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Who Will Step Up To Keep The Champions Tour In Chicago?

Crain’s Chicago Business, July 23, 2015

By Danny Ecker

After a three-year run, golf's senior tour may be done in the Chicago area for a while. Or at least until a member of Chicago's corporate community cuts it a check.

Encompass Insurance, the independent agent subsidiary of Northbrook-based giant Allstate, ended its title sponsorship this month of the Encompass Championship event on the PGA's Champions Tour, the series that features former PGA players over age 50.

That has left ProLinks Sports, the Tequesta, Fla.-based tournament management company with whom the Champions Tour has contracted to run the event the past four years scrambling to find a naming rights partner to keep the business. If it fails, 2016 will be the first year without a professional golf tournament (including the Ryder Cup) in the Chicago area since 2008.

ProLinks had anticipated a successor to Encompass in Chicago-based CareerBuilder, which has been named the event's "presenting sponsor," the second-biggest corporate partner behind the insurance company. But CareerBuilder instead stepped up its golf sponsorship investment with the PGA Tour, signing on this year as the new title sponsor of the former Bob Hope Classic tournament.

Now ProLinks is pounding the pavement around town, hiring local sponsorship consultant firm Property Consulting Group—which sells sponsorships on behalf of the village of Rosemont for assets including Allstate Arena—to help with the sale.

It's not cheap: The top sponsor of the event will have to pay more than $3 million per year with a multi-year commitment. Though that's less than half of what many PGA Tour event sponsorships cost.

"I think it remains a very viable and sensible sponsorship buy," said Mike Galeski, the tournament's director on behalf of Pro Links. "It's at a level that I think opens up the opportunity to a lot of companies that maybe couldn't do a PGA Tour sponsorship."


A Champions Tour title sponsorship can be especially difficult to sell. It's not well-suited for a brand looking for exposure to consumers because it doesn't get a ton of media attention and draws a generally older (albeit wealthier) group of ticket buyers.

"If you're trying to sell it on the basis of exposure or the crowds you get, you're kind of fighting a losing battle because brands looking for exposure have a lot of other opportunities," said Jim Andrews, senior vice president of Chicago-based sponsorship consulting firm IEG.

But Champions Tour events remain valuable options for business-to-business companies that can use the event's hospitality offerings and five days of "Pro-Am" events with players from golf's yesteryear to entertain clients.

Encompass, for example, used it to rally independent insurance agents that they work with or are targeting with wide-ranging hospitality access and amenities at the event.

"There's a lot of upside there," said Andrews. "Sometimes it's a little bit of a needle in a haystack, but you can find the right company that says, 'This makes sense for where I am in my business right now.' "

Galeski remains optimistic that he'll find a new partner. Local names that have sponsored the tournament include Illinois Bone and Joint Institute, Mariano's and office equipment company Genesis Technologies, among others.

The event jumped to 73 sponsors in 2014 from 53 in 2013, though that was partly due to the fact that it was the only pro golf event in town last year with the PGA's BMW Championship taking a year off from Conway Farms in Lake Forest.

"We've proven the model, that this can work," said Galeski. "We just need to continue to search and talk with potential sponsors in hopes of keeping the event alive."

One potential—albeit unlikely—alternative to finding a title sponsor would be signing a handful of top-tier sponsors whose investments combine to fund the event's $1.9 million purse and help recoup the roughly $3 million on top of that that it takes to put on the tournament through things like labor and paying for television coverage.

Galeski has not ruled out that option but said it would require a rare alignment of about four brands that don't compete with each other.


The clock is ticking on the search. Galeski said his group realistically has until the end of October to get a commitment from a top sponsor. If they don't, the Champions Tour will likely move ahead with another event to fill the hole in its 2016 schedule. The tour typically holds between 25 and 30 events per year.

Finding a date that works for next year's event also won't be easy. It had to move from June to July this year. Based on weather and course conditions, the best time to hold a pro golf event in Chicago runs from early June to the end of September, Galeski said.

But the Champions Tour won't hold events the same week as any of the PGA Tour's major tournaments (three of them fall in that time frame), and the re-introduction of golf as an Olympic sport may also complicate the schedule in August, when all eyes will be focused on the Summer Games in Rio.

A spokesman for the Tour did not specify a deadline for finding a new sponsor for the event but said in a statement that the Tour "continues to work with the tournament in actively seeking a new sponsor."

ProLinks would also have to find a new home course, since North Shore Country Club in Glenview—where the tournament has been since 2013—will be unavailable during an upcoming club renovation. But Galeski said he's gotten inquiries from a number of local courses about hosting the event if a sponsor is lined up, including the Glen Club in Glenview, Cog Hill Golf & Country Club in Lemont and Wynstone Country Club in Barrington.