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PGA Tour events are risky business

It sounds so simple, really. Certainly there are any number of corporations out there that want to promote themselves through golf, a game played by executives across the country and watched by a high-end demographic many businesses covet.

So they fork over many millions of dollars to put their name on a tournament, which is beamed across the land and into foreign markets. They get heavy local exposure. They treat their best clients and employees to a week of sun and fun.

And everybody's happy.

Except, well … too many people are not happy.

Last week's sudden and swift demise of The International in Colorado should not have been as shocking as it is being portrayed. The surprise, really, is that this sort of thing doesn't happen more often.

We always wonder what the breaking point in sports is, and perhaps golf has reached that threshold.

The cost of doing business is getting to be too much -- especially if you're not going to get Tiger Woods in your tournament -- which is becoming less and less likely for events he doesn't normally frequent. At least that is the message creeping out, little by little.

Sure, the PGA Tour and commissioner Tim Finchem will find a way to stage a tournament during Fourth of July weekend, someplace, somewhere. They do not allow holes in their schedule, and there are other markets starving for the PGA Tour to come their way. But while sponsors used to be lined up, waiting, that is no longer the situation.

Maybe it is a case of only the strong surviving, but it is very telling that no title sponsor could be found to extend the life of a popular event near Denver played on a pristine golf course, one the players enjoyed, a tournament won by a who's who list of past champions.

Another example came recently at the PGA Tour event near Tampa, Fla., now called the PODS Championship. Despite a prime date in March on an excellent golf course that has been universally praised by the players, the tournament was without a title sponsor for nearly a year after Chrysler dropped out. Had PODS, a portable storage unit company, not stepped up at the last minute, it is likely the tournament would have disbanded after this year.

To get PODS to sign, however, the PGA Tour gave the company a discount.

"I think like any business deal, there is an asking price and a negotiated price. We got a negotiated price," said Peter Warhurst, the CEO and founder of PODS. "I think we're paying a fair price. I think we're both very, very happy."

No doubt. The tournament is saved. But the problem with such deals is there is no negotiating when it comes to the $5.3 million purse. The players still get paid the same. And the advertising units assured to be bought on Golf Channel and NBC as part of the network contract with the PGA Tour must still be paid. TV takes no discount. The local tournament organizing committee, a nonprofit organization, still has to pay its bills, but with less money coming in from the title sponsor. So it gets squeezed, making it more difficult to give money to charity.

Sponsoring a regular PGA Tour event costs in the neighborhood of $7 million per year. That money covers a portion of the purse, a television advertising commitment, a fee to the PGA Tour and to the tournament. Spread that out over the six-year length of the network contracts, and you're talking about $42 million or more.

It is a hefty price, especially given the modest television ratings. Those small numbers -- usually in the 2 million-to-3 million range for a weekend network telecast -- were always justified because they were reaching the "right" kind of people … i.e. those with disposable income. With golf, less meant more.

But as the price has kept going up, those company executives began looking at the numbers more closely. And some of them have started to say that enough is enough -- especially if Woods doesn't play.

"We're in a new era," said Jack Vickers, who founded The International. "We have one outstanding, unbelievable player in Tiger Woods. When he's playing, the ratings are great. When he's not, the ratings are not so hot."

To make a distinction between tournaments with Tiger and those without is too simple. There are plenty of events that would no doubt benefit from his presence but do just fine without him. The recent FBR Open in Scottsdale, Ariz., and the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am come to mind.

The truth is, Woods plays in less than half the tournaments staged, so potential title sponsors need to be aware they might not get him.

This week's Nissan Open would no doubt love to have Woods, but still has attracted one of the best fields of the year to date. And yet, that is not always enough.

Finchem has done an admirable job of trying to do right by his players when it comes to purses, which have more than quadrupled since Woods came along a decade ago. Back then, Finchem felt it was imperative to get top golfers paid better than a backup second baseman.

But all of that doesn't do much good if tournaments start disbanding or can't find sponsorship. And there are no easy answers. Cutting back purses would be a start, but you know that is not going to happen, even though it's hard to believe any tour player would be upset by walking away with a $700,000 winner's check as opposed to $1 million. Maybe there's too much golf on television. If you trim the number of hours, the commercial commitment would be less. Perhaps the PGA Tour and its tournaments need to be content with giving less money to charity.

One thing is certain, the tour is trying to bring together the best players in the world more often with events such as the World Golf Championships and the FedEx Cup playoff tournaments, but has inadvertently put a big squeeze on the very tournaments that form its backbone, the rank-and-file PGA Tour events. Not only do they have to compete with the bigger, more prominent events for secondary sponsors, but for the top players as well.

The International happens to be a high-profile victim.


Bob Harig covers golf for the St. Petersburg Times and is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at harig@sptimes.com.