Corporate Support Drives Golf Tourney

May 17, 2002
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GRAND RAPIDS — The Senior PGA Tour has closely aligned itself with big business, so it’s little wonder that when it comes to nonprofit, the Farmers Charity Classic puts the emphasis on profit.

The Senior PGA Tour event, which tees off this week at Egypt Valley Country Club, has raised $2.4 million for West Michigan charities since its 1986 debut in Grand Rapids. Of that total, more than $1 million was raised over the past three years under the flags of sponsors Foremost and Farmers Insurance companies. The two companies have merged under the Farmers umbrella.

“When Foremost Insurance first came aboard, they made their commitment to the event not only from a marketing standpoint, but also to the charities,” tournament Executive Director Mike Nichols said. “Their willingness to open up doors and bring in some businesses that haven’t been involved in the past was a big key to raising the charitable contributions. It’s really amazing how much impact a couple more sponsors can have on the bottom line.”

As a whole, the Senior PGA Tour has taken on a business-friendly posture in both its promotion and demeanor. From airing events on the CNBC network, to its affiliation with market movers Charles Schwab and Georgia-Pacific, the Senior Tour is closely aligned with business and commerce.

“One of the reasons the Senior Tour decided to go with CNBC as its network is because of the close ties with business and decision makers who are obviously tied very closely together,” Nichols said. “Golf is a sport played by business decision makers. If they play the game and are interested in playing and watching it, it can be a product they can use from a corporate hospitality standpoint and hopefully build their business.”

And that corporate support — from the title sponsor to those committed to various financial levels — is what keeps the tournaments afloat year after year.

“Without corporate support, the event couldn’t exist. Period,” Nichols said.

It starts with Farmers Insurance Group, the title sponsor. Before that it was Foremost Insurance Corp. Before that it was First of America Bank. The title sponsor commits as much as $2 million annually for an event like the one in Grand Rapids. It covers not only the players’ purse, but also the cost of television production.

In return, the tournament is named after the title sponsor and 24 commercials are built into telecasts over the three days of the tournament, along with promotional spots during the week leading up to the event.

“They view it as a marketing buy,” Nichols said. “They get their name marketed to viewers, and they get six hours of coverage and their name associated with a class product.”

By comparison, a $2 million investment represents one minute of Super Bowl advertising.

Headlining this year’s May 24-26 event at Egypt Valley Country Club are two-time defending champion Larry Nelson, leading money winner and defending Charles Schwab Cup winner Allen Doyle, and Senior Tour newcomers Fuzzy Zoeller and Lanny Wadkins. Longtime Grand Rapids tour stop returnees such as Dave Stockton, Lee Trevino and Gary Player, among others, also are in the field that features 11 of the top-15 money winners.

While the talent is the big draw, the behind-the-scenes sponsors are the shakers and movers of the event. Locally, those sponsors include Pepsi, TV-8, Rapistan Systems, Nextel, Grand Oldsmobile and West Side Beer Distributors, among others. In addition, more than 1,000 volunteers donate their time to the event to help keep the tournament running smoothly.

“The economy is the No. 1 factor that determines whether or not a company gets involved,” Nichols said. “Last year — because of the Fourth of July weekend dates — sponsors who had been involved for years stepped back because it was held at an inconvenient time.

“Many of those companies are getting re-involved this year. The economy at large and individual health of a company, as well as some other factors like the dates of the tournaments, are the biggest factors of getting involved and staying involved.”

Each individual Senior Tour tournament is set up as a 501-C3 charitable organization.

“It’s the local sponsors that make it possible to raise money for charities like we do on a local basis,” Nichols said. “They also are able to entertain their clients on an annual basis.

“By doing that, they are not only building their business, but also helping the community, because at the end of the day all of our net proceeds go to charities as opposed to going to the players.”

The decision to move televised Senior Tour events to the CNBC network in 2001 was twofold, according to Nichols. First, ESPN backed off on its coverage because of the amount of other programming it was committed to. Secondly, CNBC was able to partner up with businesses and title sponsors to make it a win-win situation for the Senior Tour.

The Charles Schwab Cup, presented to the player of the year based on an accumulation of points, adds to the aura of the Senior Tour.

“Businesses obviously want to be associated with a product free from controversy,” Nichols said. “The players on the Senior Tour are people who represent that image.”           

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