GRAND RAPIDS — From a business standpoint, the Farmers Charity Classic is very similar to defending champion Larry Nelson’s golf game this year.
Although feeling some of the side effects of a slowing economy and a move from August to July on the schedule, the July 6-8 Senior PGA Tour tournament at Egypt Valley Country Club — formerly known as the Greater Grand Rapids Open, First of America Classic and Foremost Insurance Championship — is riding the momentum of a national television showcase with CNBC, a four-year financial commitment by Farmers Insurance and an alliance with the Charles Schwab Cup, which awards $1 million to the player with the most points at the end of the year.
“Like any business today, we’re feeling a little of the effects of the economy,” Farmers Charity Classic Executive Director Mike Nichols said. “Some of the companies who have supported the event in past years have scaled back their involvement because of cutbacks and things of that nature.
“It has to do with the economy. The tournament is known for its quiet hospitality and corporate entertainment, and unfortunately those are some of the first things in line when it comes time for budget cuts or belt tightening. It’s all kind of cyclical. Some companies are feeling the pinch and it kind of trickles on down to us.”
Nelson — the Senior Tour’s leading money winner and Player of the Year in 2000 — described his start in 2001 as being much like the tortoise and the hare — or vice versa. He won the first two events before going on an extended winless drought.
“After last year, it raises your expectations,” Nelson said. “When you start off winning the first two events, you feel like you should win every week.
“I feel sort of like the tortoise right now, but going into tournaments you’ve won before really gives you a lot of confidence.”
The four-year commitment by Farmers as the title sponsor has given tournament organizers an optimistic outlook at a time when other professional sports organizations in West Michigan — including the International Hockey League (IHL) and Continental Basketball Association (CBA) — have folded and the economic slowdown has cut corporate profits and increased unemployment.
“West Michigan has gone through quite a change in the business community and minor league sports arena,” Farmers Executive Vice President Jack Hannigan said. “But our business and this tournament have never been in a better situation.
“You couldn’t have a merger and acquisition better than this one,” Hannigan added. “From a golf perspective, the tournament has never been in a better situation.
“It’s a continuation of what we started as Foremost.”
Farmers has committed to the tournament for the next four years. This year, the purse jumps from $1.1 to $1.4 million, and will increase an additional $100,000 per year over the next three. The winner’s check increases from $165,000 to $210,000.
“This organization is committed to this event,” Hannigan said. “We’ve never been in a more solid situation in terms of title sponsorship. This is the major league event in this city.”
In addition, CNBC has committed national television exposure to the Senior Tour for the next four years.
“Overall, our corporate business strategy is to expand our market in the eastern United States, and the TV package is woven into our corporate strategy,” Hannigan said. “Most people know us in the western United States, but it’s our goal to be the dominant carrier in the U.S. and this title sponsorship supports that strategy.”
Nichols said that although fewer amateurs are taking part in the corporate play-with-a-pro portion of the event this year — partly because one of the dates of the July 4-5 pro-am falls on Independence Day — ticket sales have been strong, and the field of players is expected to be as strong as it has ever been. The Fourth of July weekend dates are sandwiched between the U.S. Senior Open and the Ford Senior Players Championship in Dearborn.
“All and all, the event — both from an operational standpoint, fan interest and player interest — is at an all-time high,” Nichols said. “Going on national television for the first time, and Farmers’ commitment to raise the purse and agreeing to sponsor it through 2004 puts us in a very strong position in terms of a long-term footing.”
The PGA Tour is the leading sports vehicle for raising monies for charities nationwide.
“I made $165,000 for winning last year and the charities made a lot more than I did, which is a great thing,” Nelson said.
The Grand Rapids Jaycees started the golf event in 1978 to raise money for charity. It became part of the Senior PGA Tour in 1986. Since its inception as a Senior PGA Tour event in 1986, the Grand Rapids event has raised $2.5 million for charity. A total of $750,000 has been raised over the past two years alone.
Matching or exceeding the record-setting years for monies raised for charities in 1999 and 2000 may be the tournament’s biggest challenge, according to Nichols. The tournament has set records for charitable contributions in each of the past six years.
“In many cases, people look at us as a sporting event and not necessarily a business, but we’re a business with the money we make going toward charities,” Nichols said. “It’s definitely going to be a challenge keeping that streak going.
“A lot of it will come down to the week of the event and the weather we get.”
And whether or not the Pepsi and hotdog sales are hot.
“All those things can make a difference for a record-setting year,” Nichols said.