News Analysis: Golf sponsorship opens new doors

Following last weekend's thrilling Ryder Cup which resulted in a spectacular win for Europe, Tom Williams asks whether companies have much to gain by tapping into the increasing popularity of the sport.

Long before the dust settled in the bunkers around the green at Oakland Hills, Detroit, brand managers were scrambling to sign sponsorship deals for the next Ryder Cup competition.

At the end of last month, Budweiser announced that it was to be the Official Beer of the 2006 Ryder Cup, which will take place at the Kildare and Country Club in Straffan in County Kildare, Ireland. The move follows its deal to be the official beer of the European team for this year's tournament, as well as becoming the official beer of the 2004 Nissan Irish Open and the official supplier to the 2004 American Express World Golf Championship.

Sponsors take note

The fact that Budweiser, the world's biggest-selling beer, is stepping up its involvement in the biennial competition between the US and Europe's top golfers, would seem to suggest that golf is no longer a sport that sponsors can ignore. Nevertheless, the brands that sponsor golf tournaments and golfers are dominated by the car, airline and financial services industries.

Volvo, for example, has sponsored the Ryder Cup's European team since 1998, while Virgin Atlantic is the team's official airline, Mastercard its credit card and Unisys its computer company. In other words, golf is still seen as a game played by rich business executives - precisely the type of people who these brands want to target.

'We get a large amount of hospitality from events like these. They give our clients a chance to rub shoulders with the golfers,' says Richard Mackey head of the sponsorship PR department at Barclays, of Barclays Capital's sponsorship of the Scottish Open. 'Every sponsorship deal we make has to be considered in terms of the return on investment we are going to get.'

But the profile of the average golf enthusiast appears to be changing, and with it golf's appeal to different brands. A 2002 Professional Golf Association survey of the sport revealed that 9.8 per cent of the adult population in the UK and Ireland played golf compared to 7.4 per cent for football and 6.5 per cent for tennis. The survey also found that while there were 1.34 million golf club members, five million people regularly played golf without club membership. Women account for 200,000 of the members, while 14 per cent of seven to 19-year-old Britons - a key focus for marketers - now play golf.

'There are a lot more golf clubs, but fewer people feel it is necessary to join them,' says Hill & Knowlton associate director Neil Hopkins, who handles PR for Celtic Manor, the Welsh golf course that will host the Ryder Cup in 2010.

'This might be because, while people have traditionally joined golf clubs for the social side as much if not more than for the participation, golf is now viewed much more as a sport that people want to be involved in.'

This goes some way to account for the emergence in recent years of less traditional golf sponsors. Nike famously attached itself to Tiger Woods in a $90m five-year deal.

Player sponsorship has also provided an inroad for aspirational luxury brands to associate themselves with youth, successful and often flamboyance.

M&C Saatchi Sponsorship MD Steve Martin says this is epitomised by the 28-year-old UK member of the 2004 European Ryder Cup team Ian Poulter, who famously took to the greens wearing Union Jack trousers.'Golf is getting younger, with players such as Ian Poulter wearing his Union Jack trousers instead of the old plus fours. Every sport needs something to liven it up and, as long as good players get involved with brands, it will help to broaden the appeal of the game,' he says.

But some argue that the apparent influx of less obvious brands into the golf sponsorship arena says nothing about any rejuvenation that might be happening in the sport.

In 2003, energy drink Red Bull, which had hitherto associated itself with more extreme events such as the Flugtag on Hyde Park's Serpentine lake in London, started an innovative deal to sponsor the final five holes on the courses of several European championships, including this year's Volvo PGA Championship and the Barclays Scottish Open.

But according to Red Bull, the deal had nothing to do with an attempt to appeal to the youth market or, for that matter, the older market. Golfers flagging at the end of the course, the message implies, could benefit from the revitalising effects of Red Bull.

Lexis Sport group account director Guy Pattison, most of whose clients choose not to sponsor golf tournaments and players, argues that golf may not have changed as much as people think, and that the appeal of golf celebrity sponsorship is not as advanced as it is in the US. 'The demographics are still the same, and golf remains a predominantly white, Anglo-Saxon male sport. European golfers don't translate that well to celebrity status,' Pattison says.

'Brands go into sports celebrity sponsorship for the back-page passion, but they also want this to be something that will make the front pages as well. Sponsoring someone wearing wacky trousers is not the way you want to get on those pages, and I guess not the image that golf wants to project of itself.'

While golf continues to get more mainstream, it looks unlikely that the change in the profile of amateur golfers will be significant enough for players and tournaments to attract the kind of big bucks sponsorship deals that football can boast.

Golf sponsorship seems destined to be confined to the high-net-worth luxury products market. But, despite that, it is still a lucrative market.

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