- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 10, 2007

The decision by the PGA Tour to drop the International tournament from its schedule has served to underscore how much of an impact Tiger Woods can have on the health of a golf event.

While tournaments featuring Woods have remained some of the most viable on tour, the remaining events routinely spend their offseason shuffling through potential title sponsors and available tour dates.

Jack Vickers, founder of the International and Castle Pines golf club in Denver, directly blamed Tiger Woods’ absence for the inability to land a top-tier title sponsor.

“For 21 years, we marketed this tournament and had sponsors lined up at the front door,” Vickers said. “But all of a sudden we’re in a new era. It’s been influenced by one outstanding, unbelievable player in Tiger Woods. When he’s playing, the ratings are great. When he’s not, the ratings aren’t so hot.”

Woods routinely plays far fewer events on tour than most players, rarely playing on back-to-back weeks or in the weeks just prior to and after a major.

Ratings studies show that events featuring Woods generally lure twice as many television viewers than those without him. The addition of golfers like Phil Mickelson, Vijay Singh and Ernie Els can boost ratings even further.

“When we talk to potential sponsors, they call their advertising people and the next thing we know we are talking about ratings, and that makes it tough,” Vickers said.

PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem downplayed the role that Woods’ absence has played, insisting that the demise of the International has as much to do with the event taking place during Independence Day weekend.

“We had a strong price point. We had declining ratings the last three or four years. We had questions about the date and the combination is what worked against us,” Finchem said. “It wasn’t any one thing.”

Nevertheless, the International is not the first Tiger-less tournament to be dropped from the PGA Tour this year, as the tour reshuffled things to ensure the best events for its new FedEx Cup schedule. An annual tournament in Western Pennsylvania was canceled after 84 Lumber backed out of its usual title sponsorship of the event, and the B.C. Open and Tuscon Open also were dropped.

The tour’s stop in Hartford, Conn., was in jeopardy after losing title sponsor Buick last year but was saved when St. Paul Traveler’s agreed to sponsor the event if it moved to the June date once occupied by the 84 Lumber Classic.

Meanwhile, the District lost its annual PGA Tour event this year when Booz Allen Hamilton pulled out as title sponsor, citing the tour’s decision to move the tournament to October — after the new FedEx Cup events.

Finchem told the Associated Press yesterday that in a search for cities to replace the International, D.C. remained one of four options along with Minneapolis, Portland, Ore., and one city he would not name.

“When we get done and we’re ready to prioritize, if all is about equal and Washington was one of them, we would probably prioritize Washington because we know it’s a great time with the Fourth of July … and it would be nice to have members of Congress involved,” Finchem said.

Stephen Pruitt, a professor of business economics and finance at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, said a sponsorship agreement with the PGA Tour can still be more valuable than a sponsorship with any other sports league. But, he said his most recent research suggests that being a title sponsor for a sporting event, including a golf tournament, rarely is worth it because of the relatively high cost.

“With these golf tournaments, it’s a lot of money, and what we find is that if you’re spending $8 million, you’re getting $8 million,” Pruitt said. “In general, we find that title sponsorships are kind of a zero sum game.”

The District’s event, usually played at the TPC at Avenel, often had one of the weakest fields of any tournament, and the 84 Lumber Classic often failed to lure Woods or other top golfers. (Several Tiger-less tournaments, including the 84 Lumber Classic and the John Deere Classic, resorted to giving sponsors exemptions to Michelle Wie in order to boost interest.) The Hartford event, played at the TPC at River Highlands, is generally considered one of the most spectator-friendly tournaments, but it, too, has attracted the most elite golfers only sporadically; Woods has never played there.

“[Tiger’s] great to have at your event, but is it possible to have a successful event without him? Absolutely,” said Nathan Grube, tournament director for the Traveler’s Championship. “I’m not counting him out. You just never know what’s going on with his schedule.”

At least one Tiger-less event on the PGA Tour, the Valero Texas Open, has remained consistently viable over the last five years because of the loyalty of its title sponsor. Valero Energy Corporation recently extended its contract with the San Antonio event through 2012, despite the tour repeatedly scheduling it on dates guaranteed to ensure a weak field. The tournament has been scheduled in the past opposite the Ryder Cup and President’s Cup and this year is scheduled for October 4-7, after the FedEx Cup events.

“When they handed out good dates on tour the last several years it wasn’t because the tour wouldn’t put us there, it’s just that we weren’t in a position to do what we needed to do to get a better date,” said, Tony Piazzi, chief executive officer of Golf San Antonio which operates the Valero Texas Open. “I can’t say we’re really frustrated, but it would be nice if the all players varied their schedule a little bit.”

Valero officials said the financial benefit of sponsoring the tournament is more than twice the cost, and that it has raised more than $21 million for charity since it began sponsoring the event five years ago. Last year, it raised $7 million, the most in PGA tour history.

“Our commitment to keep the Texas Open alive is part of our commitment to the city of San Antonio,” said Mary Rose Brown, Valero’s vice president of corporate communications. “It is also a source of great pride for our employees. And, it provides excellent branding opportunities for our retail and wholesale businesses. We’ve found it has a pretty good [return on investment.]”

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