News & Opinion

PGA Tour’s brand madness reaches ad nauseam

Bryson DeChambeau at 2020 Rocket Mortgage Classic final round
Corporate sponsor FedEx and tournament title sponsors' logos creep ever closer to the action on the PGA Tour.

Wall-to-wall commercials, signs and logos – before, during and after the golf shots – fill PGA Tour’s coffers as they dull the senses

What’s in a name? About $15 million, if you’re looking to hang your shingle on a high-end PGA Tour event, at least $8 million if you’re willing to settle for one of those tournaments in the fall. Righteous bucks, as Jeff Spicoli would attest, although these aren’t exactly fast times in the vastly fluid world of title sponsorship.

Water doesn’t run uphill, nor will a fat man with a bum knee. With the U.S. unemployment rate still in double digits (10.2 percent) and COVID-19 feasting on college campuses from sea to shaky sea, the optics on superfluous corporate-marketing expenditures might be nearing the low end of its threshold. Many deals signed two or three years ago, however, remain in effect today. This helps explain Camp Ponte Vedra’s ear-to-ear grin when things look so grim.

Northern Trust is a financial services company that hosted the tour stop in Los Angeles for nine years. In 2017, it leapt across the country to grab title sponsorship of the first FedEx Cup playoff event, previously occupied by Barclays, another wealth-management firm. The fact that Northern Trust is based in Chicago – site of this week’s postseason tilt, subsidized by BMW – is neither here nor there, at least in a figurative sense.

What is here or there is the first playoff leg itself, which supposedly will alternate between New York and Boston, although nobody seems to have the faintest idea whether that is a long-term plan. There is no complete 2020-21 schedule to date, although the Tour did come up with the moxie to begin next season before this season is over, loading up the final three months of the calendar year with its fall stuff.

Barclays, meanwhile, has left the golf industry, perhaps because it still owes a bunch of money on the $400 million it paid for naming rights to the sports arena in Brooklyn back in 2007. Yet another fiscal institution, AIG, recently slapped its acronym on the Women’s British Open, which concluded Sunday with a surprise winner (Sophia Popov). The deal went into effect last year under the condition that “British” be removed from the tournament title, meaning four countries were eliminated to make room for a building full of financial analysts.

If you’re still reading this, thank you very much. And if you’re confused, there’s little chance that clarity will be provided in the next few paragraphs. The commercialization of professional golf is even more boring than it is complex, and it’s becoming more pervasive than it is boring. Anyone who watched the action from TPC Boston surely noticed the increased number of mirage-like placards appearing on the screen as players prepared to hit their shots.

Runner-up Harris English at 2020 Northern Trust
Harris English, the runner-up at the PGA Tour's Northern Trust, had plenty of reminders last week as to who was paying the bills at TPC Boston.

My editor refers to these 10-second title-sponsor IDs as offensive. Kind of like visual body odor. Fifteen million will buy you a lot of attention, although suspicious minds have to wonder whether Northern Trust has experienced a significant growth in business through its partnership with the Tour, or whether the uninvited appearance of its logo just right of the 14th tee is more appealing than yet another Jordan Spieth drive to the left.

Call it a dead heat. And by the way, don’t call it the “Northern Trust Open” or the “Northern Trust Classic” or the “Northern Trust Championship.” It’s just the “Northern Trust” nowadays, a growing trend to specifically brand Tour events only by the sponsor’s name. This is yet another overt and fashionably tacky method of attempting to generate more “recognition” for the corporation that was so kind to bring you this week’s golf tournament.

Never mind that it would have been played, anyway, although there’s a certain amount of risk in asking where. Some other substantial financial fortress covered the cost before Northern Trust came along. Another will pony up the fee after it leaves. The Charles Schwab Challenge always will be the Colonial, regardless of how long Chuck himself is willing to foot the bill.

The Tournament of Champions was sponsored by Mutual of New York until Mercedes-Benz came along and dumped the original name altogether, making the German automobile manufacturer a pioneer in terms of hogging the marquee. It was followed by SBS, which was replaced by Hyundai, which tossed it back to SBS after Hyundai succeeded Northern Trust in Los Angeles.

Of course, the gathering in Maui is now underwritten by Sentry Insurance, and the tournament in L.A. has become the Genesis Invitational. Tour events change names more often than check forgers. A new CEO is brought in and he plays off a 17 handicap at the toniest club in town. He thinks it would be a great idea to work up a little five-year, $54-million arrangement to host seven of the top 50 golfers in the world, and the next thing you know, his operation is hemorrhaging cash.

Demographics, baby. Pro golf is an awesome investment until it isn’t. The rich don’t always get richer. They definitely don’t always see the big picture.

You can think of title sponsorship as a necessary evil, although it’s probably neither. Hundreds of millions have been raised for charity over the years, a vast portion of which came from corporate pockets. The bigshots, corner-office cats and top sales folks get to play in the Wednesday pro-am when there isn’t some pandemic hanging around and ruining almost everything.

There are barely a handful of tournaments governed by the PGA Tour that don’t have a commercial reference included in their official titles. The Houston Open got sentenced to November because it couldn’t secure corporate support. Only the Players Championship and Tour Championship remain naked by design, along with the four majors, none of which falls under Tour jurisdiction.

All four pay righteous bucks. Even a stoned surfer knows that.

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