Driving for dollars: Golf long-ball hitters set to tee off at Las Vegas Motor Speedway

At first blush, it sounds like a gimmick sports event — a world championship to see who can crush a golf ball the longest distance at a raceway venue normally used by NASCAR car racers.

But the organizer of the RE/MAX World Long Drive Championship on Wednesday expects 8,000 fans to watch eight final competitors blast a golf ball 400 yards from the Las Vegas Motor Speedway grandstand to the raceway infield, has lined up the Golf Channel to broadcast the spectacle live and offer a winner-take-all prize of $250,000.

The marketing is simple: it’s the Super Bowl of driving a golf ball off a tee, akin to the slam drunk contest in pro basketball or the home run hitting contest in Major League Baseball, said Art Sellinger, owner of Roanoke, Texas-based Long Drivers of America, which is staging the event.

“These are the longest hitters of a golf ball on planet Earth. We market it as the most exiting event on grass,” said Sellinger, 48, of Dallas, who played golf at Chaparrel High School from 1979-83 and at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas in 1984 and 1985.

Sellinger expects most of the fans who will attend Wednesday’s long drive title event to be mostly male and in the 30-54 range. But his organization tries to also attract demographic groups beyond testosterone-driven males.

“We appeal to the golfer and nongolfer. We allow actual noise on the tee. A seven-year-old kid would love to see it and 77-year-old man or woman would enjoy seeing it, too,” Sellinger said.

You won’t find a PGA player on this circuit. But Sellinger stressed that the driver clubs are USGA-approved and about two to three inches longer than the ones used by the PGA pros.

“This event is not for everyone,” Sellinger said. “But these guys are world class.”

The economic indicators show a mixed record for the Long Drivers. On one hand, participation peaked with more than 16,000 participants in 2004 and dropped to 8,000 in 2013. The number of North American events also hit a high of 400 in 2004 and fell to 125 in 2013. Prize money has dropped from $600,000 in 2008 to $488,000 in 2013.

But on the plus side, the number of TV broadcasts has increased from four in 2009 to 25 in 2013.

Overall, sponsorship revenue is flat after peaking in 2007, Sellinger said.

But he noted that in 1995 sponsorships accounted for 20 percent of of the Long Drivers revenue, while player entry fees represented 80 percent of the revenue. Now, sponsorships contribute to 87 percent of the organization’s revenue, while player entry fees account for 13 percent, Sellinger said.

A bright spot is powerful brands Callaway Golf and Top Flight signed up as new sponsors in 2013, he said.

But Long Drivers failed at landing a beer, soft drink and energy drink sponsors.

“Unfortunately, that didn’t happen,” Sellinger said.

America’s most lucrative income-generating leagues such as the National Football League and Major League Baseball make tens of millions of dollars on TV broadcast deals. But for the Long Drivers, they don’t sell broadcast rights to the Golf Channel and NBC. Instead, they forge partnerships, Sellinger said.

To drive fans to Las Vegas Motor Speedway, the Long Drivers organization is giving away free tickets for Wednesday’s “Super Bowl” event. But tickets will cost $40 each if you buy them at the event at the speedway, he said. Free tickets are available at www.LongDrivers.com.

The qualifying rounds were played in Mesquite, where the field was narrowed for Wednesday’s final eight. Or, as Sellinger dubbed them, the “October Eight.”

Contact Alan Snel at asnel@reviewjournal or 702-387-5273. Follow Snel on Twitter at @BicycleManSnel

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