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Tim Finchem stood in front of a painting of TPC Sawgrass late last year to record a video message for members of the PGA Tour. The catalyst for Finchem’s message was the failing economy and its potential effect on the large number of title sponsorships that expire by the end of 2010.
Among the commissioner’s requests were that players add events this year; it has become a growing trend for top-ranked players to skip the first few events, making this week’s Buick Invitational the unofficial start of the season.
Finchem also implored players to spend more time thanking the companies that pay millions each week to fund the tour.
“The value of the PGA Tour that sponsors buy into is based on what players do in a variety of different ways, inside the ropes and outside,” he said in the video.
In the days that followed the release of the video, every player quoted in news reports publicly backed Finchem’s request. “I think the players will respond positively to that,” said Jim Furyk, a 15-year tour veteran. “They should realize how fortunate we are.”
Finchem’s plea also received support among sports business executives, dozens of whom were asked by SportsBusiness Journal to identify areas that professional golf needs to improve upon to stay relevant to fans and sponsors.
The executives said the PGA Tour must increase its value by marketing players to a more diverse audience to help improve television ratings. Otherwise, dwindling viewers threaten to submarine the tour’s value as a media property.
However, the observation most-often heard: While professional golfers are more giving of their time than athletes in most sports, spiraling prize money has created an atmosphere in which top players don’t need to play as regularly, and are less willing to glad-hand in corporate hospitality tents, a practice that built the PGA Tour into one of the better vehicles for corporate entertainment.
Players contend that their improved play creates more demands on their time. And, unlike team sports, they are independent contractors without guaranteed contracts.
“It’s such an individual game,” said longtime agent Mac Barnhardt, whose clients have already added events or volunteered additional time. “Nobody’s paying their bills so they can play well.”
Putting the hospitality back in hospitality
Because players are independent contractors, the PGA Tour has no power to force them into hospitality tents. With increased purses, and pre-existing commitments to their own sponsors, players are less likely to volunteer their time or pursue appearance income.
“In general, many of the players are supportive of doing what they can do to get companies involved in our sport,” said Mark Steinberg, head of IMG Golf. “Making the players understand that we’ll have to give a little bit more than maybe we did in the past is a conversation that takes place.”
The most-often heard complaint among hospitality buyers relates to player access. The tour arranges player appearances for weekly title sponsors and FedEx, the sponsor of the seasonlong points competition, but an average company spending five or six figures on a hospitality tent is left out of the mix unless it wants to arrange for appearances through agents.
Still, said executives around the golf industry, the players should take it a step further and form a group that assigns players to attend dinners or visit hospitality tents. The tour requires player participation in pro-ams, which serves as a precedent for the approach.
“It’s a function of saying, ‘We need each of you to make four visits to tents,’” said Bruce Lucker, CEO of marketing agency Signature Golf.
Absent any hard rule, tour events could facilitate player appearances as an add-on to hospitality purchases. That practice does not currently exist because tournaments are wary of handing over customer lists, said tournament directors.
“Those are the things they’re going to have to do in local markets to get the money out of people’s pockets,” said Ken Murrah, partner in the sports event agency Quint.
Goal Marketing, which represents 16 golfers and will operate the 2009 Nationwide Tour Championship in South Carolina, is selling such packages for this year’s tournament. The agency has approached PGA Tour events about offering its clients in a similar manner, said Goal CEO Kevin Canning, but has not received any interest.
“A tournament director could send us an e-mail with their skybox partners, or we can give the tournament a client list with fees so they can pitch companies on a meet and greet,” Canning proposed. “I think that adds value to a tournament and its sponsors, and gets us interested in taking it to our players.”
Pro-am slots, sold individually or as part of hospitality or sponsorship buys, are a driving factor behind golf’s popularity as a corporate entertainment vehicle. But the prevailing format — draw party, pro-am and awards dinner — could use some tweaking, said industry executives.
The Tour Championship introduced a popular concept over the last two years, scrapping the pro-am in exchange for a cocktail reception, breakfast and golf clinic. Each player was required to attend one event.
“I would do that at every single tournament,” said Scott Seymour, senior vice president of golf for Octagon. “You play in the pro-am, the players show up and walk inside the ropes and that’s the last of the interaction with the sponsors.”
Ironically, in a sport where strength of field — and Tiger Woods — largely determines the importance of an event, weaker fields may be more desirable for hospitality buyers because those players are more interested in appearance income.
“Those (lower-ranked) players are more interested because they’re younger and they haven’t earned $50 million yet,” said Randy Watkins, tournament director of the Viking Classic in Mississippi, a Fall Series event that did not have a single player from the top 30 on the money list in 2008.
Hey players, play
The bridge between the haves and have-nots among events on the PGA Tour schedule is largely determined by Woods, and that gap has widened in recent years as more top players pare down schedules when their career earnings escalate.
Players must commit to a minimum of 15 events to keep their tour cards. Most top players average around 20 events; Woods played 15 and 16 events his last two full seasons, down from a high of 21 in 2005.
“The power in golf is shifting into the hands of the players at a time when the players need to understand their importance to each community,” Seymour said. “That’s critical because they will kill the golden goose if they do not give back.”
Players have opposed the creation of a rule requiring them to play in every event within a certain number of years; Davis Love III, a player advisory council member, most recently voiced his resistance. But support is growing outside the locker room for something similar to the LPGA’s rule requiring the women to enter every tournament at least once every four years.
“They need to spread the wealth or my fear is that the PGA Tour may become the tennis tour,” said Bill Colvin, who consults on marketing for a number of PGA Tour sponsors.
Critics say mandates could push players to the European Tour, but agents doubt that would occur on a large scale because purses are still larger at rank-and-file PGA Tour events. Many also agreed with the theory that while companies sponsor golf for many reasons, it’s a connection to the top players that drives long-term interest.
“I don’t think it’s unreasonable that if you expect a sponsor to stay with you at a current level of investment that over X number of years a player play in a given market for the good of the entire tour,” said John Mascatello, head of SFX Golf.
The concept also has support at the tournament level.
“I would think that is something that the players themselves have to seriously address,” said Nathan Grube, director of the Travelers Championship event in Connecticut, which is played the week after the U.S. Open.
A call for better marketing
While many executives want players to do more to support their own tour, they also called on the PGA Tour, player agencies and the golf industry in general to do a better job of marketing the players to a wider audience.
Golf does an excellent job marketing to the male golf fan, many said, but the tour and agencies need to expand marketing efforts outside the golf world and focus more on the players’ character.
“The tour’s foundation was built on the personalities and now it’s on competition,” said Ed Kiernan, CMO of Peter Jacobsen Sports, a golf marketing and event agency.
Efforts have improved in the last year when the tour began working with entertainment PR firm Rogers & Cowan. Trevor Immelman’s post-Masters media tour was one of the broader efforts to date in professional golf, and the firm has successfully landed features in men’s health and fitness, surfing, fashion and lifestyle magazines.
“We put a lot of effort into it, but we always try to do more,” said Ty Votaw, executive vice president of communications and international affairs for the PGA Tour.
Marketers point to the tour’s collection of crossover stars, the largest in recent memory, and the diversity in their interests.
Boo Weekley, a golfer with Southern roots, is a NASCAR fan and has his own licensed camouflage apparel. Anthony Kim, Camilo Villegas and the resurgent Sergio Garcia give the tour three top-ranked competitors who could also stroll the Hollywood red carpet.
“I would like to see golf overcome the ‘niche’ label,” said Greg Luckman, president of the North American arm of GroupM ESP, a marketing agency. “Many leagues have effectively infused pop culture — music, fashion, celebrity — into how they market themselves.”
Luckman floated the idea of packaging a fashion show for Style or E! networks, both sister networks of Golf Channel, that would introduce golfers to new sets of fans.
Organizations such as the LPGA and WTA have successfully marketed the sex appeal of their stars, marketers said, a philosophy that needs to gain more traction in men’s golf.
“The LPGA has embraced that and really tried to push their young, sexy players into fashion and pop culture,” said Jon Hickey, managing director of sports and entertainment for Boston-based marketing agency Allen & Gerritsen. “That’s something that the (PGA) Tour could do to broaden its awareness.”
It also could broaden the appeal to female fans.
“One of the reasons we participate in golf is because we’re seeing results with that (older, wealthy) demographic,” said Suzanne Hamm, CMO of Stanford Financial North America, which title sponsors PGA Tour and LPGA events. “But I think that more could be done to engage women.”
Bringing in more young fans is also critical. The tour touts its new media efforts when discussing youth marketing, but Bill Carter, a partner at Fuse Marketing, which specializes in marketing to young consumers, cautioned that any such effort must not be considered an online advertisement.
“Social media is a presence on Facebook that gives something back to the people who become your friends,” Carter said. “It’s not an advertising medium.”
For example, he said, the tour could invite its Facebook “friends” in each market to a private meet-and-greet with a player. “That is the appropriate use of this kind of new media,” he said.
Blue Giraffe Sports, an agency that represents around a dozen PGA Tour players, is trying to capitalize on the cachet of action sports by possibly creating an unofficial money event that mixes action sports athletes and golfers.
“We want to create a fun, exciting atmosphere around golf as opposed to this staid, conservative, boring discipline,” said Bobby Kreusler, CEO of Blue Giraffe. “There’s a lot of kids who play golf and skateboard, and those are the kids we need to capture.”
Getting the buy-in
Whether players will put more muscle behind hospitality and play in more events, and whether the sport can market them on a broader basis, remains to be seen. The early returns are mixed.
Nancy Cross, director of the season-opening Mercedes-Benz Championship in Maui, said there was more player involvement this year with tournament activities. Ray Stosik, director of the Sony Open the following week in Honolulu, was also pleased with player participation.
But only 10 of the top 20 ranked players made the trip to Hawaii, and only five golfers ranked in the top 50 played in the Bob Hope Chrysler Classic, a 50-year-old event in dire need of support. The European Tour event held the same week in the Middle East drew stars such as Garcia and Weekley.
The week of the Bob Hope Classic, Arnold Palmer, the tournament’s newly minted host, trotted out to meet the media the same day a foreign auto company was reportedly close to buying a stake in Chrysler, potentially rescuing the troubled U.S. automaker.
“They do need to get out and support the events,” Palmer spoke of the players. “I suppose like everything else, if there’s a dramatic reduction in tournaments, they will then understand and maybe they will support them a little more than they do.”
The fallout in the automotive industry and consolidation in the financial sector has resulted in a shallower prospect pool for golf properties, leaving executives to ponder potential fits with other sponsor categories.
Car companies have been a stalwart on the PGA Tour dating back 50 years to Buick becoming its first corporate sponsor. Since releasing a 1999 schedule with nine tournaments title sponsored by automakers, the finance and insurance industry gradually took over as the dominant sponsorship category as companies such as Buick and Nissan let deals expire.
Nearly one-third of all events in 2009 sanctioned by the PGA Tour are sponsored by banks, investment firms, credit card distributors or financial consultancies, and golf insiders do not expect that ratio to decline in the short term.
“If you’re trying to get the high-net-worth guy or the business decision-maker, golf still delivers that audience better than anybody,” said brand consultant Bill McGriff, who works with UBS on its sponsorship of The Players Championship.
Golf properties have not seen an influx of interest from one specific category, but sponsorship executives expect any trends to center around the older, affluent demographic.
Prospects in the health care industry are expected to expand given the aging population and medical needs of baby boomers. The PGA Tour recently signed a health and fitness deal with a subsidiary of Johnson & Johnson that it hopes will open more doors with the health care giant.
There also have been upticks in interest, although no new deals, from electronics companies and men’s grooming products, and Subway has expressed an interest in the PGA Tour’s vacant quick-service restaurant category.
Andrew Witlieb, co-founder of player representation agency Goal Marketing, expects more interest among shipping companies, which are effectively shut out of PGA Tour deals because of the tour’s relationship with FedEx. UPS recently signed a deal with the European Tour.
The U.S. Golf Association is selling supplier deals in the travel categories. CMO Barry Hyde is drawing considerable interest from the search because of the room nights and airfares such a deal would bring to the partners.
Despite sponsorship challenges that faced golf in the 1990s with the downturn in the domestic auto industries, earlier this decade with the dot-com and energy sector bust, and now the realignment of the financial industry, tour executives do not envision capping the number of sponsors from any one industry.
“It’s hard to turn away a prospect just because they’re in an industry that you already have a lot of sponsors,” said Jon Podany, head of sales for the PGA Tour.
There is a famous quote by the late Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw that goes, “Progress is impossible without change, and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything.” The following are five executives working to push golf beyond its comfort zone.
Chief business officer
Since joining the USGA’s executive ranks in 2007, Bevacqua helped shape the framework of the USGA’s corporate partnerships, overhauled communications and new media, and pushed into new technologies to enhance the event experience. In 2008, he helped devise a consumer promotion that challenged an average golfer and three celebrities to break par on the course that hosted the U.S. Open.
VP, corporate communications
The company’s multiyear association with Justin Timberlake is believed to be the first time an equipment maker has signed a celebrity to a full endorsement, a deal that would have died without Szynal’s insistence on courting the pop star and the backing of Callaway marketer Brian Groves. Golf needs cachet among Gen Y and associating with chart- toppers like Timberlake can only help.
Chief marketing officer
Peter Jacobsen Sports
Backed by the name of one of the more bankable figures in golf, Kiernan and his staff, in concert with Miami Marketing Group, put on the most talked about party in professional golf this past year. The Lexus Style Villa Sports was to the U.S. Open in San Diego what the annual Maxim Party is to the Super Bowl, attended by everyone from Lexus and its guests to models, actors, sports executives and media members.
Chief marketing officer, North America
Stanford Financial Group
With the exception of the people at FedEx, there is no other individual that made a broader new investment in golf in the last two years, or one that speaks with more refreshing candor, than Hamm. She helped lead the resurgence of the PGA Tour event in Memphis, staged a successful first-year event on the LPGA, and sponsored the top two finishers in the FedEx Cup.
The Players Championship
One of the marketing brains behind Fenway Sports Group moved to the PGA Tour in June to lead its flagship event in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla. Monahan is working to give the tournament more of a big event feel by creating fan and sponsor experiences and providing access to players. Such efforts will help the tournament further distance itself from the other nonmajors on the PGA Tour schedule.
— Compiled by Jon Show
Blogs have changed the way sports media is consumed, but the professional golf tours have not benefited from the same scale of grassroots coverage enjoyed by team sports.
“It always sort of amazes me,” said Geoff Shackelford, who operates a blog widely read in golf industry circles. “I’m not sure if that’s a statement about the health of the sport or if it has to do with golf’s conservative nature.”
Ty Votaw, executive vice president of communications and international affairs for the PGA Tour, believes the slow growth of golf blogs is due to the lack of debate inherent to the sport.
“Most other sports you have ‘a manager should be fired,’ ‘the coach should be fired’ or ‘a player should be benched,’” Votaw said. “You don’t have that in golf. You don’t bench Tiger Woods or Phil Mickelson; it’s just ‘did he play well or not?’ (Golf) doesn’t lend itself to a lot of back-and-forth debate.”
Furthermore, mainstream blogs like Deadspin and Sports by Brooks virtually ignore competitive golf outside of the four majors, the Ryder Cup, and the occasional incident involving John Daly.
“The motor of online sports fandom is passion, and it’s hard to get passionate about individual participants,” said Will Leitch, founding editor of Deadspin. “This is also why tennis, swimming, NASCAR, so on, aren’t hugely popular online.”
Stories involving female golfers have been more popular online than those with the men. “Women’s golf, for obvious reasons, plays much, much better on the Internet,” said Jason McIntyre, editor at The Big Lead.
The top 100 posts on Sports By Brooks includes two golf stories: one about the love life of Michelle Wie and another with the purported cell phone number of Australian golfer Anna Rawson.
Blogs operated by players and golf executives have also failed to gain traction.
The biggest stars on the men’s and women’s circuit, Tiger Woods and Annika Sorenstam, update their sites intermittently. Rookie blogs on LPGA.com offer some insight on adapting to the tour. PGA Tour Commissioner Tim Finchem started a blog last January that was updated only four times in 2008.
Absent an independent blog on the scale of the popular Pro Football Talk, most golf executives frequent two blogs for news and commentary about the state of the tours and associations.
GolfObserver.com, run by former ABC Sports production staffer Sal Johnson, provides a daily roundup of links to nearly every golf story written and offers Johnson’s own thoughts on issues facing the game.
GeoffShackelford.com features the commentary of Shackelford, a freelance writer whose controversial opinions have drawn the attention of golf industry executives. In terms of traffic, two of his top three markets are Jacksonville/Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., and Far Hills, N.J., home to the PGA Tour and U.S. Golf Association, respectively. The top market is New York City.
One of Shackelford’s more popular shticks involves fake instant message exchanges between Finchem (twfPGATOUR©) and LPGA Commissioner Carolyn Bivens (DaBrandLady).
The golf blogs at SportsBlog Nation and Fanhouse are growing in popularity. SportsBlog Nation’s Waggle Room and a companion podcast, crafted by D.C.-based nonprofit associate Ryan Ballengee, regularly discuss off-the-course issues facing the PGA Tour and LPGA, and feature interviews with golf industry executives and members of the media.
PGA Tour event sponsors
The PGA Tour has 43 companies signed as major sponsors of the 43 events it will stage in 2009. Title sponsors for two of those events expire this year, and 20 more expire after the 2010 tournaments. PGA Tour officials said they have agreed to extensions with “up to a half dozen” title sponsors, but would not reveal which events.
Date Tournament Location Sponsor through Jan. 8-11 Mercedes-Benz Championship Maui, Hawaii2010 Jan. 15-18 Sony Open in Hawaii Honolulu2010 Jan. 21-25 Bob Hope Chrysler Classic La Quinta, Calif.2010 Jan. 29-Feb. 1 FBR Open Scottsdale, Ariz.2012 Feb. 5-8 Buick Invitational San Diego2010 Feb. 12-15 AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am Pebble Beach, Calif.2014 Feb. 19-22 Northern Trust Open Pacific Palisades, Calif.2012 Feb. 26-March 1 World Golf Championships-Accenture Match Play Championship Marana, Ariz.2010 Feb. 26-March 1 Mayakoba Golf Classic at Riviera Maya Riviera Maya, Mexico2012 March 5-8 The Honda Classic Palm Beach Gardens, Fla.2012 March 12-15 World Golf Championships-CA Championship Miami2010 March 12-15 Puerto Rico Open presented by Banco Popular Rio Grande, Puerto Rico2010 March 19-22 Transitions Championship Palm Harbor, Fla.2012 March 26-29 Arnold Palmer Invitational Presented by MasterCard Orlando2012 April 2-5 Shell Houston Open Humble, Texas2012 April 16-19 Verizon Heritage Hilton Head, S.C.2010 April 23-26 Zurich Classic of New Orleans Avondale, La.2010 April 30-May 3 Wachovia Championship Charlotte2014 May 7-10 The Players Championship UBS Jeld-Wen; Pricewaterhouse Coopers Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla.20102012 May 14-17 Valero Texas Open San Antonio2012 May 21-24 HP Byron Nelson Championship Irving, Texas2014 May 28-31 Crowne Plaza Invitational at Colonial Fort Worth, Texas2012 June 4-7 The Memorial Tournament Presented by Morgan Stanley Dublin, Ohio2010 June 11-14 Stanford St. Jude Championship Memphis2016 June 25-28 Travelers Championship Cromwell, Conn.2010 July 2-5 AT&T National Bethesda, Md.2014 July 9-12 John Deere Classic Silvis, Ill.2010 July 16-19 U.S. Bank Championship in Milwaukee Milwaukee2009 July 23-26 RBC Canadian Open Ontario2012 July 30-Aug. 2 Buick Open Grand Blanc, Mich.2010 Aug. 6-9 World Golf Championships-Bridgestone Invitational Akron, Ohio2010 Aug. 6-9 Legends Reno-Tahoe Open Reno, Nev.2010 Aug. 20-23 Wyndham Championship Greensboro, N.C.2010 Aug. 27-30 The Barclays Jersey City, N.J.2012 Sept. 4-7 Deutsche Bank Championship Norton, Mass.2010 Sept. 10-13 BMW Championship Lemont, Ill.2012 Sept. 24-27 The Tour Championship presented by Coca-Cola Atlanta2010 Oct. 1-4 Turning Stone Resort Championship Verona, N.Y.2012 Oct. 8-11 The Presidents Cup (Citi) San Francisco2013 Oct. 15-18 Justin Timberlake Shriners Hospitals for Children Open Las Vegas2012 Oct. 22-25 Frys.com Open Scottsdale, Ariz.2009 Oct. 29-Nov. 1 Viking Classic Madison, Miss.2010 Nov. 12-15 Children’s Miracle Network Classic Lake Buena Vista, Fla.2012 Sources: Tournaments, PGA Tour officials, title sponsors
Sports Media Challenge used its Buzz Manager service to track the most discussed stories and issues in social media surrounding golf as the season begins. Social media consists of the ways people communicate on the Internet, including blogs, message boards and social networks such as Facebook.LPGA after Annika Sorenstam
At the end of last season, golf fans were discussing Sorenstam’s decision to retire, then discussion shifted to her wedding at the beginning of January. Fans are now asking how the LPGA will fare without one of its stars.John Daly, or the lack thereof
Considering the reputation that Daly has built for himself, some bloggers and fans have used Daly’s suspension from the PGA Tour as comic relief. Others have debated the tour’s handling of his situation, saying any publicity is good publicity for golf, especially in light of the recession.
Source: The top golf stories were determined using Buzz Manager, an Internet mining, monitoring and measurement service for the sports industry. Buzz Manager is a proprietary service of Sports Media Challenge.