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Verizon Classic has big money worries

Title sponsor is pulling out next year and no other firm has stepped forth.

By BOB HARIG, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published February 18, 2003

LUTZ -- For 15 years the Verizon Classic has been a senior success story. From its humble beginnings in 1988 at Tampa Palms to a tournament that became the place to be among golf fans when it moved to the TPC of Tampa in the early 1990s, it is considered one of the top events on what is now known as the Champions Tour.

But the tournament for players 50 and over is in trouble. Perhaps big trouble.

Verizon, formerly GTE, will be the event's title sponsor for the 16th and final time when the $1.6-million tournament begins Friday. No title sponsor has been secured for 2004. In fact, the management company that runs the tournament has been searching for the past year when it became apparent Verizon would not renew its contract.

"Yes, we are concerned," said tournament director David Porter, who works for Minneapolis-based Pro Link Sports, which runs the event. Porter said a title sponsor would be looking at about a $2-million commitment annually.

"This isn't the roaring late '90s where people have a lot of extra money they're spending corporately. Things are different," he said. "Logically, you would think this would be pretty much a no-brainer for people. This is the 16th year of the tournament. It's on a very popular golf course with the players. It's in a great slot on the tour schedule. And Verizon has built 16 years of equity for someone else to come in and grab. Having said all that, selling a title sponsorship is not an easy task."

Verizon, the second-longest sponsor on the Champions Tour behind Liberty Mutual, at one time sponsored several senior events as well as the Byron Nelson Classic on the PGA Tour.

But it pulled sponsorship of all those events, leaving only the local tournament. Now, Verizon, which has a big corporate presence in Tampa, has elected not to pick up an option for 2004, according to Porter. It is considering a smaller role.

"We're evaluating our participation in the Verizon Classic so that we can make the best decision possible," Verizon spokesman Bob Elek said. "I cannot say what that decision will be at this time."

For next year's tournament to take place, a title sponsor needs to be in place by the summer, according to Hollis Cavner, a co-owner of Pro Link Sports.

"If we don't have one by the middle of the summer, then you have to go to Plan B quickly (perhaps a compilation of smaller sponsors)," Cavner said. "If not by then, it's a real issue. It becomes the issue of if you play. The tour does not want to lose this event. It is a premier event. That's one of the things you'll see is that (PGA Tour commissioner) Tim (Finchem) really wants to save it.

"The tour is working closely with us. We hope to have something figured out in the next few weeks."

Cavner said Pro Link's contract with Verizon expires April 30. At that time, technically, the event would be dead. "We will continue to operate and fund the event until a title sponsor is found," he said. "We will not shut down."

"Stingily, for the tour, the players, the event, the area ... we need a sponsor," said Champions Tour player Bob Murphy, a longtime supporter of the tournament. "(The TPC of Tampa Bay) happens to be one of the top two or three courses we play every year. We don't want to lose venues like that."

One of the reasons the Verizon Classic is so popular with the players is its location on the schedule. For much of its history, the tournament has followed other Florida events in Key Biscayne and Naples. It sets up a nice start to the year.

"The Florida Swing is certainly a cornerstone and extremely important to the overall Champions Tour," said Ric Clarson, a marketing specialist for the PGA Tour. "The fact that the event has had a very good history should help us in the marketplace because there is known value in what is being offered. It's not like we're selling a vision. We're selling and offering a proven product."

The Verizon Classic has had a slew of senior stars over the years, including Jack Nicklaus, who is scheduled to play this week and won the 1996 event. Arnold Palmer, Gary Player, Lee Trevino -- all committed this week -- have frequented the tournament.

But the Champions Tour has suffered in recent years as some of those stars have aged while the PGA Tour's popularity, particularly because of Tiger Woods, has soared. A poor economy has not helped.

The Champions Tour reduced its schedule to 31 events this year, and at least four tournaments are without title sponsors. Although the tour would not confirm it, the belief is that some of them are getting help from the Champions Tour while trying to secure a title sponsor.

The Verizon Classic is getting a different kind of help from the tour, however. When the area got the PGA Tour's Chrysler Championship, to begin this year at Innisbrook, the tour guaranteed that the Verizon would give no less than its five-year average amount to charity each year, regardless of how much is raised.

So if there is a shortfall this year, the tour will make up the difference. A 3 percent increase was guaranteed after this year. The average is more than $400,000. In 15 years, the tournament has given more than $4.5-million to charity.

Porter said the Chrysler Championship is not the problem, nor is any perceived decline of the Champions Tour.

"I attribute it right now solely to the economy," he said. "In this town, you've got the Devil Rays, the Lightning, the Bucs. There are lots of companies investing in those. With the economy the way it is, you have to pick and choose. So I see it strictly as an economic thing right now."

NOTES: Palm Harbor's Jay Overton, who tied for fourth Sunday at the ACE Group Classic, failed to qualify Monday for the Verizon Classic. Overton shot 73 at Fox Hollow Golf Club in New Port Richey. The three qualifiers were Bob Duval, John Schroeder and Norm Jarvis. All three shot 3-under-par 68.

In Monday's pro-am at the TPC of Tampa Bay, the team led by pro Mark Pheil won with a score of 55. Pheil's amateur partners were Rick Lindau, Snow Martin, Steve Raney and Sam Scheibal.

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