He’ll be remembered by much of the world as a golf champion with an aggressive play style, who was beloved by TV viewers for his humble beginnings. But the sports business world will recall Arnold Palmer, who died last week at the age of 87, as the first person to use his name as his own brand, and to use sports marketing much the same way he used his clubs – deftly, intelligently and with great showmanship.
Much will be – and has been – written about the tournaments he won, but the sports industry was forever changed by his willingness to create his own empire, according to an article in MediaPost’s Marketing Daily.
“In his lifetime, he earned almost $7 million on the golf course. Off it? He made at least 50 times that,” writes Darren Rovell for ESPN. “Without Palmer — and his agent Mark McCormack — Michael Jordan, who often gets credit for being the father of modern-day sports marketing, never would have been Michael Jordan.”
Indeed, Palmer’s alignment with McCormack is widely credited with creating the sports management business.
“With a handshake agreement in 1960, Palmer joined forces with Mark McCormack and a fledgling company, International Management Group – or as it became known worldwide, IMG. The condition, at inception, was that Palmer would be McCormack's only client,” writes Chris Dufresne for the Los Angeles Times in a frequently told tale. “McCormack helped promote Palmer's brand into a corporate empire, while IMG grew to become a world-renowned sports, entertainment and media management company.”
“While the two of them spread Palmer's fame, golf started to boom. The number of players and courses increased dramatically in the 1960s. By some accounts, in the early part of the decade, Palmer's heyday, 350 to 400 new courses were built each year,” Tom Goldman recounts on NPR’s “Morning Edition.”
“It wasn't all Palmer's doing. But he lit a fuse. With equal parts swagger and humility when he played,” he continues. “And a smile for strangers who came to the course to watch a golfer, and left feeling like they'd been touched by a king.”
Born to a working-class family (his father was originally a greenskeeper at a golf course who worked his way up to club pro), Palmer appealed to the American success story of succeeding on talent and effort – and the X factor of understanding how to take advantage of a financial wave most people had not seen yet, particularly when it came to sports.
“Almost single-handedly, Palmer hauled golf into fresh commercial territory both with the late 1950s recognition of what television meant and a swashbuckling, risk-taking style which appealed to the masses,” wrote Ewan Murray for The Guardian. “So, too, did a low-key background far removed from the snotty-nosed entitlement which has so undermined golf. Palmer, The King, was the people’s champion. He transcended golf, just as he did generations.”
It was Palmer who first used his name to boost the commercial success of brands like United Airlines, Hertz Rental Cars, Pennzoil and Cadillac. His versatility landed him endorsements with companies in almost every sector, even cigarettes, dinner jackets and Japanese robes, notes the ESPN article
He even created the widely successful commercial drink, an unholy alliance of lemonade and iced tea, which became forever known as the Arnold Palmer.
And while Michael Jordan might be able to point to his Air Jordans as a brand marketing icon, there’s no doubt that he owes it all to Arnold Palmer. After all, notes ESPN, “Today, when athletes turn pro, they or their agents trademark their names. Palmer trademarked his name, and that famous umbrella logo, in 1968.”
An article in The Street notes that Palmer's legacy will live on commercially as well; prior to his death, Palmer was a pitchman for Callaway, which means his name can still be used:
"Seeing as Callaway owns the rights to Palmer's name and image on golf products, it may decide to market commemorative edition Palmer golf clubs and balls to take advantage of renewed interest in Palmer's life and legacy. A good pitchman for them could be Phil Mickelson, a Callaway endorser who mirrors Palmer's flair for the dramatic on the course and popularity among fans due to his outgoing personality."