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Volume 23 No. 18
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Archives shed light on early endorsement deals

Coca-Cola’s long history in sports sponsorship crossed paths with IMG in the 1960s when Palmer, Player and Nicklaus were starring on the links.

“… I am sure that you are aware that Coca-Cola is the most asked for soft drink in the world today (80 million drinks sold every day), and it is natural that Coke will sell in greater volumes, developing more profit and contributing greatly to the success of the Tournament.”

This sales pitch was part of the “template” appeal letter provided by Coke to IMG with the request that it be sent to golf directors after a “Tournament where bottler did not sell” Coke products. The letter was designed to come over the signature of Mark McCormack.

This archival document from the early 1960s, as well as others gleaned from the McCormack Archives housed at the University of Massachusetts Amherst library, shed what today can only be considered a quaint light on the advent of Coca-Cola’s endorsement deals with McCormack’s “Big 3” clients — Arnold Palmer, Gary Player and Jack Nicklaus.

Given Coca-Cola’s prominence in sport sponsorship (dating as far back as 1928 with its sponsorship of the Olympics), it was inevitable that one of sport’s biggest sponsors would soon cross paths with IMG and McCormack, the founding architect of athlete marketing. The McCormack Archives contain correspondence between the two parties dating to the early 1960s, around the same time McCormack signed Palmer, Player and Nicklaus to representation agreements. 

Coca-Cola had first ventured into golf over a decade earlier, with an advertising campaign in 1947 that featured Bobby Jones, co-founder of the Masters tournament and one of the most prolific players in golf history. McCormack saw the potential of signing his “Big 3” clients to contracts with Coca-Cola, and as seen in the archived documents, these deals contained some charming clauses that are the predecessors of today’s more “lawyered” contracts.

The endorsement fee proposed by Coca-Cola to Arnold Palmer and IMG was “the sum of $15,000 per year” — a hefty sum in the 1960s and in the early days of athlete marketing.
The endorsement fee proposed by Coca-Cola to Arnold Palmer and IMG was “the sum of $15,000 per year” — a hefty sum in the 1960s and in the early days of athlete marketing.
The endorsement fee proposed by Coca-Cola to Arnold Palmer and IMG was “the sum of $15,000 per year” — a hefty sum in the 1960s and in the early days of athlete marketing.

Sure, the endorsement deals with McCormack’s “Big 3” include the typical clauses: creation and use of promotional materials; attendance at social functions; and any services that embody being a “good will ambassador and promoter throughout the world on behalf of the Coca-Cola Company and its products.” 

There is a certain charm in reading these early player endorsement contracts. For example, Palmer’s 1967 endorsement contract with Coca-Cola begins with this introductory clause:

“We would expect you to make Coca-Cola and our other products (and particularly Minute Maid orange juice) a natural and normal part of your everyday life as you are already probably doing. Your weekly or other shopping lists should include our products as an indication of your desire to use the same. When playing golf, you would purchase Coca-Cola both for yourself and playing companions wherever and whenever possible.”

Also quaint by today’s standards was the endorsement fee: “the sum of $15,000 per year” (roughly equivalent to $125,000 per year today). 

To help maximize sales through its endorsement deals with IMG’s “Big 3,” Coca-Cola appeared to have taken a hands-on approach. The company went so far as to send McCormack a template of a letter that it requested McCormack send to tournament officials about the absence of Coke products, and the possible benefits of including them in the future!

The proposed letter, to be used after tournaments where Coke product was not sold, began as follows:

“We noted that during the (1963 or 1964) Tournament, it was difficult to obtain a Coke on the Golf Course. Along with my associates and Mr. _____ of the Coca-Cola Bottling Company, we hope that you will make Coca-Cola available to all those who prefer it…”

These “pitch” letters were to be sent and signed by McCormack. Who knows if McCormack, or his agency, ever actually sent these proposed letters to tournament directors, but the intended purpose and sentiment expressed is indeed interesting from a historical perspective.  

McCormack and IMG maintained a strong relationship with Coca-Cola throughout the remainder of his career and extended the resulting business to various new clients. Over a half century later, we can still see the impact of the early days of Coca-Cola trying to gain exposure in the golf world through McCormack and company. The company has maintained a 37-year partnership with the PGA Tour, and has given every winner of the championship a vintage Coca-Cola vending machine since 2009. 

Steve McKelvey is department chair for external relations, and associate professor of sport management at the Isenberg School of Management at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Meaghan McClure is an MBA/MS in Sport Management degree candidate and the McCormack Archives graduate assistant.