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Published: Tuesday, 3/31/2009

Farr tourney feels effects of tough times

BY GARY T. PAKULSKI
BLADE BUSINESS WRITER

Organizers of the Jamie Farr Owens Corning Classic golf tournament are learning a lesson already understood by firms that depend on corporate marketing budgets:

This year, there is less money to go around.

Four months before the Ladies Professional Golf Association tournament, the scheduled sponsor of a related celebrity pro-am tournament is considering pulling out of that event, organizers have yet to nail down a sponsor for the gala dinner, and many longtime corporate sponsors have reduced their contributions.

"It's a tough time for everybody," said Judd Silverman, tournament director. "Every sector of the business community has been affected by this downturn."

But the show will go on, vowed Mr. Silverman, who said sponsors have given no thought to canceling the event.

The $1.4 million purse is already in hand. And Lorena Ochoa, the world's No. 1-ranked women's golfer, has announced she will participate in the July 2-5 tournament at Highland Meadows Golf Club in Sylvania.

The biggest losers could be the children's charities that benefit from the tournament. Last year, 15 charities split $350,000. That was down 22 percent from the 2007 amount. And it could slip further if sponsors do not succeed in efforts to attract new sponsors and trim expenses.

But Mr. Silverman said it is too soon to say whether income from sponsorships, tickets, and other revenue sources will drop. "We're right in the middle of the selling game now," he said.

The tournament Web site lists National City bank as sponsor of a celebrity pro-am tournament scheduled for 7 a.m. July 1.

But the Cleveland bank, which booked steep losses last year and is now owned by Pittsburgh's PNC Financial Services Corp., hasn't decided if it will sponsor the event, Mr. Silverman said. "They have not determined what they're doing with the tournament," he said.

"National City's interest in the Classic is undiminished," said Fred Solomon, a spokesman in Pittsburgh. "Our sponsorship decision balances that interest with consideration for the economic stress felt by so many." He declined to comment further.

Brokerage Merrill Lynch & Co., which was absorbed by Bank of America in December, won't be back for a third year as sponsor of the gala dinner at SeaGate Centre.

The event, which last year featured pop act Hootie & the Blowfish, will go on even if a sponsor isn't found, Mr. Silverman said. "We're talking to several different companies," he added. "We're awaiting an answer right now."

He acknowledged that a few small sponsors have withdrawn and that nine of about 20 major long-term sponsors are reducing contributions.

Advertisements in the event program, which sell for $2,700 for a full page, are going well. And the tournament has sold 11 sky boxes so far. Sixteen were sold last year, the tournament director said.

Prices range from $7,000 to $24,000, according to the event Web site.

Fifth Third Bank won't purchase a sky box this year. It will shift money that would have been spent for that purpose to advertising on video display billboards along the course.

"Fifth Third is very much supporting the community this year even though we are operating with limited resources," said spokesman Karen Fraker. "Demand for our support has never been greater."

The tournament's top two sponsors, Toledo's Owens Corning and Cincinnati's Kroger Co., remain committed to the event, Mr. Silverman said.

Spokesman Scott Deitz said OC is working with the tournament to attract sponsors.

"Owens Corning is firmly in support of the event," he said. The Toledo company understands why some firms are cutting back, he said. But those who have decided to maintain sponsorship levels shouldn't be criticized, he added.

"You can't stop doing business, and sales promotion is an important of doing business," Mr. Deitz said. "And supporting the community in a time of need is an important part of doing business."

The Anne Grady Center, which serves children with special needs and developmental disabilities, received $25,000 from the tournament last year.

The money was used to help needy families pay fees at a medically oriented day-care program operated by the center, said Sharon Unkle, director of community support.

The tournament, she said, "is very important to our community and the charities it sponsors."

Contact Gary Pakulski at:

gpakulski@theblade.com

or 419-724-6082.



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