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Saving the Heritage: Haley’s involvement kept tournament alive in S.C.

July 11, 2011
| The Post and Courier by Robert Beher

The clock was ticking.

The PGA was about to enter into negotiations with television networks regarding its 2011-12 schedule and needed to know if the Heritage Classic tournament would survive on Hilton Head Island.

Those officials wondered whether the 43-year-old tournament could land a new sponsorship deal after Verizon pulled out more than a year ago.

The tournament squeaked by this year by spending all its reserves.

That was a shot tournament officials simply couldn’t hit again.

South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley also needed a deal.

She had vowed publicly to find a new private sponsor and save the golf tournament, but her political philosophy left her no wiggle room for state government to intervene if that didn’t succeed.

As one of her advisers put it, “She had political skin in the game.”

A burst of energy, then a low point

After taking office in January, Haley made a top priority of finding a company that could underwrite the approximately $8 million necessary to hold the Heritage tournament, one of the state’s highest profile sporting events.

The tournament is run by a local nonprofit and defined by Pete Dye’s Harbour Town course and its scenic views of a red-and-white striped lighthouse on Calibogue Sound.

Haley pushed the issue even before Duane Parish was tapped to head up the state Department of Parks Recreation and Tourism. Her office began reaching out to several possible corporate prospects.

During her 2010 gubernatorial campaign, Haley proudly noted she opposed state funding for the Gilbert Peach Festival in her legislative district, though other lawmakers ultimately arranged it without her OK.

This time, there would be no such Plan B. During her last year as a lawmaker, she took the lead in opposing a $10 million loan to the tournament from the state’s insurance reserve trust.

Haley wanted to find a sponsor, but she also wanted to change what she viewed as a political culture that too quickly looks for a government solution.

“Your job as governor is always to make sure that you are the No. 1 salesman for the state,” she said. “The next thing is to make sure the job gets done.”

Haley’s staff felt they had done just that by early spring, but an unnamed company heavily involved in sponsorship talks suddenly backed off.

“They just had to take it to their board, and we literally lost it at the last second,” Haley said. “That was probably the low point for me.”

Important meeting

Tournament officials, the governor’s office and the PGA never narrowed their list down to one prospect, and they continued to juggle several possibilities.

One of them was RBC, an umbrella company that includes Royal Bank of Canada and its subsidiaries.

In fact, tournament director Steve Wilmont said he has an Aug. 29, 2009, email from the PGA saying they were about to send a proposal on the Heritage to RBC.

But the idea took more than a year to ripen.

In fact, the conversation didn’t turn serious until RBC officials, visited this year’s tournament to assess the lay of the land.

Jim Little, RBC’s chief brand and communications officer, said company officials wore plain clothes, avoided any credentials and chatted with players and others about the tournament.

“I was looking for what was broken,” he said. “We spoke to 30 or 40 players, and they all said, ‘We all want to play here. We want a strong partner.’”

This was familiar turf. RBC got involved with the Canadian Open four years ago, helping bolster that tournament and the company.

Little said it was during a second meeting at the tournament — one attended by Haley and RBC officials, including Doug McGregor, chairman and co-chief executive officer of RBC Capital Markets, that proved to be a turning point.

“She (Haley) looked at us, and I knew with that look there was no way we were getting off this bus,” Little said. “She said we need your help. But you’re going to get more than a sponsor relationship. You’re going to become a partner, and we’re going to help you build your brand here.”

Tom Wade, executive vice president and chief marketing officer for the PGA, noted Haley appeared during the tournament broadcast and gave a forceful endorsement of Hilton Head and South Carolina.

“I’ve been doing this for 17 years, and I’ve never seen anyone get involved to the extent she did,” he said. “You get into situations where the spirit of negotiations has to be positive to get it done. There has to be give and take, and that’s where Gov. Haley played a vital role — in keeping everyone’s spirits good.”

Shortly after the tournament, RBC made a sponsorship offer. Then, it began to wait.

Coming together

Little said RBC realized its offer “probably needed some rounding out,” but the company had to take care not to overpay, particularly in the current economy.

As RBC also sought possible partners in the deal, Haley and U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., reached out to Boeing, which recently opened its large 787 manufacturing plant in North Charleston.

But time was slipping away, and Little began thinking he was only 30 percent sure the deal would go through.

Graham, an avid golfer, had reached out to an old friend, J. Michael Luttig, a former federal judge who is now Boeing’s general counsel, to help persuade the company to support the Heritage. That was before it had an offer for a title sponsor.

Rick Stephens, Boeing’s senior vice president of human resources and administration, said Haley reached out to the company and asked for help once RBC’s offer was in hand.

It was a good fit. “The real advantage for us is the community giving and the local presence we feel in South Carolina,” he said. “The giving we’re going to provide goes back into the local community.”

In less than four weeks, Boeing agreed to contribute more than $1 million a year, and at least $1 million will go directly to charities in the state.

While RBC gets the marketing advantages of being the title sponsor and television advertising time — Boeing will receive name recognition and other benefits. Locally, the tournament will be called “The RBC Heritage presented by Boeing.”

“The deal was put together in a relatively short period of time,” Stephen added. “That was probably the biggest challenge.”

On June 24, the announcement was made.

“One thing I didn’t realize until I was there last week was that the tournament could have been canceled if something didn’t happen,” Little said. “That made us feel like we were involved in more than sponsorship. It felt like citizenship. If you’re building a brand, citizenship is more important than being a sponsor.”

While the sponsors will get their names attached to the tournament for the next five years, the elected officials involved also can expect a warm welcome when next year’s tournament tees off.

At least from the tournament director.

“Certainly the thing I learned very quickly in this process is that a phone call or visit or whatever it might be from an elected official means an awful lot,” Wilmont said.

“We wouldn’t have gotten to this point if it weren’t for the governor and other elected officials who jumped in there and said, ‘Hey, this is important to this state.’ ”

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