U.S. Open Opens Door to Eager Advertisers

Clubby Event Starts to Look More Like 'Dancing With the Stars' as Celebs Join In

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- Endorsement deals are nothing new for professional golfers, but the custodians of the game itself have spent decades so closely manicuring its image that sponsors were never welcome. That's why it was a big deal when the U.S. Golf Association reversed its longstanding policy and last year allowed Rolex, Lexus and American Express to sign on as corporate partners for the U.S. Open. This year, it's throwing the gates open wide enough to include a glimmer of celebreality TV.
Justin Timberlake
Justin Timberlake Credit: Marianna Day Massey

The golf association, NBC and Golf Digest magazine have developed a cross-marketing program flashy enough to make Donald Trump proud. In the Golf Digest U.S. Open Challenge, NBC will use the hour preceding its climactic Open coverage to televise the efforts of Justin Timberlake, Matt Lauer, Tony Romo and an amateur selected by Golf Digest readers to score under 100 playing the actual Open course under official Open rules. The sponsors include Rolex, Lexus and AmEx but also entries such as AT&T.

Looking ahead
Nobody claims to be generating serious revenue from the program, but the participants hope this is the start of something. "There is an opportunity, and if the thing were hugely successful down the road, everybody could do OK," said Jon Miller, exec VP at NBC Sports.

For now the big dividend is more exposure, something the USGA in particular has decided that it needs. "There was a lot of pride in the fact that we were the largest sports organization remaining that didn't have a corporate influence from sponsors," said Barry Hyde, who was named the USGA's first chief marketing officer in 2005. "Going back to the '50s and '60s, it's always been an issue and something that's been considered. But it took a proactive executive committee to decide that the right corporate partners could actually help us rather than looking at the corporate world as a kind of difficult influence.
Matt Lauer
Matt Lauer Credit: Nancy Kaszerman

"The board realized that golf has a huge competitive advantage," Mr. Hyde added, speaking during a break from watching the Masters Tournament last week in Augusta, Ga. "And that it's the sport of business. Why wouldn't we welcome the corporate world into our family?"

Marketers such as American Express were a natural fit; its direct contact with card members can help the USGA, which can't afford tons of direct mail, market to consumers. The addition of media partners extends the association's reach that much further. "We don't have a vehicle to communicate with golfers to the degree that NBC has or the degree that Golf Digest has," Mr. Hyde said.

Fields of green
Golf can't match the TV ratings of pro football either; this June will actually see U.S. Open coverage stretch into prime time for the first time. But the moneyed luster of the links continues to interest advertisers, perhaps even more so while the economy has everyone worried.

It's true that Golf Digest saw ad pages from January through April slip 3.8% from the equivalent period a year prior, according to the Media Industry Newsletter. And ad pages fell 0.8% for Golf Magazine, its rival at Time Inc. But those numbers look rosy compared with the 23.6% crater at Fortune Small Business or the 16% drop at Gourmet in the same period.
Tony Romo
Tony Romo Credit: Nancy Kaszerman

What's more, the program has brought incremental ad pages to Golf Digest, including a 5% bump for its June issue, said Tom Bair, VP-publisher. "But even more important," he added, "was the exposure that all three brands were able to get."

You can be certain to see more next year. "At the USGA, our role is administering and writing the rules of golf and administering our national championships," Mr. Hyde said. "We don't necessarily have a ton of content. So any time a creative media outlet or anyone else brings us an idea, it helps us create content. And we need to create content because we've got to have more and more ways for our corporate partners to participate with us."
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