Three years ago, golf legend Tom Watson reached into a silver trophy at the Omaha Country Club and began pulling out golf balls marked with the names of 10 Omaha companies destined to be major sponsors of this week's U.S. Senior Open Championship.
Executives from the businesses were there for the lottery, each with a sign bearing the company name. As Watson plucked each ball from the loving cup, the company chose its luxury viewing area, located at the choicest viewing spots on the golf course.
The four most expensive suites, at $325,000 each, occupy rooms in the clubhouse with outdoor patio seating. They overlook the 18th green, a prestigious spot for what would be, arguably, Omaha's biggest golfing event. Six other “super suites” are fancy tents flanking the 17th green, with price tags of $200,000 to $250,000 each.
Mutual of Omaha's golf ball was one of the first pulled by Watson. Mutual's brand guru, John Hildenbiddle, jumped up to velcro Mutual's name onto the biggest clubhouse suite.
Omaha's Senior Open ended up with 62 companies — car dealers, banks, a railroad, investment advisers, utilities, accountants, lawyers, software writers — putting up $5.6 million, a corporate support record for the senior golf circuit, in return for spots at tents staked around the course.
From those millions in corporate sponsorships to the $9.76 million worth of new Lexuses cruising around Omaha and from the $2 million in spectator ticket sales so far to the high school kids making $9 an hour plus tips for selling lemonade, the Senior Open's success is measured not only by breaking par but also banking pennies.
"We calculate the profit factors on the business we write and how much we profit compared to how much we spent,” said Dan Martin, executive vice president for employee benefit sales at Mutual. “We track that pretty closely. You can't continue to bring the people in and not get anything out of it."
Mutual was hoping to get the clubhouse, Hildenbiddle said this week. “For our customers, it's all about the amenities that go along with it,” including valet parking, tickets for 175 guests a day, indoor restrooms, full air conditioning, all-day catered food and drink and a view of the coming drama at the tournament's finishing hole.
For the employees who come to the suite, it's a thank you that helps them feel good about the company, Hildenbiddle said. For customers, whether they're at the Olympic Swim Trials, the College World Series or the Senior Open, “you want to make sure they say, 'Mutual gave us an experience we'll always remember.' ”
Mutual's guests include insurance brokers who find the best insurance plans for their clients. When there is little or no difference between competing plans, Martin said, a memory like a fun golf tournament may come into play.
“What we're trying to do here is deepen the relationships,” he said. “We want the ties to go our way.”
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Omaha Country Club members, whose ranks include executives from many of the businesses, spearheaded the drive for sponsors to defray the tournament's cost, said Mike Meyer, a member who headed hospitality sales for the Open and has worked for two of the sponsoring businesses.
He knew about the previous record, $5.3 million, set during a tournament in Maryland. “That was a goal I wanted to beat.”
By now, he said, Omaha has a national reputation among sports groups for strong community support of events. “Word gets around.”
That support is all part of a financial formula that could bring the U.S. Golf Association back to Omaha, said Tim Flaherty, senior USGA tournament director.
“I think you have a strong corporate community,” he said, recalling that similar support for a 1992 championship in Bethlehem, Pa., prompted a return in 2000.
But this week, guests are simply enjoying the surroundings. Many bring their spouses, turning the event into at least a semi-social occasion. Company taste testers had sampled the various breakfast and lunch offerings, which will change during the week. Guests come and go, heading out of the tents to watch the action close up, then returning for refreshments or a rest.
Sports sponsorship in Omaha is not new. A decade ago, the Omaha Classic tournament, with second-tier pros, listed 200 companies as sponsors, and College World Series support is decades old, even without being able to calculate a return on the investment.
“I would love to do that, but you really can't,” said George Little, CEO of HDR Inc., a longtime Omaha engineering and architecture firm and also a major sponsor for the Senior Open.
“We just figured it was going to be a big enough event that we should be a part of it,” Little said. “It's a great way to showcase where the headquarters is and the city and state. You just kind of feel like you're doing the right thing. It's a huge economic development thing for the community.”
Besides business objectives, he said, there's an element of corporate citizenship involved in agreeing to the expense of being a tournament sponsor. And being an active part of the community also means business for the company.
“We do a lot of work right here,” he said. Besides, if a prospective client has a good time at HDR's tent, who's to say whether the experience would influence a decision on hiring the company in the future?
Businesses with smaller budgets are on hand this week, too. Pinpoint Communications, a telecommunications firm, paid $25,000 to share a clubhouse ballroom with about a dozen other companies.
“Some of our best clients, we wanted to invite to strengthen those relationships and thank them for their business,” said marketing coordinator Tyler Whitten. “Good, strong business relationships are built on trust. We're showing we care about them as people and not just their business.”
Before the tournament, Pinpoint guests get a chance to check out Omaha. One group from Texas last visited Omaha nearly 20 years ago and “couldn't believe the transformation of the city, and how vibrant it is,” Whitten said.
After play ends each day, Whitten takes his guests out to dinner, showing off the city's steakhouses. When they leave Omaha, the guests take along hats bearing Pinpoint's logo and the U.S. Senior Open emblem.
Whitten, who is just learning to play golf, said this week he has been reminded of the advice he got in college from a business mentor: “If there's one nonbusiness skill you should pick up, it's golf.”
Randy Bernard, CEO of Rural Media Group of Omaha, is known for his work in two sports, and neither one is golf. He's the former CEO of IndyCar racing and Professional Bull Riders organizations.
But now Bernard is hosting clients and staffers at a tent near the 17th tee. “I'm very impressed with how classy it is,” he said. “This might be enough to make me into a golf guy.”
Rural Media, parent company of rural-lifestyle cable channel RFD-TV, outfitted its space in Western style with leather couches, steer hides and bouquets of flowers arranged in ceramic cowboy boots. It's all there for two reasons, he said: Company founder Patrick Gottsch wants to support the city's first Senior Open, and hosting advertisers and programmers can help Rural Media Group's business.
About 90 guests are coming to town for a day or two, conducting business in the mornings, heading to the tent in the afternoon and dining in local restaurants in the evening. It's not a rodeo or a state fair but still “a great place to entertain and showcase Omaha,” he said.
If profits at the corporate tents are somewhat elusive, that's not true when your product is lemonade, water and snacks.
Near the 18th tee, Creighton Prep classmates Michael Korbitz and Will Apker, both 16, are experiencing a little economic development of their own. Tipped by his mother to apply for the job, Michael recruited his friend.
They work 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. and make $9 an hour plus tips, with a bonus if they sell more than $1,000 worth of goods in a day. “It's a great spot,” Will said, nestled under a shady tree and with lots of foot traffic near some grandstands.
It's the first tournament for both boys, and the first tournament for Chevron Corp. — this month. Chevron's eight-member crew puts on the same display about twice a month at sporting events, most recently at the U.S. Women's Open golf tournament in Southampton, N.Y., last week.
Bianca LaRussa, a manager for Chevron Corp., said the company's promotional “STEM Center” aligns with its focus on educating young people in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
“Athletes are intuitive scientists without even knowing it,” she maintained: The distance a ball travels when struck by a golf club, for example, has a lot of physics behind it. One display measures the volume of a club head to see whether it's within the limits set by golf's governing body.
LaRussa said that besides portraying a positive, interesting image for the company, the center appeals to young people. “That's our future workforce.”
Other business connections abound, including the Omaha, Lincoln and Nebraska Chambers of Commerce.
Trane, the utility company, has 45 generators, 56 air-conditioning units and more than 7,000 feet of electrical cable on the golf course. Johnny on the Spot set up dozens of portable toilets. Food service sponsors include Blue Sushi Sake Grill, Godfather's Pizza, Pepperjax Grill, Upstream Brewing Co., eCreamery and Blatt Beer & Table.
Mary Godfrey tours the United States for Prom Management Group of St. Paul, Minn., run by brothers Tom and Bill Given and founded by their parents. “They worked hard to get where they're at,” Godfrey said, and now supply food for 46 golf tournaments a year.
Oh, yes. The Lexus connection?
As a national senior tour sponsor, Lexus supplies a new car for each of the 156 golfers plus tournament officials — 232 vehicles in Omaha, to be exact.
The models and suggested prices for each: 31 ES 350s, $36,370; one IS, $61,750; 170 RX 350s, $39,660; three GS 350s, $47,250; 10 LX 570s, $81,530; 15 GX 470s, $53,795; and two CT 200Hs, $32,050.
Do the math: $9.76 million worth of cars.
Lexus paid $17,121 for Nebraska dealer plates registered to Lexus of Omaha and lends the cars the way it lends a car to a customer whose auto is being serviced.
Starting a month ago, Lexus of Omaha prepped the cars, attached the dealer plates and sent them to a long-term parking lot at Eppley Airfield, where the players and others picked them up as they arrived in Omaha.
On Monday, the cars, with a few miles and maybe some grass clippings on the carpets, will be dispersed to about 45 Midwestern Lexus dealers. Lexus of Omaha owner Mickey Anderson hopes to keep about 30 to supplement his summer inventory.
Some buyers might get a slight discount for wear and tear, he said, and some buyers might actually want a model used by a pro golfer.
“I know there's some special interest in the cars because they have a unique story,” Anderson said. “You'll forever wonder if you're driving in Greg Norman's car.”
World-Herald staff writer Barbara Soderlin contributed to this report.