
So Gary DeSerrano, a Dallas-area based radio advertising executive at the time who was looking for a new challenge, bought the Texas Tour with a partner for $35,000 from the restaurant chain. Almost before it started, the partner bowed out, and DeSerrano was left with the challenge of making money – mostly by selling sponsorships.
“There’s a misconception that this is a high-profit business, but that’s not the case,” DeSerrano said. “That’s why there are so many guys who come and go trying to start up golf tours.”
Indeed, Gary DeSerrano operates one of maybe two dozen tours across the country touted as developmental tours for the Buy.com and PGA tours. The king of the group is the NGA Hooters Tour, which offers approximately 25 events a season with purses around $100,000. At least a third of the tours – such as the Golden Bear Tour, which paid $50,000 to the winner of its tour championship – are located in Florida. There’s also the SBC Futures Tour, the women’s developmental tour with official ties the LPGA.
Some tours, such as Florida’s Moonlight Tour, cater to part-time players who do something else for a living, while others, like the Dakotas Tour, court club professionals. Really, there’s a tour for almost any kind of player who wants to try his or her luck at professional golf. Some don’t even have skill requirements, although most do. DeSerrano’s tour requires amateurs who compete have an index of 5.0 or less.
DeSerrano guaranteed purses and took on more than $150,000 of personal debt to make a go of it. There are three full-time employees – himself, a tournament director (his brother, Scott, who no longer plays on the tour) and a marketer, Bill Tichenor. DeSerrano pared down the schedule but expanded events to three rounds with a 36-hole cut. His goal was to give the tour credibility and eventually turn a modest profit. With numerous expenses, such as $65,000 a year to run the office and pay staff salaries, insurance, travel costs and truck payments, that didn’t happen until late 1998.
Last year, DeSerrano might have turned the corner. After years of trying to get a golf manufacturer on board, he was able to convince Adams Golf to sign on as the tour’s title sponsor, and it was renamed the Tight Lies Tour.
With Adams Golf signed, DeSerrano began to pick up other sponsors. Nike and Cadillac are presenting sponsors and Never Compromise is an official product sponsor. That’s given DeSerrano the clout and the breathing room he needed.
Although neither Adams Golf nor DeSerrano would divulge how much the deal is worth, it’s believed to be somewhere around $250,000 over the five years. The presenting sponsors are believed to contribute between $50,000 and $75,000 each over the same period. More important than the money, however, is the fact that the overall sponsors help DeSerrano to find local sponsor for events, which actually add up to more than the overall sponsorships.
“The golf course alone can cost upwards to $18,000,” said DeSerrano, who favors mostly private courses because they don’t tend to be as bottom line and often charge less for their use. “I haven’t gotten a golf course for free yet.”
The secret to making the Tight Lies successful may be in thinking small as well as thinking big. Small, as in small markets, help the individual events become bigger fish in smaller ponds. And DeSerrano was thinking big when he used the PGA Tour as a model for his tour.
Before Adams Golf agreed to sponsor the tour, it polled the media in those small markets, such as Lake Charles, La., and Victoria, Texas, to see how they viewed these events and what type of coverage they could expect. Most of the markets didn’t have much in the way of professional or college sports, so a mini-tour event ranked high in their sports coverage. And the markets were just large enough to have one or two television stations, which also provided good coverage of the tours.
“It’s one of those nice investments because it gives something back in addition to delivering returns,” said Chip Brewer, Adams Golf president. “It’s positive brand building, and a lot of people get exposed to our products. And in those markets where these events happen it’s a big deal.”
The other part of the formula was to sign local sponsors, just as the PGA Tour does with its events. In many cases, it also involved charitable causes, which help to provide volunteers and underwrite some of the expenses. The Bank One Open held last summer at Lake Charles (La.) Country Club, benefited the Salvation Army. Over the past five years more than $130,000 has been raised for a homeless shelter, said DeSerrano.
What does Adams Golf get out of the deal besides publicity? It’s an opportunity to get some of their products into the hands of good players as well as participants in pro-ams. It’s the ultimate demo day, with Tight Lies signage on the tournament trailer and clubs available for players to try.
There’s also an incentive pool in which players using Adams’ equipment can increase their earnings, up to an extra $1,000 for a victory, $100 for fifth place. Supporting sponsors Nike and Never Compromise offer similar incentives.
“You can’t quantify your return on investment any more than you can with a tour player,” said Brewer. “With this specific one for us, it just feels good, and I have a very strong belief that it generates a positive ROI (return on investment).”
This year, there were 14 events, with a minimum of $70,000 in purses for each. Revenue comes from a number of sources. First, there’s the entry fee, at $575 a player, about $75,000 for a full field of 132 players. Then there are the sponsors, both for the tour and the event.
Last March, DeSerrano secured a title sponsor for his season-ending tour championship when he signed Caprock Communications, a telephone company, for the Austin (Texas) Open at River Place Country Club. Much of the $25,000 paid by Caprock goes to charity underwriters – in this case, the Young Men’s Business League, which raised $20,000 for the Austin Sunshine Camps.
Despite a steady October drizzle during the final round, DeSerrano was encouraged with the unofficial Tight Lies tour championship. There was a full field of 132 players, a full pro-am and plenty of players to help with a junior clinic.
When Craig Cozby, a former All-American at Oklahoma State, rolled in a 25-foot birdie putt on the second playoff hole to win $12,000 that Friday afternoon, there were nearly 100 people in the gallery. There also was local television and radio coverage.
The immediate goal, of course, is to continue to grow. Next year’s schedule will feature 15 events, one more than in 2000, and two more full-time staff members to travel with the tour. The ultimate goal, even though it likely won’t happen soon, is to become an official tier under the PGA and Buy.com tours.
Mike Bailey is a Houston-based free-lance writer.