RBC Heritage

Heritage deal with island in the works; mayor hints title sponsor on the line

An announcement about a new title sponsor for the Heritage golf tournament may be in the offing.

Hilton Head Island Mayor Drew Laughlin hinted at the possibility Tuesday during a public hearing on the town's proposed 2012 fiscal year budget.

Laughlin said the Heritage Classic Foundation, which runs the island's annual PGA Tour event, requested the town buy one-eighth the TV advertising spots that normally would go to a title sponsor. The foundation is requesting a five-year commitment worth about $3.2 million.

Laughlin called a council meeting for noon Thursday to discuss the issue.

In making the announcement, Laughlin said the foundation made clear in its request that the money would be necessary as part of a broader package - the details of which he did not disclose - to secure the tournament's future. He has said previously the town would not commit to future funding of the Heritage without some assurance that its spending would make a difference.

"I'm told it is necessary for this package to work for the town to participate at this level," he said.

Laughlin, after the meeting, did say the rest of the ad time would be bought by private entities, but said he was not at liberty to disclose who they are. The comments suggest a title sponsor has been lined up, but Laughlin would not say definitively.

In April, tournament organizer denied a Golf World report that RBC was close to a four-year deal, saying such scuttlebutt could hurt the tournament if other companies think a deal is done. The Golf Channel also published a similar report.

Before April's tournament, organizers said they had been close to a deal with an unnamed prospect only to see the deal fall apart.

Tournament director Steve Wilmot said organizers have fielded a flurry of interest from potential sponsors since April's tournament, which was played without a title sponsor. That interest came with some prospects interested in deals far below the $7 to $8 million per year organizers seek, he said.

Wilmot said the tournament is considering an arrangement in which a primary sponsor would agree to pay the bulk of the cost, while secondary sponsors cover the rest.

Under the proposal, the town would pay $562,500 the first year, with a 5 percent increase per year in the following years, for eight of the 32, 30-second ad spots each on CBS and the Golf Channel the foundation has rights to. The town would receive four spots on each network, Laughlin said.

The town received 16, 30-second ad spots on the Golf Channel in return for its $1 million grant to this year's tournament.

Laughlin said it is uncertain how the town would pay for the proposed ad-buy. Laughlin said he favors using a mix of accommodations and hospitality taxes, with the possibility of dipping again into an emergency advertising reserve account.

"I consider the loss of the Heritage to be a disaster," he said.

Council tapped the account in February for the third time in as many years, this time to help market the golf tournament.

The council voted to give the Heritage $160,000 for advertising from a mix of about $1.5 million in accommodations and hospitality tax dollars set aside for emergencies.

The town used money from the account in the last two years to pay for additional advertising through the Hilton Head Island-Bluffton Chamber of Commerce in an effort to counteract the effect of the national recession on island tourism. Council also dipped into the account following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Follow Tom Barton on Twitter at twitter.com/eyeonhiltonhead <http://twitter.com/eyeonhiltonhead> .