Albeit not welcomed news by any stretch, last week's announcement that Verizon would cease sponsorship of the Heritage after next year's event couldn't have come as too much of a shock to local tournament officials and the PGA Tour, which has been expecting some corporate defections given the current economic climate.
Despite the understandable disappointment and fret, the Lowcountry golf and business community has rallied around its signature event as it has so many times in the past 41 years. To be sure, this is not the first time the Heritage Foundation, which runs the tournament, has had to search for a new title sponsor to lend its name, and significant cash, to the Harbour Town event. Assuming a title sponsor is obtained for 2011 and beyond, you can rest assured this won't be the last time the Heritage is in search of title sponsorship. It's simply a sign of the times for major professional sports.
There's no doubt, however, the diminutive size of the area, both as a population center and television market, makes it a unique host on the PGA Tour slate. Likewise, the lack of large businesses with plush marketing budgets headquartered in the region is equally challenging to tournament director Steve Wilmot and tour officials that are now charged with finding and maintaining sponsorship of the event moving forward.
That said, you can bet your Pro V1s that the Heritage will not be the only tournament scrambling for new and sizable financial commitments in the next three years. There are a significant number of tournaments that must have their sponsorship agreement renewed soon for 2011 and beyond, just as the Heritage did.
Verizon isn't the only major U.S. corporation choking on a $7-plus million tab for a week's worth of publicity.
Just listen to PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem: "I think it's possible that we could lose a couple events. It's probable we're going to lose some sponsors."
Talk about your foreshadowing. This comment was made during the Tour Championship, a week before the Verizon announcement.
Now, to be fair, Finchem also went on to state that he was confident that sponsors for tournaments such as the Heritage would be found. He didn't say easily found, just found. I agree with Finchem and am well on record that corporate sponsorship of a PGA Tour event is a responsible and beneficial investment for corporate America.
Look no further than the brand awareness it creates and the charitable giving it promotes. Even in a tough financial year, the PGA Tour will give more than $100 million to charity this year through its tournaments, including the Heritage, whose giving this year exceeded $1 million despite lower sponsorship revenues.
But in some part due to its own policies, the PGA Tour is facing a tough road ahead. Like unemployment lines the past couple years, the "sponsorship wanted" line at the PGA Tour office in Ponte Vedra, Fla., is going to be a long one. While the economy and some loudmouth politicians are certainly significant culprits here, it hasn't helped that the tour has been somewhat slow to get out in front of our slumping Dow Jones and act proactively to make supporting tour events a more viable financial equation.
Even in the face of slipping revenues, the Heritage Foundation in the past two years had to raise its purse by $200,000 to last year's $5.7 million total. This year, winner Brian Gay became the first Heritage champion to pocket more than $1 million. This increase, along with all the others of the past decade, happened, in part, by doctrine from PGA Tour headquarters. Thing is, when purses go up the bill to national and regional sponsors goes with them. Bottom line, the Heritage Foundation is playing the game by the hand they've been dealt and up to now have managed to stay in the game nicely.
Yet as these purses have been on the rise, little help appears to have come from the tour in getting its marquee players to appear in all of its events (at least through the Tour Championship) on a rotating basis. Look, I can't tell you that a guarantee of having Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson and other tour stars at Harbour Town at least once or twice over the next four years would have changed Verizon's thinking, but it sure wouldn't have hurt it.
Considering its spot on the schedule a week after the Masters, the Heritage should be commended for the solid fields it gets, but a little more star power at the top would help immensely on many fronts. There has to be something beneficial to the tour's rank and file when places like Hilton Head, Greensboro and Hartford are on at least somewhat equal footing with Chicago, St. Louis and Charlotte when it comes time to seek out sponsors for their events. It's simply a health of the whole issue.
Recently, Finchem conceded that PGA Tour purses are not likely to grow in the near future, and that is good news for the near four dozen PGA Tour events looking for relief in these difficult times. Perhaps ticket prices, although extremely reasonable for a full week's entertainment at least here on Hilton Head, can be eased. Better yet, some local and regional sponsors that truly want to support the event and local charities might be able to do so at a number that befits their budgets.
So it's in this climate that the Heritage Foundation and the tour begin their search for a new partner to carry on our prized PGA event. It takes a strong ship to make it through such strong headwinds, and from what I've seen during my near 14 years in this community, the Heritage is every bit steady as she goes. It has survived times such as these only to emerge stronger, and there are a lot of local businesses, charities and plain old golf fans hoping that will indeed happen again.