AT&T Classic searches for identity
Golf tournament seeks new sponsorship

DULUTH - The AT&T Classic won't be played next year - well, technically.

Sure, a professional tournament will likely continue in 2009 at the prodigious TPC at Sugarloaf in Duluth. But it's anyones guess as to what corporation will assume the title sponsorship role now that AT&T will no longer lead the event once a winner is crowned - weather permitting - next Sunday.

Given the fact that the classic has enjoyed a lengthy run with just two title sponsors - Georgia Pacific from 1982 to 1988 and BellSouth (which later became AT&T) from 1988 to 2008 - the art of wooing a potential sponsor has been a learning experience for tournament director Dave Kaplan.

"This is pretty new to us," he said in a phone interview last week.

In a move to consolidate its sponsorships, AT&T exercised its option to discontinue as title sponsor last December. Almost a month earlier, PODS Inc., a moving and storage company, pulled out as title sponsor of a PGA Tour event in Palm Harbor, Fla.

Since AT&T announced its departure - it remains the sponsor of several PGA events - Kaplan and PGA Tour officials have been busy searching for a viable replacement. At least 100 companies have expressed interest, Kaplan said. The tour's marketing and development office has given about 20 presentations - using data reflecting AT&T/Bellsouth's return on investment in its two decades as sponsor - to prospective corporations.

"I'm still very encouraged we will have a title sponsor in 2009," Kaplan said. "The PGA has been a great partner in helping us achieve that."

Several would-be takers - all of which remain undisclosed - will be in attendance this week to observe. Officials say they have no definitive deadline in which to sign a new company. Title sponsorship is attractive on several levels: Furthering the company's brand, increased visibility - the tournament is beamed internationally to more than 500 million viewers - and having a place to entertain employees and current or prospective clients.

Tour executives are upbeat they can make the sell.

"I think it's a relatively safe investment," said Tom Wade, the tour's chief marketing officer. "The PGA Tour has had great stability and we deliver great value for the investment."

As the tournament searches for a new title sponsor, some argue it's also searching for an identity. When the classic was played the week before the Masters, organizers acknowledge the tournament had far more star quality. But after a disastrous 2005 in which rain halted play Thursday and Friday and snow fell Saturday, officials decided moving it to a spring date was a strategic move for the longevity of the tournament despite stiffer competition at home and abroad in its current slot.

"In eight years, we had only made two cuts on Friday," Kaplan recalled. "It was just a very difficult time."

Surviving a tough economy now looms. Kaplan estimates the tournament's hospitality business "is off about 15 percent," with several of the tournament's 20 luxury boxes unreserved. Money for charitable causes - AT&T says it will continue to donate through 2010 - could also be reduced due to increased operating costs. About $1.5 million was given to charity in 2007, Kaplan said.

Overcoming economic uncertainties in the mid-90s and in the aftermath of Sept. 11 give Kaplan and Wade hope.

"You just weather it," Wade said. "There's nothing you can do. We're not the only ones feeling it."

Practice rounds begin Monday prior to the tournament getting under way Thursday.