Golf is the new sweet spot of the Irish sports sponsorship sector, and is winning the hearts and minds of rights buyers, according to intriguing new research seen by the Irish Examiner.
On the back of a successful Irish Open and in advance of a Ryder Cup at Adare Manor in 2027, the sport has gained ‘fresh perspective’ amongst investors who currently sponsor other sports.New market analysis on the upswing for the game could see a lot of portfolio-flipping in the coming months as golf enjoys a newfound lift of appreciation amongst sponsorship buyers.The extraordinary attention that golf is gaining comes on the back of research results by global sponsorship consultants Onside, who report that one-third of sponsors — active in non-golfing sports — are considering golf as a viable option for the first time.Those investors, whose concentrations are focused on ABC1 sports sponsorship activations, are drafting golf strategies, due in no small part to a high tide washing in extraordinary amounts of high visibility. This optimism coincides with a significant recovery for the overall sponsorship sector — torpedoed by a €50m marketing collapse due to Covid — with rights and fees investments now set to rise by 7% next year, to a €182m overall spend.For the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open, this is even better news. Approximately €4m in fees were paid through headline and associate partnerships over the course of the tournament — a fraction of the overall multi-event commercial bundle owned by rights holder, the European Tour.While the cash paid by partners goes back to the Tour (which divvied out a €3m purse in Mount Juliet at the weekend), this value will increase next year as golf looks set to raise its rating from fifth on the sports sentiment radar (April ’21) among sponsors.The sport was then positioned beside soccer and behind leaders GAA and rugby, with Olympics and Paralympics in third and fourth place (both very much reflected by the year that’s in it). The figures were gathered before various Covid breaches by inter-county GAA teams and Ireland’s home loss to Luxembourg — and any expected immediate upturn for golf must also be seen in that context.The game is enjoying peak attention and is at the height of a thrilling season on the back of three majors, the Irish Open, and ahead of next week’s Open Championship (with Shane Lowry defending), and a Ryder Cup in the US in the autumn.Soccer in this country is challenged for sure, from the heady days of having up to 15 partners during Euro 2016. It is a different audience to golf, and the ‘beautiful game’ will bounce again with a more strategic federation now running the game.In the meantime, though, it’s golf’s turn, and analysis forecasting exponential growth in investment by corporates teeing up for the first time is a clear demonstration to market watchers that the game’s glory days of the mid-noughties may be returning — notwithstanding the economic uncertainty.Hosting the 2027 Ryder Cup is key, of course. That blue-chip event sits atop a plethora of plus-points, including the current captain being an Irishman (Padraig Harrington), a return of The Open to the island 2025, and the rise of Leona Maguire in the US.Previous interest in Ireland peaked in 2006 when the K Club hosted the Ryder Cup, sparking a massive influx in golf tourists from overseas — half of which were American — to a country with one-third of the world’s links courses. With strong visibility comes recognition, and 15 years ago companies like Murphy’s, SmurfitKappa, and AIB benefitted. They have now been squeezed out of the Irish market by global monsters such as Nike and Rolex.John Trainor, Onside’s leading evaluator and expert on golf and sports sponsorship, believes that the shift to international brand sentiment in Ireland “actually presents a great opportunity” for Irish business to take a segment of the market in the way Michael Smurfit did 15 years ago.“The big piece is the way that [Irish] sponsors and commercial brands now see golf as a sport they would like to be aligned with, whereas [before] it wasn’t part of their strategy,” said Trainor, CEO of the US and European sponsorship firm.“You will now see a lift in appreciation of golf, particularly with a series of positives for the game here, peaking with Adare Manor in 2027.”Most significantly, Trainor adds: “About one-in-three sponsors have an open mind and are receptive to opening up to golf, and it shows that there is a market there to be tapped, through fresh perspective and intelligence about how golf has momentum based on [post-Covid participation] figures.”Since lockdown ended, 18% of active Irish adults returned to golf or took it up for the first time, with the total number of adults now playing the game on full-length courses increasing by a remarkable 219,000 to 540,000, with a third of this number under the age of 25.Any uplift for the golfing sector will have tangible knock-on effects in directly related business and industries, with Paul Mockler, head of commercial development with Fáilte Ireland, expressing confidence that the sector will rebound strongly.Mockler says golf tourism has been “resilient” despite previous global financial crashes and shocks such as foot and mouth, ash clouds, and other uncontrollable events. He points out that in 2019 its value to the wider economy was €300m — with an extra €70m going to the exchequer.“During the last recession, golf tourism into Ireland actually grew by 6% year-on-year [2008-2012], which [demonstrates] a very resilient segment of the market,” he said.“We expect an equally strong rebound when travel reopens.“I’m confident that once people are able to travel again, we will see a large number [of golfers] returning to Ireland, particularly from North America, which makes up 50% of the revenue from the [golf tourism] market.“Our golf tour operators on the ground in Ireland are telling us that the majority of this group are fully vaccinated and eager to get over here to play.”Brand data, also from Onside, shows that Nike, Rolex, and AIG are now seen by the Irish (adult) public as the top golf sponsors in this country, a major shift from 2006 when Nissan, AIB, and Murphy’s were recognised.Such global brands (Nike and Rolex) and their positioning across the game means that 47% of Irish adults could name a sponsor of golf in Ireland that appealed to them, according to the firm, adding to the appeal of those brands studying the situation.A significant and highly valuable takeaway from the research demonstrates a strong uplift in female sentiment also, with four in 10 women calling out a sponsor that appeals to them when asked about golf brands.One sponsor of Irish golf, already inside the ropes, is Emirates, which places a huge emphasis on hospitality to mop up much-needed marketing, engagement, PR, sales, and corporate affairs strategies.“The real value that hospitality brings sponsors like ourselves is that it helps us to drive brand awareness and enables us to engage closely with customers,” said Emirates Irish country manager Enda Corneille.“Despite being unable to welcome guests to our first-class facilities this year, we are of the view that now is not the time to cut back, rather to make sure that our brand is front and centre.”Corneille said he was not aware whether Emirates lost any investment through the dilution of its hospitality assets for the past two Irish Opens, or if these activations were rolled into other marketing assets. The European Tour firmly refused to discuss if force majeure clauses were enacted with partners due to the Covid pandemic, insisting: “We do not discuss commercial arrangements or contracts publicly.”Across all sports, the dreaded force majeure legal imposition — a fixture in all commercial contracts — was enforced over the past 18 months, which effectively allows rights holders to demand full payments on commercial contracts despite the inability to provide specified activations due to so-called ‘act of God’ occurrences.When full hospitality activation returns, it will hold even greater significance for sponsors, according to the Bullfinch marketing agency.“Hospitality is a key part of any sponsorship package, and provides tangible benefits for brands in the digital age,” said Bullfinch MD Tom Nugent.“Where working remotely is now the norm, there is the need, now more than ever, for corporates to build authentic relationships in person.“Covid has pushed us all to rethink how business is conducted, and as we move to a more remote-focused working model, one-to-one relationship-building and the ability to engage with clients, customers, and colleagues in social settings will grow as a valued sponsorship activation. It beats a Zoom call every day of the week.”A rethink is undoubtedly on the cards for the entire sports sponsorship sector, so expect increased interest and greater levels of investment from those who no longer see golf as a good walk spoiled — rather a great opportunity to be exploited.