Despite economy, Heritage tournament pulls in the dough, study shows

The recession left a divot in the Heritage golf tournament, but the economic impact of Hilton Head Island's PGA Tour event remains almost as big as before.

Using data gathered from almost 1,900 spectators during April's 42nd annual tournament, researchers estimate the event generates $81.9 million.About $72 million of that is spending by visitors and the Heritage Classic Foundation, the nonprofit organization that runs the event.

Considering the economic slump of recent years, that's pretty good, said Bob Brookover, director of Clemson University's International Institute for Tourism Research & Development, which performed the study.

The latest study indicates the Heritage is "a solid event with a really good, stable fan base," Brookover said Tuesday after tournament organizers released the results.

This year's figure is down slightly from the $84 million researchers calculated after the 2005 tournament, although that estimate was performed using a less conservative method.

If data from both years were plugged into the new model and adjusted for inflation, this year's total would be $74.3 million, down from 2005's $79.91 million, Brookover said.

Although methods for conducting such studies can vary widely, the Heritage's figures are significantly higher than the reported total for two other professional sports events in South Carolina. The Family Circle Cup tennis tournament in Charleston brings in about $25 million, and the annual NASCAR race in Darlington, about $54 million.

The Heritage, however, brings in less than the Players Championship, a PGA Tour event in Florida known as golf's "fifth major," which had an impact of $95 million in 2005, Brookover said.

The Heritage's figures do not include spending by Beaufort County residents or the players, caddies, agents, their families, media, major sponsors, vendors, club manufacturers and tour officials who converge on Harbour Town Golf Links for the tournament. State income taxes on the tournament's $5.7 million purse also are not included.

Researchers and tournament organizers, who conducted their first economic impact study in 1999, hope the new report will help lure a title sponsor to replace Verizon, which is not sponsoring next year's event.

It's important for prospective sponsors to realize the economic impact on the state and community is still profound, said John Salazar, director of the Lowcountry and Resort Islands Tourism Institute and an associate professor at the University of South Carolina Beaufort, which helped with this year's study.

Tournament organizers point out the tournament's economic impact as part of their pitch to interested companies, said Simon Fraser, chairman of the Heritage foundation's board of trustees.

Perhaps the greatest benefit tournament organizers found in this year's results were calculations showing local government reaps $4.09 million in net revenues from the event, while the state reaps $8.56 million, Fraser said.

Those figures, not included in previous studies, could help organizers build support for the tournament among politicians, he said. That could come in handy if organizers cannot find a new sponsor for next year's event.

To gauge the damage if the tournament were to disappear, researchers this year asked spectators how likely they would be to return to the area without the Heritage. About 62 percent of respondents said they were unsure, unlikely or very unlikely to return, and 71 percent of respondents indicated the tournament was their primary purpose for visiting.

That indicates to Brookover that a significant chunk of the tournament's economic impact is at stake in organizers' quest to keep the tournament healthy.

"People would feel it," he said.

This year's study also included information intended to help organizers better target their marketing efforts. The average age of tournament spectators has climbed in recent years, so organizers will likely increase efforts to court a younger clientele.

"The emphasis over the next few years will be building that base of the next generation," Fraser said.