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The Irish Open has a Future

Dermot Gilleece on the tricky business of sponsoring the Irish Open

Posted Nov 16, 2010 by Dermot Gilleece

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For their annual corporate golf outing, a Dublin-based company of building contractors invited 88 of their best clients to Carton House.  By way of ensuring that nobody would have a transport problem while complying with the drink-driving law, each client was picked up and dropped home by taxi.
That was in the summer of 2004, when the cost of the outing ran to about €25,000.  Two years later, with the so-called Celtic Tiger economy at its zenith, The K Club’s staging of the Ryder Cup proved to be a tremendous, commercial success.

Yet concurrent with these happenings, the Irish Open struggled for commercial support.  And with Ireland now going through a grave financial crisis, the news that 3Mobile have ended their title sponsorship of the Irish Open after only two years of a proposed three-year contract, has come as a serious blow, especially to the European Tour.

It's a very curious affair which merits some examination.  The process dates back to 1975 when the Irish cigarette company, Carrolls, revived the Irish Open at Woodbrook.  With an objective of creating market awareness of their brand against the might of the Imperial Tobacco Company, Carrolls poured so much money into the event as to elevate it among the top two or three tournaments in Europe.  Indeed Tony Jacklin once rated it second only to the Open Championship in terms of player-appeal.

As the sponsorship advanced into the late 1980s, however, strains were beginning to show.  In short, Carrolls were finding it difficult to justify an ever-increasing financial outlay against a background of straitened times in the Irish economy.  A typical problem was having to face union shopstewards across a negotiating table, urging wage restraint, while large sums of money continued to be spent on a professional golf tournament.

Eventually, Carrolls withdrew from the sponsorship at the end of the 1993 event at Mount Juliet.  Then Murphys Brewery took over for what was to be another fruitful association which lasted until the 2002 staging at Fota Island.  Though a strictly Irish operation like Carrolls, Murphys hoped that the burden of sponsorship might ultimately be shared by their parent company, Heineken.  But it didn't happen.

They also faced difficulties in getting suitable dates after the Smurfit European Open had nailed down a July slot, two weeks prior to the Open Championship.  This became a serious problem in 2000 when the only slot available to Murphys for their Ballybunion staging was the week directly before the European Open at The K Club.  Among other things, it breached an agreement the Irish Open sponsors had with the European Tour that Ireland would have no other event within 30 days of their staging.

When Murphys departed the scene, Nissan Ireland stepped into the breach as title sponsors at Portmarnock in 2003, Baltray in 2004 and Carton House in 2005 and 2006.  After those four years, the Tour were forced to take over the staging at Adare Manor with the support of subsidiary sponsors.  And this is also how things stood for 2008.

The 2009 staging at Baltray, where Shane Lowry, then an amateur, became an unlikely Irish hero, brought the promise of a bright, new beginning under the 3Mobile banner.  However, after two years and an outlay in excess of €8 million, they terminated the arrangement in a shock announcement last Friday.  So, what does this mean?  In my view, it emphasises the fact that an Irish company can no longer afford to shoulder the burden of title sponsorship of the Irish Open.  It simply doesn't make financial sense, especially in these times of lost jobs and budgetary constraints.

If the Irish Open is to survive - and I believe it can - it will have to be as a multi-sponsored event, similar to most tournaments on the European continent.  While a number of companies might be prepared to pay up to €500,000 each in sponsorship, the idea of another fairy grandfather like 3Mobile stepping into the breach, is fanciful.

In this context, a lead must be given by Failte Ireland, who have more to gain from a successful Irish Open than most other commercial concerns at this time.  Let tourism be the key.  Otherwise the blue riband of Irish golf has little chance of survival.

- Dermot Gilleece

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