On a weekly basis, the PGA Tour criss-crosses the country putting on golf tournaments that comprise some of the biggest business in sports. These events are not quite the advertising assault of a NASCAR race, but unlike the four major American sports, they rely on corporate title sponsors and a rotation of venues to display their league professionals. The purses of these events usually exceeds six million dollars, with the winner always taking home more than a million. Without fail, there are millions of dollars made and millions of dollars raised.
The three primary parties working to put these events together each week are the Tour, the venue, and an array of corporate sponsors, most importantly the title sponsor. I spent a week in Fort Worth at the Crowne Plaza Invitational at Colonial, observing behind-the-scenes setup and talking to several members of each of these three main groups. There was some golf talk, but the constant discussion focused on the marketing, activation, audience targeting, and "branding" that underlies and drives these tournaments.
The event at Colonial is the longest running PGA Tour stop at one site, a unique and traditional character that can be used to sell the tournament. But because of all its history, much of which was before Crowne Plaza became a title sponsor, the event or tournament is frequently referred to as simply "Colonial." If you're quickly trying to refer to it, say on-air or to your friends, it's much easier to say one word as opposed to the official five-word title of "Crowne Plaza Invitational at Colonial." This is a branding challenge for the title sponsor, but not one that's unique to this event. PGA Tour events can be ubiquitously referred to by the course name, tournament name, host city, and occasionally the sponsor's name. The Sony Open and John Deere Classic have taken hold as the signature names of the PGA Tour stops in Hawaii to start the season and in Iowa in July, respectively. The WGC event in Akron is held at Firestone Country Club but is now often referred to as "the Bridgestone." The stop in Los Angeles is almost always referred to simply as "Riviera" and rarely the "Northern Trust Open."
It's a weekly seesaw with no real uniformity and for the title sponsor in Fort Worth, they are working with, and against, more than 60 years of history at Colonial, the home of Ben Hogan. Each PGA Tour stop has a different dynamic between corporate sponsors and partners, the venue, and the PGA Tour. The tournament committee at Colonial gives the marketing team at Crowne Plaza significant leeway to make their brand imprint throughout the venue.
The Crowne Plaza plum color festoons every structure set up throughout the course, but even the tiniest details are branded -- the tee markers are miniature hotels and the marshals' "Quiet Please" signs are "Do Not Disturb" door hangers. Save for a few brands like AT&T or Cadillac, title sponsorship at a PGA Tour event is the biggest marketing week of the year for many of these companies. Much like Waste Management and the "go green" effort they make at the Phoenix Open, Crowne Plaza does everything it can to both push awareness and association with all plum everything.
Gina LaBarre, a VP for Brand Management at IHG, Crowne Plaza Hotels' parent company, reiterated that this was the biggest marketing week of the year for the brand. But why a golf tournament? "We do work through Golf Digest, which fields some research for us so that we can understand how we're pushing awareness for Crowne Plaza. We know that through the golf space we are making a difference and that people are now starting to know that Crowne Plaza is the title sponsor of this event." The hotel brand is after the business traveler, and they've established that golf, unsurprisingly, is the sport to target. For their specified audience, golf has rated higher than even football, so they made the significant commitment to become a cog in the PGA Tour. "Our first tournament was back in 2007," LaBarre said. "It's been a really good way for us to reach our target audience with our messaging and I feel like we've done a good job cementing ourselves in the golf space."
The face of the tournament, Rickie Fowler, also happens to have an endorsement deal and two rotating commercials with Crowne Plaza Hotels. His likeness is plastered all over the course, clubhouse, and downtown Fort Worth. Most fans enter not through the main entrance of Colonial Country Club, but a gate constructed by the PGA Tour out by the second tee. As soon as you cross the threshold, you're bombarded with marketing imagery and handouts, much of it Rickie-centric. I'm given Crowne Plaza coozies, Nature Valley sample granola bars, Cadillac promo materials, and encouraged to fill out how many hours of sleep I average a night and stick it on the "Crowne Plaza SleepAdvantage" Rickie Fowler wall.
That gauntlet of branding through the main gate promptly conveys that this is more than just a golf tournament. This is one of 30-plus corporate sponsorship and marketing events that populate the PGA Tour calendar. Fans will see as much plum as green by the time they leave the Colonial grounds.
Aside from fall Saturdays at TCU, the Crowne Plaza Invitational is the highlight on the Fort Worth sports calendar. It's a traditional community event, and the entire city is overtaken by the PGA Tour. Twenty minutes from the more bucolic setting of Colonial, banners cover downtown Fort Worth, an area that became less and less "where the west begins" as skyscrapers went up with the oil and natural gas boom. Every cab or shuttle driver, bartender or server promptly wants to talk about the golf. The plum Crowne Plaza Invitational logo creeps up everywhere.
The tournament is a boon to the local economy and the restaurants fill up with touring travelers and natives, perhaps on the chance they'll rub elbows with someone who plays golf better than they do. Chain steakhouses occupy three of the four corners on the block where my hotel is located. They're all filled with women in heels and form-fitting dresses, layered in make-up and shooting scenes for Real Housewives of Fort Worth, just without cameras. They're filled with paunchy men in decidedly less form-fitting, mostly untucked button down shirts and layered in hair product. This could be a regular weekend scene in Fort Worth, but these places are jammed and everyone is talking about golf that's being played at a course not around the block, but 20 minutes down the road in what, given the landscape, seems like an entirely different city. No matter what setting you're in and where you are, the golf tournament is the only game in town this week.
With its history, Colonial has a strong membership that includes many pros who reside in the area, including 2013 CPIC contender Ryan Palmer. It's a club steeped in tradition and bound to Hogan, a mystical and iconic figure in golf. It's a classic layout with a historic clubhouse that has come to embrace the one-week upheaval that is hosting a PGA Tour stop.
Given that it's the longest running event on Tour, the course maintenance and prep work going into the week are almost rote at this point. Chris Ortmeier, an assistant superintendent at Colonial, told me that members can play the course up until the Sunday that starts the Crowne Plaza Invitational week.
Ortmeier and the course maintenance staff have a sense of where the PGA Tour will set up the tees and pin placements, and route the course to avoid heavy member traffic in those areas in the weeks leading up to the tournament. An effort is made to protect certain spots from divots and ball marks beginning three weeks prior to the tournament. The PGA Tour officials already have a full scouting report on the venue, so they know what to expect when they arrive in Fort Worth the week of the tournament. Before the week begins, an advance rules official marks up the course with official out-of-bounds and hazard designations, and the PGA Tour's ShotLink system is deployed across the course.
Mark Dusbabek, a former linebacker for the Minnesota Vikings, is one of the PGA Tour rules officials in charge of setting up the course for the four days of tournament play. Dusbabek will be responsible for the layout on the front nine, a stretch of holes he has set up for the past three years at Colonial. Dusbabek works alongside the maintenance staff but has ultimate decision-making authority when it comes to the test the pros will face. His final charge is to ensure that no routing favors one player over another. These nine holes cannot set up more favorably for the golfer who plays left-to-right or vice versa. There should be the same number of right and left, and back and front pin locations on any one day. He gets to the course just after 6 a.m. local time each day and works his way through his nine-holes, finalizing a setup that was most likely already mapped out well in advance. Severe weather is the only real variable that would dramatically change his plans.
The Tour event, in Dusbabek's own words, puts a lot of stress on the course at Colonial, but unlike some TPC venues where the revenues from that one tournament week are crucial for the rest of the year, the members of CCC are not that inconvenienced. The grandstands, TV towers, and all the spectator walkways both outside the ropes and across the fairways impact the typically undisturbed landscape. But Ortmeier and Colonial's maintenance staff have the recovery effort down, and members are even playing just over 12 hours after the trophy presentation for a double-shotgun on Memorial Day. They will aerify the course for three days after that and give it a rest, but by the Friday following the tournament, the course should be fully operational for member play once again.
That symbiotic relationship between the Tour and club when it comes to the golf also exists between the sponsor and club when it comes to the event. There is a strong relationship between Colonial's tournament director Michael Tothe and LaBarre, who is the on-site face of Crowne Plaza all week and the one to make those weekly Sunday appearances with Jim Nantz on CBS. Crowne Plaza took over title sponsorship from Bank of America in 2007, and Tothe describes the partnership thusly, "What began as a business relationship, and will always remain business, has become a very good friendship and partnership too."
The financial commitment to become the title sponsor for a PGA Tour event, of which almost all maintain $6 million-plus purses, is obviously large, and Colonial ensures that the Crowne folks are kept happy. "What we're trying to accomplish here is to fulfill the wishes and obligations of the title sponsor from a branding perspective," Tothe added. "To create a hospitality experience for the title sponsor so that they can use the venue as a means for branding, educating fans, entertaining their owners and developers ... Gina's team is talented and our team is talented and if Crowne wants us to activate in a certain way with a certain message with a certain brand, we make it work." For a club steeped in tradition and possessing the gravitas as a marker of Texas high society, there's a good deal of adherence to the brand and the Tour.
As the tournament director, Tothe is fielding requests large and small, working to keep the corporate sponsors happy and the players happy. The radio attached to his hip continually blares out questions and problems from across the course. Small fires have to be put out and vendors have to be whipped into shape. He takes a direct call from a patron seeking clarification on the use of military family members' tickets, and then pivots to ensuring all the CBS and Crowne Plaza attendees with access to Colonial's terrace are being taking care of by hospitality.
It's an impressive juggle between multiple parties, and one that he said is developed and honed over 12 months leading up to this one week. "We have 85 pages of notes, but at this point, it's a lot of little stuff. It's polishing the diamond I guess is what it is. [Crowne Plaza] is constantly trying to elevate their brand and we're constantly trying to elevate what we do here this week. We don't have 81 home games -- when we roll up the curtain on Monday, we have to be ready."
Colonial's members are also looking to elevate the club and property, and attempting to keep the one-week overtake of corporate branding consistent with the venue's appeal. Because of its history and association with Hogan, and its place in the community, Colonial, no matter the sponsor, should always have a foothold on the Tour.
Colonial is a traditional layout and a historic venue that should draw a deep field. The other Dallas-Fort Worth stop, the Byron Nelson Championship, is played on one of the many TPC courses that fill the PGA Tour schedule but lack the history, appeal, and character of Colonial that many pros prefer. But much like the Byron Nelson, Colonial's ability to draw the top names in the game has waned as the legends who established them, Nelson and Hogan, have recessed deeper into the history books. More contemporary legends, such as Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, and Tiger Woods continue to draw top-notch fields that once made the trip to the Metroplex as an homage to the two DFW golf icons.
Both Colonial and Crowne Plaza are at the mercy of the PGA Tour and the independent contractors who make up the league. The field is the single biggest factor in TV ratings and fan interest, and the investing sponsor has no control. Both parties express their appreciation for the Tour and say the working relationship is a good one, but they're looking for assistance to beef up the depth of the field. "We'd like some help," Tothe told me. "For the most part, it's a three-way relationship and they deliver in areas and Gina delivers in areas and we deliver in areas, but I think if there's any one thing you could drill down to, it's 'Ok, you guys are the league, help us with the players in the league.'"
But unlike the NFL, NBA, or MLB, the PGA Tour does not have much ability to compel players to show up at their events. It's undoubtedly a frustrating element of the business for Commissioner Tim Finchem and the Tour, and they obviously get pressure from their corporate and venue partners. Tothe was candid about that push-and-pull: "Gina's investment is significant from a financial perspective and so when you make that financial commitment, you want every eyeball on property to see the brand and likewise with the telecast. What drives that is who is in your field and the unfortunate reality is that each player who plays on the Tour, whether it's Rickie [Fowler] or Zach [Johnson] or whoever it may be, they are independent contractors." The PGA Tour requires that golfers play in 15 events in order to be full members, leaving a pro considerable leeway to set his schedule and take significant time away to pick and choose.
The rapid growth of purses and endorsement opportunities also allow the bigger names to become incredibly wealthy without playing much more than the minimum requirement. Compounding that lack of control over the players is a date on the calendar opposite the BMW PGA Championship, the marquee event on the European Tour. Tothe says that the tournament is looking at options to move the date, but of course you run into other tournaments fighting for an improved or maintained spot in the rota. "I think the PGA Tour is sympathetic and Gina is of course pushing that and pushing me to have a better, stronger field," he said. "But it boils down to date, venue, and purse. We have a fantastic venue. We have a fantastic purse. Our date is very good but the one conflict is that we have a major event on the European Tour that prevents us from the opportunity of hosting the best players in Europe. And so we're looking at some different options there."
There are worse dates on the PGA Tour calendar, but depth of the field can cast a long shadow over attempts at "brand awareness." With that hurdle, it's clear that the operating relationship with the Tour is much different from the close working partnership between the sponsor and Colonial. Without getting too specific, Crowne Plaza's LaBarre called the Tour a good partner but it wasn't the same ringing endorsement that was there for Colonial. "I think [the Tour] listens to our concerns. We'd like for them to sometimes move differently and more quickly than they do but they want to be really good partners. We've had such a strong relationship between Colonial Country Club and Crowne Plaza that -- it's an interesting dynamic just to look at our relationship with the Tour, because it is very different. They're trying to please multiple constituencies and multiple titles. So it's good, but we'd like some help on the field."
All three parties contact the players and their representation, highlighting the benefits of playing one of the oldest stops, and most unique and classic courses. The Tour markets the independent contractors who make up their league, but as Tothe indicated, that's of no help to Colonial if those marketed players are all at Memorial the following week. The question remains then of what is the Tour going to do to help us with the marquee players every week?
In the absence of Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson, it's the 24-year-old Fowler who commands the largest gallery and the promotional push. Part of this is his extant deal with the title sponsor and part of it is his designation as the young face of golf. Fowler's image is everywhere at Colonial, but he also pops up in almost every ad break on a golf broadcast. He's got deals with Puma, Cobra, Red Bull, Farmers, Bushnell, and Crowne Plaza, among others.
In addition to his corporate deals, Fowler is also one of the faces the PGA Tour pushes in all their commercials and promo materials. While the players are the masters of their own schedule, it can be a tough balance between working on his game and all of his endorsement obligations. "There's definitely a little bit of a juggling act," Fowler told me. "I still talk to some other guys who have been out here for awhile, a guy like Phil Mickelson, who is still trying to figure out how to piece together the perfect amount one way or the other."
Between sponsor requests and PGA Tour promo requests, Fowler does have to turn down multiple off-the-course engagements in order to keep a semblance of a professional routine. Most players are committed to pro-ams, full of weekend hackers wanting to pick a pro's brain, on either Monday or Wednesday, with Tuesday used for the primary practice session. Fowler keeps Mondays open for either rest or promotional work, practices and works out on Tuesdays, and then fulfills the pro-am and media obligations on Wednesday. The practice sessions and media requests then continue throughout the four tournament days.
There are a handful of other familiar names in attendance, such as Matt Kuchar and Zach Johnson, but Rickie is the undisputed poster boy. He's been coming to Colonial for four years, before he really blew up and before his deal with the title sponsor, so his association with the hotel brand is not the only reason he's here. Fowler says there is added pressure to play well, get to the weekend, and make some noise playing in a tournament where you are the biggest draw.
However, he's not particularly bothered by being the headliner of an event where he could technically leave before the weekend. "There is definitely some added pressure but in a good way. Obviously, every event I show up at, I'm showing up to be in contention and playing to win. I would say at the end of the day, once I'm out there playing, it's kind of the only pressure I put on myself to play well. If i'm showing up at Tour events just trying to make the cut, then I should probably find a different job." He makes the weekend in 2013, and given the proximity to Oklahoma State, the gallery is dotted with Fowler fans, mostly kids, decked out in screaming Puma colors.
Being the biggest name in the field, the Tour's primary representative, and a Crowne Plaza endorser allowed Fowler to quickly put an Oklahoma tornado relief measure in place. On Monday of Colonial week, Rickie was over in Dallas hitting golf balls off the fourth floor of a building as part of a Red Bull promotion when the F5 tornado ripped through Oklahoma. Fowler, who wears OSU orange from head-to-toe on Sundays, worked with his agent to put a plan in place by Wednesday to boost charity efforts on-site at Colonial. He pledged $100,000 to the relief efforts and Crowne Plaza worked with the Red Cross to set up donation stations around the course to match Fowler's commitment.
It was an impromptu example of how one of the Tour's marquee representatives, the venue, and the sponsors quickly work together. The weekly charity efforts are pushed hard by the PGA Tour, which is closing in on $2 billion in giving. It's a constant refrain from the organization full of players often critiqued for their easy lifestyles. Tothe expects Colonial and the Invitational to raise somewhere between six and seven million for the local community, while Crowne Plaza will donate over $50,000 based on a weekend count of birdies and eagles picked up by players assigned to one of four charities. It sounds treacly, but with the Tour leading, the charity drives receive nearly as big a push as the corporate promotions at these events.
The promotional efforts hit the biggest stage when Golf Channel and CBS provide television coverage over the four days at Colonial. Finchem and the Tour hold this card after working to set up favorable TV deals with primarily NBC-Golf Channel and CBS. At the Crowne Plaza Invitational, it's Jim Nantz's group who will have the call. The Masters is the only other tournament CBS has broadcast longer, and much like the Tour's course setup efforts, they have the Colonial stop down to a science.
It also helps that Lance Barrow, a CBS coordinating producer for golf and NFL broadcasts, is a member at Colonial. Barrow, who's unmistakably Texan, is a booming force of nature who's right at home shaking hands, slapping backs, and holding court at the Colonial clubhouse. But he's also in the captain's chair in the production truck on Sunday, where I stop in as the broadcast comes on the air. For the uninitiated, the scene is an assault on your senses -- dozens of screens for each hole and multiple players, and there's constant competition for speaking time between several people with headsets in the truck and with headsets scattered around the course.
As they prep for air time on Sunday, Nantz, Barrow, and the roster of commentators are at ease, cracking jokes with the top of the broadcast rapidly approaching. There's some confusion, perhaps intentionally created, over a promo and Nantz triple and quadruple checks to make sure he's been given the correct word order for what will eventually be the "Dicks Sporting Goods Untouchable Moments" spot. There are a couple different humorous mash-ups and audio clips that are played when someone slips up, but as 3 p.m. ET approaches, Barrow exclaims to his crew, "Fasten your seatbelts, it's going to be a wild ride."
With nearly 30 players within a couple shots of the lead on Sunday afternoon, CBS does not have a go-to player or pairing to focus on as they come on the air. Once they go live, unless you've observed this dozens of times, it's impossible to keep up with the chatter and set of commands -- you just hear nuggets of info and phrases in the truck that are repeated to millions moments later by Nantz. Unlike the four major American sports, there is not a single ball to follow and info rolls in on where certain players are on the course, which holes are ready for action, and who's making moves up the leaderboard. The graphics, audio, video, and commentating all somehow come together in a three-hour golf broadcast that also doubles as an advertisement for Crowne Plaza Hotels.
The work of all of these parties to put on this event comes together best at Colonial's par-3 13th hole. It's a more organic but smaller and less promoted party than the one at TPC Scottsdale's par-3 16th hole. The scene is a Clay Travis-Darren Rovell meld, essentially a branded boozefest full of overserved patrons. The women are in sundresses (some even in heels -- on a golf course) and the men are the standard-fare boat shoes and croakies crowd. On consecutive days on the weekend, I saw inebriated women crying and engaged in animated screaming matches with their significant others.
The hole is surrounded by grandstands and a heavily-branded Michelob Ultra party area, which is packed and renders the "Do Not Disturb" signs useless. There are temporary luxury skyboxes set up for the most influential sponsors, including Crowne Plaza whose select guests can enjoy catering, open bars, and air conditioning while watching all the tee shots into the par-3's green. There's a PGA Tour video board and Crowne Plaza branded scoreboard erected across the pond, blasting info and messaging to the mass of people on the other side of the water.
Most of the crowd is relatively uninterested in watching the golf, focusing on their beverages and socializing. Half the crowd doesn't even have a view of the hole and is camped out in the Michelob Ultra area, much like the infield-goers at a Triple Crown race that never actually see a horse. The crowds do gamble on which player's caddie will reach the green first, screaming and shouting as they make their way around the water. Not missing an opportunity, Crowne Plaza hands out branded fans for the patrons with different colors on each side to represent which caddie they might be rooting for while also encouraging their caddie race gambling proceeds be donated nearby.
There's also golf, played by professionals who accept the din as part of the event. Boo Weekley, the eventual winner of the 2013 Crowne Plaza Invitational, puts his ball in the middle of the green and then cans a birdie putt to extend his lead on the Sunday back nine. The putt gives CBS their guy to focus on down the stretch, and provokes wild cheers from the portion of the crowd that's paying attention. A couple men scream "Roll Tide!!!" as Weekley plays to the crowd while walking off the green. The 2008 Ryder Cup made him momentarily famous, but he had not won in more than five years -- a drought that ends with him holding the biggest trophy on Tour and draped incongruously in a plaid jacket at Colonial's 18th green. He's a Southerner who speaks something like English, would rather fish than golf, and is a familiar name and character that's uniquely promotable -- exactly what the PGA Tour, Colonial Country Club, and Crowne Plaza are always looking for.