The Northern Trust Open, to be held at the tony Riviera Country Club in Pacific Palisades next week, will have a decidedly Korean air about it.

The event, on the verge of being dropped from the PGA Tour in 2008, has rebounded of late, and now organizers hope to boost it by tapping into the region’s golf-loving Korean population.

In addition to embarking on a marketing campaign that includes Korean-language print, radio and TV commercials, a call center was set up to cater to Korean speakers interested in buying tickets. The local Korean-American BBCN Bank is a corporate hospitality partner.

Once at Riviera, spectators will have access to a vendor of Korean food in the tournament’s Grove area, making the Northern Trust the first tour event to offer a Korean food option.

“It’s really smart for the PGA Tour to pay attention to the Korean community because they are golf lovers and a lot of Koreans play the sport,” said Soa Kang, president of Adcreasians, the agency hired by the tour to promote the event to the Korean community.

That community, which numbers more than 220,000 in Los Angeles County, has been energized by a small but growing contingent of Korean and Korean-American golfers, including last year’s tour rookie of the year, John Huh. Huh will be presented with his award at a Feb. 11 ceremony at the Riviera. At least five Korean players are scheduled to play the event.

“If you listen to Korean radio every morning, they always mention golf because there are a lot of Korean players on the PGA and LPGA tours,” said Caleb Park, executive director of community relations for the Korean American Chamber of Commerce of Los Angeles.

The targeted marketing effort, along with a broad outreach campaign to bring in new sponsors and improvements to the Riviera Country Club, has helped the event see a marked turnaround.

Broad impact

Revenue and attendance have rebounded, helping Los Angeles retain an event that by one estimate has a $21 million annual impact on the regional economy.

“You don’t want to see an event go away because it’s tough to get back,” said Mike Bone, the event’s general manager, who added that the tournament had returned to profitability.

“The tour wanted to take ownership of events in major media markets and wanted to see this event become more prominent in the L.A. landscape,” he said.

Organizers of the Feb. 12-17 event expect that their efforts will result in higher attendance from both corporate hospitality partners and general admission spectators.

If so, it would be the third straight year of attendance increases. Last year, 42,000 people attended, up from 30,000 the prior year. This year, organizers expect attendance to rise 15 percent. They will be drawn, in part, by a field that includes 19 of the top 30 money winners from last year’s tour.

The PGA Tour, a tax-exempt membership organization of professional golfers headquartered in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., organizes most of the tournaments commonly referred to as the PGA Tour. Originally established by the Professional Golfers’ Association of America Inc., the tour was spun off in 1968 into a separate organization for professional golfers. PGA of America is the organization of club professionals.

The tour took over the flailing Los Angeles event in 2009.

Changes came rapidly with the backing of the PGA Tour and the installation of basketball legend Jerry West as executive director of the event. Prize money was raised by more than $1 million and amenities at the course have improved, including access to a courtesy car from sponsor Mercedes-Benz for each player to use during tournament week.

The Northern Trust Open, which employs six people full time during the year, posts revenues from sales, hospitality, merchandise, tickets sales and concessions of more than $5 million. The staff increases to 15 during the weeks leading up to the tournament, with some 900 volunteers staffing the tournament, many of whom work multiple shifts. It awards a total of $6.6 million in prize money, generally funded by the title sponsor and television contracts.

The final two rounds of this year’s event will be broadcast on CBS (earlier rounds can be seen on the Golf Channel), and while the tour and Northern Trust declined to comment on the value of its contract, Forbes magazine reported that PGA Tour title sponsors pay in the neighborhood of $8 million a year for events televised by NBC or CBS.

“We are now on solid financial ground,” said Bone. “If this event had shut down, it would be the equivalent of a 200-person manufacturing operation closing in the area,” he said.

A 2010 study commissioned by the tour with Beacon Economics showed that the Northern Trust Open had an economic impact of $21 million. That’s equivalent to 201 full-time jobs with earnings of $7.4 million and local tax revenue of $350,000.

New sponsorship

Riviera became host to the permanent tournament in 1973, when it was known as the Los Angeles Open, and last year the PGA Tour signed a 10-year contract extension to host the event at the Pacific Palisades course. As part of the contract, the tour paid for a renovation of the club’s driving range, an area that players said needed improvement.

For 20 years, starting in 1987, the event carried the Nissan brand. Nissan stepped aside as the name sponsor when it moved its headquarters from Gardena to a suburb of Nashville, Tenn. Money management firm Northern Trust Corp., headquartered in Chicago, signed a five-year sponsorship deal just four months before the 2008 event and last year renewed its contract through 2016.

Northern Trust, which has a history of sponsoring arts and cultural events, spent 10 years researching sporting events before signing on as title sponsor for the golf tournament. It now uses the event to increase exposure to its brand and to entertain clients.

“During tournament week, we will have 1,600 clients on site,” said Kelly Mannard, Northern Trust’s executive vice president of global marketing and community affairs. “Our awareness has increased by 30 percent globally and by 50 percent in California in the first four years.”

Most events on the PGA Tour are owned and operated by local charities that benefit from the proceeds of the events. The tour itself only owns about 15 of the approximately 135 events it sanctions annually. The net proceeds of all its tournaments are distributed to charities.

In the case of the Northern Trust Open, that award has increased to $1.7 million from $1 million in 2007.

This year, the tournament chose City of Hope in Duarte as the primary recipient after an 18-month process involving the vetting of 16 potential organizations. The final total for this year’s donation will not be known until several months after the event concludes.

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