European Tour Enjoying Growth Spurt, But Players Say Schedule Too Full
The climax to the European Tour golf season revealed the commercial fault lines that run through the sport. On the course, things appeared to be going to plan. In-form Swede Henrik Stenson won the DP World Tour Championship, the culmination of the tour’s Race to Dubai, previously known as the Order of Merit, a title sponsorship that was extended to '17 this week. Stenson won a $1.5M bonus for winning the Race to Dubai to add to the $10M he picked up for winning the PGA Tour’s Fedex Cup. With $20M in season winnings, Stenson was not one of the leading European players who spent their week in Dubai complaining about being overworked due to a clash of schedules between the European and the PGA Tours.
PLAYERS SAY THEY ARE OVERWORKED: Their ire was focused on new rules requiring them to play two of the three events leading up to the finale in Dubai. These events -- The BMW Masters and WGC-HSBC Champions in Shanghai, and the Turkish Airlines Open -- have been rebranded as The Final Series to create a ‘FedEx-like’ end of season narrative. The rules were agreed upon at the start of the year to help guarantee strong fields at a time of the year when the best players have been competing in the U.S. But that still did not quell the sense of frustration that was pervasive. “There is no strategy,” said Andrew ‘Chubby’ Chandler, founder of ISM and agent to Lee Westwood, Darren Clarke and Charl Schwartzel, among several other top players. As a result, European Tour CEO George O’Grady spent what should have been a celebratory week in Dubai defending himself and his management team from disgruntled PGA Tour-based players and their agents, who resent having to be away from their homes in the U.S. for three weeks and who want greater flexibility to play both tours.
THE BIGGER ISSUE: This all speaks to a bigger problem for O’Grady, which is maintaining a compelling event schedule when many of Europe’s best players are plying their trade on the PGA Tour for most of the year. The creation of the FedEx Cup as the PGA Tour finale adds further pressure by raising the bar in terms of prize funds and ensuring the best players are in the U.S. through the late summer and early autumn. Chandler’s ISM organized the Turkish Airlines Open, boosted by images of Tiger Woods driving across the Bosphorus bridge, which links Europe to Asia. Chandler captured the problem facing European golf: “Why would sponsors pay £2 million for a golf event when they can get a Premier League football shirt for the same money, which is seen around the world every week.”
O'Grady sat down with SBD Global to talk about these issues and more:
Q: What has been the effect of the FedEx Cup on European Tour schedules?
George O'Grady: The FedEx Series has been very successful. I take my hat off to anyone who can first conceive it, and then get a sponsor to buy into it. It is an enormous amount of money. Even with our riches around the world, we can’t get anyone to buy in to a $10 million first prize. The playoffs are very competitive events to try to schedule against. We reacted by going to different countries with a unique selling proposition that fits that country. The (Final Series) money doesn’t compare to the FedEx Series, but it grows the game in that country, developing new talent all the time.
The structure of the tour in Europe has allowed top young talent from every country to come through. This diversity is a great strength to our tour. The PGA Tour knows where the rest of the world is now. They are expanding their brand into China, with the recent announcement about PGA Tour China. They are a worthy ally or competitor, depending on your point of view.
Q: How do you respond to Chubby Chandler’s accusation that the tour has ‘no strategy’?
O'Grady: I had lunch with Chubby yesterday. It’s easy to chuck out lines like that when you’ve been involved in the discussions to bring Turkey in, but it’s just possible for people to forget how hard it is to stage these tournaments and how hard it is to bring sponsors in. He has one event in Turkey. We are running 47 across the year. Each one is very tough. It’s the same people who say we should have more tournaments in England. There is no God-given right to be anywhere. All the players signed up to these rules at the start of the year. These are heat of the moment remarks that are best dealt with coolly. If we didn’t know what we’re doing we wouldn’t have maintained the Race to Dubai for the length of time that we have through some of the biggest economic downturns the world has ever seen. We’ve brought a new, wonderful market into golf in Turkey. You’re looking at a pretty good product and they are playing for very good prize money.
Q: Will you listen to the players’ concerns about scheduling issues?
O'Grady: We’re certainly listening to the players. We feel disappointed both personally and for the sponsors here in Dubai -- DP World and Jumeirah Estates -- that three of the world’s best players in Ernie Els, Sergio Garcia and Charl Schwartzel aren’t playing. They want to play. The (2/3 Final Series) rule has helped keep BMW in golf and brought Turkey onto the tour. The managers and the players were very happy with the rules when they came in. We underestimated how much golf these players play outside our Final Series. Not only on the PGA Tour, but on the other tours.
Q: Is there a way through the impasse?
O'Grady: Of course. We’re talking to the players and their management companies. One of them (Chubby Chandler’s ISM) was the organizer of the Turkey event, and was delighted to have the rules because it helped get a good field for his event.
Q: Are you concerned by the lack of European Tour tournaments in England, given its prominence in terms of media coverage of the sport? (note: there is one event held in England, the flagship BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth in May)
O'Grady: People forget that the Open Championship is played in Britain every year. The England thing is overblown. The Wales Open is played four miles into Wales from England. We have several tournaments in Scotland, and they are quite strong. We had the English Open and the British Masters at The Belfry. The same people who are saying we should have more tournaments in England didn’t play them when they were there. They should look in the mirror. The chicken and egg for the sponsors is whether they can get good fields and good dates. If you have these they might come in. We tried to recreate a European Open, but people want guarantee of fields. The positives are that we have brought in new countries, the schedules next year are full, we have an excellent new tournament in Denmark that is coming in with good prize money, the Czech Republic is back in with a tournament, and we’ve discovered Bulgaria, which may not have huge crowds, but is driving their tourism business to a wonderful part of the world. We have to look at areas in the world where the game can grow. The Olympic model means developing markets are reacting positively to growing the game.
Richard Gillis is a writer in London.