2000: Sponsors can’t resist Tour luster

In a crass sense, golf and American commerce have taken an old Madison Avenue cliché – “sex sells” – and tweaked it to describe the uniqueness of their own relationship.

Consider:

It isn’t so much that sex sells that explains the validity of an old adage. It’s that pleasure sells. Pleasure that, in the context of those who use golf as a marketing vehicle, comes from playing golf, from being around golf, from associating in a way which brings one in contact with a game the masses find enjoyable and alluring.

It’s so simple, so psychologically fundamental, that it’s no wonder big companies across America spend hundreds of millions of dollars marrying their corporate message with the game and its highest-profile players.

What better association in the minds of consumers than to have your company’s name seen on a golf course, or as a marquee partner at a site where the Tour giants shoot it out?

In golf, business and pleasure definitely do mix. And the relationship almost single-handedly has made the PGA Tour a monument to commercial sports success heading into 2001.

The numbers are overpowering. Add your corporate name to a televised PGA Tour event and the fee will be $5 million to $6 million. Sign Tiger Woods to a long-term promotional deal – as Buick did heading into this year – and the tab will be in the vicinity of $20 million.

Not one penny of its Tiger tab, incidentally, does Buick regret 11 months later, following a season in which Woods commandeered the golf world by winning three of four major championships.

“About a year and-a-half ago, we said, ‘Let’s make this (golf) a real powerful tool for our marketing division,’” said Tom Jump, advertising and promotion director for Buick. “Our customers seemed to be more affluent, and we felt we could really take golf and drive our business, and make people think more about us.

“Signing Tiger was pretty fortunate,” Jump continued. “To have had him go on this unbelievable streak — we really look at this as a way of helping Buick move above and beyond the radar screen, and think differently about the brand name.”

This is not new thinking within the Buick Motor Division of General Motors. Buick, in fact, is the PGA Tour’s original and its oldest marketing partner, a relationship dating to 1958. The company sponsors five events on the PGA Tour or Senior PGA Tour, and has promotional deals with five Tour players.

As with Buick, other companies have decided golf - and more specifically, those who play and follow the game - are a pathway to reaching a market attracted to their product, a consumer camp that in general has plenty of disposable income.

Consider a company such as MasterCard, which is the official credit card of the PGA Tour. Being the “official” anything of the Tour requires a healthy investment, and MasterCard also sponsors two Tour events, in addition to providing PGA Tour and Senior Tour scoreboards.

“It’s an example of really intelligent target-marketing by a sponsor,” said Brian Murphy, publisher and editor of the daily Sports Marketing Letter (sports-industry-daily.com), of Fairfield, Conn.

“MasterCard has a good record of knowing what people like, and they have a goal - which is card use. Golf for them is an especially good fit. When a golfer is using his or her card, it’s more significant, because golfers tend to have higher spending limits and are more likely to make a big purchase on their card.

“And they’re more likely to make that purchase,” Murphy said, chuckling, “with a card that, in this case, carries a high interest rate.”

IBM Corp. is another company for which golf was seemingly created, if, in fact, it’s not the other way around.

“Golf is the sport language of business,” said Murphy, who dispenses his Sports Marketing Letter each day via Internet e-mail. “IBM doesn’t intend to sell mainframes to Ma and Pa, but since the people who own the companies where Ma and Pa work go to Tour events and watch the Tours on television, golf is used as a business school, and that’s a good place for IBM to be.”

IBM is not a Tour event sponsor, but its name is otherwise difficult to miss. The company is the “official worldwide information technology partner” of the PGA Tour, and also sponsors the Tour’s IBM Scoring System, as well as the Tour Links (player laptop) Program.

The select manner in which IBM is involved in golf - separate from sponsoring an actual tournament - is perfectly logical, says Murphy.

“Their forte is something the public doesn’t see much - integrated business solutions,” he explained. “They try to sell through sports that they can take a big job, put together the softwear, the equipment, the personnel, and the training to make the data-processing work, and make it all a turnkey deal.

“They put on a real show for their clients,” Murphy continued, referring to IBM’s Tour event presence. “They show how the scoring system is working, how IBM is keeping track of tickets and sales, or special inventories that are part of a catering effort.

“The whole idea is: IBM has a solution, and they want to show clients how it all works.”

AT&T would share a similar mission to IBM in that it pays heavily for the title of “official worldwide communications company” of the PGA Tour and Senior PGA Tour. It also one-ups IBM in that AT&T is title sponsor at a pair of tournaments, most prestigious of which is the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am.

What really makes the golf-and-business boom sizzle is that it is essentially non-discriminatory. The LPGA has been on its own corporate rocket-ride, expanding its partnerships by 400-500 percent in the past five years, according to Karen Durkin, the LPGA’s vice president of marketing.

“I think it goes back to the 1996 Summer Olympics, which was truly a watershed year for women’s sports in corporate America,” Durkin said. “Women were really the stars of that Olympics, and certainly at the LPGA we felt a positive impact in the next budget year from that Olympics.

“But we also have a heritage that’s 50 years old, and I think what’s comforting to many people in corporate America is that the LPGA, to a degree, is looked at as the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval for women’s sports.”

Among the LPGA’s friendliest partners are State Farm Insurance, Michelob Light, and - one of its newest and most committed allies - Multi Grain Cheerios.

Multi Grain Cheerios in January will begin placing pictures of three LPGA stars - Lorie Kane, Christie Kerr, and Janice Moodie - on its box fronts. It’s the first time a man or woman athlete will have been so portrayed by the General Mills brand.

Likewise, Michelob Light has built television advertising around Annika Sorenstam - the spots are amusing - and, most significantly, moved them into mainstream programming, like the X-Files, Saturday Night Live, U.S. Open Tennis Championships, etc.

Two more companies that love how golf’s demographics and Tour luster mesh with their products and audience are Buy.com, and Palm, Inc. Buy.com, the self-described “Internet superstore,” has about anything the cash-graced of the world might want on a particular shopping safari. Buy.com felt so passionately about golf and its common threads with the Buy.com marketplace that it sponsors its own Tour - the former Nike Tour that has become something of a waiting-in-the-wings stop for golfers dreaming of the PGA Tour.

Palm Inc., an official sponsor of the two PGA Tours, as well as the Buy.com Tour, deals in the world of high-tech, hand-held organizers and wireless data sources, a perfect marriage with a golf crowd that tends to like technology, and can afford it.

The link between a golf sponsor and its audience can be broad, or, surprisingly individual, in nature. In the case of Buick, golf also has been used as a bridge between consumers and Buick automobiles. There is a test-drive program, a golf bonus-cash offer (it provides participants with a $400 discount on a new car), a chance to spend a week in a course-side Golf Dreamhouse, complete with a downstairs swing analyzer, and a backyard putting greeen.

“We’ve gotten incredible PR through that,” said Jump, speaking of the “hundreds of thousands” who, via the Internet, registered for Buick’s Dreamhouse promotion.

Buick’s bottomline objective is based upon more than a perception that golf and good times equate to a good image for Buick.

“It’s no surprise the average Buick buyer tends to be older, in their 60s, and we’ve realized we have to get younger,” Jump said. “We’ve looked at golf as a vehicle to help us get younger, and we’ve seen our most explosive growth in image enhancement occur recently among younger demos (demographics): 35 to 49, and even 21 to 34.

“We probably won’t be the vehicle of choice for the 21-34 crowd, but down the road, it’s a perfect match. We’re a premium division, and golf skews a little more to the affluent. It’s a good social and demographic match for us.”

Murphy looks at 42 years of Buick-Tour relations and says, flatly, that “you would have to say Buick is the most astute marketer of golf there is.” The reasoning, supported firmly by sales numbers, is clear, says Murphy: Buick has concluded for more than four decades that it receives uncommon value from a game which meshes smoothly with its customer base.

“Who buys Buicks and what’s their lifestyle?” Murphy asked, rhetorically. “It all centers on a four-letter word: golf. The message is, ‘Grab your clubs and throw them in the trunk.’

“That company (Buick) made a decision long ago to go with golf, and you would have to say it was one of the best decisions ever made in sports marketing,” Murphy continued. “Buick is the high end, the last stop before Cadillac in luxury in the GM line, and it reaches a mass audience who plays golf the way a rifle bullet reaches a bull’s-eye.”

The latter point underscores another reality to golf and its life among the corporate enthusiasts: these relationships are business-based, and hardly a result of the company CEO simply wanting to get into golf, or rub elbows with the Tour’s bright lights.

“It’s all about leverage, about getting maximum value for your investment dollar,” Murphy said, again looking toward Buick. “They put cars at tournament sites, they do a tremendous amount of publicity and advertising out of a tournament stop, and then they get the dealers tied into it, signing up golfers for test drives, and allowing the dealers to play in pro-ams with the world’s top golfers.

“All that stuff works very effectively.”

Pete Ternes, a spokesman for Buick, agrees, saying that research shows 40 percent of golf enthusiasts are aware that Buick is the official car of the PGA Tour.

Ternes and Jump also talk of this year’s Buick television advertisements, featuring Woods, most memorably in an Olympics-theme spot that Jump declares was a near-classic.

“It was not just some of the best advertising in golf,” Jump said, “but some of the best on TV, period. The score on Tiger being likeable, and the brand-image numbers, have really gone up.”

Other Tour sponsors have, from all indications, made similar assessments about golf and its knack for creating happier fiscal years.

Shell Oil Co. has a 20-year deal with the PGA Tour to sponsor the PGA World Golf Hall of Fame, in St. Augustine, Fla., as well as a title-sponsor presence at the Houston Open. It also continues to back the television and video series, Shell’s Wonderful World of Golf.

Anheuser-Busch is a longtime player in Tour sponsorship, again with brand logic easy to appreciate.

“When you think sports, you think beer,” Murphy said. “And here’s Anheuser-Busch marketing its premium brand, Michelob, as a Tour event sponsor. It’s what they consider to be their better brand, and they want that attached to golf.”

It is, in the final analysis, a matter of seeking relationship, of wanting the things people like most about something - in this case, golf - to rub off on themselves, their company, or their product.

It’s an old romance, this wanting to be associated with something delightful.

Golf and the corporate world are an Adam and Eve in relationship, each playing off the other, enjoying the pleasures surrounding them, and not afraid to share in the fruits of a marketplace that, here at least, are anything but forbidden.

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