The Sweet Seduction of Sponsorship

Patrick CantlayThe fact of the matter is, professional sports and sponsorships tend to go hand-in-hand. Ever since the invention of Wheaties cereal, athletes have transformed from mere players to potential brands. From golf bags to apparel, golfers have become extremely marketable (and very rich in the process). When a promising player shies away from the world of corporate sponsorship, it’s likely to raise a few eyebrows.

Such is the case with Patrick Cantlay, the number one amateur in the country. Cantlay, 19, competed in a PGA Tour event on the same course as Tiger Woods, surrounded by the mob that comprises Tiger’s gallery. Completely unaffected, Cantlay went on to score four strokes better than Woods in the first round. Yet, after recording runner-up finishes at the NCAA and United States Amateur Championships plus four top-25 finishes on the PGA Tour, Cantlay turned down the opportunity to turn professional. Rather than cashing in on the millions of dollars headed his way by turning pro, Cantlay decided to pass it up and focus on his education and improving his game. His focus is on honing his skills for the future rather than taking the quick cash fix. According to the New York Times:

Cantlay says he has been told he is crazy to stay in college when his game is ready for the PGA Tour. “What is crazy,” he said, “is that before the U.S. Open, it would have been crazy to say that I should turn pro.”

Cantlay possesses an unflappable confidence about both his performance on the course and his decision not to go pro immediately. It is this self-assurance that makes Cantlay “a once-in-a-generation player” according to Chris Zambri, the Southern California Coach. By focusing on his game rather than his potential endorsements, Cantlay is avoiding the pressure and obligations that come with million dollar paychecks.

Tiger WoodsAs seen with Tiger Woods, that kind of pressure can become overwhelming. When Tiger Woods emerged from both the wreckage of his car and his marriage in 2009, he was the No. 1 golfer in the world and had the corporate sponsorships that come with the title. After two years of injuries, mediocre play, scandals, and subsequent damage control, Tiger has yet to reclaim his former rock-star-level glory. After AT&T, Accenture, Gatorade, Gillette, and other major companies dropped their endorsement deals with him, Tiger took a hiatus from golf. Now, however, he’s taken steps towards earning back a few endorsement dollars. Recently, Tiger has announced new partnerships with Rolex and Fuse Science – contracts that make up hardly a fraction of what he used to earn through his sponsorships. This year, Woods won approximately $660,000 on the PGA. While I’m sure no one’s about to start up a non-profit anytime soon to help Tiger out of this slump, when you compare that 660K to the $10.5 million he earned in 2009, it’s pretty clear that the corporate dollar can be a fickle mistress. Given what a mental game golf is, the loss of literally millions upon millions of dollars weighing on a player’s mind can only have adverse affects on performance. The end result: a vicious cycle where losing more money means losing more games, means losing more money and so forth. Tiger’s hopeful comeback is undoubtedly facing hurdles in the form of money concerns and sudden lack of corporate confidence. While Tiger is definitely working hard towards turning things around, his uphill battle makes this caveman think that perhaps Cantlay’s approach of focusing on the game rather than the goods isn’t so naïve or unrealistic after all.

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