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Why corporate sponsors are betting on Canada’s Brooke Henderson to transform golf’s image

GOLF

Henderson's big drive to stardom

The 19-year-old golfer from Smiths Falls, Ont. is taking the LPGA tour by storm, accruing millions of dollars in winnings and sponsorship deals on her way to becoming one of Canada's most marketable athletes, Rachel Brady reports

Brooke Henderson during the final round of the U.S. Women’s Open Golf tournament in July.

Brooke Henderson felt a little shy inside this eclectic mix of famous Canadian athletes walking together along a path at York University. Their collective star power, paired with the camera crew filming them, had passing cars slowing to stare.

Until this day, Henderson had only seen these other athletes on TV – NHL players Connor McDavid and Tyler Seguin, NBA star Andrew Wiggins and two-time Olympic trampoline gold-medal winner Rosie MacLennan. But here she was at York, shooting a commercial alongside them for Canadian nutrition company BioSteel. The 19-year-old golf phenom was a little nervous meeting these stars for the first time, despite having a formidable résumé of her own: four LPGA titles – including a major – and more than $2.8-million (U.S.) in career prize winnings.

"They're stars, and to be seen on that level is something I'm still getting used to," Henderson said.

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"I get a little nervous around the cameras. On the golf course, I'm used to playing in front of cameras and I love that they're broadcasting our golf all over the world. Commercial shoots are different, but fun, and I'm doing a lot of them lately, so I'm starting to get the hang of it."

Henderson, left, was recently recognized, along with NHL star Connor McDavid, right, by Britain’s SportsPro as one of the world’s 50 most marketable athletes, coming in at No. 32 on the 2017 list.

The humble golfer is growing into one of Canada's most marketable athletes. Her team, led by talent agency IMG, has taken a slow and steady approach, yet has amassed an impressive list of sponsors: Ping, Titleist, BMW, Rolex, Mastercard, RBC, Skechers, Canadian Pacific, Google Android Wear, Golf Town and BioSteel.

Her image will be splashed all across Ottawa this week as the Smiths Falls, Ont. native gets a rare opportunity to play an LPGA tournament at home. By the time the Canadian Pacific Women's Open tees off at the Ottawa Hunt and Golf Club on Thursday, Golf Town will have built a special bleacher there, packed with the "Brooke Brigade" – hundreds of kids in red Team Henderson shirts and her signature Ping visor.

Henderson during the final round of the Women's PGA Championship in July. Charles Rex Arbogast/The Associated Press

Henderson ticks many boxes for a wide array of corporate sponsors. She skyrocketed up the world amateur rankings and then barnstormed her way onto the LPGA Tour by winning as an underager, foreshadowing an exciting future. Her golf story is a wholesome Canadian family one that began in Smiths Falls with a dad and his two daughters on the golf course – a trio that still works together today. She has charming girl-next-door looks and her appeal is uniquely wide – she intrigues kids and adults, casual sports fans as well as hard-core golfers, male and female.

SportsPro publishes a yearly list of the world's 50 most-marketable athletes, ranking them according to their marketing potential over the next three years. The British publication uses a long list of criteria, including things such as crossover appeal, willingness to be marketed and value for a sponsor's dollar. Henderson made its 2017 list, coming in at No. 32. Other Canadians to make its global list were McDavid at No. 15, Andre de Grasse at No. 23, Milos Raonic at No. 31 and Eugenie Bouchard at No. 47.

"She has sparkling charisma," said Keith McIntyre, president of Toronto-based K. Mac & Associates Marketing. "She's cool, calm, yet projects confidence and is an outstanding talent achieving success in a very tough individual sport.

"She's definitely rising to be amongst Canada's highest-profile athletes."

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In only a few short years as a professional golfer, Henderson has already accumulated four LPGA titles.

Sponsor obligations, appearances at golf clinics, photo and commercial shoots and posting on social media add to a busy schedule of worldwide travel for Henderson on the LPGA Tour. She manages it all with help from IMG, her mother Darlene, her father Dave (also her coach), and her older sister and caddie, Brittany, whom Henderson entrusts to book all the travel.

How much does Henderson earn off the course? Her team and partners prefer not to disclose figures or terms of their deals. The total is difficult to estimate, because some of her endorsement deals include products. For the sake of context, one independent expert on athlete-corporate partnerships said that Canadian sponsorships for athletes of her calibre typically range from between $50,000 to $250,000 each.

Henderson isn't flashy with money. Her only big purchase so far has been a three-bedroom condo in Naples, Fla., where she and her family can stay while she trains there. BMW sets her up with a vehicle when she needs one.

The BioSteel shoot came on a Monday morning when she was fresh off the Manulife LPGA Classic in nearby Cambridge, Ont. Her agent and family came with her, ready to pile into their car afterward to make the six-hour drive to Grand Rapids, Mich., for her next LPGA tournament. Her sister is always with her, and the parents travel to many tournaments, too.

Filming had actually begun at 7:30 that morning, with Henderson alone at Toronto's Summit Golf & Country Club. She crushed balls off the tee as the crew gasped at how easy she makes this difficult game look. The cameras scurried alongside her as she walked the fairway repeatedly delivering the line "What is BioSteel to me? Staying hydrated while I climb the leaderboard on the back nine."

In addition to BioSteel, Henderson’s talent and notoriety have attracted Rolex, BMW, Ping and MasterCard as corporate sponsors; partnerships whose estimated value ranges from $50,000 to $250,000 each.

After playing a couple of holes for the camera, she went to join the other athletes at York. She changed out of her usual golf gear and into black spandex workout wear – a look in which fans rarely, if ever, see her.

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The athletes chatted quietly with one another while walking over to York Lions Stadium. Heat radiated off the track on the blazing 30-plus-degree morning and cameras circled the athletic-looking crew as they stretched, laughed and sipped from their matching red bottles, full of icy sports drinks. They ran a lap tossing a heavy medicine ball backward to each athlete, down the line from 5-foot-4 Henderson to 6-foot-8 Wiggins.

Henderson's agent and father kept a watchful eye on everything she did for the cameras, ensuring the polite youngster didn't expend too much energy or risk injury during the thick of her LPGA season. The shoot then moved indoors to a small weight room and the athletes smiled shyly at one another and set up at machines as cameras and boom mics lined the perimeter and started rolling. Henderson carefully chose a lightweight core exercise as the others displayed power and explosiveness for the cameras. The golfer couldn't risk being hit by muscle soreness on the course the next day.

Henderson and MacLennan made fast friends, huddling together during a lunch break, sharing in common their Rio 2016 Olympic experience. Before the shoot was through, the guys came over to share hugs and well wishes with the women before snapping group photos for each athlete's social-media platforms.

Fresh off an appearance at the Manulife LPGA Classic in Cambridge, Ont., Henderson joined a number of other high-profile Canadian athletes, including the NBA’s Andrew Wiggins, left, NHL player Tyler Seguin, right, and Olympic gymnast Rosie MacLennan at York University for a BioSteel commercial shoot.

BioSteel says that summer is peak time in the hydration business. So with many of its sponsored athletes in off-season, the company needs Henderson's results to provide fresh marketing content, as well as the results of another high-profile BioSteel athlete, Toronto Blue Jays pitcher Marcus Stroman.

"When you're selling a healthy product, the athlete endorsing that product has to be someone people trust – and Brooke is certainly that," said BioSteel chief executive John Celenza.

"The better our athletes do, the more we can market them and the more they directly impact our bottom line. We see a direct correlation between Brooke Henderson winning golf tournaments and the amount of BioSteel packets we sell in golf shops."

After the BioSteel shoot, Henderson went to Grand Rapids for the Meijer LPGA Classic. She won the tournament and slipped her Rolex watch on before hoisting the trophy (the watch is now a fixture in all of her trophy photos and news conferences). Along with fans, many of her sponsors blitzed social media to follow the action celebrate her win, some offering discount offers to mark the victory.

At just 19, Henderson's career earnings on the LPGA tour total more than $2.8 million (U.S.). Seth Wenig/The Associated Press

She followed it up with a week off, although there are few true days off in Henderson's world. She got a few rare days at home in Smiths Falls, but also had media obligations and a few charity golf events.

She travelled back to Toronto for a late-week Pro-Am at Angus Glen Golf Club for the charity World Vision. She did a Q&A with a room of hundreds, then played a few holes with various foursomes of donors – all of whom shook her hand with the same wide-eyed wonder. She got to know each by name while they golfed, talked to them about their jobs, celebrated their shots with fist-bumps and even repaired some of their divots. She didn't show off or offer them unsolicited golf tips, still, she built a comfortable rapport with each over their brief time together. She looked truly at ease in the role.

"I would never have thought that I could be in a position to do things like this – inspiring people to raise money for hospitals and charities with golf," said Henderson, strolling a wet fairway after a heavy downpour let up, laughing at the sound of her Skechers squishing in the grass. "I didn't go to university – I chose golf as my career, so I'm interested in hearing what other people chose to do, where university took them. They get nervous golfing with me, and I get a little nervous too – in a different way – because people pay a lot of money to golf with me at some charity events, and I want to put on a good showing for everyone."

Earlier this year, as part of its efforts to reinvent itself under new management, Golf Town made Henderson its first sponsored athlete, hoping she could help it reach a younger audience. Feeling the squeeze of the sport's shrinking popularity and a decline in the demand for golf equipment, the retailer's U.S. parent company, Golfsmith International Holdings Inc., had filed for bankruptcy in 2016 and its Canadian operations were bought by Fairfax Financial and CI Investments.

Golf Town's new owners then hired new vice-president of marketing and e-commerce, Frederick Lecoq, who had formerly led marketing efforts for Sport Chek, Sports Experts and Mark's. His enthusiasm to be a partner with Henderson was spurred by his daughter.

Henderson’s image will be splashed all across Ottawa this week as the Smiths Falls, Ont. native gets a rare opportunity to play an LPGA tournament at home.

Nine-year-old Emily, who had little interest in sports, was attending a summer camp in Calgary which Henderson visited. The encounter so dazzled the youngster that she came home asking to take up golf. "Golf has kind of struggled with being known as 45-plus, lonely and selfish – me versus par, or Dad going off to play with his buddies. Well Brooke is the opposite of that – super young and highlighting golf as a family game with the way she involves her own family," Lecoq said.

"Golf can be competitive as well as social, and I don't think it has been marketed that way enough. She's refreshing, and she's disrupting the industry and that's great. Sure, you need to target boomers, but you better also find ways to connect with a younger audience, and Brooke does all of that."

Corporate sponsors don't jump spontaneously into offering multiyear deals to the hottest athlete of the moment. RBC, for instance, researches a golfer by interviewing other golfers and agents throughout the sport and by getting information from Wasserman Media Group, a sports-management and talent agency. The golfer's competitive and family history are meticulously examined, along with all of the athlete's social-media interactions and the team around them.

"With teenaged athletes, you see that the agents who build those brands and accumulate sponsors slowly are the ones who are going to do it right," said Matt McGlynn, vice-president of brand marketing at RBC. "We've seen lots of burnouts from athletes in the past. You see Brooke, two or three years in now, and they've slowly added more sponsors and responsibilities, as she's become more comfortable with it. I believe that Brooke and her camp have really done this the right way and engaged with sponsors in a good way at a reasonable pace."

Henderson and MacLennan, centre, made fast friends at the BioSteel shoot, huddling together during a lunch break, sharing in common their Rio 2016 Olympic experience.

When her clothing deal with Sun Ice expired, the rising star had lots of suitors for an apparel sponsorship. Henderson eventually chose Skechers, signing with the Manhattan Beach-based company for both shoes and clothing. Skechers partners with a wide cast of celebrities, from PGA players Matt Kuchar and Colin Montgomerie to retired slugger David Ortiz, actor Rob Lowe and pop stars Demi Lovato and Meghan Trainor. Henderson and Spanish golfer Belen Mozo star together in a TV commercial, during which they argue over what they like best about their Skechers golf shoes.

"I liked Skechers's style – it was younger, and they're a growing company that's interested in spending a lot of time in golf," Henderson said. "They wanted to know what I like and if I see designs I like, I can send them to them and they can custom make me something. They were super into involving me in that process and I'd never been involved with that part before. For the Canadian Open, I'm going to be wearing something special."

Golf Town filled one of its Ottawa stores on Friday by having Henderson on hand to sign autographs, and give away swag to create buzz for the tournament back home where she first discovered the game as a pony-tailed kid watching her older sister swing a club.

"The convention has been that to be good in golf you can't be casual or accessible, and Brooke is proof that you can be both of those things and still be successful," Lecoq said. "If you want to inspire the next generation of golfers, you have to also be refreshing. Young PGA golfers Ricky Fowler and Jordan Speith are refreshing, and Brooke is too."

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