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Golf Channel's 'Arnie' Offers Look at King of Sports Marketing

Three-Part Documentary to Air During Week of Masters

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Advertising Age Player

Today's younger generation might only recognize Arnold Palmer from his picture on Arizona Beverage Co. bottles, but a documentary from the Golf Channel will look back at his days as an idol and heartthrob -- and the grandfather of modern sports marketing.

Forget Michael Jordan, Peyton Manning or LeBron James. The 84-year old golf legend wrote the book on modern athletic endorsements over the past 50 years, pitching everything from Pennzoil and Callaway Golf to Rolex and Cadillac.

Mr. Palmer was the first athlete to create a global business empire with his Arnold Palmer Enterprises (and its ubiquitous umbrella brand logo). No pitchman has had his name licensed in so many countries, for so long, as the Commander-in-Chief of Arnie's Army. And, of course, he's got a drink named after him (which is also licensed).

More than four decades after his last PGA Tour victory, Mr. Palmer still ranked No. 3 in the annual Golf Digest 50 list tracking combined on- and off-course income in 2013. In fact, 2013 was his most lucrative year ever, taking home $40 million (much of it from licensing deals in Asia), according to the magazine.

That put Mr. Palmer behind only active superstars Tiger Woods ($83 million) and Phil Mickelson ($52 million) -- and ahead of career rival Jack Nicklaus ($26 million) and active stars Henrik Stenson ($21.4 million) and Rory McIlroy ($20.6 million).

Mr. Palmer's also a media executive, co-founding Golf Channel in 1995. During the Masters Tournament week, his old network is giving Mr. Palmer the kind of biographical treatment usually reserved for U.S. Presidents (or members of the Kennedy family). Golf Channel will premiere "Arnie," from April 13-15 (10 p.m. ET), with narration by actor Tom Selleck.

During a conference call, Golf Channel President Mike McCarley called it the most "ambitious" original film in the channel's 20-year history. The network worked on it for the better part of the last two years, he said.

Insperity will serve as presenting sponsor of Arnie. Two of Mr. Palmer's sponsors, Callaway and Lamkin Golf Grips, will also sponsor the telecasts, according to Golf Channel spokesman Dan Higgins. The network is airing multiple promos to drive tune-in. The spots were created in-house, according to Mr. Higgins.

The real birth of the Arnold Palmer "brand" dates back to 1960 when golf's new star and the late Mark McCormack founded IMG on a handshake.

There was no blizzard of paperwork, no roomful of lawyers, agents and spin doctors. Just Mr. Palmer and his friend Mr. McCormack, an attorney who wanted to manage the golfer's off-the-course deals.

"He said, 'I'll make up a contract that will cement our deal.' I said, 'Why do you need to do a contract? You just look me in the eye and shake my hand and you have a contract with me.' Well, that was our contract. And still is." (Mr. McCormack died at age 73 in 2003).

In the upcoming documentary, Mr. Manning, the NFL quarterback who endorses Papa John's Pizza, Oreo's and other brands, calls Mr. Palmer the father of sports marketing. Mr. Palmer laughs when asked about Mr. Manning's comments. But he doesn't disagree.

Since the beginning
"I guess I've been there since the beginning," he said. "With Mark McCormack, we sort of started the new area of marketing professional athletes -- and how they were marketed."

Mr. Palmer wasn't the first pro athlete to endorse products: Sports figures from Babe Ruth to Mickey Mantle touted anything and everything for a fast buck. But Mr. Palmer and Mr. McCormack made several key decisions to separate him from the rest of the pack on Madison Avenue.

First, Mr. Palmer would only endorse products he used or believed in. More importantly, his brand would not rely solely on him winning golf tournaments.

Nobody wins forever. Instead, the son of a greenskeeper from Latrobe, Pa., would represent the values of Small Town America: success; integrity; hard work. With his working-man charisma and go-for-broke playing style, Mr. Palmer was a natural star for the new medium of TV in the 1950s -- something made clear in one of the spots for the documentary.

Advertising Age Player

Mr. Palmer's most famous ad campaign was for Pennzoil. Growing up, his father Deacon Palmer taught him and his brother how to drive a tractor while they worked at Latrobe Country Club. When Pennzoil's ad executives visited the club, they asked for an an old piece of equipment powered by Pennzoil. They were shown the tractor in the maintenance shed. An ad campaign was born.

"That was a deal that lasted for years and years and years," said Mr. Palmer.

Sometimes, the best deals are the ones you never make. The documentary relates how Mr. Palmer signed a three-year, $5,000 equipment deal with Wilson Staff when starting on the PGA Tour in the mid-1950s.

Mr. McCormack asked Wilson about a lifetime deal for Mr. Palmer. But the company turned him down flat. Mr. Palmer was free to go off and make millions in his prime earning years. During the documentary, Mr. Palmer still seems satisfied about how Wilson blew it decades ago.

Looking back over his marketing career, Mr. Palmer said he would not take a mulligan on any of the products or services he endorsed.

"My deals were all pretty well-done and lasted for a long time. I've coming up on my 50th anniversary with Rolex in the near future," he said.

Modern sports endorsers such as Mr. Woods or Mr. James often ask for ownership stakes in companies they endorse. But Mr. Palmer said that was never his style. Maybe because he had his own diversified company.

"My motto always was if I had a contract with a company, I would use the product. That was something I stuck very close to. I did not, as a general rule, take ownership. If it was a public company, I might buy the stock. But I never really held to an ownership position other than being a stockholder."

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