Philly should have a major golf tournament

The PGA Tour made a rare visit to Philadelphia in 2013 for the U.S. Open at Merion, where Ryan Sullivan and other pros teed off. Philadelphia is the only one of America's 10 largest metropolitan areas without a PGA event.
The PGA Tour made a rare visit to Philadelphia in 2013 for the U.S. Open at Merion, where Ryan Sullivan and other pros teed off. Philadelphia is the only one of America's 10 largest metropolitan areas without a PGA event. (   CLEM MURRAY / Staff)
Posted: July 14, 2014

Many would argue that Philadelphia is America's best sports city. Our passion certainly supports that claim, even if the 76ers' attendance frequently doesn't.

But apart from those considerations, I wonder if it's possible to be a great sports town without a PGA Tour stop.

When it comes to a city's sporting calendar, a golf tournament is like the cherry on a sundae - a sweet, colorful, and eagerly consumed addition to an already tasty concoction.

Yet for most of the last 35 years, Philadelphia inexplicably has been the only one of America's 10 largest metropolitan areas without a PGA event.

The Philadelphia area was a regular stop during the Tour's formative decades. Then in 1973, the Whitemarsh Open arrived.

Arnold Palmer captured the first one and Jack Nicklaus won it three times. And though it changed names more often than Sean Combs, it remained a local sports fixture for 18 years.

But ever since Doug Tewell won the last one in 1980, Philadelphia has been a PGA bench player.

In 2010 and 2011, Aronimink Golf Club pinch-hit as host of the AT&T National. The SEI Pennsylvania Classic, played at Waynesborough Country Club, failed to attract golf's big names and was conducted just twice, in 2000 and 2002.

This shortcoming stings all the more since three of our Northeast rivals - Boston, New York, and Washington - are annual PGA hosts. So is almost every other major sports market.

Whatever your feelings about golf, this hole on Philadelphia's scorecard is, like the Phillies front office, difficult to comprehend. After all, if you were ranking potential PGA sites by purely objective standards, few cities would seem to compare.

Consider some of the Philadelphia area's attributes as a golfing venue:

Its golf history and traditions are as rich as those of any American city.

It's home to dozens of classic courses, including two of the top 10 - No. 1 Pine Valley and No. 6 Merion - in Golf Digest's rankings of America's top 100.

It displayed Tour-worthy passion and interest during those two AT&T events at Aronimink and again during last year's U.S. Open at Merion.

It's the nation's fifth-most-populous city and fourth-largest television market.

And maybe most significant, it's home to the corporate owner of two networks - NBC and the Golf Channel - that between them telecast virtually every significant golf tournament in the world.

That last point is worth noting because in 2014 the most important factor in landing a PGA event is solid corporate sponsorship.

Much of Philadelphia's long golfing exile could be explained by its lack of a business behemoth. But that was B.C. - Before Comcast.

Given its stature, its wealth, and its standing and influence in the golf world, it's astounding that there isn't a Comcast Open in Philadelphia - or, for that matter, anywhere else.

Back in the 1970s, the PGA Tour and its weekly telecasts were floundering. Ratings and attendance were low, advertisers were disinterested, and its TV networks were losing money.

That's when commissioner Deane Beman developed a formula that's still in effect. Corporate sponsors could affix their names to Tour events provided they anted up enough money to guarantee the networks a profit.

Here in Philadelphia, for example, the Whitemarsh Open found a bank sponsor and was christened the IVB Classic, a then-awkward moniker that many media outlets initially refused to use.

According to Forbes magazine, these days title sponsors invest between $8 million and $13 million in events carried by NBC and CBS, much less for those that rate only Golf Channel coverage.

Half that money goes to a designated charity, typically a nonprofit that runs the tournament. Some goes toward the purse, the rest to the TV networks.

(The PGA Tour, by the way, has nonprofit status and pays no federal or state taxes. It did raise $130 million for charity last year, but, as Forbes pointed out, that was all sponsorship money that never showed up on the Tour's books.)

In cities around the country, big corporate interests have attracted Tour events to their hometowns.

Wells Fargo sponsors one in Charlotte. FedEx does the same in Memphis, as does Travelers in Hartford and John Deere in Illinois. Oil companies such as Valero and Shell back Texas events.

So why can't Comcast do it in Philadelphia?

(A Comcast spokesman returned a phone call but did not have an answer.)

The lobbying certainly wouldn't be tough. Who, after all, exerts more influence over golf than the owner of NBC and the Golf Channel?

The price tag shouldn't be an issue either for a company whose free cash flow in 2013 was a reported $8.5 billion.

And it's not as if televising a sporting event would be a strange enterprise for Comcast. It already operates numerous regional sports channels. Its various NBC networks televise both the Olympics and the NFL. And its Golf Channel is devoted to little else but the televising of golf tournaments.

Before Philadelphia could gain a Tour stop, of course, some other city would have to lose one. But if Comcast wants that to happen, it will.

In 2002, when visiting PGA players were told that the SEI Pennsylvania Classic they were competing in would be the last, most were sure the area's absence from the Tour calendar would be brief.

"It would be surprising if there wasn't a tournament in Philadelphia soon," said Len Mattiace.

Twelve years later we're still not on the PGA's calendar.

Maybe it's time we called Comcast.

And after it has repaired our golf problem, maybe it can get us a tennis tournament too.


ffitzpatrick@phillynews.com

@philafitz

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