As the Bank of America (BAC ) Colonial golf tourney got set to open in Fort Worth on May 22, nobody could say how high Annika Sorenstam might climb on the leaderboard or how low male golfers might feel if they were outshot by the interloper from the ladies' tour. One thing was clear as a North Texas sunrise, though: The only winner bigger than the gender-bending Sorenstam would be title sponsor Bank of America.
"I liken it to buying a house and finding out there's oil on your property," says Scott Becher, president of Miami-based marketer Sports & Sponsorships Inc. Adds Greg Pahl, a senior director at Joyce Julius & Associates Inc., an Ann Arbor (Mich.) firm that tracks the value of sports sponsorships: "In golf, it ranks as one of the top media coups I've seen. I can't think of a tournament sponsor getting a higher impact."
As a backer of the Salt Lake City Olympics and the Pac-10 basketball tournament, Bank of America is no stranger to the sports-marketing wars. But the bank unwittingly drove the green on a dogleg par 5 when it nabbed the title sponsorship of the Colonial.
Last May, for a four-year, $30 million investment, BofA hitched its corporate wagon to a tourney linked to the memory of golfing god Ben Hogan, who lived in Fort Worth and won it five times. Then along came Sorenstam. Or, rather, Whaley.
The BofA bonanza might never have materialized if Suzy Whaley, a Connecticut golfer, hadn't qualified to play in a PGA Tour event this July. In January, Sorenstam, the top-ranked player on the LPGA, told a reporter that she would accept a similar invitation from the men's tour if offered. That unleashed overtures from a half-dozen tourneys, none of which suited Sorenstam's style of play or schedule. Finally, Sorenstam's agent, Mark Steinberg of IMG, contacted the Colonial and BofA.
Dockery Clark, BofA's vice-president for sports marketing, didn't hesitate to snap up the offer. "Our company is all about higher standards," says Clark, not one to pass up a marketing moment. "That's all Annika is trying to do, to see how well she can compete on the best tour against the best players." And if Sorenstam's thirst for competition showers new attention on the tournament and the bank, what the heck.
Since news of Sorenstam's historic tee-off broke in February, the Colonial has been equal parts sporting event and three-ring circus. Media credentials top 500, up from about 200 last year. And a week before the tourney, officials shut off tickets sales at 200,000, marking the first Colonial sellout.
As title sponsor, BofA has been basking in media exposure that backers of attention-starved PGA Tour stops such as the John Deere Classic and the 84 Lumber Classic can only dream of. John Bogusz, vice-president for ad sales at CBS Sports, predicts that more than 6 million viewers will tune in if Sorenstam is still playing by the weekend of May 24 -- double the number for last year's Colonial. Pahl of media analysts Joyce Julius pegs the value of BofA mentions on TV, the Internet, and print media at $18 million to $20 million, nearly double the average for a PGA Tour event.
Just as precious to the bank is a nonstop week of corporate schmoozing. On each day of the four rounds, BofA plans to distribute 1,000 tickets to clients and employees and host about 50 VIPs at its 13th-hole skybox. The day after the tournament, 40 top customers, including "high worth" clients, will play the Colonial course just as it was set up for the pros.
Bank of America's Clark plans to spend the week rooting Sorenstam on and relishing her own role as one of the masterminds of the year's shrewdest sports-marketing triumph thus far. The bank got in for cheap, and even if Annika doesn't make the cut, BofA walks away with a prize. Does it get any better than that?
By Mark Hyman, with Tom Lowry in New York