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Volume 20 No. 42
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The view from the links

In our exclusive survey, PGA Tour tournament directors share what it’s like behind the ropes and sound off on what the tour could do to make their events more successful

PGA Tour tournament directors have seen it all: Players locked inside the gates at night because they were fishing; drunk spectators; an earthquake and an approaching hurricane in the same week; runaway golf carts; and all sorts of animals — from bears to gators — making tracks across the golf course.

But the problems that keep tournament directors awake at night are familiar to most event managers. It’s things like parking, keeping sponsors happy, and attracting the best field of golfers possible. As Steve Timms, the director of the Shell Houston Open said, “We are on the front lines of the presentation of the PGA Tour brand.”

With that in mind, SportsBusiness Journal surveyed all of the tournament directors of the PGA Tour last month to find out what issues occupy their thoughts and what the tour could do better.

Our survey went to all of the PGA Tour tournament directors and provided insight into what it takes to stage a successful event.
Photo by: Getty Images
A couple of themes emerged. Foremost is their concern over the quality of their field. Throughout the responses, tournament directors expressed concern over their ability to attract the best golfers in the world to their event. And even if some of the world’s top-ranked golfers eventually commit, it’s typically too late to promote their appearance for ticket and sponsorship sales.

“It’s like you’re a concert promoter, but you cannot tell the ticket purchaser what band is going to be on stage,” said Clair Peterson, a 10-year director of the John Deere Classic and currently chairman of the PGA Tour’s tournament advisory committee. “You know whoever is on stage will put on a great show, but it’s a bit of a tough sell. You don’t know until literally days before the event who will be on stage. That leaves a gap in our ability to explain to fans why they should be there.”

Scheduling is a topic that has generated tons of debate across the tour. Because players are independent contractors, the tour can’t tell them when or where to play.

It’s been suggested that the tour adopt a policy that forces a golfer to play each event at least once in a four-year cycle. But such a policy has never made it past the tour’s policy board.

“Which golfers are coming to the tournament is a topic that’s discussed continually with the title sponsor and, really, all of the major sponsors,” Timms said.

In Peterson’s 10 years running the John Deere Classic, “I can’t think of a time when it wasn’t a big issue,” he said. “It’d be great to explain to sponsors that at least once every four or five years that you’re going to see everybody come through at some point.”

Tournament directors also are confronted with the task of selling sponsorships with a crew that’s often lean. Of the directors surveyed, 46 percent said they operate with a sales team of one full-time person and an additional 24 percent have a team of two sales executives. Then again, they’re selling mostly for a single event and often the tour sales team signs the title sponsor.

“That’s an area where the tour is hyper-focused,” the tour’s executive vice president and chief of operations, Andy Pazder, said of building sales staffs at each tournament. “We identified that five years ago as an area of weakness in our structure and we’re working with host organizations to develop professional sales staffs.”

Many of the directors (38 percent) say they spend 41 percent to 60 percent of their time selling sponsorships. Five directors (14 percent) said they spend 81 percent to 100 percent of their time cultivating sponsors.

Most directors, however, are pleased with their title sponsor — 56 percent said their title sponsor is outstanding.
However, 26 percent of the directors said they would like to see their title sponsor do more with the event.

Most directors said they judge their title sponsor’s level of engagement by how many of the company’s top executives attend the tournament.

If there’s one issue that directors don’t agree on, it’s how to use their player exemptions. When asked if they would give an exemption to a female golfer, 19 directors said “no,” while 18 said “yes.”

Peterson’s John Deere Classic is one of the two tournaments that has granted such an exemption. Michelle Wie played the 2005 John Deere on an exemption.

“Obviously, you know our feeling about inviting a woman to play. We’ve done it,” Peterson said. “When you think about using an exemption, you think of someone who adds more spectators, more excitement and more revenue. With Michelle, that was check, check, check. We filled the place.”

About the survey

The survey of PGA Tour tournament directors drew a response from 40 of the 45 directors who were eligible to participate. Not every director answered every question, but most of them participated fully and they did so knowing that their individual answers would be kept confidential.

SportsBusiness Journal worked with Turnkey Sports & Entertainment to set up the survey. The PGA Tour and the Tournament Advisory Council jointly endorsed the project and helped promote the effort, but have not seen the results until this issue.

Directors had a two-week window to complete the survey from late November to early December. The survey was conducted online through a site managed by Turnkey.