AP source says GM to end sponsorship of Buick Open golf tournament

The Associated Press ~ staff The News
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DETROIT - General Motors Co. will end its half-century run as sponsor of the Buick Open golf tournament as it tries to focus scarce marketing dollars on its cars and trucks, a person briefed on the decision said Tuesday.
GM and tour officials will make the announcement after this year's open, which begins Thursday and ends Sunday, said the person, who did not want to be identified because the announcement will not be made until the tournament ends.
The decision calls into question the fate of the other PGA Tour stop sponsored by GM, the Buick Invitational held in February in San Diego.
GM spokesman Pete Ternes said the company is discussing its future role with PGA Tour officials. The company's contract for the two stops ends in 2010, he said.
"Both are under discussion and we haven't signed or agreed to any changes at this point," he said Tuesday.
The troubled automaker, which emerged from Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection on July 10, has been cutting back on professional sports sponsorships for the past year to conserve marketing dollars. Earlier this month the company placed longtime product development chief Bob Lutz in charge of marketing, and he has said the company will focus its advertising more on products.
GM, which has racked up more than $80 billion in losses in the past four years, is trying to spend more promoting its new vehicles, especially its cars, which it says are competitive or better than those made by its Japanese rivals.
The company is selling or phasing out its Pontiac, Saturn, Saab and Hummer brands and will concentrate on selling Chevrolet, Cadillac, Buick and GMC.
The century-old automaker has been cutting back on everything from professional baseball to NASCAR in the past year. In 2008 GM ended a nine-year endorsement deal with golf superstar Tiger Woods, who will play in this week's Buick Open in Grand Blanc Township, Mich., about 50 miles north of Detroit.
Yet Ternes said GM will continue to sponsor professional sports.
"We will continue to be involved in the future, because they offer great platforms to get the word out about our new products," he said. "However, as we reduce from eight brands to four, we will be looking closely at all our marketing relationships."
The automaker had sponsored four stops on the PGA Tour, but pulled out of the Buick Challenge at Callaway Gardens, Ga., in 2002 and the Buick Championship at Cromwell, Conn., near Hartford in 2006.
GM is watching every dollar it spends, and sponsoring PGA Tour events is not cheap. Golfers will compete for $5.1 million in prize money at the Buick Open, starting with Thursday's first round.
The automaker already has cut costs at the Open, ending a tradition of paying for dealers to travel to Michigan for the tournament and wining and dining select guests in lavish hospitality tents.
The end of GM's sponsorship is another ripple effect from the crisis hitting Detroit's three automakers. Michigan had the nation's highest unemployment rate last month at 15.2 per cent, and the Flint area, where the tournament is held, reported 17.4 per cent.
Loss of the Buick Open would be a big blow to the Flint area, which has seen wealth and people drained away by the decline of GM, once its largest employer.
"The Buick Open is the most prestigious thing we do in this community," said Jerry Preston, president of the Flint Area Convention and Visitors Bureau. He estimated it has "a $10 to $12 million economic impact" in the area.
Preston said tournament organizers haven't heard from GM on its plans and said they would work to persuade the PGA to keep the event at Warwick Hills should GM bow out.
"If we lose the sponsor ... there are several Michigan companies that are ready to step forward," he said. "We're extremely grateful to Buick for being the sponsor all these years."

Organizations: General Motors Co., Buick, Chevrolet NASCAR Grand Blanc Township Flint Area Convention Visitors Bureau

Geographic location: DETROIT, San Diego, Michigan Callaway Gardens Cromwell, Conn. Hartford

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