As Heritage Tees Off, Questions Swirl About its Survival

This week’s Heritage Classic Golf Tournament, set to tee off Thursday morning, is a favorite stop on the PGA Tour every year, with players consistently raving about the pristine Harbour Town course and the welcoming throngs of fans.

Sadly, the tournament barely came up with enough cash to make the 2011 event possible.

“The potential for us to close the doors in May or so is a reality,” says tournament director Steve Wilmont. “There’s no doubt about it. We need a title sponsor.”

After 24 straight years of sponsorship, Verizon (NYSE:VZ) announced in late 2009 that it would not return as the tournament’s title sponsor when its contract expired in 2010.

"The Heritage is a well-run, terrific event that includes the wonderful charitable work of its Foundation," said Becky Carr, senior vice president of marketing for Verizon Business. "Although we've enjoyed an outstanding partnership with the Heritage, we decided that given the global scope of our business, it made sense to restructure our future involvement with the PGA Tour to focus on select PGA Tour events that will provide Verizon Business with more opportunities for business development throughout the year.”

Title sponsors cover much of the costs, including the $4 million to have to the tournament broadcast internationally. Not able to come up with the minimum $6 million, the Heritage was forced to reach out to the town of Hilton Head and state of South Carolina. They received more than $2 million in loans, but when that wasn’t enough Hilton Head Island Town Council voted to grant an additional $160,000 from an emergency fund to allow for more advertising for the tournament.

“The Heritage has been an event on Hilton Head Island since 1969. We’re very fortunate to have an iconic sports event like the Heritage…we’ve had changes of sponsors before. This happened to happen in the middle of a recession where it has impacted corporations and their sponsorships…” said Hilton Head Island Mayor Drew Laughlin. “This is such an important event for the community that elected officials both in the town, county and even as far up as the Governor are assisting in this effort.”

The tournament pumps in almost $100 million to the South Carolina economy.

Verizon has not cut its ties completely with the tournament; the company is still supporting the tournament through hospitality sponsorships and 12 pro-am participants. But support in those small ways doesn’t seem to be enough. According to Wilmont, a title sponsor typically invests anywhere from $10 million to $12 million in the tournament.

The $160,000 given to the foundation from the $1.6 million emergency advertising account was enough to make sure the tournament teed off in 2011. But without a title sponsor, next year’s tournament may not take place.