Arnold Palmer, Sports Marketing Champ, Dies At 87

Arnold Palmer, who won more than 90 major golf championships worldwide in the process of blazing trails in the world of sports marketing and management, died yesterday at 87.

“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,” writes 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.”

“Handsome and charming, his sandy hair falling across his forehead, his shirttail flapping, a cigarette sometimes dangling from his lips, Palmer would stride down a fairway acknowledging his army of fans with a sunny smile and a raised club, ‘like Sir Lancelot amid the multitude in Camelot,’ Ira Berkow wrote in the New York Times,” Dave Anderson writes in the same newspaper’s obituary. “And the television cameras followed along.”



“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. 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.”

The reality of what happened is a bit different, however, as Matthew Futterman discovered researching Players: The Story of Sports and Money, and the Visionaries Who Fought to Create a Revolution. He, along with several other golf pros signed a nonexclusive contract with McCormack. Soon after, however, Palmer wanted him “to get rid of all those other players and represent me exclusively.”

Writes Futterman: “For McCormack the decision was something of a no-brainer. If there was one player to bet on becoming a megastar, it was Palmer,” although he adeptly hedged that bet and built IMG into the behemoth it remains today. Not to mention golf itself.

“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.”

Palmer endorsed many brands and products over the years.

“Upon a quick YouTube search, I found these great past commercials featuring Palmer endorsing product ranging from United Airlines (1973), Hertz Rental Car (1987, with O.J. Simpson), Penzoil(1981), Cadillac (1974), Mercury Monterey (1968), and Xarelto (2015),” reportsForbes contributor Patrick Rishe.

“With good looks, quick smile, engaging personality, and championship-caliber results on the course, Palmer was writing the blueprint for what a successful sports endorser was to be, Rishe writes. “For his era, for the current era, for any era.”

Indeed, “Palmer remained an icon years past his prime, and even away from golf, he forever ended the dilemma of choosing between lemonade and iced tea. The drink, the ‘Arnold Palmer,’ was indeed started by Arnold Palmer as a combination of iced tea and lemonade,” reports Andrew Joseph for USA Today

“The idea was so great that AriZona Beverage Co., invested in his drink and launched an ‘Arnold Palmer’ iced tea and lemonade brand. Joseph continues, “It took off, and everything came together with his classic ‘This is SportsCenter’ commercial from 2010. Arnold Palmer made an Arnold Palmer, and it was absolutely perfect.”

ESPN’s Rovell reports that AriZona’s multiple varieties of the Arnold Palmer hit $100 million in annual sales in 2010.” In 2015, it hit $200 million, single-handedly eclipsing sales of the diet version of behemoth Snapple.”

Palmer’s father “Deke,” who was born with a club foot and walked with a limp, worked his way up from greens keeper to club pro at the Latrobe (Penn.) Country Club. He was a tough customer, as Mercer Baggs recounts for, with simple instructions for his son: “Hit it hard, boy. Go find it and hit it again.” 

That’s precisely what he did.

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