Wichita’s pro golf tournament’s stability depends on chip shots over long drives

For almost half of its 24-year existence, Wichita’s annual professional golf tournament has been played with Preferred Health Systems at the front of its name.

That will change this week, when the Air Capital Classic tees off Thursday at Crestview Country Club. What won’t change is the caliber of competition, as most of the 156-player field battling for $650,000 in prize money will be comprised of golfers from the top developmental circuit of the PGA Tour.

Change is inevitable for any sporting event with longevity. But since the tournament’s title sponsorship agreement with Preferred Health Systems ended last year, the ongoing pursuit for a major sponsor or group of sponsors to fill Preferred Health’s role has created an air of uncertainty for the event’s future.

“Obviously, we’re at a major junction,” tournament director Roy Turner said. “We believe we’re going to have to diversify.

“If a title sponsor comes forward, that’s fine. But we’re working under the presumption that we’re going to have to get several small pieces of the pie to continue this event at the level it is right now.”

That means Turner and board members of Air Capital Charities, Inc. – a non-profit organization formed earlier this year to lead and operate the event – will spend part of tournament week reaching out to potential sponsors. In March, Turner announced the creation of the Air Capital Ambassadors, a sponsorship option for business and community leaders to support the tournament.

Preferred Health Systems provided more than $4 million to the tournament and its charities during its 12-year run as title sponsor, according to Brad Clothier, chief operating officer for the company. In 2010, PHS was acquired by Coventry Health Care, which was subsequently purchased by Aetna in a deal completed last month.

“All of that really had no bearing in our involvement with the tournament,” Clothier said. “As many years as we put our name on the tournament, we just felt like it was time for somebody else to have the spotlight.”

PHS is still financially committed to the tournament in a significant but lesser role. Clothier is co-chairman of the Air Capital Charities board along with former Cessna Aircraft chief executive officer Jack Pelton. Eight other community business leaders serve on the board.

“It’s definitely a working board,” Turner said. “They’re obviously very interested in the bottom line and my budget. I get a lot of good impact from them.”

The Air Capital Ambassadors program and its $30,000 annual price tag is a fraction of the going rate for a title sponsorship of a Tour event. Neither Turner nor Clothier would disclose Preferred Health’s annual fee as title sponsor. But the Midwest Classic, a mid-July tour event in Overland Park, listed its title sponsorship package at $350,000 in a brochure on its website.

“You’re looking for the big fish, but I’d like about 10 of those fish to be like the big one,” Turner said. “Preferred Health was a great title sponsor. But if we can diversify a little bit and one of them later goes away, it might be a little easier to replace them than going after another big one. We still wouldn’t say no to somebody who might want to step forward and use us as a branding opportunity.”

That’s the experience Clothier can share with potential suitors.

“We used it for a multitude of client opportunities,” he said. “For our key stakeholders, we were able to do really focused networking. And, of course, it was important just to show our interest and continued support of philanthropic activities here in Wichita.”

The absence of a title sponsor will not leave a floundering tournament in its wake. This year, Turner has sold additional corporate box space at the 17th hole, the festive par 3 that has featured music, food, refreshments and caddie races. Corporate space is also sold out around the 18th green, the Wednesday pro-am tournament is full and signage advertising is complete.

“I believe this event, especially over the last three years, is the best it’s ever been,” Turner said. “I judge interest, in part, on the number of calls we get about tickets, and there are a lot of them. I keep hearing it from players and the tour that this is as close to a PGA Tour event as they play.”

When Turner announced the tournament’s name change and revealed the community-based sponsorship plan at a March luncheon, Tim Benton, vice president of business affairs for the PGA Tour, was there to offer support. The Wichita tournament is one of four original stops along with Boise, Idaho; Knoxville, Tenn.; and Springfield, Mo., on the developmental tour, which started as the Hogan Tour in 1990.

“Our business model, fundamentally, is to find a title sponsor,” Benton said at the luncheon. “But increasingly, with the economy the way it is, we are definitely are looking at other business models that may work.”

While tournament attendance has increased in recent years, especially during the weekday rounds, those pushing to see the event reach its silver anniversary in 2014 and beyond are looking to spread the word to newcomers.

“The main thing our board is trying to do is provide exposure to those who have not been exposed to the event and all the upside there is to it,” Clothier said. “Most of the people who attend this are in the business sector of the community.

“When you look at the hospitality venues on (Nos.) 18 and 17, it’s the place to be and people are having a lot of fun out there. There are also all the charities that benefit from the tournament. But you’ve got to experience it before you can put that support behind it.”

Turner said he has secured two businesses for the Ambassador program. With the tour looking to set its 2014 schedule in early fall, the challenge to secure the equivalent of a six-figure contribution of a title sponsor is clearly defined.

“Sept. 1 is an important date for us,” said Turner, who is 70. “I do lose sleep about it. The next 90 days are going to tell a lot about the Air Capital Classic.”