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Published: Friday, 7/12/2013

Toledo stop among LPGA’s longest

BY DAVE HACKENBERG
BLADE SPORTS COLUMNIST
I.K. Kim reacts to missing a putt at the 18th green while volunteers post scores during the 2012 Jamie Farr Toledo Classic at Highland Meadows Golf Club. The LPGA  Tour returns for a 28th time this year to compete in the newly named Marathon Classic.
I.K. Kim reacts to missing a putt at the 18th green while volunteers post scores during the 2012 Jamie Farr Toledo Classic at Highland Meadows Golf Club. The LPGA Tour returns for a 28th time this year to compete in the newly named Marathon Classic.
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The Marathon Classic is a new name that reflects a new sponsor.

But the Toledo area’s LPGA Tour event is an old tournament.

In fact, discounting major championships, we have the second longest-running LPGA tournament in the United States and the third oldest in the world. Really!

This is no small feat because tournaments, like sponsors, come and go. Often, the two come and go in tandem.

The Marathon Classic, formerly known as the Jamie Farr Toledo Classic, will be played this week for the 28th time since its inception in 1984. The event twice was on hiatus, in 1986 and 2011, to avoid conflicts with men’s major championships staged at Inverness Club.

RELATED CONTENT: History of Toledo's LPGA Tournament

The only U.S.-based women’s event to enjoy a longer ongoing run is the Safeway Classic which will be played later this summer in Portland, Ore., for the 35th time since 1972. It had a 1972-76 run and started up again in 1983.

Meanwhile, the Canadian Women’s Open, despite a variety of names and sites and despite alternating between regular tour and major championship status, has technically existed as an LPGA event since 1973.

Only the three American majors are older. The U.S. Open, conducted by the United States Golf Association, began in 1946 followed by the LPGA Championship (1955) and the Kraft Nabisco (1972).

We may have to place an asterisk next to the Wegman’s tournament in Rochester, N.Y. It has been up and running since 1977, but ended its status as a regular tour event after the 2009 season to ride to the tour’s rescue and take over sponsorship of the nomadic LPGA Championship.

But let’s not get bogged down in details. The Marathon Classic nee Farr Classic is an oldie and among the oldest.

As recently as 2000, there were five LPGA tournaments, four in Ohio, within roughly a three-hour drive of Toledo. In addition to the then-Farr Classic, there was the Giant Eagle Classic in the Youngstown-Warren area (1990-2004), a Dayton-based event which went by a number of names (1994-2001), the New Albany/​Wendy’s Championship near Columbus (1999-2006), and the Oldsmobile Classic in East Lansing, Mich. (1992-2000).

As you can tell by the dates in parentheses, all except the Toledo tournament have ceased to exist.

The same applies to two of the LPGA’s most iconic events, the Rail Classic in Springfield, Ill., which ran from 1976-2011, and the Corning (N.Y.) Classic, which ended a 30-year run in 2009. We’ll get back to those later.

Ask Judd Silverman, the Farr Classic founder who remains director of the Marathon Classic, why his tournament exists, and is successful, while so many have floundered and he quickly says, “loyal sponsors.”

But there is far more to it than that. It is the depth of that sponsorship that has helped set the Toledo tour stop apart from so many others.

“Our business model may be a little different than some of those tournaments that are gone now,” Silverman said. “They may have had a greater dependency on a title sponsor and, while Marathon is a great partner making a very significant contribution, we have always relied as much on a broad range of financial support from the community.

“Between our title sponsor, our two presenting sponsors, Owens Corning and O-I, our pro-am customers, advertising, and corporate hospitality, 98 per cent of our income is generated.”

Marathon is in its first year as title sponsor, Owens Corning and O-I are continuing as presenting sponsors, and there are 17 other local corporations and businesses listed by the tournament as “hall of fame” sponsors.

While most pro golf events have an affiliated pro-am tournament, the Marathon Classic will, as usual, have four pro-ams during tournament week. In addition, the annual gala dinner and show at the SeaGate Centre is sponsored and produces revenue.

“The strength and stability of this tournament is due to the depth of the financial support we receive from the business community,” Silverman said. “There is such a willingness to participate. It is why we’ve been in business for 28 years and have raised almost $8 million for local children’s charities. We have a solid track record in the world of women’s golf; heck, in all of professional golf.”

But so did tournaments like the Rail Classic and Corning Classic. The difference is/​was the depth of sponsorship revenue.

“You need all that money from all those sources, at least we do in our business model,” Silverman said. “But if the vast majority of your money is coming from one source, the title sponsor, and that source pulls out, where do you go?”

State Farm Insurance was the title sponsor of the Rail Classic from 1993-2011 and, indeed, when that company decided to end its sponsorship the tournament disappeared.

Ditto the Corning Classic, which had the same single title sponsor, Corning Inc., a hometown glass manufacturer, during its entire 1979-2009 run.

Those decisions were partly due to the economy and partly due to changes in LPGA policies under former commissioner Carolyn Bivens that passed greater sponsorship fees and tournament operation costs to the individual tour events. She cared far more about tour revenue than tournament revenue, despite most tour stops being non-profit organizations tasked with giving all proceeds to charity.

Her decisions also chased off McDonald’s, the longtime LPGA Championship sponsor, and Wendy’s at the former Columbus tournament. Perhaps she didn’t care for cheeseburgers.

The then-Farr Classic barely survived and if Bivens had lasted longer than 4½ years before being forced out as commissioner it might not have.

Numerous others did not, which has resulted in the Marathon Classic being the only remaining Midwestern-based tour stop on a 2013 schedule that finds only about half of all LPGA events being contested on American soil.

“That’s part of it,” Silverman said. “But the globalization of the tour isn’t surprising from the standpoint of available foreign sponsorship money and of so many successful players coming from outside the U.S.

“But, thanks to [current LPGA commissioner] Mike Whan, I think it’s only a matter of time before some of the traditional U.S. sites are hosting tour events again. He’s doing all he can to rebuild after what the LPGA went through with economics and leadership issues.”

Perhaps there will be more happy endings, but for now the Farr/​Marathon Classic has been one of the few to survive and thrive.

“Again, it’s a reflection on our community,” Silverman said. “When a community wants something like this badly enough, you find ways to reinvent yourself. There have been three or four times over the last 27 years that we’ve faced challenges, whether it was the purse, escalating expenses, TV costs, whatever, and we’ve found ways to get it done. People have recognized the value of the event.”

Marathon Petroleum, based in nearby Findlay, is now on board to headline a business model that has stood the test of time.

So, we have the Marathon Classic.

It’s a new take on an old story.

Contact Blade sports columnist Dave Hackenberg at: dhack@theblade.com or 419-724-6398.


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