Is tournament golf in England dying?

2013 11 English Golf

As good as England’s representation has been across almost the entire playing cross-section of golf - from majors, to Ryder Cups, to tournament victories and so on - it is incredible to think that the country has only staged six European Tour events in the past four years.

The annual BMW PGA Championship, along with two editions of the Open Championship, are all that the country’s golf fans have had in the way of opportunities to see the world’s best players competing in England.

Compare that to South Africa, which staged six European Tour events in little over three months between December 2012 and February this year.

This is far cry from the heady heights of the start of the millennium, when England played host to a total of 14 European Tour events in a 19-month period between April 2000 and October 2001.

Clearly, something is amiss. But what? How serious is it? And, more to the point, can it be fixed … or is professional tournament golf in England in terminal decline?

An abundance of choice

It’s nothing new to say that professional golfers - at the top of the game, at least - have never had it so good.

They have more tournaments to choose from, and more lucrative ones at that, than ever before. The 2013 European Tour international schedule comprised 46 events, with 40 on the PGA Tour. That amount of choice is a good thing for the likes of Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy but not such a good thing for tournament promoters, who naturally want the best players playing their events.

The best players in the world have the luxury of picking and choosing schedules that maximise their earning potential.

And, with places such as Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Turkey and the like able to dangle the carrots of massive appearance fees in addition to huge prize funds, that makes it hard for the traditional bedrocks of the European Tour - England, Spain, Portugal and so on - to compete.

Matters of tax in England

Complicating matters even further for England (and Great Britain as a whole) is the taxman. The Inland Revenue has a controversial policy of taxing overseas sports stars competing on the UK on their global endorsement income.

Essentially, as well as taxing competitors on prize money they make in the UK, the Government also helps itself to a slice of the money they make from their sponsorships deals based on the proportion of events they play in Britain. For example, if Tiger Woods plays ten times per year but one of those events is in England, the taxman would claim 10% of his multi-million dollar earnings.

This has put a number of the game’s top players - and, thus, its highest-earning stars - off competing in events in the UK. The Open Championship has remained largely unaffected by the issue but, with a huge prize fund, its major status, and over 150 years of history to count on, that’s hardly surprising.

However, what realistic chance do other events have?

Addressing the issue a couple of years ago, the European Tour’s Mitchell Platts said: “These tax rules are discouraging leading golfers and indeed all leading sportsmen and women from competing in Britain.

"Our aim is to attract the best players to participate in the best tournaments for our audiences in the UK, and we strongly believe that this tax rule is seriously hampering our efforts."
“The global economic downturn has had a significant impact on sports’ sponsorship around the world and in particular across Europe.”

Sponsors? What sponsors?

Tax issues or no tax issues, there isn’t a single professional golf tournament at the top of the game that can take place without the support of deep-pocketed benefactors.

Having a blue-chip backer who can afford to stump up the money required to stage a top level tournament is a ‘must’. But finding those backers isn’t easy, particularly in these ongoing difficult economic times.

Just ask the people behind the aborted attempts to resuscitate the English Open. Last staged in 2002, efforts were made to bring in back to the schedule in 2008 - efforts which were finally shelved in 2011.

The £2m, which was reportedly required to make the tournament happen, simply couldn’t be found.

As Keith Waters, the chief operating officer of the European Tour, told English Club Golfer: “The global economic downturn has had a significant impact on sports’ sponsorship around the world and in particular across Europe.”

Taking on the Olympics

Whilst it is unlikely that many would publicly admit it, the Olympic and Paralympic Games in London also had a negative knock-on effect on the availability of sports sponsorship.

The Games effectively monopolised the sponsorship market in the UK, with most major companies lucky enough to have a large marketing and promotional budget choosing to give it to organisers of the London spectacle. Well, you didn’t think those fabulous arenas and infrastructural improvements around the capital were built on Lottery funding and hard graft alone, did you?

That had the effect of thinning the investment potential for major companies in other sports and tournaments. And let’s be honest, there was only going to be one winner: the month-long sporting extravaganza watched by an estimated global audience of 4.8 billion.

Tour trouble

Competing with the Olympics has been the least of the probems, though. The European Tour’s ongoing fight for global golfing supremacy with the PGA Tour has also impacted tournaments on this side of the Atlantic.

Put bluntly, the European Tour is struggling to keep up. Seriously struggling. To the extent that the PGA Tour is, reportedly, contemplating a buy-out of its rival.

If it goes ahead, as is strongly rumoured, that will presumably result in a streamlined global tour - which would, most likely, mean several tournaments lost from the current European Tour set-up.

Whilst it is just conjecture just now, the tournaments you would probably expect to survive would be the most lucrative ones in China, Dubai, Abu Dhabi, and the like, with a handful of tournaments in Europe chosen to maintain some semblance of balance.

In short? The chances of more tournaments in England would appear to be very, very slim if a global tour becomes a reality.

What about the BMW PGA Championship?

The flagship event of the European Tour, the BMW PGA Championship has always appeared bulletproof. But here’s the thing: the current deal with BMW is set to expire at the end of the 2014 tournament.

Is there a chance that it, too, could disappear from the schedule? Keith Waters told us: “We hope to make an announcement on the future of the BMW PGA Championship before the tournament is staged at Wentworth Club next May.

“As the flagship event of the European Tour, and one of the premier events in world golf, the BMW PGA Championship gives golf fans in England the opportunity to see many of the world’s leading players in action every year but the tour is actively pursuing opportunities to bring more top level tournament golf to England and other key territories in our home continent.”

Read into that what you will.

So, what next?

There’s no disputing that these are bleak times for professional tournament golf in England, with a host of factors contributing to make the viability of staging events there tougher and tougher.

However, that’s not to say that the European Tour is giving up on the country where it was born and where its central headquarters are based.

The European Tour’s Keith Waters added: “With so many world-class sporting events hosted in a relatively small country, England is actually one of the most competitive sponsorship markets in the world but, with our global television distribution network, we believe our product offers tremendous value for money and are confident there will be more European Tour events in England in the future.”



European Tour event in England

2000            7

2001            7

2002            6

2003            5

2004            4

2005            4

2006            5

2007            3

2008            4

2009            2

2010            1

2011            2

2012            2

2013            1

WGC - American Express Championship - Final Round

Do big crowds matter?

Fans turn out to watch the big names. For example, over 26,000 attended the third round of the WGC-AmEx Championship at The Grove in 2006 when Tiger Woods was in contention, above. However, how much attention are sponsors paying to attendance figures? The 2012 Irish Open, for instance, attracted a record European Tour crowd of over 131,000 that week. But the 2013 event still took place without a title sponsor…

Can we blame the British weather?

The European Tour has developed a habit of ‘chasing the sun’ to ensure minimal weather disruption to its events. Has England suffered as a result of this? After all, good weather can’t be guaranteed in the country, at any time of the year. Is the tour reluctant to visit it for that reason?

What do you think?

What do you believe are the main reasons or the lack of tournament golf in England and can you see the picture improving? Leave your thoughts in our ‘Comments’ section below.



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