Aon Risk Reward Challenge sponsorship walks the walk on inclusivity and equality

On a Tuesday afternoon this past November, Spain’s Carlota Ciganda was presented a check she won’t soon forget. The $1 million award for winning the LPGA’s season-long Aon Risk Reward Challenge more than doubled her 2019 winnings in one fell swoop.

In her remarks during the news conference, Ciganda, who over 23 tournaments won $998,654, summed up the big picture pretty well: “I’m the winner, but women’s golf is the winner today. The LPGA is the winner.”

At one point, the 29-year-old Ciganda was overcome with emotion as she was awarded the inaugural prize ahead of the LPGA’s CME Group Tour Championship in Naples, Fla.

Ciganda, who tallied eight top-10 finishes including three of the five major championships to help her seize the inaugural Aon Risk Reward Challenge, expounded, “I think it’s an unbelievable prize. Obviously as women, I think the LPGA is going great and we have so many good events and more prize money. I mean, I think for me it’s a family. This is something big for me, but for me the value in life, it’s family. It’s a lot of money obviously. I’m someone that I love to play golf. I love to compete. I don’t think my life going to change much. I’m going to be doing the same, because that’s what I love to do. But obviously I want to thank all of you.”

What made this a transformative winning moment, however, was astonishingly simple: the paycheck was exactly the same as the $1 million that Brooks Koepka received as the winner of Aon’s Risk Reward Challenge on the PGA TOUR.

“It’s something amazing finally to get recognized with the same amount of money,” added Ciganda.

The Aon Risk Reward Challenge was first held in 2019 as a unique season-long competition that highlights golf’s most strategic decision makers. The scoring system–identical on both the PGA TOUR and LPGA–is intuitive and produces a compelling risk/reward storyline throughout the season.

To ensure that all play counts (and provide a small advantage to those that make the cut), the Challenge takes the best two scores on the designated hole from every participating event a player competes in.

The winner is the player with the best average score to par across the season (with a minimum of 40 rounds in 2019).

Why did a global professional services firm get involved?

“When we launched the Aon Risk Reward Challenge we were really hopeful that we would be able to take the feeling around positive risk-taking and reward and really get that to resonate with our colleagues and clients, but also make that connection to the general public around what it’s like to take the right risk based on information, some analytics and experience and do the execution,” explains Aon Co-President Eric Andersen.

“If you are golfer, you realize just how important that is,” Andersen continues, “In the business environment, it’s the same thing. You have to take risks to be successful. But you want to be taking the right risks based on information and insight and that’s what we at Aon are trying to do every day with our clients, so this challenge has been fantastic for us.”

We certainly don’t need to remind TMR readers how major corporations all over the world spend billions of dollars each year in sports marketing.

Unfortunately, in many instances, decision makers are throwing spaghetti at the wall to see what sticks.

Others take a measured approach that is in alignment with both their culture and marketing objectives. Case in point: Aon.

You’re familiar with the Aon logo on the front of the Manchester United Football Club kit from 2010-14 and on the team’s practice gear and training complex since then. Last year, Aon made the calculated decision to enter the golf space while still supporting the football club.

Sponsorship does not have to be a case of “either-or” as Aon continues as a Man U partner, sponsoring both the club’s practice kit and practice complex. Manchester United

Years of association with the global Man U brand established Aon as a recognized brand. One single season’s sponsorship on both the PGA TOUR and LPGA Tour has arguably done more to give consumers a better sense of what Aon actually stands for.

That’s the genius of the Challenge, a concept that Aon brought to both Tours.

Yes, you read that right: Aon drove the discussion on the creation of the Challenge, insisting on bringing both Tours together and putting their money where their mouth is with equal prize money.

The Challenge came to be because Aon execs were evaluating sponsorship effectiveness and ensuring the right message was getting to the right audience.

“It all started with the audience we were trying to reach. We wanted to reach a more strategic buyer, change perception, evolve how we’re seen in the marketplace. We asked, ‘How do we reach that really busy, time-poor leader?’ We found they were passionate about golf, they made time for it, they played it and they consumed it,” said Andy Weitz, Aon’s CMO. “The question then became, ‘How do we break through the clutter? How do we talk about Aon in a way that engages them and changes perception of the firm?’ For us, it was really about driving an understanding of how Aon is evolving and how we create value for our clients.”

Pause for a second and think about a golf telecast. Do you hear a lot of talk about risk and reward? See a lot of shots of caddies and players working together?

For Aon, that’s a natural fit because that’s exactly how we create value for our clients,” adds Weitz. “At Aon, we help them make better decisions. That’s how a caddie advises a player, helping him or her make better decisions during a moment that matters most. We grasped that concept and we ran with it, integrating it into broadcast and storytelling.”

TV and digital certainly play a big role in bringing the sponsorship to life through broadcast integration with CBS and Golf Channel, plus wide use of PGA TOUR and LPGA digital platforms. But, Aon does not only rely on that broad reach, as the company also activates one-on-one by bringing clients and colleagues at times literally inside the ropes with exclusive golf experiences on the course and off, as well as business networking events around the world.

Much thought and planning went into this program, including going a step further to showcase Aon’s commitment to diversity and inclusion by providing equal winner’s purse.

“We’re most proud of the equal prize money,” says Weitz. “The idea that we’re offering the men and the women the same reward for the same basic execution has paid off in ways we never could have anticipated, both in terms of the pride within our firm about that decision and the earned media we’ve seen where people have commented, ‘Explain to us how you made this decision, explain why it’s important to your firm.’ It’s given us an additional platform to tell this story on.”

The word “authenticity” is thrown around so casually now that it has become pretty cliché. That said, it’s important to point out that Aon and the Tours unveiled the program prior to all the equal pay conversation spurred by the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team and others.

Now, we would be remiss if we did not underscore that men’s and women’s golf have completely different economics at present and the popularity of the PGA TOUR brings with it significantly higher media rights fees from the networks and streaming services, sponsorship and admission prices than their LPGA counterparts.

Still, in recent interviews, LPGA Commissioner Mike Whan and others have expressed hope that the trail blazed by Aon would be followed by other sponsors. The end game would be for more opportunities that would provide equal prize money to women golfers.

What’s next for Aon? The company has already teed up more professional golf. In fact, the firm recently announced a multi-year partnership with the next three Ryder Cups beginning later this year at Whistling Straits in Kohler, Wisc.

As part of the new relationship, Aon is backing a new, yet-unnamed award that celebrates the defining moments of the Ryder Cup while giving fans an inside-the-ropes look at how captains and players work together to develop a winning strategy.

Imagine that—a sponsorship tied to the sponsor’s brand and messaging. Kudos to Aon.