Branding The Course

It doesn't come cheap, but golf tournament sponsorship earns valuable exposure

Making customers aware of a new product with a strange name can be difficult. When the product is a prescription drug for erectile dysfunction, the marketing challenge is that much greater. For pharmaceutical company Lilly ICOS, part of the solution has been to link up with the PGA Tour. When the company launched its drug Cialis last year, it nabbed title sponsorship of the Cialis Western Open at Cog Hill Golf & Country Club in Lemont, Ill.

This season the drug company has stepped up its presence on the tour. Besides plastering its name on leader boards, it's offering free high-tech swing analysis in spectator tents to fans at 10 events. It has also made Memorable Moments sponsored by Cialis a regular feature on golf telecasts. The spots show PGA Tour players relaxing away from the golf course.

Matthew Beebe, Cialis U.S. team leader, says golf and an anti-impotence pill share a lot of common turf. Many PGA Tour fans are men 40 to 65, a key market for the drug. In addition, Cialis positions itself as a drug that lasts over a longer period of time than its competitors Viagra and Levitra -- so men who use it needn't be in a hurry for romance. Similarly, "golf is truly a relaxing sport. There is no shot clock, and really no time restrictions," says Beebe. A more action-packed, high-anxiety game would be a miserable fit. "You wouldn't see us partnering with arena football," he says.

Pro golf and Corporate America have been playing in the same twosome since before Arnold Palmer was a rookie. But four golf tours means that sponsors have more options than ever. The PGA Tour delivers the largest galleries -- and when Tiger Woods is in the field, TV ratings can increase substantially. The exposure doesn't come cheap. Becoming a "title sponsor" on the PGA Tour can cost $6 million, with half of that going toward prize money. Prices on the Champions and Nationwide tours, which are operated by the PGA Tour, and the LPGA Tour are a fraction of that. But so are their audiences.

Title sponsors on both the PGA and Champions tours often are large international corporations, says Edward L. Moorhouse, PGA Tour executive vice-president. But the marketing benefits of the two tours can be quite different. "On the PGA Tour, title sponsors are very much interested in media. On the Champions Tour, the buy is more in the nature of [on-course] hospitality," says Moorhouse. Sports marketing experts stress that it's important for sponsors to focus on a clear goal. "To do it right, you need to go in with a set of objectives," says Scott Seymour, senior vice-president of Octagon Worldwide, a sports marketing agency. "There's no Nielsen rating to evaluate the performance of your property."

Some sponsors stray from traditional buys. Outback Steakhouse (OSI ) sponsors the blimp that flies overhead at most PGA Tour events telecast by CBS. Outback Chairman Chris T. Sullivan says he prefers to spend a substantial amount of his sponsorship dollars on a floating billboard because "it allows us a way to get our brand inside the broadcast" rather than buying commercials that viewers might tune out.

Also out of the ordinary is drug company AstraZeneca's (AZN ) golf pitch: the Crestor Charity Challenge. London-based Astra launched the program in 2004, which commits it to $100,000 in charitable gifts at 35 tour stops from January to November, to introduce consumers to a new anti-cholesterol drug. Little did the company know how helpful the golf sponsorship would be. Astra officials believe the goodwill generated by its philanthropy has helped the company weather a storm of bad publicity churned up when a study revealed the drug's possible health risks.

Pampering and Schmoozing

Myriad factors can influence a sponsor's decision to join forces with a particular tour or tournament. Location and date are typical considerations: Is the sponsor set on an event in its community? Which tour can offer a prime date? (Events scheduled the week before or after a major championship often struggle to attract star golfers.)

For ACE (ACE ), a Bermuda-based insurance company, sponsoring a tournament is largely about pampering top sellers and lavishing attention on important clients. It can also be a diversion from troubles at corporate headquarters. ACE, which recently has been the target of an insurance industry probe, has been title sponsor of a February Champions Tour event in Naples, Fla., for seven years. The company liked the laid-back attitude of 50-and-over golfers, who are more likely than their PGA Tour counterparts to offer playing tips and to schmooze after hours in the clubhouse grill.

ACE invites about 250 guests, mostly high-performing brokers and top clients, to Florida for its event. In addition to playing in a pro-am, the visitors, who pay for their own travel, are on the guest list for group dinners and nightly entertainment. ACE also convenes business meetings and education seminars.

For some corporations, the sponsorship decision is as simple as dialing up the hometown tournament. Shell Oil Co. has been title sponsor of the PGA Tour's Shell Houston Open since 1992. Shell's U.S. headquarters are in Houston, and the company has about 11,500 employees based there. Likewise, when BMW Manufacturing Co. contacted the Nationwide Tour several years ago, it knew exactly where it wanted to play host: on courses near its home base of Spartanburg County, S.C. BMW builds the Z4 roadster and the X5 sport-utility vehicle in a factory there and employs about 4,600 workers. The car manufacturer looked at an event on the Nationwide Tour, a circuit for up-and-coming golfers, as a way to create a regional sports attraction, connect with local residents, and raise money for local charities. "Golf marries a lot of values this company cares about," says Robert Hitt, the company's manager for public affairs.

Charity and Business

In five years, the BMW Charity Pro-Am has evolved into one of the Nationwide Tour's most successful tournaments, drawing Hollywood stars and garnering goodwill for the company. In 2004, BMW even wooed legends Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player, who seldom play on the second-tier tour. (Player returned for the event this year.) The presence of the two golfers brought prestige to the tournament, but BMW officials say they're not ready to consider the extra investment or added risk of moving up to the big tour. "I don't know where we'll be in five years," says Hitt. "It might be a different type of event. But I'm an incrementalist. I like walking into the water slowly."

BMW gets a boost from the affiliation. It splashes the company name on the tournament and, during the week, supplies flashy sports cars for players and celebrities to tool around the Spartanburg area. Just as notable are the ways the company refrains from leveraging the tournament for promotion. There are few shiny cars parked on the golf course, a noticeable difference from events sponsored by other auto makers such as Buick and Ford. And BMW doesn't buy TV commercials on The Golf Channel, which televises the event. "It's not the approach we take. We see this as a charity event and as a community citizenship event," says Hitt.

In many sponsorship deals, charity and business development go together. At last year's Michelob Ultra Open, an LPGA event in Williamsburg, Va., title sponsor Anheuser-Busch (BUD ) donated $300,000 to local charities. The brewer also notched valuable publicity for its beer brands and local properties, including the posh Kingsmill resort, the tournament site, and Busch Gardens, the popular amusement park.

Anheuser-Busch hosted a PGA Tour event at Kingsmill from 1981 to 2002. It ended the run, in part, because the tournament failed to land attractive dates. (Michelob Ultra remains the official beer of the PGA and Champions tours.) By contrast, the LPGA event comes to town in May, prime golf season, and draws a stellar field that this year included 49 of the top 50 women pros. Prize money of $2.2 million is among the highest paydays on the tour, and Anheuser-Busch has signed on through 2006. "The women players tell us it has the feel of a major championship," says Anthony T. Ponturo, vice-president of global media and sports marketing for Anheuser-Busch. That's what a golf sponsor wants to hear. If the tournament sells a few more hotel rooms and glasses of brew, it's even sweeter.

By Mark Hyman

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