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Title sponsors becoming harder to find

Somewhere on a shelf in the office of the FedEx St. Jude Classic is a three-ring binder that holds ''The Tiger Plan,'' an outline of what to do should Tiger Woods commit to play in this PGA Tour event in Memphis.

Among the directions is a reminder to order 30% more port-o-potties.

''We've never used the plan,'' says Phil Cannon, the tournament's director, ''but every now and then we dust it off and discuss it.''

With the Tour poised to begin a new season Thursday in Hawaii, tournament directors are dreaming of attracting Woods, the one man who can draw international attention -- and more bathrooms -- to a local event.

''Whatever you had without Tiger,'' Cannon says, ''whether that's security guards, concession stands, volunteer uniforms or port-o-potties, you increase by a third.''

Woods, who had knee surgery in December, won't play in the Mercedes Championships this week. He isn't expected to return to competition for a month, but his impact on golf has been mind-boggling.

* In 1995, golfer Greg Norman set a record by winning $1.6 million. Last year that figure wouldn't have been in the top 30 in Tour earnings.

* This year's Kemper Open, one of the Tour's lower level events, will have a purse of $4.5 million, $1 million more than two years ago. In 1980 the purse was $400,000.

Because of Woods' presence, corporate and TV money has been thrown at the Tour since 1996. It has helped golf rise past the label of a ''niche'' sport, and Woods has become perhaps the most famous athlete in the world.

But this year -- despite heading into a robust 48-event schedule and a record $220 million in purses -- the money has not come easy.

* Ten companies found the price for title sponsorship (up to $7 million a year) too expensive to renew given the downturn in the economy.

* Many of those 10 were replaced with blue-chip companies, but the turnover in title sponsors was the highest in years and made the Tour's staff scramble to peddle the product and solidify the schedule.

* Four of the tournaments -- the Phoenix Open, The Heritage, the Greater Hartford Open and the Las Vegas Invitational -- will operate on bridge sponsorships, financial agreements that patch together multiple sponsors to get them through this season.

Did the PGA Tour, not yet taking a breather from the full-court press of solidifying sponsors, grow too fast? Has it priced itself out of the market? And is its economic success too reliant on Woods?

Or given today's economic realities, was the Tour's ability to increase prize money and attract sponsors such as Ford, Bank of America and Wachovia testimony to its power?

Waiting by the phone

While the players loosen up for a new season in Hawaii, Dan Baker sits in cold Cromwell, Conn., hoping the next phone call will be someone who wants to sponsor the Greater Hartford Open.

''About once a week somebody inquires,'' says Baker, the event director. ''But nothing happens that's significant.''

The Greater Hartford Open, scheduled in July, has time to find a sponsor, as does The Heritage in April and the Las Vegas Invitational in October. The Phoenix Open, coming up Jan. 23-26, does not.

Woods might not play in any of these events. Pete Kuehner, the Phoenix Open chairman, says the problem is the economic conditions.

''Had we been caught in a situation like this two years ago,'' Kuehner says, ''I think I would have had five to six companies interested.''

However, on the 2003 schedule are two new events, the Wachovia Championship in Charlotte and the Deutsche Bank U.S. Championship in Boston. Both are more than hoping Woods plays those weeks.

Kym Hougham, the Wachovia tournament director, met with Woods and his agent, Mark Steinberg, at The Tour Championship in November. Hougham says it was a casual meeting and he'll speak with Woods this spring.

The Deutsche Bank is all but certain to get Woods because his foundation is the tournament's charity and the event was developed by IMG, which represents Woods.

''His plate is pretty full,'' Hougham says. ''Realistically, a lot of the events are never going to see Tiger Woods.''

That's because the Tour operates as a trade organization and its players work as independent contractors. As such, they are not required to play every tournament. Woods played 18 Tour events last year, and he's expected to play 18-20 this year. (A player must play 15 events to maintain his voting rights on Tour issues.)

Among Woods' 18 events are the four majors and three or four World Golf Championship events. He has an endorsement contract with Buick, and although the Tour prohibits any golfer from signing a contract that requires him to play an event the company sponsors, Woods plays two of the four events sponsored by Buick.

The Tour does not allow appearance fees for fear of a conflict of interest, but the European PGA Tour does. Woods has played in Germany in recent years at prices reportedly about $2 million.

''You can't tie the two,'' Kuehner says, ''but if you're under contract to Buick, aren't you going to feel obligated to go to their golf tournament?''

Last year 61 golfers made more than $1 million on the Tour, and of them the most events any one golfer played was 34 by John Rollins. The fewest was 15 by Retief Goosen. Ernie Els and Nick Price, like Woods, played 18.

''What we're seeing is nothing new,'' says Ben Brundred, who ran the Kemper Open for 20 years. ''In 1980 I was trying to get Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus to play my tournament.

''The difference is Tiger. There has never been a player who dominates the Tour and draws the media attention that Tiger gets.''

What helps attract players is a mystery. Money doesn't seem to be the answer, though some agents will tell you it is.

''I don't think there's a player on the Tour who doesn't know the purse of the event they're playing,'' says Tommy Limbaugh, who represents former U.S. Open champion Lee Janzen.

Hougham thinks the golf course is important, and everyone thinks the position on the schedule affects an event's chances of getting Woods and the other top players.

Woods never plays the week before The Masters, but last year he played the Buick Open the week before the PGA Championship. This year the Kemper Open is the week before the U.S. Open.

''My guess is he won't play the week before the Open,'' Brundred says. ''But you never say never.''

With or without Woods, the tournaments are obligated by contract to keep increasing the purses.

In 2006, the last year of the contract with the Tour, the Kemper will have a purse of $5.2 million. On top of that is $2 million-$3 million to televise the event and another $400,000 in amenities for the players.

PGA Tour Commissioner Tim Finchem did not comment for this article but said in November, ''The strength and the quality of the sponsorship group that we see now is improved. (That) will set us in good stead for the next five or 10 years.''

At the current prices it would appear difficult to justify the involvement, but Kevin Demsky, who runs the sports marketing program for Federal Express, says golf is a good buy. In 2003 FedEx will be the title sponsor for the Tour stop in Memphis for the 17th consecutive year.

''Our ability to do what we need to do is not driven by marquee players,'' Demsky explains. ''The tournament is only one of the things we do for the people we're entertaining.''

FedEx entertains 350 customers during the week of the tournament. Only 20 of them play in the tournament's pro-am. The others play in golf outings off site and attend the tournament as spectators. Demsky says the customers who came to the tournament did 13 percent more business with FedEx than the previous year.

As tournament director, Cannon is responsible for filling the field. He has never had Woods play in his event, and he isn't sure he'll be able to attract him.

''There are six or seven guys playing the Tour who can move the needle,'' he says. ''They are the guys you recognize by their first name -- Phil Mickelson, Davis Love, Sergio Garcia, Ernie Els.''

Cannon says there are a lot of needles, or barometers, to the success of a tournament. They include attendance, TV ratings and charitable donations, which come from the profit once the bills are paid.

This will be the 46th year for the Memphis tournament, and every director has struggled to get marquee players.

''Our charity is the St. Jude Hospital,'' Cannon says. ''St. Jude is the patron saint for lost causes, but we don't feel like we're a lost cause. We'll have a good tournament regardless of who plays.''

 

 

 

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