Martin Hopley
By Martin Hopley

TaylorMade hit the headlines with the addition of Rory McIlory to its already impressive Tour stable. I spoke to Keith Sbarbaro, VP of Tour Operations at TaylorMade, at the BMW PGA Championship to find out about how the top manufacturers sign their star players.

Keith Sbarbaro, TaylorMade Golf

Hi Keith. How do you go about signing a player like Rory?

Well… it’s a good question. First off, he has to have interest in you. He did a lot of testing himself, so when Nike exited hardware there was one huge target there, the biggest name in golf and the one you want to use your equipment the most, and I think that every manufacturer sent him everything. I heard talking to his friends the same thing that Notah Begay said about Tiger, “he looked like a Golfsmith” or whatever, because he just had equipment from everyone.

Step one is that he has to have interest in you and he did some testing on his own and we were fortunate that he tested our woods first, loved them and put them in play in China. After a few events we had 'passed the test' and he was like, "I can play your guys' stuff" so Rory tested some more with everyone else's stuff and narrowed it down to a two brands and we were fortunate to be one of the two and that started the process.

When you say you’re sending him stuff, how do you know what to send him?

Everyone knows everyone’s spec out here. It’s not hard to get his specs or be pretty close. What we did send and he played in Dubai, was a different swing weight, but it was the right shaft and he adjusted it himself as they were adjustable clubs. But they weren’t made perfect but they were close enough so that he could play them.

So when you’re signing these types of players, how do you evaluate their worth? Is it in terms of their play, their social media presence or their non-golf presence?

It’s all of that.

Are you able to put a number on it?

I guess, it’s kind of like buying a house. How do you value what a house is? Well, you look at all the others in the area and what they’re going for then the size of the house and then the amenities and that puts a price on what you think you should pay.

Everyone knows what everyone makes out here, so you start valuing. You have hats and bags, clubs, drivers and balls so you can kind of break it down a little bit and 'moneyball' it if you want, which we do. Then based on what everyone makes, that dictates what a guy like Rory McIlory should make or at least what you think he should make.

Keith Sbarbaro, TaylorMade Golf

You’re on the Tour Staff side of TaylorMade, so do you speak to the marketing people in terms of what they think he is worth media wise?

Yeah, and then the social side of it is a big aspect, and he’s probably the biggest player out here for that so that increases his value. There is no doubt that on the marketing side, it’s how they are on TV, in the interviews and there are so many factors involved. We will talk to every region such as Asia, Europe and the people who run the division here out of London loved him as obviously, he is huge for their market.

There are loads of factors, but it’s not hard to come to a point of where you think the value is. Then it comes down to a negotiation with an agent and hopefully everybody is fair. Most people out here have a win-win deal, nobody wants to take advantage of the other side and that’s not the way to start a partnership with any player anyway. So this case was very well done and I think both parties are very happy where it ended up.

Having previously been owned by Adidas, what’s it like for TaylorMade to co-sponsor a player with Nike?

Well, we’re used to it. I’m probably more used to it than anybody because I knew where Jason Day was going months before the world did because he was up with us last year and we were trying to figure out what to do and it became pretty apparent that Nike was being pretty aggressive and that he was going to be able to play our equipment.

Rory’s only visible TaylorMade presence is the bag and what he’s playing rather than wearing, so does that make a difference?

Oh yeah, it makes a huge difference. But you know if you can’t afford the house…you know, just buy the little guest house around the back and you've still got a really nice residence.

I believe you have most of your players on a 14-club deal? Is it quite easy to get them all into the 14-club deal because I know Rory has still got one got one or two things he is still working on?

The problem we have had with Rory so far is that he just hasn’t been healthy enough to give a good amount of testing, and that’s why he’s not here this week at the BMW PGA and the equipment that he put in at The Players, I’m sure it’s still not 100% perfect. But he’s played it one week and we got to spend a few days before, but his back was already sore and he is limiting his reps so it’s going to be a work in progress to get everything right. That’s why it would be nice to get some starts in before the US Open.

It seems the TP5 ball was the main thing for Rory. For the other players you have signed recently, has it been the ball or some of the other products that have turned them towards you?

Well, it depends. We don’t try and get the ball with everyone as it can be very expensive. There are other companies that pay everyone to play the ball and we don’t want to do that as it doesn’t fit our strategy. But we need some icons, so we go by the road of getting the best players we can hitting it, and especially if they want to play it and there’s no doubt the one piece of equipment that got this deal done was the golf ball. Obviously our woods are good and the irons and wedges, and we’ve still got to get the putter done – we haven’t even started that process yet!

TaylorMade TP5 Golf Ball

We’ll get there, but the ball is why Rory is at TaylorMade, simple as that. You saw that in the press conference, you heard that after the day we spent with him, and honestly I knew after an hour with him hitting into the wind with 7 iron what our ball can do compared to what he had been using. He was sold right at that point. I knew we were in good shape right there.

Did that surprise you that is was the ball, rather than say, the driver or the fairway wood?

I think it will surprise everyone reading this, but it won’t surprise me because I know how good our ball is. I mean, I think we have the best ball in golf. There are other good ball’s out there, but if you talk to Dustin, or Sergio, or Rose, or if you talk to Jason Day, Jason refused to switch equipment to Nike and I think that was one of the reasons that pushed Nike into doing what they did also.

Nike were getting out of hard goods anyway, but I think he escalated that process just from the point of “I’m not playing your clubs.” And the ball: “I’m not switching.” The ball was a huge part of that, our guys love our golf ball. They think they are playing the best ball in golf.

As we speak, you have four of the top five players in the world, so does that transform into sales that you know of or is it just making a market statement?

Yeah, but I mean it is hard to put a number on it. We’re having a good year. In our first quarter we’re up in a market that’s down. We’re doing well. It’s not a one to one formula, but I do think, you know the PGA Tour and the top players in the world do influence some consumers and it definitely validates the equipment.

As well as that, the way we do equipment out here by getting it validated by the best players and then passing it on to the public and there is no difference. The ball Rory McIlroy is playing, everyone can go and buy, so I think a lot of people will take a look at our ball because when you test our ball there really is another option out there. Which most people don’t realise. I think Rory is going to have a huge impact for us on that.

Obviously, there is some guy Tiger Woods you signed earlier this season. If he doesn’t play again this season, how are you going to leverage that?

Well, he’s still Tiger Woods, and he still has plans on playing so until we cross that bridge we don’t have any plans. That was another fortunate thing because it was the same as Rory, because he went and tested everything and our woods were by far the best woods. When he hit our products, they were way better than everything else, that’s why we got the deal done. We didn’t go to Tiger, he came to us. That’s how we got Rory, he wanted to play our stuff and we had interest.

We got a lot of guys coming to us and the amount of top players out here that talk to me, you know you can’t sign them all. We’re fortunate that we get to pick and choose. We don’t go after too many guys.

Jon Rahm came to us. He was supposed to sign with someone else, and he was struggling and I got a call from his agent. And I had to talk all of TaylorMade into signing him because we weren’t signing young players and it turned out looking way better than I thought. I knew he was good, but I didn’t know he was that good.

John Rahm

You see the amount of players using our stuff and we’ve got a great reputation out here so we’re just very fortunate we can pick and choose our staff and it doesn’t surprise us that we have four of the top five because we just pick and choose.

Are there any other players that you would say have been a surprise to you?

No, not really. It’s not a surprise to me with Rahm but it also is. I knew he would be number one in the world at some point, I didn’t realise that it could be within two or three years. That’s the surprising part with Rahm, but I knew in the duration of the contract he would be top five in the world.

I met John Rahm after he signed for you and was very impressed…

Yeah, well so many people were so impressed with Dustin I don’t think people realised in the stands that Rahm will probably win more majors than Dustin and this kid you’re getting to watch is going to be number one in the world pretty darn soon. I don’t think anyone realises just how good he is.

We just hope that he joins the European Tour and makes the European Ryder Cup team!

Yeah well, he’s going to be over for the Irish Open at Rory’s event and The Open, so he will be here.

Is it a relief for the company generally that the future has been decided by the KPS Capital Partners purchase of TaylorMade?

Yeah, well it’s been going on for a while, and we’re excited to have new owners and I know our President was very happy with the buyer. I wasn’t involved but we’re very excited with the people and you want to be with people who are excited with you, so it seems like we couldn’t have hand-picked better.

Has it come up in any meetings or conversations what the benefits will be?

Not really, I think a lot of players and agents have been asking and they are interested. I don’t think the players have been concerned though. There were a lot of questions about how Adidas and TaylorMade spilt up, but that’s all good. They'll still get paid and they still represent both companies.

It’s been great for us because it gives us the chance to sign a guy like Rory McIlory. We’ve been so limited as signing Tiger and Rory couldn’t happen in the old regime. There is no way that Nike would have allowed it to happen if we were still owned by Adidas. I think it’s been very beneficial for the TaylorMade side of the business for sure.

The Top four TaylorMade players that we have mentioned, what order do you think they will finish in the World Rankings by the end of 2017?

I think it goes… Dustin, Rory, Sergio, Day, Rose and I think Rahm will be in the top-5 too.

So, the whole top five?

It will be close. But Speith could be a problem!

Click for interview with Jon Rahm on why chose TaylorMade for his bag.


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