Corporate Sponsors Endorsements Golf

It’s Kind Of Hard Out Here (For A Pro Golfer)

PGA Tour LogoThe 2009 PGA Tour season kicks off this week with the annual Mercedes-Benz Championship at Kapalua. But with it comes a new era in pro golf. No, it has nothing to do with Tiger Woods, who will likely be rehabbing his knee until April (Augusta) but will still be the favorite to win the season money title, along with any event he enters.  It also has nothing to do with restrictions on the cross sectional area and edge sharpness of golf club grooves (i.e., no more U-grooves), which will apply to clubs manufactured after Jan. 1, 2010 and will make putting any amount of measurable spin on the ball out of the rough a relatively rare and random occurrence (and thus putting an extra premium on actually finding the fairway off the tee; this means you, Tiger and Phil). Rather, it has to do with the pros themselves, a decline in sponsorship and endorsement money, and a general plea from sponsors and even commissioner Tim Finchem himself, for players to become more approachable and amicable and open to pro-am dates and weekday corporate gigs. Otherwise, the worry is that said corporate largesse will soon dry up, if it isn’t already too late.

There have been a bevy of pieces lately that have touched upon both the declining endorsement money available to professional golfers in the current economic environment, as well as the issue of players sloughing off their unwritten-albeit-sacred corporate schmoozing duties. Lewine Mair wrote on about Colin Montgomerie and how he is one of the players who apparently ‘gets it.’

“Although Montgomerie took a dive down the world rankings in 2008, he has had none of the negative financial repercussions off the course that might have hurt a lesser character. Far from fading from the public’s view, this charismatic and often controversial soul is better placed than ever to comply with sponsor requests to promote their wares and keep guests entertained. [Said Montgomerie] ‘The days when a player could go out for a pro-am and not talk to any of his partners — something which used to happen — have long since gone. Especially in the current economic climate, you have got to be prepared to give more of yourself, not just for your own sake but for the sake of the Tour as a whole.’

Monty’s comments came not too long after Finchem’s awkward web video, where he more or less pleaded with players to add at least one event to their rota in ’09, and oh yeah, to also be a bit more amenable to pro-am requests and partners:

“We’re asking every player to add a tournament or two to their historical schedule to assist the tournaments that historically have weak fields,” Finchem said in the video, which was obtained by the Sports Business Journal. “We have a lot of title sponsors this year that are up for renewal. We have to put our best foot forward in terms of presenting our competitions.”

Hmmm, it seems that these guys are good, but not so good that they don’t need a swift reminder to remember where those fat checks are coming from? Then again, since when do “independent contractors” take orders? The time for a Players Association in golf, with bona fide collective bargaining powers, has never been more urgent, especially with the idea floating around that eventually players will be forced to play every single PGA Tour event at least once in a given four year period.

And then there are the truly appalling stories that remind you that while some PGA Tour veterans probably won’t be hurting for cash in this current climate, the vast majority of professional golfers–the mini-Tour, Monday qualifying group–are truly living tournament to tournament. Gary Wolstenholme, for example, once the face of British amateur golf, now needs all the financial backing he can get in his quest to make the European Senior Tour. In the meantime, he’s settling for sandwiches from the pro shop and looking to give lessons.

That said, deals are still getting done, especially for the bigger name players, whose brand is well settled and recession proof, more or less. Wilson recently extended its relationship with Padraig Harrington, for example. And James Achenbach’s piece reported that “any player advancing through Q-School — no matter how obscure or unknown he may be — can parlay endorsement money from equipment manufacturers and other commercial businesses into a minimum of $150,000 to $200,000 a year.” Golf Digest just came out with its Top 50 earners, for example. These guys (and gals) are still very, very well paid, at least the ones with measurable Q ratings.

Still, even the bright lights of the PGA Tour may not always be a financial safe haven, especially if the economy doesn’t make a noticeable turnaround in 2009. The Tour already slimmed down its fall ’09 schedule, although such headlines probably caused more people than not to realize the existence of such a schedule in the first place. But the move is the beginning of a slippery slope, especially given how many sponsors are auto or financial services related. Golf eagerly awaits Tiger’s return in the spring, which will give the sport and its slumping television ratings a sorely needed shot in the arm (well, at least the events he actually plays in). But long term, the Tour needs far, far more if it is to continue to realize the rate of growth and the relatively obscene mountains of corporate money the Tiger Era began to usher in starting over a decade ago.

Loosened corporate marketing budgets, coupled with more gregarious and receptive players, are required for the Tour’s ultimate longevity, especially if it wants to keep those ‘casual’ fans that Tiger brought to the table and that have expanded golf’s marketing demographic exponentially. Remember, there’s always the siren song of the “Race to Dubai” looming overseas, subsidized by bottomless Sheikh oil wealth that has American pros salivating. But ironically, such a conscious effort to renew the U.S. tour’s appeal and vigor will have to come from some of the very pros who are the least affected by the economic drawdown–the Mickelson’s, Kim’s, Villegas’ and Garcia’s for instance. Even Tiger, perhaps. Well, let’s not go overboard.