For the du Maurier Classic, the LPGA major that was extinguished last week as a result of Canadian legislation banning cigarette companies from sponsoring sports events, the loss of Big Tobacco is a big headache. The LPGA has not found a sponsor to replace the Imperial Tobacco Co. and the roughly $5-5 million needed to fund the event for next year. Given prevailing attitudes in the U.S. and Canada toward tobacco advertising, the du Maurier's fate could await a number of other sporting events.
Although cigarette sponsorships have been on the decline in the U.S. for years—Virginia Slims, for instance, dropped title sponsorship of the WTA tour more than a decade ago—the 1998 tobacco settlement, which limits tobacco companies to one brand-name sports sponsorship annually, has forced the issue for the few remaining tobacco-dependent sports. Take auto racing. In 1995, R.J. Reynolds' Winston brand sponsored five major racing properties. Now Winston will be permitted to lend its name only to one (most likely the Winston Cup) after the current contracts run out. The loss of tobacco money has left the grassroots driver development program formerly known as Winston Racing without a sponsor, forcing NASCAR to foot the entire bill for the 2000 season.
Surprisingly, the tobacco cutbacks have been a boon for some folks in auto racing. With fewer events to sponsor, RJR doubled Winston Cup's season-ending prize money this year, from $5 million to $10 million. As tobacco is weeded out of the racing game, tech firms, dot.coms and other "nontraditional" sponsors such as FedEx have been filling the void. The five-year-old Indy Racing Northern Lights Series does not have a single tobacco-sponsored team or event. The wave of new sponsors is so strong in high-profile motor sports that even if future rulings kill off the granddaddy of automotive smokefests, the Winston Cup, NASCAR isn't worried. "We don't want to look like we're not grateful for Winston's involvement," says John Griffin, NASCAR's managing director of worldwide communications, "but let's just say we have a savvy marketing team and a game plan that would go into effect pretty quickly."
While racing may be able to cope with tobacco withdrawal, lower-profile sports aren't faring as well. A few events, like the Camel-sponsored American Poolplayers Association competitions, have retained their sponsorship through a loophole in the legislation because they are held in adult-only facilities (in this case, taverns). But for the likes of the Merit Mixed Doubles bowling tournament, dropped by Philip Morris in 1998, the end of tobacco sponsorship was the end of the road. The clock is also ticking on events such as the Copenhagen Professional Bull Riders Series and the Copenhagen Skoal Pro Rodeo: U.S. Tobacco will have to choose between the two when the rodeo contract runs out in 2001.
As such events scramble to find multiple smaller sponsors to replace lost money, some athletes have been left to ponder a cruel irony: Eliminating cigarettes can be hazardous to the health of your sport.