- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 2, 2009

As the AT&T; National works to establish itself as a mainstay of the D.C. sports scene, it will do so this year under a cloud of economic gloom.

The tournament already is viewed as one of the more high-profile events on the PGA Tour, but it has not been immune to a downturn in spending by sponsors and fans - even with Tiger Woods back as host.

“It’s probably in the 15 percent category across the board on sponsorships and ticket sales,” said Greg McLaughlin, tournament director for the AT&T; National and president of the Tiger Woods Foundation. “We’ve felt it, of course, like everyone else has been.”

Still, the tournament overall is in solid shape.

The AT&T; National has been helped by a long-term commitment from its title sponsor, which is locked in through 2014. And this area has not been as hard hit by the recession as other areas of the country.

Tournament officials scrambled earlier this year when the event lost two of its original founding partners in Bearing Point and Stanford Financial. Bearing Point, a business consulting firm with long ties to the PGA Tour, filed for bankruptcy in February. Stanford, meanwhile, is now in receivership and its founder, R. Allen Stanford, under indictment and accused of pilfering billions of dollars in a Ponzi scheme.

AT&T; National officials replaced one founding partner when it signed an agreement with Lockheed Martin, and CVS Caremark, CDW and Chevron stayed on as major sponsors.

Meanwhile, some corporate hospitality packages for suites near the 18th green remained unsold, though only a few spots remained in the Hogan Chalet and Congressional Clubhouse Suites. All four-day packages for the Capital Club were sold out, and one package in the Nicklaus Skybox, priced at $60,000, was still available.

The decline in sponsorship and hospitality sales could mean less money for the Tiger Woods Foundation, the tournament’s main charitable beneficiary. But officials said it was too early to draw any conclusions.

“We’re actually very confident that the event for 2009 is truly going to be great,” McLaughlin said. “We’re very optimistic that it will be a good year for us.”

Across the country, nearly all tournaments have been dealing with a turnover of sponsorships, much of it brought on by struggles in the financial and U.S. auto industries. General Motors and Chrysler, both now bankrupt, were major PGA Tour sponsors, and Ginn Resorts pulled several sponsorships, citing financial difficulties. U.S. Bank declined to extend its sponsorship of the tour stop in Milwaukee, and Stanford Financial was the sponsor of several other tournaments, including the St. Jude Championship and Tour Championship.

“It’s largely a reduction in budgets. It’s companies saving dollars,” PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem said. “Two areas you can save money without firing anybody is you can reduce entertainment and customer communication activity, and you can reduce advertising - and both of those things hurt us.”

The PGA Tour has been forced to defend itself against critics, including some lawmakers on Capitol Hill, who argue that sports sponsorships are not a sensible investment during the recession.

Finchem in May met with lawmakers to tout golf as a business. He was not planning a trip to Capitol Hill this week.

“I think in general we have to do a better job of communicating what the overall impact of golf is, what the overall charitable impact is,” he said. “In the United States, it’s $3.5 billion of charity dollars raised through golf.”

Tour officials were quick to point out that many companies have strengthened their support of golf in recent months. Travelers, Accenture and Zurich all signed extensions to sponsor tournaments through 2014, and HSBC took over sponsorship of the World Match Play Championship. Seoul Broadcasting Corporation in May agreed to a 10-year deal to be the title sponsor of the tour’s season-opening event in Kapalua, Hawaii.

And here in the District, officials said the AT&T; National is on solid footing because of the relative stability of its title sponsor.

“[AT&T; is] one of our longest and strongest partners,” PGA Tour executive vice president Ty Votaw said. “They have articulated why it works for AT&T; to sponsor the PGA Tour. It enables them to have in an up close and personal way a very direct and intimate conversation with their customers that not a lot of other sports sponsorships enable them to do.”

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