Sports

Summertime, and living is easier for tournament
By Chris Roush

Greensboro’s professional golf tournament once again has survived the cut. But organizers are a long way from striding up the 18th fairway to tap in for a major victory. When the PGA Tour announced its schedule for the 2007 season — shrunk from 48 to 38 tournaments — the Gate City was on it. It even got a better date, Aug. 13-19, rather than the one it had in October. So why aren’t more people in Greensboro smiling?

Maybe it’s because they know there is more work to be done to keep the shots coming at the Carolina Classic at Greensboro — the tournament’s 2007 name, for now. The name is changing because the sponsor, DaimlerChrysler, is paying for its final round at Forest Oaks Country Club this fall.

That might have been enough to kill the event except for a mad pitch by organizers, led by tournament director Mark Brazil. The board had 10 days to come up with a $25 million letter of credit to secure a date on the Tour through 2010. The backing came from individuals, businesses and foundations. “We had to provide that guarantee to the Tour to show we were serious about this,” Brazil says.

If they were serious then, it’s hard to characterize the mood now. Particularly with $25 million at risk if they don’t come up with a title sponsor. The tournament has hired IMG, the New York-based sports-marketing powerhouse, to get those backers off the hook. Tournament officials, Brazil says, already have had phone conversations with several potential sponsors. He talks to IMG executives weekly and expects a new sponsor in place by the fall.
He declined to discuss candidates but says the search is worldwide. Of course, there are some good reasons for that.

While North Carolina-based companies such as Bank of America and Wachovia might seem natural fits, both already have their names on golf tournaments. Wachovia signed a four-year extension last year on the Wachovia Championship in Charlotte; BofA sponsors the Colonial in Texas and the Bank of America Championship, a senior event, in Massachusetts. Jefferson-Pilot, once the city’s most prominent corporate player, has been bought by a Philadelphia insurance company. Winston-Salem-based Reynolds American is out — cigarette makers can no longer sponsor sports events.

“We would love to have someone based in North Carolina, but regional sponsors are hard,” says tournament board member George House, a Greensboro lawyer. “Only companies with national products benefit from paying the rates for national TV.”

That eliminates the state’s other banks and utilities such as Duke Energy and Progress Energy. Lowe’s seems more comfortable with NASCAR. Later this year, the Triad will gain a Fortune 500 company when Chicago-based Sara Lee spins off Hanesbrands into a separate company. But given its prominence in pantyhose and bras, it might be more at home with the LPGA.

National companies in financial services, automobiles, insurance and business consulting would be prime candidates, says David Carter, executive director of the University of Southern California Sports Business Institute. “That sponsor might be trying to reach consumers or other businesses, and golf can provide a tight demographic of affluent homeowners.”

Brazil says it is a seller’s market, noting that only a handful of PGA events are seeking title sponsors. “Four years ago, there were about 12 tournaments on the PGA Tour looking for sponsors. Now there’s a real scarcity.” A title sponsor helps pay for operations as well as TV advertisements. Corporate sponsors spent $900 million with the PGA in 2005, up 7% from the year before, according to IEG Sponsorship Report, which notes that pharmaceutical and technology companies have become major sponsors in recent years.

Regardless of who the new sponsor is, the tournament — long thought of as mostly a local event — must broaden its appeal to patrons and fans. The key, Brazil says, is the new board, which last year took over running the event from the Greensboro Jaycees. The Jaycees had been running the event since its inception, but they treated it as part fundraiser and part leadership program. A volunteer would serve as chairman of the tournament for a year, then turn it over to another volunteer. No real continuity was established until Brazil was hired in late 2001.

The board is being expanded to include executives from outside the Gate City, including J.B. Davis, president of Klaussner Furniture Industries in Asheboro, and Paul Fulton, former dean of Carolina’s Kenan-Flagler Business School. Even the city’s name, a fixture on the Tour since 1938, could disappear. A new sponsor, Brazil says, will likely want the tournament to bear its brand.

But even a name change won’t solve another problem: the tournament’s site. Forest Oaks is not one of the Tour’s famous courses, even after a makeover in 2003 from UNC grad and top Tour player Davis Love III. It’s not even a marquee course in its own state. Golf Digest doesn’t rank it among the 25 best in North Carolina, favoring others such as Pinehurst No. 2, Quail Hollow in Charlotte, Grandfather Golf and Country Club in Linville and even Bryan Park in nearby Browns Summit.

The date change helps and hurts. August in Greensboro is hot. Since 2001 — excluding an abnormally cool 2004 — the daily high temperature that week has averaged 87, with humidity in the upper 90s. The good news: less competition for fans than in October. The National Football League will be in its preseason. College football won’t be cranked up. NASCAR will be on a North/Midwest swing. Even the interminable National Basketball Association and National Hockey League playoffs will be over.

Because it’s the final “regular season” tournament before the start of the four-event Tour championship series, the new date should attract stronger fields. House says it will force some top players to come to Greensboro to better their position. “It’s clear that we will wind up with everyone from No. 15 to No. 40. Whether we get the top five or six depends on how close they are at the end of the year. If it’s a runaway, Tiger may not play. But if he’s at a close position at the top of the list, he may need to play.”

Greensboro needs him. Or it may yet eventually find itself beside Hartford, Conn., and Washington, D.C., on the outside looking in, hoping for a tee time on the next PGA Tour schedule.