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The start of each year sees another round of change in players and equipment companies. Call it the equivalent of golf’s free agency versus other sports. In team sports, players are added and subtracted in an effort to win a championship. However, golf is different. Sports marketing is the term used within the industry to justify the player movement. Each company has its own philosophy towards it. For example, Nike Golf is player first and brand second for the sake of messaging. At Titleist, its brand first, player second. In its rawest form, the method to the madness is product validation. But it’s more complicated than that as companies have alternative reasons for the signings. Each year, changes happen and a lot is initially made of it when the news surfaces. From a broader perspective, its a challenging topic since how much do you invest before finding a diminishing return? In a sport that is performance based pay, the cost to associate can be challenging to quantify. In other words, will you under or over pay for the right to be associated with someone? There are several factors that influence the topic and in many instances it’s a case-by-case situation.

Last year’s biggest signing was Rory McIlroy. We can debate endlessly the merit but without knowing for all the facts, it’s a subjective argument. McIlroy made plenty of news. Unfortunately for him, it wasn’t for the reasons many were expecting. Nevertheless, he received plenty of attention and television time, which can be one way employed to justify the arrangement. Public perception is that McIlroy is earning $20 million per year from his new equipment company that covers him head to toe. Did he live up to that in 2013? You be the judge and jury. Ultimately, he will be judged based on winning, which he managed to do in Australia late in the year. But in his case, its major championships that he is after and he will be remembered for. Its important to point out that if someone does something extraordinary then additional resources (MONEY) are required to draw attention to the accomplishment and connect the dots back to the equipment brand from the player. The endorsement agreement is the initial investment!

While 2014 is in its infancy, some companies have re-purposed funds to bring new faces into their fold. Callaway Golf lost Ernie Els to Adams Golf but added Harris English and Henrik Stenson. Some believe the English signing helps project Callaway as a younger/fresher brand. Perhaps, but golf isn’t seeing an influx of younger participants so that argument is debatable. He won twice last year and now has potentially greater expectations. With his new equipment, will there be a transition? Maybe, maybe not and no one knows for sure including those involved. Stenson had a career 2013. Did Callaway pay a premium based on this and is it a realistic expectation that the Swede can perform at this level again? If he does, then Callaway was wise to sign him. But they will be forced to spend more to make fans aware worldwide that he uses its products.

On a different scale, Hopkins Golf signed Hall of Fame member, Vijay Singh to a multi-year endorsement contract. He will play the company’s wedges, wear its logo on his headwear and carry a Hopkins Golf staff bag. "It's not often that a start-up company signs a player of Vijay's caliber," said Greg Hopkins, Chairman and CEO. The purpose behind this exercise is to draw attention and create validation. Now where Singh plays (Champions versus PGA TOUR) is a question mark. Hopkins Golf will also have some on going costs with this deal. First will be product, as Singh is known for his work ethic. Therefore, he’ll need fresh grooves and someone on site to facilitate it. The fifty year-old tour veteran plans on spending the majority of his time on The PGA TOUR with a few Champions events. Therefore the company will have to have a presence wherever he goes.

Last week it was announced that Graham DeLaet signed an apparel deal with Puma. He will, however, continue to employ Titleist clubs and ball to earn the majority of his living. Safe to say the Canadian has a healthy following in his home country. To what extent his fan base supports his new look in 2014, north or south of the border for that matter is unknown.

While sports marketing is a strategy employed to maintain an equipment brand presence with fans and validate products in the hope they will be purchased, a new segment of this relationship has emerged in recent years. With the popularity of social media, some players now treat themselves as a brand. Ian Poulter would one of those as he has his own apparel line. Nevertheless, it’s very difficult to expect sales increases due to a player signing.

In today’s world, few if any players move sales higher of drivers, irons, putters, wedges, etc. Apparel might be an exception, yet its safe to say it is in isolated cases. Cobra has stated its sold more than a million Rickie Fowler signature orange hats. But that represents the exception versus the rule and its highly unlikely the company was forecasting this to happen. Phil Mickelson or Tiger Woods hasn’t meant greater annual sales of hard good items since they became attached to Callaway and Nike respectively.

We likely haven’t heard the last of player signings in 2014. But keep in mind they take time and don’t always pay dividends immediately. Last year, Nick Watney moved to Nike, as did Kyle Stanley, Seung Yul Noh and Thorbjorn Olesen. Adams Golf added Jeff Overton and TaylorMade began working with John Huh, Ryan Moore, J.J Henry, Chad Campbell and Brain Davis. Callaway signed Ryo Ishikawa and Jesper Parnavik went to Cobra! Moore is the only one of this group in Maui playing the Hyundai Tournament of Champions.