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A call to be more hospitable
Published February 2, 2009
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.”