On the links, golf is not a contact sport. But off the course, the elbows are flying, particularly among automotive marketers. When it comes to automotive event spending, golf dominates. Golf expenditures by automakers have been growing an average 12 percent annually this decade and are not expected to slow.
'The competition is heavy,' declares Alex Morton, group account director for the Cadillac division at D'Arcy Masius Benton & Bowles advertising. 'There are more marketers looking for events than there are events out there.'
The money spent on golf by all automakers is estimated at close to $100 million annually.
Cadillac is the official car of the Senior PGA Tour (pros over 50), and sister division Buick is the official car of the PGA Tour (pros under 50). That doesn't leave much room for maneuvering in the pro arena, but behind the scenes, the carmakers are striking deals.
Mercedes-Benz, for example, brags that it was able to host its PGA Tour-sponsored event in Maui this year instead of the usual San Diego by crafting a better deal with the PGA Tour for the island spot. Maui had long been the domain of Lincoln Mercury for a televised golfing event involving its dealers and PGA Tour pros. Now the Lincoln event is private without any TV or PGA exposure.
But Lincoln Mercury President Mark Hutchins pooh-poohs the idea that Mercedes stole Lincoln's thunder. The division had another plan under its hood. It approached the fast-growing Ladies Professional Golf Association in 1998 with what the LPGA's Mindy Moore describes as a 'groundbreaking relationship,' making Mercury the first advertiser ever to sponsor a series of LPGA events under a single sponsorship.
'It was a good area for us to come in and own,' says Laura Flores, merchandising and promotion manager at Lincoln Mercury. 'Golf continues to grow,' she says, adding that 'no longer is it just for retirees and white males.'
Many auto marketers describe golf as the ultimate in integrated marketing. There are the media buys, the parties and interaction with customers, the high-profile sports personalities and dealer tie-ins. And, more important, 'the dealers tell us that the tournaments give us a (sales) lift,' says Tony Derhake, golf brand manager for Buick.
As a group, golfers are well-educated with high incomes, making them desirable targets for automakers, and the sponsors are guarding their greens closely.
Lexus spends 25 percent of its total promotions budget on golf; the tab is 50 percent at Cadillac.
Entry is not cheap. 'No one is coming in as a title sponsor for less than $4 million to $5 million overall,' says Steve Potter, sports marketing supervisor at Mercedes.
Money well spent
Auto companies recently have begun measuring the sales impact of their golf sponsorships. And while they don't credit golf for most of their sales, the sport helps. Three examples:
1. Cadillac experiences an average sales hike of about 20 percent shortly after the 23 senior golf events in each of the regions where the tournaments are held.
2. After the Buick Invitational in San Diego in February, dealers reported moving an additional 110 cars in San Diego.
3. Mercedes now sponsors 187 local events, up from 79 in 1994, because one-third of those invited to the local events come in for test drives.
But sponsorships aren't the only show in town.
Jack Purcell, publisher of Links magazine, took an idea to BMW last year that resulted in 3,200 test drives and 75 new-car sales or leases. The promotion, placed in 150,000 issues of the April issue of Links, offered a $100 Taylor Made brand putter to people who test drove BMWs.
Not just pros and men
Of 27 million golfers nationwide, about 22 percent are women. That number is nudging automotive companies to pay more attention to women's events.
Mercury hosts eight female pro events on ESPN and ESPN2 cable TV stations. Oldsmobile is spending at least $1.5 million this year testing a women's amateur scramble in five states. For the first time in 41 years, Buick hosted an all-women's amateur tournament just before the Buick Open this month.
Other amateur events also abound.
The Toyota Golf Skills Challenge attracts about 20,000 players each year. Oldsmobile gets 100,000 amateur golfers at more than 2,100 local tournaments. About 15,000 turn out for the Mercedes amateur events.
And the prediction by Mike Slagter, Lexus corporate marketing manager, is that dollars will continue to flow into golf well into the next millennium.
'Among Generation X, golf participation is even higher than it is in boomers,' he observes. 'These people take brands with a more emotional appeal, and golf will be an important element for them.'