Ala. sports marketing company carves niche in golf

Ala. sports marketing company carves niche in golf

Published Jul. 6, 2010 2:13 p.m. ET

The Bruno Event Team will have a significant presence in the golf world this month, even if few notice.

The Birmingham-based sports marketing and event management company will be operating behind the scenes at the U.S. Women's Open Thursday through Sunday in Oakmont, Pa., and the Senior Open in Sammamish, Wash., at month's end.

Forget birdies and bogeys. BET staffers are more concerned with details such as budgets, traffic control and parking and handling billboards and other promotions.

For the Women's Open at Oakmont Country Club in suburban Pittsburgh, that has meant hitting the obvious promotional opportunities, such as Steelers and Penguins games and the less high-profile venues.


``In the marketing and promotion aspect of their role, I don't think anyone does a better job at grass-roots level to really get the word out in the streets,'' said Tim Flaherty, the USGA's managing director for both the Women's and Senior Opens. ``They keep working it.

``They'll have a presence at a local flower show or a local chili cook-off. They really blanket the market and try to get involved with every event they can.''

The company founded by Gene Hallman and former grocery store chain executive Ronnie Bruno 15 years ago has carved a niche mainly in golfing, with Champions Tour, LPGA and United States Golf Association events such as the two July Opens.

But it also works everything from Alabama football games to an IndyCar Series race and soccer matches, and has helped bring both Fed Cup and Davis Cup tennis ties to Birmingham in the last 16 months.

Still little known outside Birmingham and golfing organizations, Bruno Event Team started simply enough.

``I told Gene, 'Let's start a sports marketing company,'' said Bruno, who sold Bruno's Supermarkets, Inc., in 1995.

``I was in my early 40s so I was not ready to retire,'' he said. ``We were doing one golf event here in Birmingham. We'd gotten very good at it and had gotten a lot of acclaim for it.''

Bruno had hired Hallman, who was an aspiring sports agent working in the computer business, four years earlier to run a Champions Tour event in suburban Birmingham. The tournament was announced on Dec. 5, 1991. Six days later, a corporate jet carrying five of the supermarket chain's top executives - including Ronnie Bruno's father, Angelo - crashed into a mountainside in northwest Georgia, killing all nine aboard.

``I was convinced the first tournament wouldn't occur but instead turned it into Bruno's Memorial Classic,'' Hallman said. The event has since moved across town, and is now the Regions Charity Classic.

Bruno Event Team now has some 70 employees, about half of them situated in the Birmingham headquarters. The company also typically has several staffers based in each city where it works events.

Bruno Event Team has its own in-house ad agency that comes up with slogans such as ``Wow Wie,'' a billboard that ran in Mobile promoting Michelle Wie and the Bell Micro LPGA Classic in May. Staffers even went to high school football and basketball games to promote the U.S. Senior Open when it was in Hutchinson, Kan., the USGA's Flaherty said.

Bruno Event Team has managed game day operations for Alabama football games since 2006, working with parking and traffic flow. That's likely the company's most scrutinized duty within state lines.

During Alabama's spring game earlier this year, a train broke down during the game and blocked two major exiting points for traffic. A staffer hopped on a police helicopter to survey traffic and they called the Chicago railroad company to check on the possibility of getting the train moved remotely.

``You looked on the message boards and people didn't really know what happened but they knew traffic was messed up and we were being trashed left and right,'' Hallman said.

The reviews from university officials are much kinder, especially with a 10,000-seat addition opening up in the fall potentially creating more congestion.

``It has really been a positive thing for our fans,'' said Gina Johnson, associate vice president for auxiliary services. ``The bottom line was to take the hassle out of it and make it more enjoyable for fans.''

Bruno certainly sounds like someone who came up in the grocery business when he talks about the keys to running Bruno Event Team.

``It's just attention to detail and having a good reputation and making sure we have satisfied customers,'' he said. ``I learned customer service early on from my Dad and a lot of years in the grocery business.''

Bruno said he's content to remain in the event management niche instead of branching out to compete more directly with bigger sports marketing firms such as International Management Group and Octagon.

``There must be a very lucrative business in player representation,'' Bruno said. ``The bigger companies, that's what they primarily do. And this (event management) is kind of a sideline for them. We don't do any player representation at all. Events are what we do, and we think we do them well.''