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 RICHARD GILLIS
 The Golf Business

The Distance Problem

Five things the European Tour would rather not talk about.

1 / GOLF IS LIKE NEWS. IT DOESN’T TRAVEL

‘Aberdeen man feared lost at sea. 200 also drowned’. This headline is thought to have run in a newspaper in northeast Scotland some years ago. It is used in journalism classes to illustrate a central truth about the nature of news: most of it doesn’t travel.

Put another way, ‘News travels fast’ is a cliché that doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. Andrew Marr in his book My Trade wrote this: “[News] slows and decays as it travels. For every mile most news speeds towards you it loses a little of its force and its weight. If news happens a long way away it can lose so much of itself that it is merely a shadow by the time it arrives. It does not grip you’.

Marr’s definition of news has a relevance to watching golf. The big news events – 9/11 is the obvious example – are so powerful they make it in to our living rooms and affect us deeply regardless of where in the world they take place. It’s a crass analogy, but the Masters or the Ryder Cup have similar characteristics: they are major news events strong enough to render distance irrelevant. But how many European Tour events have that power?

2 / THE SLOW DEATH OF THE GOLF CORRESPONDENT

It is generally true that as the Tour has expanded, the amount of column inches in the national newspapers given to golf (outside the majors and the Ryder Cup) has diminished. Economics is part of the reason: newspapers are losing money and golf correspondents are expensive. The over selling of football is another reason. As a result, golf, like several other sports, has struggled to maintain its place in the national news agenda.

3 / NOT ALL GOLDEN GENERATIONS ARE THE SAME. IS 2012 BETTER THAN 1987?

The distance problem is more noticeable if we compare the current ‘golden era for European golf’ with a previous one, 25 years earlier. Today, most of the best players in the world are from this side of the Atlantic: Luke Donald, Rory McIlroy, Lee Westwood and Martin Kaymer has each vied for the number one slot over the past year or more.

In theory, 2012 is the best year for European golf since 1987, when the world game was dominated by a similarly talented group: Ballesteros, Faldo, Lyle, Langer and Woosnam. The European Ryder Cup team won in America for the first time, and we all hope for more of the same this September in Chicago. If Luke Donald were to win the Open Championship it would lend even more symmetry, matching Faldo’s ‘87 Muirfield victory.

But would we care as much if he did? Unlike Faldo, Donald’s success has been more difficult to share, as most of it has taken place thousands of miles away. In 1987 there were 11 European Tour events taking place in the UK and Ireland. This year, there are just six, and only one – the BMW PGA – in England. For this reason, I’d argue this generation of fans is less engaged with Donald than their predecessors were with Faldo.

This is not Donald’s fault. Faldo was aided by the Tour’s schedule which contained a ‘British swing’ either side of the Open. This gave definition to the European golf season, through now defunct tournaments like the British Masters, the Benson and Hedges International, The English Open and the Lawrence Batley.

These have long been out bid by new money from overseas. BMW has just signed a huge new deal to title sponsor the Shanghai Masters. It’s great for the Tour’s coffers and the players’ prize money. But, what if the German carmaker tires of Wentworth in the spring?

4 / WARNING. THE VALUE OF MARKETS CAN GO DOWN AS WELL AS UP.

We’ve learnt two things about markets from the banking crisis of the last few years. The first is that they are more powerful than governments. In Italy, Silvio Berlusconi resigned not because the voters turned against him but to ‘please the markets’. Similarly, George Osbourne’s recent budget was aimed at retaining Britain’s AAA credit rating in the money markets, not at winning votes. The market for golf is also very powerful, but it’s worth noting that we, the viewers and event attendees, are not a part of it. It is made up of a small group of buyers - broadcasters and sponsors – who pay for the Tour’s inventory of commercial rights.

The second thing we know is that arguing against the will of the market is hard, as the Occupy tent dwellers outside St Paul’s Cathedral found to their cost. But just because what has been lost is difficult to quantify, doesn’t mean its not valid.

5 / WHAT IS THE ROLE OF THE BRITISH GOLF FAN?

The European Tour is one event away from exiting England altogether. We are told that Ryder Cup money has propped up the Irish Open in recent years. Barclays has left the Scottish Open following its departure from Loch Lomond, where the bank had a commercial interest. Sir Terry Matthews' investment in Celtic Manor keeps the Wales Open afloat for now.

What would happen if these tournaments disappeared from the schedules over the next few years? How would that affect the value of the European Tour? Accountants would no doubt argue that replacing these events with richer ones overseas makes perfect sense. But Sky's TV deal remains the Tour's most valuable, meaning British golf fans are still paying their share of the bills. The business plan depends on them paying to watch the golf. From a distance. Will this be enough to keep us interested? Or does something happen to a sport when it becomes rootless?

The truth is that we don’t know for sure. But then again, neither does George O’Grady.

June 2012

Reproduced with kind permission of Golf International Magazine

 






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