Sports stars or businessmen?

In 1970 the total prize money for PGA Tour events was just over £3.2m. Now it is nearing £200m. The PGA European Tour purse, growing at a comparable rate, is more than £110m.

Old-school golf writers, particularly in the US, who covered the pro tour’s early years derided latter-day professionals for gathering a team of advisers, managers, coaches and trainers around them. These writers may just as well have mocked a food shop that grew into a grocery chain for switching to computerised tills. A business expands dramatically and successful people grow more sophisticated to keep up.

Once a fan or media type gets used to this notion, it’s intriguing to observe the variety of ways in which today’s 20-something athletes interpret their opportunities, spot challenges and build a logical business structure around themselves – then develop the leadership skills to oversee it.

A pro golfer who surrounds himself with advisers can learn enough to offer business advice himself

One notable example would be Dustin Johnson, whose business counselling comes in part from board members of his Dustin Johnson Foundation. These include David Winkle, who is Johnson’s agent, his accountant Roy Adams, two lawyers and the founder-owner of a marketing agency.

That’s the gamut of skills needed to make the most of a great golf career such as Johnson is carving out. Interestingly, his business machinery echoes that of the PGA Tour itself, which as an enterprise has benefited greatly from its tax-exempt charitable status.

Ian Poulter, like Johnson, has drawn on outside expertise and formed partnerships around his golfing career and its related activity that reflect, in short, who he is – a natural entertainer with a talent for brand building, clothing design and marketing.

If fate had meant the Hertfordshire man to be a 12-handicap golfer, you could well picture him as a specialist in consumer branding. IJP Design, the company Poulter founded in 2007, is a direct progression of his first job as a teenager, “working a market stall at Stevenage selling trendy jeans and T-shirts”.

Icon Sports Management, an Ohio-based talent agency, is Poulter’s choice for professional representation. After all, someone has to look after his dozen-plus major endorsement deals.

As for those brand-management skills, Poulter has actively advised players who are coming through the ranks and have deals to wear his clothing. Indeed, a pro golfer who surrounds himself with advisers can learn enough from the process to offer valuable business advice himself. (Poulter has also moonlighted in social media brand development, deciding years ago to make his caddie, Terry Mundy, a significant presence on Twitter. Tapping into his own Twitter following of 1.6m, Poulter typed Mundy’s first tweet, leading to several thousand followers within hours.)

One potential problem for a successful tour player comes towards the end of an equipment endorsement contract, when a new deal must be sought and signed. In the case of Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy, the clubs they had used to attain early stardom were set aside in favour of a new set of Nike woods and irons. Both players endured a difficult transition that led to a questioning of priorities.

These issues, that have worldwide marketing ramifications, are of little interest to golf writers. Based on pure commercial logic, both Woods and McIlroy are quite right to align their personal brands with a larger brand, such as Nike, that functions globally and across multiple sports.

Naturally, performance may temporarily suffer, since no amount of customisation will be able to eradicate the subtle differences between brand A’s driver or five-iron and those of brand B. Indeed, many pros would admit that the mere presence of a new logo could by itself affect the way they play.

This is when a team approach is vital for continued success. Club engineers, swing coaches, psychologists, caddies, agents and business managers all pull together. Woods relied on his inner circle to play through the transition relatively quickly.

Meanwhile, the positives gained by joining forces with a worldwide mega-brand such as Nike are clear. The golfing career is long and partnerships are vital. Excellent judgement on the part of a tour player extends far beyond club selection for a crucial approach shot on Masters Sunday.

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