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Business Observer Thursday, Sep. 23, 2021 3 weeks ago

From the gridiron to the golf course

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Buccaneers legend Ronde Barber moves from football to helping organize the preeminent golf tournament in the area.
by: Louis Llovio Commercial Real Estate Editor

Sitting at an ornate conference table in a bungalow just off the north entrance to Innisbrook Golf & Spa Resort is Ronde Barber. It’s been raining all day and he had to drive to Palm Harbor from South Tampa, making him late for a 4 p.m. meeting.

Barber smiles. It’s the smile known by millions of football fans who tuned into FOX on Sunday afternoons for about seven years and so familiar to Tampa Bay Buccaneers fans who cheered him for nearly two decades, a champion in this town long before anyone thought guys named Brady or Gronkowski would wear pewter.

It’s easy to forget about the wait when Barber turns on the TV charm.

This meeting is not about football, though. Barber is here to talk about his other passion, golf. More specifically, he’s here to talk about the Valspar Championship, the annual golf tournament at Innisbrook he’s now in charge of putting on for the next two years.

Golf has been a big part of Barber's life for years, it’s something he loves, and if there is slight disappointment in his face on this rainy Wednesday it is not from keeping someone waiting, it’s because he didn’t get a chance to play a full round. Got a couple of holes in before the rain got too bad, he says, but then had to call it quits.

'Ultimately, we’re raising a ton of money for charity. But we also have got to put on an event. Essentially, we’re entertaining 100,000 fans in four days. There’s a lot that goes into that.' Ronde Barber, Copperhead Charities 

Golf these days is more than getting together with buddies and heading out to play 18. Golf has become his business and, in a way, his profession.

Barber is general chair of Copperhead Charities, the nonprofit that puts on the Valspar Championship every year. As the general chairman, he heads a board charged with overseeing nearly every penny spent to put on the $20 million event. That includes working closely with the staff of Pro Links Sports — the events company that organizes the tournament —and making the day-to-day decisions required to put on a weeklong sanctioned PGA Tour event featuring some of the top golfers on the planet.

It would be easy for Barber, decorated NFL star with a million-dollar smile, to skate by — show up to meet sponsors, shake a few hands, play a couple of rounds, glad hand — but that’s not his style, people working on the tournament say. He’s there, doing the work, watching, they say, learning, advising.

“Our board is incredibly talented, but for the most part they’re all business and civic leaders —we have a lawyer and an accountant — but mostly they’re very successful businessmen and women,” says Tracy West, a partner with Pro Links and the tournament director for the Valspar Championship.

“Ronde, brings a unique perspective to us, he comes from the pro sports world, right? He’s incredibly smart and he’s very insightful," West adds. "It didn’t take him long at all to pick up on the nuances and understand all the incredibly moving parts it takes to do an event like this. He brings great perspective, asks really, really good questions. I couldn’t think of a better person to lead this team.”

The front nine

For those who missed, or sat out, Buccaneers football in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Barber was a constant presence in the secondary and one of the faces of the franchise during its first championship run in 2002.

He played a staggering 16 seasons in the NFL, a league where the average length of a career is 3.3 years. Among his records: most consecutive starts by a defensive back in NFL history — 215; most consecutive starts by a cornerback in NFL history — 200; only player in NFL history to record at least 45 interceptions and 25 sacks — 47 interceptions and 28 sacks.  

Barber, who lives in Odessa, quit playing football in 2012 at 37. He went into the booth as a color commentator for FOX Sports, working there from 2013 through 2020.

During his playing career, Barber and his family became members at Innisbrook, where he attended the tournament for several years and played in the pro-am.

In about 2013, shortly before Valspar took over as the title sponsor, he was approached by a former board chairman about joining Copperheads. Barber says now that back then he had seen the name but had no idea what the organization was.

He joined the board without any idea what it would entail. He remembers sitting down for his first meeting and thinking, “'Wow, so this is how the sausage is made.'”

Over the next several years he became a part of several committees, including chairing one overseeing the pro-am, in which he’d played before. Barber was tasked with organizing, hosting, recruiting and bringing attention to the event.

This was the first time he had been involved with an event of this scale — and the experience was eye opening. "I kind of fell in love with it.”

Barber figured his time on the board would be short-lived, that he’d help where he could and then pass the torch onto someone else. But about a year or two after joining, West took him aside and told him he’d chair the board one day. “As I got more involved,” he says, “it became clear that this was something I was going to do for a while.”

The back nine

The Valspar Championship traces its roots back to 1977 and has been known by a slew of different names. For more than 20 years, it was known as the J.C. Penney Classic and featured players from both the PGA and LPGA tours.

Valspar, a paint brand within Sherwin-Williams Co., became the title sponsor in 2014. It has a title sponsor contract that lasts through 2025.

In its long history, the tournament has brought some of the most well-known professional golfers to the Tampa Bay region. Nowhere is that illustrated better than in the list of previous winners, a virtual who’s who of golf that includes Curtis Strange, Nancy Lopez, Fred Couples, Davis Love III, Beth Daniel, Vijay Singh, Jim Furyk, K.J. Choi and Jordan Spieth.

In 2018 Tiger Woods, amid a comeback, tied for second just a year before winning the Masters.

West says that despite how long the tournament has been played, and the experience of her 10-person staff, it’s always a year-long effort to organize it. Much of the year is spent securing the dozens and dozens of sponsorships that are an integral part of making the event possible.

West deploys members of the Copperhead club to work their plum contact lists for deep-pocketed sources for the sales staff to approach. What they offer is a smorgasbord of options for corporations to get names on national broadcasts, woo clients and reward employees and customers.

A business can buy a spot in a pro-am for $7,500 per player — $30,000 for an entire team — or they can buy a hospitality suite on the 18th hole for $22,000 per day. While those are, obviously, high-dollar, high-visibility examples, there are options for those who can’t, or won’t, spend that type of money, including buying tickets to hand out.

The reason selling sponsorships is so important is simple: the high cost of putting on the event. West says the tournament costs about $20 million to put on, which includes a laundry list of expense — vendors, build-outs, busses, a Saturday night concert, rentals and the purse paid to players.

But the main financial goals of the tournament is to raise money for charities, a mandate given the status of Copperhead Charities as a nonprofit. Since the tournament’s inception in 1977, it has raised $47 million, according to organizers. That includes $1.7 million this year, slightly below the average because COVID-19 restrictions placed some limits. And the pandemic canceled the 2020 tournament hours before it was set to begin.

But for West and Barber, raising money and coordinating the moving pieces are just one part of the job.

West spends a considerable amount of time each year recruiting players to come play in the tournament. Unlike professional football or baseball players, pro golfers are independent contractors who can’t be mandated where and when to play.

She’s roped Barber into helping with recruitment, getting him to call players to talk pro athlete to pro athlete. “It can be tedious but you’ve got make decisions on how big the build is, is it going to support the number of people we think are going to be there,” Barber says.

“Those decisions are kind of what make this fun," he adds. "Ultimately, we’re raising a ton of money for charity. But we also have got to put on an event. Essentially, we’re entertaining 100,000 fans in four days. There’s a lot that goes into that.”

In the clubhouse

Spending time with Barber, one gets the sense it’s good to be Ronde Barber.

Of course, there are aches and pains from playing football from his teen years until nearly his 40s. But he plays golf most days, is getting time to spend with his kids as they grow up and, because he was smart with the millions he earned from football, not hard pressed about what’s next.

That shouldn’t undercut the work Barber does as board chair for the 2022 and 2023 Valspar Championships or the years he put in before. Nor should it cloud the competitor still lurking inside.

He’s the first to tell you it would have been easy, in this new role, to rely on name and reputation. But that just not who Barber is.

“There’s a lot that goes into this,” he says. “I’ve always been a guy, whether it’s my playing career or any other aspect of my life, that if I’m not all in, I’m not in at all. And so I had to be all in.”

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