News & Opinion

As a brand, Arnie connects with an army

ORLANDO, Fla. – The PGA Tour has taught me at least one thing. I need to build a better brand.

My first attempt at branding was purely accidental. When I joined Sports Illustrated years ago, a secretary had business cards printed for me and sent to my home in Pittsburgh.

I opened the box and quickly noticed that spellcheck failed the secretary (just like she usually failed to forward my messages or mail). Instead of senior writer, the cards read, senior waiter.

I was ticked off for 10 seconds, then decided that senior waiter was too much fun not to use. It made for a great conversation-starter and was memorable – the basis of a budding brand. In fact, I still hear the occasional, “Hey, senior waiter!” After I punch that person out, we usually share a good laugh.

Where I went wrong was, I didn’t design a logo to go with the name. I didn’t trademark the title. I didn’t find a corporate partner. Thus, I didn’t become a brand.

The best thing about this week’s Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill is the branding. I don’t mean branding for commercial reasons. I mean, it’s great because there are just so many reminders, down to little details, that this tournament is part of a much bigger picture, the Arnold Palmer legacy. Or, if you must, his brand.

Four banners in the media center feature old photos of Palmer in action, each one with a different memorable quote from him, such as, “The road to success is always under construction.” You could say the same thing about the roads to Orlando, too.

Tournament officials are doing a great job of celebrating the man whom we simply called Arnie. That’s a good thing. His was a life well-lived, a very good life.

Palmer is gone, but his legacy endures.

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Here’s another small touch: Tournament sponsor MasterCard has taken its name out of the event’s official logo. It is now the Arnold Palmer Invitational presented by the image of red and gold intersecting circles, MasterCard’s recognizable-if-not-iconic logo, instead of the actual corporate name.

Everyone else in sports is driving for more corporate branding and naming rights, but at Bay Hill, MasterCard is going for subtle.

Look around. Sports is full of sellouts, and I don’t mean ticket sales. Non-corporate stadium names such as Wrigley Field, Yankee Stadium or Lambeau Field are on the endangered-species list. Former Masters chairman Hord Hardin once joked about making sure that his “toon-a-mint” never became known as “The Pizza Hut Masters,” but that’s where the rest of golf is.

There’s no Western Open, Los Angeles Open or Quad Cities Open anymore. Now they’re the BMW Championship, Genesis Open and John Deere Classic, respectively.

When I was a kid, it was a thrill to get a chance to go to a game at Tiger Stadium or Comiskey Park, names that came alive in the imagination. Do kids today get the same thrill thinking about Dignity Health Sports Park and Lincoln Financial Field? How many Houston youngsters fondly remember trips to Enron Field?

Arnie’s famous umbrella logo – the four-color umbrella in red, yellow, white and green above his signature – gives this event good vibes. And the umbrella logo has only grown in stature since Palmer died Sept. 25, 2016, at age 87.

This week’s onsite highlights – besides the 13-foot statue of The King – feature the Arnold Palmer Experience, an interactive mini-museum of all things Arnie plus golf simulators on which fans can try to re-create a few of his most famous shots.

“You can’t really walk around the tournament this week without seeing, hearing or feeling what Mr. Palmer has influenced,” said Marci Doyle, the API’s tournament director.

This week is all Arnie, all the time, and I give that two thumbs up.

Palmer’s popularity is still such that Puma announced a multiyear deal that will feature Arnold Palmer co-branded apparel, footwear and accessories. Arnie, despite once being the King of Munsingwear, is permanently fashionable.

“They have done a deep dive into the Arnold Palmer brand and the classic style he represented,” said Jon Podany, chief executive officer of Arnold Palmer Enterprises. “It’s amazing how many style elements he had 40, 50 years ago that a lot of younger players are carrying forward today.”

Arnie’s umbrella logo has reached iconic status. This week, the tournament offers players the option to get that umbrella embroidered on their hats, shirts or bags in tribute. Call it good branding or a nice touch – same difference.

I asked Justin Rose, a 2019 API ambassador, whether he considered himself to be a brand and, if so, how he’d describe that brand. He was sitting on the media-center stage with a wall of tournament logos just behind him and Arnie images and quotes on the tent wall to his right.

Rose smiled nervously, thought about it for a second, and answered, “It doesn’t feel right to call it [me] a brand, sitting here and looking where we are [he gestured toward the photos] and what we’re talking about as a brand. But everything has to start somewhere.

“I’m trying to build my brand on the golf course right now. I feel like I’m still in the doing phase of my career. If that ultimately creates a brand down the road, that’s the organic way it needs to happen. I don’t think you can force it, or it becomes contrived. So, for me, it’s just about trying to be a pro and learn from the best.”

I can’t argue with the well-spoken Rose. However, in my role as senior waiter, I can tell you about today’s specials.

Gary Van Sickle has covered golf since 1980 for Sports Illustrated and Golf.com, Golf World and The Milwaukee Journal. Email: gvansick@aol.com; Twitter: @GaryVanSickle