SBJ/June 12 - 18, 2006/SBJ In Depth

How bankable are golf's young guns?

Eddie Carbone was standing near the scoring area of Doral Golf Resort & Spa’s blue course when he was knocked onto his heels. The roar from the throng of fans following Camilo Villegas that March evening caught him a bit off guard. After all, it wasn’t directed toward a guy named Arnie or Jack or Tiger, and the crowd wasn’t reveling in a charge for the ages.

Camilo Villegas is greeted by fans at this year’s
Ford Championship in Doral, Fla.
The masses were expressing their unbridled love for a 24-year-old Colombian native in a tight shirt; one who had missed the cut in half of his 16 career PGA Tour appearances and earned his playing card by finishing 13th on the 2005 Nationwide Tour money list. Villegas was even competing in the last threesome of the day on a second-round Friday.

“We were like, ‘What the hell was that?’” recalled Carbone, tournament director for the 2006 Ford Championship at Doral. “It was the time of the day when there typically aren’t a lot of crowds around following guys with those tee times. It was a roar that you hear Sunday on the 18th hole with the final group.”

Villegas drove that crowd into a frenzy. Sporting a stylish J. Lindeberg wardrobe that accentuated his lithe, 160-pound frame, Villegas rode a long driver and a putt-reading style that resembled a praying mantis playing Twister all the way to a tie for second place. He finished one stroke behind defending champion Tiger Woods, though it could be argued who had the largest gallery.

Villegas, a University of Florida graduate and only the second Colombian to earn a PGA Tour card, was embraced by South Florida’s large Hispanic community. What resulted was a tournament that took on a festival-like atmosphere even on a ho-hum Friday evening, with throngs of flag-waving fans cheering his every move.

“We had better attendance than in 2005, and we had pretty huge attendance in ’05,” Carbone said. “I don’t know if you could measure it based on him, but you could feel it based on the size of the crowds following him around.”

Villegas at Doral was something of an anomaly. It was a case of the stars aligning for the right guy at the right event, and everyone from tournament organizers to the PGA Tour to Villegas cashed in. People are going to watch Villegas play even if you drop him into the center of Anytown, USA, though the galleries obviously swell in more diverse areas such as Miami.

Villegas is part of a new generation of golfer that sparks interest from even the most tepid golf fan. They’re young and good looking with plenty of personality. Their bodies are sculpted from hours in the gym and they play with a go-for-broke style even John Daly can appreciate. The fans eat it up.

These players are producing, as well. Five of the top 25 on the PGA Tour’s money list are 25 or younger and two are rookies (Villegas and Qualifying School medalist J.B. Holmes). Thirteen of the top 25 LPGA moneywinners have yet to reach their 25th birthday. Six are not even 20 years old.

Balancing act
There hasn’t been an exceptional surge of corporations rushing to pump dollars into either of the two tours just because of the newcomers. And the fact each tour boasts at least 75 players from 24 countries doesn’t seem to have been an issue when international companies such as Barclays, UBS and Deustche Bank chose golf as one of their first ventures into U.S. sports.

Sponsors including Nike and Sony
have lofty expectations for
youngster Michelle Wie.
“For us, it wasn’t a deciding factor,” said Bjoern Waespe, co-head of sports sponsorship for UBS, a partner with the Players Championship. “We know the PGA Tour resonates very well in the U.S. marketplace whoever plays on the tour. That was the key thing for us. It wasn’t that foreign players are playing, young players or whoever. It’s just an attractive tour and that was the trigger for us to choose this property.”

Make no mistake — corporate support is strong for both the PGA Tour and LPGA on the league, tournament and player level. Tournament purses are higher than ever and the majority of events have title sponsorship locked up to at least the end of the decade. The PGA Tour recently wrapped up a television package worth a reported $2.9 billion over the next six years, and the buzz concerning next season’s inaugural FedEx Cup points chase continues to build. John Bogusz, executive vice president of sports sales and marketing at CBS Sports, says the network has sold out 90-95 percent of its ad inventory for its PGA Tour weekend coverage with five events remaining.

The LPGA could finally be positioned to raise its stature on the sports landscape thanks to a field of players with personality, attractiveness and skill. This season marks the first season of the LPGA Playoffs at the ADT, a yearlong points competition to be capped off with the winner receiving $1 million (the largest individual payoff in the tour’s history). The tour has a cable package with ESPN and The Golf Channel wrapped up through 2009. And while ratings are even from this point last year on ESPN-televised tournaments, there has been a 12 percent rise in the number of households watching the LPGA.

The obvious impulse is to ride the kids all the way to the bank; to push them to the front of marketing campaigns and force-feed their youth and talent to the golf public along with their new playoff formats. But it’s not that simple. Golf is a cross-generational game in which its players age along with its fans. It essentially has a three-class system of marquee players (such as Woods and Phil Mickelson), icons (such as a Fred Couples) and the up-and-comers. Fans of each are equally vital to the success of the tours, so the circuits have to find a happy medium when it comes to promotion.

Sponsors have different likes, as well. Some target the affluent crowd, others go after younger demos. A few players — again, such as Woods — can appeal to everyone across the board. But most golfers attract a specific sort of fan with a particular kind of lifestyle, making it imperative that both the company and the player are on the same page when it comes to branding.

Deciding who to promote is a juggling act for the tours.

“It’s extremely challenging,” said Ric Clarson, the PGA Tour’s senior vice president of brand development and retail licensing, “because one of the unique aspects of golf is it’s the purest form of capitalism in any sport. You get what you earn. … So it’s challenging as to who you promote and how you promote them because their on-camera television time is totally dependent on what they do that week, not that they’re in the starting lineup and going to be in right field the entire season no matter how they play. We try to find a balance between the stars and the up-and-comers as to who we promote.”

Marketing players
The PGA Tour’s new “Voices” ad campaign has allowed it to balance that three-tier class system. The 30-second spots use tournament footage accompanied by a voice-over from a featured player. The commercials are produced by PGA Tour Productions, cost about $5,000 each and take about 15 minutes to make. That’s allowed the tour to make a dozen or so of these spots, including ones featuring Villegas and Holmes. Clarson said the tour likely would have stuck with more established players for the campaign, but its convenient production process puts the newcomers “in the mix” this season.

Natalie Gulbis set a record last season on the
LPGA with the highest earnings without a win.
The LPGA Tour used some of its young talent in its year-old “These girls rock” platform. Reigning rookie of the year Paula Creamer, 19, and Natalie Gulbis, 23, were featured prominently in the campaign, which was designed to highlight the tour’s personalities and play through a series of faux album covers and concert posters. But the LPGA also made sure to feature such veterans as Annika Sorenstam, 35, Karrie Webb, 31, and Meg Mallon, 43, in the ads in an attempt to achieve a proper balance among its fan base.

“I don’t want to lean too heavily one way or the other,” first-year LPGA Commissioner Carolyn Bivens said. “It’s my responsibility, and our responsibility as an association, to promote the growth and extract the value for the overall group.”

Bivens has acted to spread things out evenly. She said to expect more cross-generational advertising using the tour’s diverse age groups. And one of her initial moves as commissioner was to enlist a personal brand manager for the tour’s members.

Wendy Newman of Beverly Hills-based Person-Centered Branding met with the players as a group before a tournament earlier this year and later in individual follow-up sessions (all paid for by the LPGA). The player then has the option to hire Newman on a regular basis, with the tour picking up part of the cost. The revolutionary approach is geared toward assisting the players, including those outside of the top moneywinners — the ones who may not have representation from a marketing giant — land worthwhile endorsement and sponsorship deals while simultaneously keeping the LPGA brand out there.

Some golf insiders and marketing experts have warned that the LPGA’s approach may come off contrived. Others say it’s a savvy move for a tour trying to stretch its legs in a crowded sports market.

“I don’t necessarily think it’s that aggressive,” said Mark Steinberg, the senior vice president and managing director of golf (Americas and Asia) at IMG as well as Woods’ agent. “I think it’s strategic and smart.”

Rising stars
The truly marketable players don’t require such assistance, however.

Gulbis’ movie star looks and outgoing personality have helped her land deals with the likes of Anheuser-Busch, Canon, EA Sports and Adidas. She has produced her own calendar, writes a column for FHM and has a reality show on The Golf Channel. Ricochet Swimwear produces a line of swimsuits called the “Natalie Gulbis Collection.”

And the buzz around Villegas is nearly as loud and getting louder. Colombia’s City TV network purchased the rights to 30 PGA Tour events the morning after his tie for second at Doral. He already had deals with coffee maker Cafe De Colombia and Swedish designer J. Lindeberg. Since then he has become a primary pitchman for Cobra Golf, committed to participate in a Japanese tournament this fall and is working on opportunities in China.

“There’s a lot of stuff going on other than getting the ball in the hole,” Villegas said. “It’s a matter of adjusting, being organized and having your priorities in order and taking care of business and all of the surroundings around it. … I try not to [think about the off-course business]. But, obviously, there are some doors opening and good stuff happening. In reality, it’s part of the job.”

Michelle Wie, the 16-year-old phenom who tees it up with women and men, had locked down endorsement deals with Nike and Sony worth up to $10 million a year before it was even time for her junior prom.

And to think that Wie isn’t even a member of a men’s or women’s tour, but instead a golf free agent who pretty much plays when she wants, where she wants worldwide.

Just win
But here’s the interesting thing about Gulbis, Villegas and Wie, three prime examples of the youthful wave washing over golf: None has a professional victory.

Gulbis has demonstrated solid play (the $1,010,154 she collected last season set a record for money earned without a victory), and yet she is arguably the most visible player on the circuit.

Villegas has two second-place ties (he also tied for second at the FBR Open) and was tied for third at the Players Championship before missing the cut in three of his next four tournaments.

Wie, for all her talent and appeal, hasn’t collected a trophy since winning the U.S. Women’s Amateur Public Links in 2003 as a 13-year-old. There have been near misses — she was runner-up to Sorenstam at the LPGA Championship and she tied for third at the Women’s British Open — but no victories to truly validate the hype.

And only four of 22 PGA Tour tournament winners this year have been younger than 30. There have been five first-time winners, though just two younger than 31 (the then-23-year-old Holmes and 25-year-old Aaron Baddeley, who is in his fourth full season on the circuit).

It’s enough to draw comparisons to Anna Kournikova, the tennis diva who was everywhere as a teenager and now seemingly nowhere at age 25. The poster child for hype and overexposure, Kournikova pitched everything from sports bras to video games. In 2003 she trailed only Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods and Kobe Bryant in athlete endorsement deals despite having never claimed a WTA singles victory. She has been sidelined and borderline retired from the sport for much of the past three years due to injuries, slowing down her marketing machine.

Would she still be a force if she had won even one tournament, perhaps even a major?

“Level of play — that’s what it’s always going to come down to,” said Jordan Bazant, a partner in The Agency. “There’s two times when you’re really marketable as a player: When you’re first coming out because there is that attractiveness to that potential, and when you reach championship level. But at the end of the day you have to be successful for you to be impactful to a sponsor. That’s the biggest obstacle — success on the tour. Competing with the best in the world and getting on television, winning championships. Being associated with a champion is what all these guys want.”

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