Arnold Palmer: The First Golf Entrepreneur

Arnold Palmer is one of those men that comes around once in a lifetime. He lived a life that was so interesting you would think it was the story line behind a Dos Equis commercial.  To someone like myself who loves golf and is in the pursuit of entrepreneurship ventures, Arnold Palmer is a true idol.  With his larger than life personality, Mr. Palmer was able to not only become one of the greatest golfers ever to play the game but also the most groundbreaking sports businessman of all time.  Over the course of his incredible career, he was able to earn $875 million dollars, according to Forbes, with only 3.6 million earned on the course.  He was able to do this by completely transcending how athletes were endorsed, all the while building businesses that ultimately culminated in a brand that would create the modern sports business world that we know today.  Arnold Palmer was the most prominent golfer ever to play the game and the first genuine Golf Entrepreneur.

At Arnold Palmer’s Congressional Gold Medal Ceremony, Jack Nicklaus elegantly explained Palmer’s lasting legacy on the game of golf. “Together, Arnold and I won just over ten million dollars in our career.  Today players make that in a year, and we couldn’t be happier for them, but they all should thank Arnold Palmer. You need to understand and appreciate what Arnold did to grow the game, popularize it, and the foundation he created.  The game has given so much to Arnold Palmer, but he has given back so much more.  For many years now everyone in this room can say I remember when Arnold Palmer deservedly received a congressional gold medal.  I just hope they will never forget why.”

At the age of 25, Arnold Palmer came on to the golf scene at the dawn of the TV era.  He had movie star looks and the charisma to match. Arnold was the perfect candidate to bring mainstream popularity to the game.  With his go for broke mentality and humble beginnings, he was a superstar from the get-go.  Palmer helped destroy the class barrier of golf, bringing a blue-collar audience with him where ever he played.  Arnie’s Army, a group of ordinary fans, began to grow and with it so did the games popularity.  Arnold was a gold mine in the making, and none other that Mark McCormack, the founder of the sports management mogul, IMG, saw the possibility for an athlete to become a business.

Before McCormack and Palmer’s historic deal, the sports industry was astonishingly small. Athletes who could do things 99 percent of the rest of the world could not were making very little money.  This truth did not make sense to McCormack, and with it, his vision for representing athletes began, and Palmer’s origins as the first Golf Entrepreneur started to take root.

McCormack and Palmer start IMG

Rumor has it that Mark McCormack’s deal to represent Palmer was agreed up over a handshake. From this informal arrangement came the creation of IMG.

In the modern sports industry today, IMG is an empire for talent management. Athletes make millions of dollars through deals that are orchestrated by their agents.  It is amazing to think that it all started with Arnold Palmer.

Mark McCormack saw the incredible marketing power that Arnold had with his personality and looks.  During their first two years together, they were able to grow Palmer’s earnings from $6,000 to $500,000.  Palmer was becoming an endorsement superhero.  He became the spokesperson for more than 15 corporations highlighted by noteworthy names such as Rolex, Cadillac, Hertz, Coca-Cola, Pennzoil, United Airlines, and much more.

McCormack went on to sign Jack Nicklaus, and Gary Player, rounding out “The Big 3” of golf.  Starting with the biggest names in golf inevitably led to him building IMG, creating a multi-billion dollar industry in talent management.  Arnold Palmer was the beginning foundation to his immense success.

Palmer’s Entrepreneurial Pursuits

From his heavy involvement in the founding of IMG, Palmer’s entrepreneurial career was just beginning.

Although Palmer and McCormack did not invent the idea of using athletes to promote products, they did ultimately transcend the industry. Arnold was the first professional athlete that was able to take his success in his sport and turn it into a large business empire. This conglomerate became Arnold Palmer Enterprises.  With it, he was the first athlete to become a massive triumph in business. He successfully marketed and promoted products, and had his name branded and licensed around the world. This business model has been followed by many since, and with it, the modern athlete has been able to have even bigger success off the field.

One of his most remarkable ways of branding his name came from a drink he simply enjoyed. He was able to take this simple concoction and grow it into a multi-million dollar business, “The Arnold Palmer.” In 2001, Palmer licensed his name to the Arizona Beverage Company to mass produce his patented drink, half lemonade half iced tea. According to Forbes, the product generated revenue of over $200 million last year alone.

Along with his drink, Palmer’s iconic logo, the Umbrella, has become a massive success in the apparel industry. What came from a simple idea of seeing a woman with a multi-colored umbrella and thinking to himself, maybe this could be my logo, has grown into a million dollar business on its own. You see the logo all over hats, shirts, and shoes. It has become extraordinarily successful in Asia.

Another business venture that has grown into an immense success is the Arnold Palmer Design Company, which he started in the early 1970’s. Palmer’s father, Deacon, was the head professional and course superintendent of Latrobe Country Club. Growing up working on those links, a love for golf course architecture started from an early age. This passion resulted in the creation of his golf course design firm. They are the architects behind over 300 courses worldwide and one of the world leaders in the industry.

Of those 300 courses, there is one that sticks out in particular. Arnold Palmer is the owner of Bay Hill Club and Lodge, a course that first caught his eye in 1965 when he won an event there. Bay Hill was the perfect escape for Palmer and his family from the cold Pittsburgh winters. He purchased the course in 1975 and with his design company, has built it into a world-class golf course and resort. It is also one of the biggest stops on the PGA Tour.

Not only has Bay Hill been a great business venture for Palmer, but it has also had a significant influence on Orlando. “The Arnold Palmer Invitational’s economic impact is supposedly $20 million a year” for the city of Orlando.

Along with being a major factor in Orlando becoming the golf destination, it is today; he built the Arnold Palmer Hospital for Children which opened in Orlando in 1989.  Here he was able to give thousands of children with disabilities and illnesses a chance at a normal life.

Quite possibly the greatest business venture of Arnold Palmer Enterprises, was his involvement in building the Golf Channel. “To see what has happened here [Golf Channel] is certainly one of the great thrills of my life,” said Palmer.

In 1995, he was the co-founder of the Golf Channel with businessman Joe Gibbs. He was heavily involved in its creation, and it is one of his proudest business achievements. With its establishment, they introduced the first sport-specific network on television. Now, nearly every professional sport has followed suit.

Palmer was a trailblazer in every essence of the word. He had such an adventurous personality. So much so that Palmer would fly his private plane to each event. With this charisma for life, Arnold left the planet a better place than he found it, and was able to do so by being himself to his core. He never let his celebrity get the best of him, but rather used his influence to make lives better. If that is not the type of professional golfer, entrepreneur, and an overall person you want to emulate, then I am not sure who is.

He was a true titan of golf and a pioneer in the business world. Long live “The King” and his lasting impact on people and sports.

 

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