Pro golfers play field when it comes to sponsorship deals

PGA: PGA Championship - First Round Bob Schumaker/USA TODAY Sports

Pro golfers play field when it comes to sponsorship deals

Professional

Pro golfers play field when it comes to sponsorship deals

PGA Tour equipment vans parked on a narrow road just above the practice area at TPC River Highlands in Cromwell, Conn., in the days before the Travelers Championship in June. It was a convenient spot, only a short walk to the range and short-game areas for club-builders, reps, players and agents.

As Tony Finau made long strides down the grassy embankment in June, stopping to sign a few autographs, he had a broad smile on his face. It was a very different scene than a year before at the same event, when Nike Golf staff professionals such as Finau were stunned by the announcement that Nike no longer would make golf clubs, balls and bags.

Many people thought Nike’s departure from the hardgoods landscape would pave the way for others such as Callaway, TaylorMade, Titleist and Ping to lock in endorsement contracts with players who suddenly were free agents. But it hasn’t worked out that way.

Eventually, former Nike staffer Rory McIlroy signed with TaylorMade, Tiger Woods signed a ball deal with Bridgestone and a club contract with TaylorMade, and Michelle Wie and Patrick Rodgers inked deals with Callaway. But a year after Nike’s announcement, and with Adidas’ sale of TaylorMade to private equity firm KPS Capital Partners pending, the real story is starting to emerge about how the endorsement market has shifted.

Instead of all-encompassing deals in which players agree to wear a company’s branded clothing and swing its clubs, many players are taking an à la carte approach to their gear. With the absence of Nike and the split between TaylorMade and Adidas, these kinds of deals are likely to become more common.

There are fewer manufacturers capable of signing players to all-encompassing deals the way Nike and Adidas (with TaylorMade) could. Cobra/Puma Golf can do it, and Rickie Fowler is decked out every week in Puma clothing, hats and footwear while his caddie carries a Cobra bag and clubs. Titleist, with FootJoy, and Callaway can make head-to-toe deals, too, but more and more players are showing a willingness to mix-and-match equipment brands. Endorsement deals are decoupling, and a small but growing number of players are forgoing a big deal to separate things that had been bundled.

“I would say that the biggest adjustment for me since (last year) is having flexibility,” said Finau, who still wears Nike clothes, shoes and hats. “When I used Nike stuff, I knew I had to use all 14 clubs, so I knew that I did not have any flexibility. I just knew I had to use what they had whether I thought it was the best or not.”

For much of 2017 he has played Ping woods and irons, along with a Callaway driving iron, Titleist Vokey Design wedges and a Scotty Cameron for Titleist putter. He might sign an equipment deal in the months ahead, but so far he is not under contract to use any of those clubs.

Heading into the PGA Championship, Finau had won $2,206,517 in PGA Tour prize money, up from $1,814,790 last season. Details of Finau’s Nike deal are not available, but even if Nike has prorated his endorsement deal because he is not using the company’s equipment, it’s likely Finau already has made more money in total – on the course plus his endorsement earnings – this year without an equipment deal than he made last season. If his Nike deal has not changed because he has not signed with another company, Finau’s accountant should be even happier.

Tony Finau Valero Texas Open

Tony Finau wears Nike attire but has gone without a sponsor for his equipment this year. (Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports)

Jordan Spieth has taken an à la carte approach to his endorsement deals for years, wearing Under Armour shoes, hats and clothes while playing Titleist balls and clubs that are kept in an AT&T-logoed bag. Jason Day now wears Nike clothes, hats and shoes, while his clubs are from TaylorMade and his bag sports a Zurich logo. Henrik Stenson plays Callaway clubs kept in a Qlik bag, while his clothes are from Hugo Boss and the front of his hat has a Mutual of Omaha logo.

Some players have signed partial-bag deals. For example, Paul Casey, who still wears Nike footwear and apparel, signed an agreement in January with TaylorMade to use the company’s metalwoods. He has played Mizuno irons and Titleist wedges all season without being under contract, and he began using a UNICEF-logoed bag at The Players Championship.

A few players, like Finau and U.S. Open champion Brooks Koepka, have put off equipment deals altogether and are playing without club contracts.

For equipment-makers, the diversification in endorsement deals is a double-edged sword. On the upside, it’s great having more pros use a company’s gear and it costs less to sign golfers to equipment-only contracts. The downside, however, is that it can be challenging to get the brand’s logo noticed on TV and have the company associated with the player. Some astute fans can tell one company’s clubs from another’s during broadcasts, but most casual sports fans who tune in to golf only a few times a year certainly can’t tell one brand of irons from another on television.

For those reasons, some companies traditionally have mandated that staff players wear the company’s logo on a hat. If a player already has a hat deal and the company negotiates to sign him anyway, incentives are often worked into the deal that pay more after the existing hat deal expires and the company logo moves front and center.

U.S. Open champion Koepka is a perfect example of the new trend. When Fox Sports broadcast play from Erin Hills in June, the Nike logos on Koepka’s shirts and hats were easy to spot, but how many viewers realized he was hitting TaylorMade woods, an old Nike driving iron, Mizuno irons, Vokey wedges and a Scotty Cameron putter?

Several companies likely will try to sign Koepka in the offseason, but Mizuno and TaylorMade had not paid him and therefore could not use his name or likeness to promote his use of their equipment. On social media, brands had to talk around his name and used vague references to create the association between the gear and victory.

This trend in diversification is a return to the way companies and players used to do business. Everything (equipment, hats, bag, etc.) was negotiable. Decades ago, few companies sold gear in every category, so mixing and matching was common.

The trend is likely to continue going forward because up-and-coming amateurs, collegiate players and the agents with which they will sign can see what today’s stars are doing. An elite collegian with a bright future on the PGA Tour might be wise, upon turning pro, to work with an agent to lock down apparel, footwear and corporate partnerships before signing an equipment deal. That would allow the golfer to play the clubs he likes the most, not the clubs that he gets paid the most to use.

As Finau said, having more flexibility is great, but in the endorsement world, brands must adapt and learn to maximize their investments in an increasingly flexible world.

(Note: This story appears in the August 2017 issue of Golfweek.)

 

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