The earthy, endearing and gifted Arnold Palmer left a brilliant legacy in golf but he also transcended the links, launching an era of sports stars as high paid pitchmen and pioneering in sports media to revolutionize today's "business of sports."
Palmer won $3.6 million in prize money during his 52 years on the PGA Tour and Champions Tour, but 240 times that from appearances, endorsements, licensing and golf course design, Forbes estimated. His estimated $875 million in career earnings ranks third all-time in sports behind only Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods. Palmer’s total tally is $1.3 billion on an inflation-adjusted basis.
Forbes has closely tracked the earnings of athletes since 1990 and Palmer has been a staple on those lists even though his last PGA Tour win was the 1973 Bob Hope Desert Classic.
And on a handshake, he was co-founder of one of the most lucrative partnerships in the history of sports. With his agent Mark McCormack, Palmer would go on to establish International Management Group, also known as IMG, the powerhouse sports-marketing company, which merged with William Morris Endeavor in 2013.
His business interests span clothing, cars, golf events and beverages. But Palmer's most crucial contribution was how he marketed himself.
"He was the man who basically invented the concept of sports representation in the media and made a fortune doing it," James Dodson, Palmer's biographer, told CNN Money.
"In this age of the billionaire sports star, it is hard to recall that half a century ago the professional sportsman was little more than a vassal, owned lock, stock and barrel by teams able to pay them what owners, not players, thought they were worth and to trade them on a whim," the Financial Times reported. "Even the superstars were subject to this regime." And it was then common practice for professional athletes to take off-season jobs to make ends meet.
But Palmer changed all that.
"A ubiquitous pitchman for more than a half-century, he hawked nearly 50 products and services, from Johnston & Murphy shoes to Ketel One vodka, transforming the celebrity endorsement from a novelty to an industry," The New York Times reported.
Palmer also "carefully cultivated his personal brand, forming his own company, creating a logo, selling products and equipment adorned with his signature, and paving the way for modern stars with diverse business interests like Serena Williams and LeBron James," the Times explained.
“He was the pioneer,” Bob Williams, chief executive at Burns Entertainment & Sports Marketing, which represents brands who hire celebrities for endorsements, told the Times.
“He was the first celebrity in the sports world to have a marketing agent.”"Something of a pop hero," Bob Dorfman, creative director at San Francisco's Baker Street Advertising, told Reuters about Palmer, who died on Sunday aged 87.
"A trend-setter in terms of sports endorsements on TV. It was kind of the right guy, the right personality, the right time."
Palmer, winner of seven majors, captured the public's imagination with his everyman demeanor, swashbuckling style and good looks just as television was coming of age nearly 60 years ago.
"Our first commercial sports hero," former CBS Sports president Neal Pilson said in a telephone interview. "He created the television audience that still exists today."
And while Jack Nicklaus, Woods and Jordan Spieth all chased the Grand Slam, golf's holy grail of winning all four majors in one year.
Palmer is the one who created it.
When he turned 50, it was Palmer who brought enthusiasm and credibility in 1980 to a fledgling circuit known then as the Senior PGA Tour. And it flourished because no one got tired of watching Arnie. Today, nine players who probably should be retired already have made at least $1 million.
The Golf Channel interrupted coverage of the PGA Tour Champions event Sunday night when Palmer died at age 87, and the network provided continuous reports on his legacy, highlights of his greatest victories and images of the countless relationships Palmer developed. One of those legacies was the Golf Channel itself, which he co-founded in 1995.
"It is not an exaggeration to say there would be no modern day PGA Tour without Arnold Palmer. There would be no PGA Tour Champions without Arnold Palmer. There would be no Golf Channel without Arnold Palmer," PGA Tour Commissioner Tim Finchem said.
Palmer’s off-course activities ensured that he remained one of the sport’s highest earners even after he retired. In 2009, he brought in $30 million, mostly through endorsements and other off-course income, placing him fourth on Golf Digest magazine’s top 50 earners list behind Woods, Phil Mickelson and Vijay Singh.
In 1972, he created the Arnold Palmer Design Co., which has since built about 300 courses in 28 countries. Along with Latrobe, Palmer called the Bay Hill Club and Lodge in Orlando, Florida, his home course after purchasing it in 1971.
Palmer even thought to license the drink -- a combination of iced tea and lemonade -- that he often enjoyed, and which came to carry his name.
"Palmer provided the blueprint for generations of athletes, many of whom now make exponentially more through their business ventures away from the field than they do for their sporting accomplishments," The Wall Street Journal reported.
"It all looks so obvious in hindsight. It wasn’t," WSJ.com explained. "What Palmer did was risky, even a bit reckless. It paid off, though. Palmer’s risks usually did."
Some of Palmer's greatest influences on the game:
It was rare for Americans to play in the British Open in the decade after World War II, mainly because the prize money wasn't enough to cover travel expenses. Palmer helped return golf's oldest championship to its glory in 1960, and he gave the sport a new standard to chase.
He won the Masters and U.S. Open in 1960 when he traveled over to St. Andrews for the British Open. On the journey across, he raised the notion of the modern Grand Slam — the four professional majors — to sports writer Bob Drum. Palmer was runner-up to Kel Nagle that year. He won the British Open at Royal Birkdale in 1961, and he defended his title the following year at Royal Troon.
Americans followed his lead soon thereafter.
"His contribution to The Open Championship was, and remains, immeasurable," R&A chief executive Martin Slumbers said.
Palmer came along about the time television began to take an interest in golf, and he quickly became a star. Two years after CBS Sports first televised the Masters, Palmer won the first of his four green jackets. The marriage of Palmer and TV sent golf to an unprecedented level of popularity.
Frank Chirkinian, the late golf producer for CBS Sports, once said Palmer "had more charisma than any 10 guys I ever met. Maybe more than any 100. You just had to know to keep the camera on him."
One of the more pivotal moments in the history of modern golf — all sports, for that matter — was the handshake agreement between Palmer and IMG founder Mark McCormack to represent him in contract negotiations.
Palmer was more than a golfer. Companies couldn't get enough of him, and he capitalized on the opportunity. His earnings went from $6,000 a year to more than $500,000 in the first two years of his agreement. He had deals with Pennzoil and Rolex, Cadillac and United Airlines, Callaway and Heinz Ketchup.
In 2011, nearly 40 years after his last PGA Tour victory, Palmer was No. 3 on Golf Digest's list of top earnings at $36 million a year. He trailed only Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson.
Palmer and Joe Gibbs founded a new network in 1995 called the Golf Channel, which immediately was panned as a waste of air time. Tennis magazine described it as "24 hours of chubby guys in bad clothes speaking in jargon that only they understand."
In the early days, even Palmer had his doubts, and the question arose whether investors should cut their losses. They asked Palmer what he thought, and his answer is now on a wall at Golf Channel headquarters in Orlando, Florida.
"I said, 'Let me say this to you: If I didn't try to hit it through the trees a few times, none of us would be here,'" Palmer said in 2015.
Now, every golf fan knows about the European team at the Ryder Cup because Golf Channel televises the European Tour, along with the LPGA Tour, the PGA Tour Champions and the weekday rounds of all PGA Tour events.
Palmer piloted his first aircraft in 1956, and 10 years later, he had a license to fly jets that now are the standard mode of transportation for top players, even though most are merely passengers.
He set a record in 1976 when he circumnavigated the globe in 57 hours, 25 minutes and 42 seconds in a Lear 36. He stopped flying his Cessna Citation 10 when he was encouraged not to renew his license at age 81.
(Newsmax wire services the Associated Press, Reuters and Bloomberg News contributed to this report).
© 2023 Newsmax Finance. All rights reserved.