2004: Corporate links - Course naming rights seen as way to lower green fees

By James Achenbach

If the Los Angeles Lakers play in the Staples Center, and the Washington Redskins call FedEx Field their home, will players in the Masters tee it up at Cadillac Augusta National in the near future?

Probably not.

But don’t be surprised if other courses around the country soon start bearing corporate names.

At least one marketing expert says such branding agreements are likely to proliferate and become a staple of sports sponsorship. Case in point: The highly regarded Arizona Golf Association recently confirmed that it hired a consultant for the specific purpose of landing a naming sponsor for its

proposed course.

Aside from representing the AGA, Pumpkin Ridge Associates is pursuing naming rights deals for a handful of other courses, including Emerald Valley Golf Club in Creswell, Ore.

Whether the emergence of such a trend is good for golf, however, remains to be seen. Traditionalists are more than likely to condemn, or at the very least lament, the increasing commercialization of their beloved sport. But proponents insist branding deals will provide courses with a new revenue source that could be used to subsidize green fees, creating more affordable golf.

Though no company has yet branded a course with its name or logo in a straightforward naming rights deal, similar course sponsorship strategies already have been tried.

ClubCorp has a deal in which one of its clubs is called The Dallas Stars Country Club at Stonebridge Ranch. The course owner and operator didn’t sell naming rights to the hockey team, but the deal involves several cross-marketing elements. For example, members of the golf club get discounts on Stars’ tickets, and all Stars season ticketholders get a membership in the club. ClubCorp says it would like to do similar agreements at some of its other properties.

There are other course sponsorship precedents.

“AT&T has already done this at Pebble Beach (with the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am), but it’s just for one week and not for 12 months,” says Marvin French, one of the principals of Pumpkin Ridge Associates, which has offices in Portland, Ore., and New York.

His partner, Greg Crawford, points out the PGA Tour, with its TPC courses, “was really the first to do this. That’s branding.”

Course naming, however, has its complications. Yet to be determined: Where and how the name of a corporate sponsor would be displayed at any golf course. Length of contracts and costs remain unknowns for such a novel concept.

In football, baseball, basketball and hockey, the price of naming rights agreements has gone through boom and bust cycles. The extremes can be seen in Los Angeles and San Diego. Staples agreed to pay $100 million over 20 years to hang its name on a centerpiece arena in Los Angeles. The price was cheaper in San Diego, where Qualcomm committed to pay $18 million over 20 years.

Nevertheless, Crawford says there is much enthusiasm for the concept.

In April, Pumpkin Ridge Associates announced the signing of Emerald Valley as its first naming rights client. “I got calls from all over the country,” Crawford says. “Some people wondered why it hadn’t been done before.”

For the Arizona Golf Association, signing with Pumpkin Ridge Associates was a no-brainer.

“(French) talked about corporate entities backing other sports, and he said he’d like to try golf,” says Ed Gowan, the AGA’s executive director. “He wanted to know if he could represent the Arizona Golf Association.

“I told him, ‘Absolutely, because that’s where golf is going.’ If we can accomplish our association’s goals, and some corporation rides the wave, God bless them.”

French was one of the founders of Pumpkin Ridge Golf Club in North Plains, Ore., host of five U.S. Golf Association championships in the past eight years.

“People like to be related to golf,” he says. “It’s a good clean sport with no drugs and problems. The exposure is great. The key is to match the right sponsor with the right golf course. I’m pretty much a purist, so I’m not suggesting that Pine Valley (Golf Club) become FleetBoston.”

Gowan and French share a common view about public golf. As Gowan explains, “Inexpensive, low-end public golf is the future of the game.”

The AGA has land near Tucson, and it has a golf course design already completed. But it hasn’t been able to obtain financing.

“We have land, water, design and contributions from a number of people,” Gowan says, “but we can’t get our final financing package. We’ve tried eight different times. The crux of the issue seems to be that they (lenders) can’t trust that a nonprofit association can produce a profit.”

Crawford anticipates some in the golf community will object to his sponsorship pitches. But he has a rebuttal ready.

“History buffs will rise up and say, ‘How dare you do this?’ But once they see that green fees can be kept down, the outcry will disappear,” he says.

According to Gowan, the Arizona Golf Association, with 65,000 members, plans to operate a course “with $40 green fees in a $120 market, and that would be very, very good for the game.”

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