May 16, 2011 | last updated June 1, 2012 10:09 am

Corporations again embracing sports sponsorships | Region's pro golf, tennis events find sales pace quickening as companies loosen purse strings

CONTRIBUTED PHOTO
CONTRIBUTED PHOTO
The 17th hole at TPC River Highlands golf course in Cromwell is one of the top spots at The Travelers Championship where businesses entertain clients.

Businesses jingling the newfound change in their pockets are hitting the golf course and the tennis courts.

The Travelers Championship and the New Haven Open at Yale — Connecticut's two premier summer sports events — are reporting marketed increases in company spending. Sponsorships and business entertainment purchases are tracking above the past two years when corporate participation in sports fell locally and nationally.

"This year has been a difference environment out there," said Nathan Grube, The Travelers Championship tournament director. "Right now we have more sponsors in certain areas than we had last year."

Corporate sponsors for The Travelers Championship — the pro golf tournament June 20-26 in Cromwell — have responded a lot earlier this year. Grubbe is hesitant to say the total corporate spend will increase over last year as the business may just be early instead of increasing, although he remains hopeful.

One of the tournament's main metrics on corporate interest is the number of corporate row tents purchased along the 18th fairway, suites businesses use to entertain clients and reward employees. In 2010, The Travelers had three corporate row tents. So far this year, the tournament has sold eight.

"I gauge a lot of our corporate standing on how our larger corporate clients are entertaining," Grube said.

Grube expects The Travelers to sell out its celebrity Pro-Am tournament a month faster than last year, another solid indicator of corporate sales because many firms entertain clients that way. The golf event also has more business partners and sponsors for its Fan Zone activity area, its special women and military days, and its 5K run.

Connecticut's signature tennis event is enjoying similar success.

The New Haven Open at Yale — the women's professional tennis tournament Aug. 19-27 — had achieved 84 percent of its sponsorship goals by early May, officials said.

Last year, the tournament was losing its title sponsor — Japanese stationary manufacturer Pilot Pen — and officials were scrambling to fill that void while reassuring corporate and local officials that the event would continue in New Haven.

"We are in a much more positive position now," said Matt Van Tuinen, spokesman for the tournament.

Instead of landing a title sponsor, the tournament in October got four cornerstone sponsors: Yale University, American Express, Yale-New Haven Hospital and Aetna. In February, the tournament picked up First Niagara Financial Group as a presenting sponsor after the New York company acquired New Haven banking corporation NewAlliance.

The 13-year-old tournament switched back to a women's only event for 2011 after six years of featuring men's and women's professional tennis players.

"The challenge for us is to come out with a new name and let people know we are still out there," said Dana Cialfi, New Haven Open at Yale tournament director.

Nationally, corporate sponsorship will rise this year after bad years in 2009 and 2010, according Chicago-based market analyst IEG, LLC.

In 2009, corporate sponsorship spending fell in North America for the first time since the metric started being tracked. In 2010, sponsorship spending rose 3.9 percent to $17.2 billion, but still a far cry from the 11.4-percent increase the industry saw immediately before the recession.

Companies were spending less on marketing as a whole in 2009 and 2010, and sponsorships suffered, IEG spokesman Bill Chipps said.

This year, IEG predicts North American sponsorship spending to rise 5.9 percent to $18.2 billion.

"We are seeing companies moving back into sponsorships again to help them build those one-on-one business relationships," Chipps said.

Sports sponsorships — comprising 68 percent of all sponsorships — will benefit the most from this increased spending. IEG predicts an increase of 6.1 percent in 2011 for a total spend of $12.4 billion.

Sponsorships at The Travelers Championship equate to charitable giving for businesses. Like all PGA events, the tournament is a nonprofit that donates its proceeds to charities including The Hole in the Wall Gang Camp, the Greater Hartford Jaycees and more than 130 others.

However, low corporate spending at the tournament doesn't mean the charities receive less. The biggest increase of the past five years in The Travelers' donation came in 2009, which was the tournament's worst year for sponsorships in that time span.

In 2009, the tournament donated $1.08 million to charity, a 42 percent increase over the prior year.

Grube said the event achieved that record in 2009 because officials saw a lower sponsorship spend and cut expenses drastically.

Those shaved expenses helped increase the charity donation to a record $1.1 million in 2010 when the tournament's corporate business increased slightly, Grube said.

With the event operating more efficiently now, the Travelers tournament can feed more money to its charities as corporate spending increases, Grube said.

"The more corporate sponsors that come out, the more fans that come out, the more the charities get," Grube said.

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