Long before Tiger Woods began attracting enormous galleries with his record-obliterating victories and negotiating $100 million endorsement deals as a result of those performances, corporate America’s marriage to professional sports and the athletes who play them was doing just fine.
Sports heroes have become public icons over the years. It’s nothing new, especially in the game of golf. Long before their names and faces were being rejuvenated by sports-driven television networks like ESPN and Fox Sports Net, many Senior PGA Tour members had established connections to the business world.
Whether pedaling rental cars or cereal, or endorsing things like credit card companies and beer, not to mention all of the golf equipment, clothes and memorabilia, players like Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, Lee Trevino and Raymond Floyd have parlayed their popularity and success on the golf course into major endorsement opportunities.
Closer to home, Oklahoma stars have been fortunate enough to transform their on-the-course accomplishments into healthy paydays in the business world. Edmond resident Gil Morgan is a prime example, along with fellow Oak Tree product Jay Tewell.
Both have followed the path originally blazed by Palmer and others.
Despite sitting out much of 2008 with a knee injury, Woods is still considered the best player in the world and the hottest commodity to come down the endorsement pike since basketball great Michael Jordan.
His last five-year deal with Nike Inc. was unprecedented, not only in terms of money but in incentives such as Internet rights.
Yet according to a recent survey, Woods is still lagging behind Palmer and Nicklaus in overall popularity. More than 500 randomly selected avid golfers, both men and women, voted Palmer first in each of the survey’s three categories: familiarity, likability and credibility.
Although his image has evolved from swashbuckling hero to distinguished elder statesman and spokesperson, Palmer’s appeal is as deep and viable now as it was during the height of his PGA Tour career in the 1960s. He was the Tiger Woods of his generation and evidently, he is still “The King,” although these days it has little to do with the 83 career tournament titles he won worldwide in the prime of his career.
In fact, the 78-year-old Palmer officially retired from competitive golf two years ago. So it’s safe to say his popularity isn’t solely based on wins and losses, and he certainly isn’t riding the coattails of his talented young successor.
“Arnold was the first golfer to transcend the game. People know Arnold Palmer to stand for a lot of values and he has always been so well-respected,” said Alastair Johnston, who represents Palmer for IMG.
That combination of assets helped make Palmer a huge success in the endorsement business long after many of his contemporaries from other sports have retired from the public eye.
It helps that golfers have a longer opportunity to remain in the active spotlight than other athletes. Golf can offer a 20- to 30-year public stage and Palmer no doubt took full advantage of that.
“Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player, Lee Trevino were the reason that the Senior Tour was created. The public still wanted to see those people play. That was the generation the baby boomers grew up watching on TV, so there was definitely a market for them,” said longtime IMG agent and former University of Oklahoma golf coach David Yates. “The baby boomers are still a driving force in the economy. Corporate America recognizes that and they cater to who’s going to best get the message across from them.”
Even with the omnipresence of young guns like former Sooner Anthony Kim, Camilo Villegas, Trevor Immelman and ex-Oklahoma State star Hunter Mahan, the over-50 crowd continues to grab a major share of the endorsement pie.
“If you think about it, a lot of the players on the Senior Tour get a lot of TV time compared to the guys on the regular tour,” said Morgan, who earned more than $15 million in his first decade on the Senior Tour and plenty more in endorsements. “Basically, all of our tournaments are televised by ESPN, we have half the players the PGA Tour does and there is no cut. If you are playing well, you’ve got the potential to get a lot of TV exposure.”
Former OU All-American and 23-year PGA Tour veteran Andrew Magee points to several factors when explaining why the endorsement business is booming in his sport.
“Part of it is the fact so many golfers project a positive public image and their backgrounds may be more conducive to being a product representative,” said Magee. “Part of it, too, is Tiger’s presence has helped create a greater awareness of golf in general. He’s proven golf is red-hot, including the Seniors.” “Jay C. Upchurch