Golf Canada faces uphill battle to find new Canadian Women's Open sponsor

The inevitable happened yesterday — CN announced it was stepping away from the Canadian Women’s Open. The railway, which took over the tournament when it seemed like it might disappear, is “transitioning” its money (though I highly doubt all of it) to the CN Future Links program:

“We are very proud of what we have accomplished through our involvement with Golf Canada,” said CN President and CEO Claude Mongeau. “Women’s and youth golf have provided us a strong platform to make a significant impact in the communities in which we operate. We have elevated the status of the Canadian Women’s Open to a world-class event on the LPGA Tour and have played an active role in helping Golf Canada grow junior golf across the country.

“After the tremendous success of the CN Canadian Women’s Open, we are now looking forward to changing our focus to youth golf in Canada. CN will continue to have a major impact across this country by increasing our support into grassroots junior golf programs throughout Canada that are introducing children to a sport they can enjoy for a lifetime. We support Golf Canada’s vision to grow the sport and are thrilled to remain a part of it.”

What’s surprising is that CN stayed with the tournament as long as it did, especially after the LPGA showed it little respect. For a while the tournament had the largest purse on the LPGA — but the organization wouldn’t award it “major” status, which admittedly doesn’t have a ton of value on the LPGA, but would at least have been throwing CN a bone. Nonetheless, CN always had top fields for its events (usually all Top 50 female players were there, minus the occasional injury). Events were largely a success, though some — notably the Montreal event at Hillsdale and the Winnipeg tournament where millions of mosquitos descended — were perhaps the exception. The telecast, run by CBC, was always a mess however, led often by Ron MacLean, who might get Don Cherry, but didn’t know a wedge from a driver.

Still CN never received the respect it was due given the money it put back into the event. The LPGA never seemed fully engaged by the tournament, which was surprising given the financial support CN put into it. Many expected CN to back away heading into 2010, but it stayed on signing a three-year deal with two year option. It is passing on that option, which probably speaks to the fact it can’t get more value out of the tournament in terms of media.

On a conference call yesterday, Scott Simmons, Golf Canada’s CEO, indicated he had been working on a new sponsor for some time. But it is hard to imagine that’s the case, though it might not be Simmons’ fault. There are a limited number of companies willing to put multi-millions into women’s golf at a time when it isn’t particularly high profile. There’s no singular star. And while it does well in regional markets — Manulife’s tournament last year in Waterloo was exceptionally well attended — women’s golf receives little coverage in national media.

So where does the Canadian Women’s Open go from here? I’d say there’s a greater than 50% chance it disappears by 2015. If Golf Canada can’t find a sponsor they will almost surely try running it for a year while they try to locate one. But asking them to run the tournament for more than a year would be a big hit to the organization’s bottom line, something it can ill afford. There will also be pressure on Simmons, whose initiatives have not been resounding successes. He’s cruised through senior execs at Golf Canada, led a failed membership drive, watched Callaway walk away from the Golf in Schools program (which it was apparently pumping a couple of hundred grand into) and now witnessed CN take a pass on the LPGA. And sure CN will hang about in some capacity — the optics of simply walking away are lousy for a Canadian company — but its “transition” seems much like Bell Canada’s move away from the Canadian Open. In other words they want out — but don’t want to take it on the chin for doing so. Do Golf Canada’s hopes for the Canadian Women’s Open rest on former CN CEO Hunter Harrison, who came out of retirement to run rival CP? That would seem like the most obvious solution — but one also has to wonder whether Manulife, which has an event in Waterloo, would also be a possibility.

Golf Canada is once again in a tight spot. The LPGA isn’t the most marketable sport — and finding a Canadian company willing to put up the cash is going to be tough, even if the economy was stronger. I hope the Canadian Women’s Open survives — it deserves more recognition than it receives and the golfers work very hard with fans and sponsors alike — but I can’t say I’m optimistic that will happen.

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Robert Thompson

A bestselling author and award-winning columnist, Robert Thompson has been writing about business and sports, and particularly golf, for almost two decades. His reporting and commentary on golf has appeared in Golf Magazine, the Globe and Mail, T&L Golf and many other media outlets. Currently Robert is a columnist with Global Golf Post, golf analyst for Global News and Shaw Communications, and Senior Writer to ScoreGolf. The Going for the Green blog was launched in 2004.

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