Win-Win Deals: Inside Major League Baseball’s PGA Tour Sponsorships
If you were among the hardcore fans who watched the Monday morning finish of Peter Malnati's come-from-behind win last month at the Sanderson Farms Championship in rainy Jackson, Miss., you might have noticed something unusual.
No, not the bronze rooster Malnati raised on the occasion of his first PGA Tour win -- the logo on his shirt, which depicted a player swinging a different kind of club.
Malnati is one of four professional golfers sponsored by Major League Baseball and the first to win a Tour event under the "MLB.com" logo. Baseball’s other brand ambassadors include Champions Tour pro Billy Andrade, 2014 Byron Nelson Championship winner Brendon Todd and Tour veteran Spencer Levin.
Golfers promoting baseball? Credit Dave Parker, a longtime sports agent and founding partner of the boutique agency, Noble Sports Group, in Plano, Texas. Parker dreamed up the idea in 2013 while attending the Waste Management Phoenix Open. He says the "light bulb moment" came over dinner with MLB Advanced Media VP Jimmy McCloud, when the discussion turned to Parker’s newest client, veteran Tour pro Shawn Stefani.
"We were trying to think of a way to put new players in a position to get repped by bigger companies," Parker says. "And I thought, 'Shawn is a big Houston Astros fan.' [An MLB partnership] makes sense."
Parker negotiated a deal on Stefani’s behalf in which MLB would pay him to wear its logo and play the occasional golf outing with the league’s corporate clients. In return, Stefani not only had the opportunity to schmooze with bigger sponsors with deeper pockets but he also was granted a free pass to watch his hometown team in action wherever and whenever he wanted.
At that year's U.S. Open at Merion, when Stefani aced the par-3 17th, the MLB.com logo was on his bag for the world to see.
Parker knew he had a winning concept, so he pitched it to Malnati, who was then a prospective client. Malnati had blogged about his life in pro golf since 2009, so Parker knew the Mizzou alum was a diehard Kansas City Royals fan.
"He told me that MLB.com wanted a relationship with the PGA Tour," Malnati says. "They put a logo on your bag and shirt. They pay you a little bit for the exposure. You do an event or two for them. Take some clients out to play golf. But most importantly, you’ve got a ticket connection. I was really intrigued by that."
Malnati signed with Parker and, soon after, MLB.com. The timing could not have been better. After nearly two decades of futility, the Royals made a run. In 2013, they missed the postseason despite finishing 10 games over .500. The following year they earned the AL Wild Card and battled all the way to the seventh game of the World Series, where they ultimately lost to Madison Bumgarner and the San Francisco Giants. Malnati was in the crowd for all seven games.
“What an experience,” Malnati said. “There are not many people who will get to do that.”
MLB does not sponsor athletes outside of the PGA Tour, but a couple of golfers do have marketing deals with sports other than baseball. According to Tour spokesmen Ty Votaw, journeyman Brad Fritsch has a deal with the Ottawa Senators of the National Hockey League and 23-year-old Patrick Rodgers represents the Indianapolis Colts of the National Football League.
The NFL was the first league to use golfers as a marketing platform. Throughout much of his celebrated career, the late Payne Stewart had a deal with the league that required him to wear the colors of the hometown NFL team at each Tour stop. (Ben Curtis inked a similar deal with the NFL in 2004 but it expired in 2013.)
All of this cross-promoting raises a question: With so much media competing for sports fans’ attention, aren’t the Tour and MLB effectively fighting each other for eyeballs? Both Votaw and MLB.com spokesperson Matthew Gould dismiss any notion of competition or conflict.
“We welcome it with open arms,” Votaw says. “The fact that other major sports leagues feel that our players are great platforms for promoting their brands is just confirmation that they’re good representatives to be associated with.”
Says Gould: "We're always looking for ways to expose our brand to other sports fans, so this is just a smart crossover opportunity. You've got a likeminded fan base and two sports with lots of great young players making a significant impact on the game."
"Likeminded" might be an understatement. According to a 2013 study by sports marketing firm Opendorse, MLB and PGA Tour fan demographics are nearly identical: both fan bases are predominantly male, white, over 55 years old, and making between $40,000 and $75,000 per year.
The Tour’s relationship with MLB runs deeper than just player sponsorships. It all started with Tiger Woods. MLB Advanced Media, the league’s digital production branch, has been responsible for the hosting and managing Woods’s website, tigerwoods.com, since 2007. Earlier this year MLB Advanced Media also helped the Tour launch PGA Tour Live, a subscription service offering fans Thursday and Friday morning coverage of Tour events before the Golf Channel broadcast.
The biggest winner in the Tour and MLB’s partnership?
Stefani's deal has ended, but you could make a case for Malnati. Though he missed the Royals’ World Series-winning run this year because of his full tournament schedule, Malnati was invited to Kauffman Stadium in July to throw out a ceremonial first pitch.
“Everyone warned me that they would boo me if I bounced it, so I gave it some heat and, gosh, I threw it 15 feet over home plate,” Malnati says. “My mental game is pretty sound on the course, but I was kind of a mental weakling out there on the mound.”