x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Tiger that makes Gulf's golf go with a swing

Congratulations to Abu Dhabi for letting the world see a master at play as HSBC takes the plaudits on the sponsorship front. Now the spotlight is on Dubai.

Tiger Woods, left, watches Rory McIlroy tee off on the sixth hole during the first round of the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship. Jeff Topping / The National
Tiger Woods, left, watches Rory McIlroy tee off on the sixth hole during the first round of the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship. Jeff Topping / The National

The final week of the Gulf leg of European Tour golf is upon us. Abu Dhabi and Doha have used the world's leading sports tourism platform to showcase their golf propositions to the world - and this weekend is Dubai's turn.

Professional golf's commercial proposition is quite simple. Yesterday was all about the pro-ams and pre-tournament media speculation and stunts. Today to Sunday is all about the news and sports live media coverage worldwide and the spectator experience.

Golf's major advantage over all other sports is its handicap system. This allows the world's best to play against mere commercial mortals on a level playing field. The pro-am, when used properly, is business-to-business (B2B) gold dust.

The European Tour's global media platform offers an audience of about 375 million homes. This statistic is smoke and mirrors.

For example, from the 12.5 million Sky homes in the UK that are included in this statistic, about 50,000 to 400,000 viewers will actually watch a regular Tour event.

Not a statistic that the sales teams use that much.

Nonetheless, the ABC1 quality of a large percentage of the audience provides the real attraction. More important, this audience is fanatical about golf and has discretionary income to travel and play golf - or to incorporate golf into a business trip overseas. This is key to the region's golf tourism needs.

The year so far has proven one thing: Tiger Woods is still the biggest golf box-office name - by far.

His agent, Mark Steinberg, who left IMG last year with the management company's biggest individual client ever in terms of annual revenue, must be truly excited about the next five years.

Having learnt his lesson about honesty and the media, Woods was frank about the financial attraction to come to Abu Dhabi. More important, he also showed why he is good value for money. On Sky, in the UK, the Sunday audience peaked at 325,000 viewers. This is really high for Sunday golf in January.

Mr Steinberg - my room-mate at the 1992 Open when we both joined IMG - is in a great position to play Abu Dhabi, Doha and Dubai off against each other. One tournament a year. Biggest offer wins. No two-year deals, unless the offer is eye-watering. Simple.

More important, while Woods is not the golfer of a decade ago, he is not far away from winning majors again. Golf's new elite has not moved the bar higher, while Woods has been on his self-created sabbatical. The commercial heir apparent, Rory McIlroy, needs to step up. Golf needs to see him win, regularly and with flair.

It may inspire the estimated 68 million lapsed golfers in the world to take up the game again.

The industry needs to see McIlroy look Woods in the eye on the back nine of a major tournament and beat him - with ideally a golfer from one of the Brics countries - Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa - in a supporting role.

Golf needs charismatic heroes to grow the game. The current elite does have an important role to play - but for mass participation growth in a sport that has been virtually stagnant in the past five years, the sport needs box-office, colourful heroes. That is why tennis is currently so commercially strong. It delivers on the Grand Slam.

The sponsorship war of the Gulf swing has been clearly won by HSBC. The bank's criteria for the sponsorship's success will involve various brand, customer, corporate social responsibility, human resources, media and promotional objectives - but ultimately the sponsorship also links to the commercial performance of HSBC's regional offices and using the golf sponsorship to win new and maintain old business.

Woods's participation in Abu Dhabi meant a stellar media return for HSBC.

In Doha, CommercialBank deserves recognition. Not only is it the title sponsor, but it is also effectively the promoter. The tournament reflects both Doha's and the bank's brand and aspirations.

The CommercialBank Qatar Masters is strong as a B2B event for the Doha business community. What a pity, though, that the shamal and fog curtailed the tournament to three rounds this year. One suspects that Doha will have looked at Abu Dhabi's success last month and will have put Woods at the top of its 2013 shopping list.

The Omega Dubai Desert Classic is in an interesting place. Once the crown jewel of the European Tour's first quarter, it is now the weakest of the three Gulf tournaments in terms of world ranking points (the number of top-100 professionals who play the tournament).

This means that the media coverage is also damaged and the tournament's brand has less sparkle.

The Dubai World Championship has diluted the Desert Classic's commercial position and has made sponsorship complicated, with two world-class golf events in the same city.

Even though the Classic has a strong international title sponsor in Omega, the tournament also lacks government funding to compete on a level playing field with Abu Dhabi and Doha.

However, Golf in Dubai, Dubai's promoter, took an inspired strategic decision last year. Its Middle East and North Africa Tour for the region's next generation of golfers is vital for the development of the game. It can hopefully create the first great Arab professional.

It also unlocks funding from the likes of the R&A and European Tour and gives Dubai a lead role in the politics of the region's golf and its development.

Ultimately, this has been Abu Dhabi's year. Mabrook to the Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority and HSBC - and particularly to Steinberg and Woods.

The business of golf has missed you, Tiger.

Jamie Cunningham is the founder and chief executive of Professional Sports Group

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