Arnold Palmer died on Sunday due to complications from heart problems. The King was one of golf’s titans with the fifth most PGA Tour wins all-time at 62, including seven major championships. But for all of his accomplishments on the course, Palmer achieved even greater heights off the course trailblazing the way for future endorsement stars like Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods and LeBron James.
(AP Photo/David J. Phillip, File)
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. His estimated $875 million in career earnings ranks third all-time in sports behind only Jordan and 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. He ranked No. 9 on our inaugural athletes list with earnings of $8.1 million, although that total excluded golf-course design income. Factoring in course design fees would have pushed him to third behind only boxers Mike Tyson and Buster Douglas.
Palmer ranked third in our most recent look at the world’s highest-paid retired athletes with earnings of $42 million in 2015.
Palmer turned pro in 1954 after winning the U.S. Amateur. He was making less than $10,000 a year from endorsements when he struck a deal with Mark McCormack in late 1959 to be his business manager. McCormack founded sports agency IMG in 1960 and Palmer won a pair of major titles the same year. Palmer’s profile soared as interest in golf on TV grew with the rivalry between Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player. Palmer’s annual off-course earnings reached $500,000 within two years with McCormack.
McCormack and later Alastair Johnson, who served as CEO of Arnold Palmer Enterprises, helped turn Palmer into a marketing star. He was a pitchman for Cadillac, Hertz, Pennzoil and dozens of other brands.Rolex extended its relationship in 2014 for another decade. Palmer was 85 at the time. The half-century together for Rolex and Palmer marks one of the longest relationships ever between an athlete and corporate partner.
Elite golfers like Palmer are attractive corporate spokesman because they reach a demographic with high levels of disposable income to spend on apparel, equipment, cars and watches. The global nature of the game is carrot for golfers with marketers. Golfers have the ability to rack up massive career earnings because they can stay in the spotlight for decades opposed to an NFL player where the average career is around three years.
Palmer’s appeal was broad and still relevant a half-century after he last dominated the PGA Tour. He ranked seventh last year for his aspirational score in Repucom’s CelebrityDBI. It measures the degree to which people feel the celebrity has a life to which they would aspire. Palmer was tied with hoops icon Stephen Curry out of 3,652 celebrities in Repucom’s database, one spot behind the world’s fourth richest man Warren Buffett.
Other Palmer ventures included a golf course design business he launched in the early 1970s. He also helped found the Golf Channel and owned the Bay Hill Golf Course for more than 40 years.
In recent years, Johnson focused on licensing deals to help secure the legacy of Palmer after he died. He loaned his name to AriZona Beverage Co. for a line of drinks that generated $200 million in revenue last year or roughly one-quarter of the company’s tally. There are 500 Arnold Palmer-branded stores in Asia that sell footwear and apparel.
Every retired iconic athlete seemingly wants to copy the “Arnold Palmer” model where they license their name and the royalty checks roll in, but few can match the original. Palmer was one of a kind.