The Sponsor’s Dilemma

By Peter Aviles
Updated: July 7, 2005

VijayMAPLEWOOD, NJ—Sponsors of professional golf tournaments are faced with a dilemma; and that dilemma is what to do to attract talent to your event. At face value, one might erroneously conclude that there is no issue because every week, 154 golfers tee it up for the right to smile for the camera, hoist whatever they receive as acknowledgement for effort; and more importantly, wrap an arm around the oversize check, most of which contain seven digits. So what’s the issue? Who would not sign up for this opportunity? Well, the answer unfortunately is that a number of your more talented or and/or popular golfers do not sign up as often or as frequently as desired. So what’s a sponsor to do? You do what the leadership of the John Deere Classic have done, and extend a sponsors exemption to a teenager named Michelle Wie.

Ms. Wie’s latest venture into the world of men’s professional golf has created more of a stir than Vijay did with Annika at the Colonial a few years back, or other events Michelle has played in like the 2004 and 2005 Sony Open. Those were overlooked because it was her home course and people were curious to see what at the time this precocious 13 year old phenom might do against the males in beautiful Hawaii. Some thought that it was a novelty act though no denied that this was a very talented and special child prodigy. However, as time progressed, the sounds were less muted and the decibel level of the whispers increased as more and more said she should play against other girls and learn how to win. Look for example at what 18 year old Paula Creamer has done. Paula played against the ladies and is now a LPGA professional and tournament champion. This is what she should be doing. In fact, an on-course reporter recently caught up with her and asked her why she wasn’t playing in the juniors (junior golf). “I tried” she responded, “but they wouldn’t let me.”

The latest to rise above the whispers and voice his displeasure is 304th ranked tour player John Cook. Essentially John made the same point that’s been made before and that is that she is taking the spot of a more deserving player. Nothing could not be further from the truth as those who deserve to be there based on their accomplishments have been extended invitations. Sponsors exemptions work differently. You are there because the sponsor wants you there. If it were not for sponsor exemptions we might not have seen as much of players like John Daly when he was experiencing his issues. I also want to note that John’s ranking is a statistical fact and should not to be interpreted as an indictment of anything else. In the final analysis, don’t blame John Cook though he might be politically incorrect according to some. He merely said what many others have thought and others continue to think. Why does she insist on trying to play against the men?

Well, Michelle now at the ripe old age of 15, is more determined than ever to compete against the men on the PGA. This is part of her overall plan to someday be a member of the PGA.

Nice story I know, but what does it have to do with sponsors. Ask yourself a question. If Tiger and Phil and Ernie and Vijay were playing, would John Deere still extend a sponsors exemption to Michelle Wie? I could be wrong but I think not. If Tiger and Phil and company signed up week after week to compete against one another for the purses that are played for now, Michelle would need to find another place to play because she now becomes a distraction rather than an attraction. However, as the names play less and less, the sponsors must turn their attention elsewhere. Even Vijay has taken time off and stayed away from some events. These absences are at the heart of the issue.

Sponsors lay out tremendous sums of money, and not because they are kind and benevolent figures’ but they do so in order to make some money, have fun, and in the process, some bragging rights. In essence, just another way of paying to be seen. But when the names decide to stay away and enjoy the fruits of their labor on lavish yachts or in one of their luxurious home around the globe, their absence becomes a sponsor’s dilemma. How does the sponsor, get people to come to their event? Well, I need to find a gimmick um, excuse me, I mean attraction. Hence, the sponsors exemption, and Michelle Wie.

So the next time you hear some tour player grip about the Michelle Wie’s playing on the men’s tour, remind him that if the names were there, she probably would not and for good measure, neither might they. Sponsors dilemma solved.