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Chases of the Fall

The Sports Professor’s Weekly Sports and Entertainment Dollar
September 20, 2013
By Rick Horrow and Karla Swatek

On the surface, NASCAR and the PGA Tour might seem polar opposite playmates – the one involving players ambling slowly around a couple-of-miles- long course hitting a little white ball, the other, drivers maneuvering heavy stock cars 500 miles at speeds close to 200 mph.

But in their approach to business, the two sports are startlingly alike. Both treat their athletes as walking/speeding billboards advertising multiple sponsors, and lean on individual stars to sell their respective sports (think: Tiger Woods and Dale Earnhardt, Jr.). Both are heavily B2B oriented, and governed not only by a strict, sometimes incomprehensible set of rules, but also by a deeply-ingrained code of honor.

And more to the point, both NASCAR and the PGA Tour have managed, within a few years of each other, to turn their autumn silly seasons, pounded in the ratings by football, into must-see TV, thanks to a parallel series of weighted playoff events, culminating in champions’ checks with a helluva lotta zeros.

The PGA Tour’s FedExCup Playoffs, as the New York Times so elegantly put it, "have provided great theater," in addition to providing an extensive marketing canvas for title rights holder FedEx and top sponsors Barclays, Deutsche Bank, BMW, and Coca-Cola (this week hosting the annual Tour Championship in Atlanta). Aided by a late surge from Woods, who finished one stroke behind winner Adam Scott, final-round coverage of The Barclays, the first playoff event, earned a 3.7 overnight Nielsen rating on CBS. The Deutsche Bank Championship, the second event, drew 3.2 million viewers on NBC, while Golf Channel’s coverage of Jim Furyk’s second-round 59 at last week’s BMW Championship "drew an audience of just under 1.1 million." That tournament drew as many as 30,000 golf fans each day to Conway Farms Golf Club in Chicago’s Lake Forest suburb, with hospitality suites going for $18,000-$30,000 and the BMW Owners Pavilion providing an exclusive parking place for Ultimate Driving Machine owners.

All told, the combined FedEx Cup prize fund for 2013, including prize money for the four FedEx Cup Playoff tournaments (at $8 million each), is $67 million. The fortunate FedEx Cup and Tour Championship winner will collect a payout of $11.44 million.

"The first couple of years there was really no drama going into The Tour Championship,” Woods remarked to USA Today. “Now anybody that’s in the top five at the Tour Championship, if they win, they automatically win the FedExCup. You’re playing all year to be in the top five. That makes the Tour Championship exciting.”

NASCAR and golf each have their elder statesmen as well, and one of the busiest sports septuagenarians around is Gary Player, multiple Grand Slam winner and two-time captain of the Presidents Cup, golf’s next big event, which starts a mere nine days after the Tour Champion is crowned this Sunday.

Player will be cheering the international squad from afar this time around. Opening Friday, the newest Gary Player Signature course, Mountain Park Golf Course in South Carolina, is one of only a handful of courses opening by any designer in North America in 2013. Mountain Park is just one of the courses that Gary Player Design will add in the coming months to its international portfolio, which includes over 300 courses across the globe in over 35 countries. Player also released an instructional golf media series, Gary Player: A Game For Life, earlier this summer.

While he hasn’t quite reached Player’s pantheon just yet, a late season controversy allowed four-time NASCAR champion Jeff Gordon to join the sanctioning body’s autumn 10-race Chase for the Sprint Cup.

NASCAR drivers Gordon and Ryan Newman could potentially pocket millions of dollars in sponsorship incentives and bonus money after they were retroactively added to the Chase for the Sprint Cup. The drivers were added to NASCAR’s “playoffs” amid evidence other drivers conspired to manipulate the outcome of the race two weeks ago at Richmond International Raceway.

As much as those Gordon and Newman could benefit from the scandal, Michael Waltrip Racing will suffer. MWR received the stiffest punishment in NASCAR history—a $300,000 fine and 50-point penalties for drivers Clint Bowyer, Martin Truex, Jr., and Brian Vickers, all deemed responsible for manipulating a race in order to get Truex into NASCAR’s version of the playoffs. Even more damaging, NAPA Auto Parts dropped its MWR sponsorship. The decision leaves a significant sponsorship void for that team to fill before next season.

In the wake of the controversy, NASCAR unveiled a new set of rules to help its series protect against future race manipulation. Teams or drivers found guilty of altering races could be subject to expulsion from the sport. NASCAR also is banning digital communication between team spotters and crews.

Despite the on-track controversy, NASCAR and International Speedway Corporation, the leading promoter of major motorsports entertainment, always have their eye on racing’s bottom line and their reputation as a standout business entity.

Accordingly, together with ISC, we will be hosting an eight-part webcast series of panel discussions with prominent sports business and media executives, and political leaders addressing the most current issues in sports. The innovative webcasts will be powered by Citrix GoToWebcast and titled the Sports Business Insider Series.

The Sports Business Insider Series, which will begin September 27, 2013 and end July 2, 2014, is intended to address major business, marketing and political matters that are important to major sports. The panelists have a wide-ranging depth of knowledge across all sports properties—NASCAR, golf, MLB, the NFL, NBA, and NHL—as well as other leagues.

Other areas of expertise the panelists will explore include the media landscape, political and legislative issues, and yes, the cons and overwhelming pros of hosting a fall championship series.

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