Archive for the ‘golf’ Category

Summer sport: when pre-season feels like mid-season

April traditionally marks the start of the summer sporting season in the northern hemisphere: cricket in England, the Masters Golf tournament in the US, the Paris-Roubaix cycling race. Now that so many sports operate all year, the excitement of a new season risks being lost.

The burden of constant competition takes its toll on athletes too. Rafael Nadal had to withdraw from a semi-final match in Miami last week due to injury; England cricketer Stuart Broad may miss the next match in Sri Lanka; and Tiger Woods pulled out of a tournament two weeks ago. All of them want to make sure they are fit for high profile events coming up in the next few weeks.

There are significant debates going on in several sports between competing interest groups about how to manage the calendar (see, for example, FIFA trying to force clubs to release footballers for Olympic competitionNadal resigning from the ATP players’ council due to lack of agreement in changing the ranking system to give players more flexibility in their schedules; and proposals to establish a multi-sport European Games). The federations and leagues in each sport all want access to the best players and to stage events in as many markets as possible but the calendar is crowded.

Sports competitions have proved fairly resilient in tough economic times. Although some lower level tournaments disappeared from the calendar in golf, tennis and other sports, the higher profile events have kept going, even if they have had to cut costs. Quite a few world and continental championships rely on a hefty subsidy from host cities but still manage to attract bids from cities hoping to attract other events in future. Commercial considerations therefore have only a limited restraining effect on the ambitions of federations and leagues.

The disputes about competition calendars tend to involve player unions or representatives, leagues and governing bodies. Leagues and governing bodies often have competing interests (such as the “club v country” debate) and resolve their differences through a power struggle. In individual sports, athletes are probably in a stronger bargaining position to determine how often they compete because they are more difficult to replace. In team sports it is of course possible to solve the problem of player burn-out by having bigger squads. The logical consequence of this is that top European football clubs pay some international standard players vast amounts of money to play a handful of games a season.

As interest in professional sport develops in more and more markets, the pressure on athletes to perform all year round looks set to increase. Clashes between competing competitions (such as the Indian Premier League and English domestic cricket or between Olympic football and pre-season tournaments) will become more common. Unfortunately, athletes will sometimes be forced into making a decision which is not in their best interests: playing when half-fit, or choosing one competition above another due to external pressure. Legal clashes are inevitable.

Athletes in spring training are looking forward to the opportunities of the new season. No doubt the sports lawyers are limbering up too.

Seve Ballesteros: sporting icons are not produced by systems

The sad death of golfer Seve Ballesteros is the lead story today in Spanish media such as El País, El Mundo and Marca. The glowing tributes appearing in media around the world (BBC, USA Today, L’Equipe and many more) prove his iconic status.

Ballesteros burst onto the scene as a 19 year-old, finishing runner-up in the British Open in 1976. Among dozens of tournament wins during his career were three Open titles and two US Masters. He was also the inspiration behind European success in the Ryder Cup from 1985 onwards after decades of American dominance. With his flair and sense of drama he probably did more than anyone else to popularise golf across Europe in the last 30 years.

Many sports governing bodies and sponsors try to extend the appeal of their events by supporting the development of young athletes in new markets. Through funding for youth programmes, training camps, wildcard entries and holding championships in developing countries, federations seek to broaden the pool of contenders. Occasionally it works, particularly when there is already an infrastructure in place within a specific market which can harness the international investment.

A successful example is the introduction of Italy into the Six Nations rugby tournament in 2000.  Although the Italian team has not yet been close to winning the title, it has been consistently competitive and achieved some notable victories.

But what sports federations and sponsors really crave is superstars from outside their core markets, athletes who can transcend their sport and appeal to an audience well beyond the traditional fan base. Those of a similar generation to Seve Ballesteros include the likes of Boris Becker, Roger Milla and Lance Armstrong.

While star athletes often have a strong family background in their sport – Ballesteros came from a family of golfers and Becker’s father set up a tennis centre – they rarely seem to be the product of official sports development programmes.

With some honourable exceptions (such as the US college sports system and the FC Barcelona youth academy), development programmes succeed in broadening the base of competitive youngsters but seldom unearth charismatic champions.

It may be that sports federations and sponsors should concentrate more on capitalising when they are fortunate enough to have a superstar in their midst and worry less about the very difficult task of producing the next one.

Ultimately it is the icons of sport who do more to inspire the next generation of stars than any well-meaning official intervention. At the US Masters last month Phil Mickelson said that watching Seve’s 1980 Masters victory as a 9 year-old influenced him to take up golf.

Farewell Seve Ballesteros. Your legacy lives on.

Weekend golfers rejoice at pro’s 16 shots on one hole

Every amateur golfer’s worst nightmare came true for highly-ranked pro Kevin Na, who shot 16 on a par 4 in a PGA Tour event while wearing a microphone for the Golf Channel.

Na, who stayed surprisingly composed as he repeatedly hacked at his golf ball  in dense undergrowth, has claimed an unwanted record for the highest ever score on a par 4 in a PGA Tour event and become famous in the process.

As every media industry follower knows, content is king. It’s just unusual for a golfer to provide so much content on a single hole. Consequently, the story has hit the sports news in numerous countries, from a sympathetic column in the New York Times to a blow by blow account in the Daily Telegraph and an expression of gratitude on the Ruthless Golf blog.

As you would expect, the video on YouTube has over 200,000 views and there are hundreds of posts on Twitter, many expressing the empathy that comes only with shared experience.

But the whole story is told most succinctly in a single photo by AP photographer Eric Gay, which perfectly captures Na’s look of horror as his second attempt at a tee shot heads into the forest.

Hapless errors by sporting stars that make them look like the rest of us can inspire emotions in the audience ranging from pity (particularly if the stakes are high) to anger (“you’ve let me down”/”don’t you care?”), glee (especially if we’re supporting the other team) and schadenfreude (if we dislike the athlete or envy them). In this case the media coverage is gleeful with more than a hint of schadenfreude.

We watch elite sports coverage because we recognise and admire the high performance of the athletes. And yet occasional howlers often attract more attention than moments of inspiration because they are unexpected and can have such an impact on results. For example, TV news coverage of football will often show the goals and any glaring misses. There is no room for competent professional play in a 30 second clip.

As occasional golfers rejoice that a full-time pro can appear so inept they should take note that Kevin Na somehow managed to pull himself together and finish the remaining nine holes of the course in three under par. It’s clear that his 16 was a freak occurrence.

The charm of this story is that nobody really got hurt: Kevin Na will live to fight another day and he can console himself with the thought that, like almost all sporting records, his will be broken one day. His fellow golfers probably dream about it every night.

Tom Watson’s golfing generation game

In the end the fairytale didn’t quite come true but 59 year-old Tom Watson was within one putt of winning golf’s Open Championship today at Turnberry, 26 years after his last major win.

With his remarkable performance Watson gave sports fans a rare opportunity to answer the often posed question about how the champions of yesteryear would fare in modern sport. The answer: given the right equipment and preparation, great champions of previous generations would indeed compete with the best today. Watson, who had a hip replacement operation last year, showed consummate skill to finish second in a field including virtually all of the best golfers in the world.

The comparison doesn’t work across all sports. Rugby players and rowers, for example, are physically much bigger than their forebears. In athletics and other timed or measured sports the medal-winning performances nowadays tend to be significantly better than they were 50 years ago (but not necessarily superior to those of 20 or 30 years ago, which may have been drug-enhanced). Many would argue that the likes of Jesse Owens, born in 1913, could have challenged the times set by Usain Bolt in the 100m and 200m if he had been born 70 years later and had access to modern training methods. We will never know.

Was Sachin Tendulkar at his best as good as Don Bradman? How would Pele have fared in the Premier League? These questions are unanswerable, although that won’t stop them being asked. Would Tom Watson have beaten Tiger Woods? Well, for one week yes he did. 

We are sure to hear a lot more about Tom Watson and his replacement hip in the coming days. In the UK, the US and other golf markets expect to see plenty of opinion columns, tactical adverts and jokes doing the rounds.

The man himself must be bitterly disappointed to have come so close and missed out. The type of character who would be satisfied with second place would not be the ferocious competitor who would achieve it. Nevertheless, he can console himself with £450,000 in prize money and the knowledge that his performance has entered the record books and inspired millions.

Where General Motors leads…

Troubled corporate giant General Motors this week announced that it is severing its nine year sponsorship with Tiger Woods a year before the contract was due to end.

It is a significant step because GM has had its Buick brand on Tiger Woods’ golf bag since 1999. Only a few weeks ago they generated global media coverage when Tiger Woods played the role of caddy for an ordinary club hacker.

Almost simultaneously, GM announced the end of its 24 year partnership with the US Olympic Committee, worth an estimated $5m per year.

Tiger Woods has other endorsement deals and the USOC is in a strong position to attract new partners but the news provides stark evidence that athletes and sports properties at a slightly less exalted level are going to struggle to find corporate sponsors in the coming months.

Sponsorship has become mainstream to the extent that it is now difficult to imagine a televised sports event in most parts of the world taking place without commercial partners. As financial services companies in several countries are currently dependent on government backing, it will be interesting (nerve-wracking?) to see what the future holds for their many high profile sponsorship agreements (for example RBS 6 Nations).

Media reports suggest that GM is in deep trouble so they were probably compelled to cancel their deals but it is clear that retail banks, like a car company, cannot survive without significant marketing activity. What we will learn early in 2009 is exactly where sponsorship ranks among the marketing priorities for company directors when they are under real pressure.

There will also be some difficult decisions to make for governments that are effectively in control of certain banks. Public opinion will be an important consideration. Would the majority of the population rather see sponsorship cut to save money, perhaps crippling some sporting events and institutions? Or would they prefer that sponsorship agreements are renewed because they are fundamental to the business?

Now, more than ever, sponsorship must prove its worth.

The Great Ryder Cup

Golf’s Ryder Cup, which takes place on 19-21 September, is one of the great events on the sporting calendar and has been attracting extensive preview media coverage in several markets (for example in the NY Times and Marca) since the teams were announced at the start of September. And yet, curiously, the Ryder Cup is an exception in many ways:
- It’s a team event in this most individual of sports;
- Europe competes as a united team;
- There is no prize money; and
- It takes place every two years, whereas most other golf events are annual.

So why does it work so well? There are plenty of reasons:
- It has a tradition dating back to the 1920s, although it has evolved over the years, and many of the great golfers of the past are remembered for their Ryder Cup exploits.
- The complicated format regularly produces great drama.
- Spectators identify with the teams, even if they don’t know some of the individual players.
- The recently retired golfing statesman as team captain gives an added dimension: they pick wildcards, choose the playing order and roam the course offering moral support.
- Holding the event every two years makes each edition more special.
- It has a good slot in the calendar, separate from other big events and well after the golf majors.

But the key thing is that the players desperately want to be involved. Good performances at the Ryder Cup increase a golfer’s commercial value considerably and the event probably attracts a broader audience than other tournaments.

All in all, rights-holders of other sports events would do well to study the success of the Ryder Cup.

Despite the event’s undoubted strengths, there may be challenges ahead. The European team has won the last three events and is favourite again for 2008. If the USA team, missing the injured Tiger Woods, fails to run the Europeans close, American interest could begin to wane. In July the American player Hunter Mahan criticised the commercial demands made on the team at the Ryder Cup and said that golfers might
start turning down invitations. Once he was selected, however, all of that seems to have been forgotten.

Samuel Ryder would have been proud.