The number of people playing golf may be dropping, but the success of young Irish players and the number of fans following their careers has boosted the sport's appeal to sponsors, according to John Trainor, a sponsorship consultant.
Last month, KPMG’s golf participation report for Europe 2019 found that Ireland lost 1,063 registered golfers in 2018, taking participation rates in the game to 182,398. But Trainor said the public's response to Shane Lowry’s win at the 148th British Open Championship earlier this year highlighted growing interest in golf as a spectator sport in the Irish market.
Trainor runs the Dublin-based sponsorship and research consultancy Onside, which carries out research into sponsorship spend in the Irish market each year.
“This year, the total figure will come in at about €220 million and golf sponsorship will account for just 5 per cent of that,” said Trainor.
“It’s a pretty modest amount, because the mindset among sponsors in Ireland at the moment is focused very much on rugby, GAA, music festivals and e-sports. There are a number of developments in golf that we believe will boost its appeal next year and beyond.”
Trainor pointed to golfers such as Rory McIlroy, Lowry and Leona Maguire as well as other up-and-coming Irish golfers from the Republic and the North as being key to this potential growth.
“Shane has really prompted this whole new level of interest in golf, with a fresh following and a different view of the sport,” Trainor said. “He’s starting to register now when we talk to the general public about sports personalities they really admire.”
Lowry was voted the second most marketable Irish sports star at the Who Won Sponsorship Series 2019 event held in Dublin last Wednesday by Onside in partnership with the Marketing Institute of Ireland.
Lowry took the second spot behind boxer Katie Taylor, and ahead of rugby star Johnny Sexton and the Irish women’s hockey team in joint third place.
“Lowry has popped up in our research for the first time this year as one of the top five most admired sports personality in Ireland,” Trainor said.
“On the female side of the game, Leona Maguire is also starting to take off. She only turned professional in the last 12 months, but she is someone people are following and are interested in.”
Onside has just released the results of a survey of 1,000 respondents aged over 18 in the Irish market,which found that three in ten expect to tune in to either a US or European Tour event in the year ahead. The research also found that 11 per cent of the respondents surveyed planned to play golf in the year.
“In terms of social class, we found that there was a better balance than may be perceived by the public when it comes to the kind of people who are interested in golf,” Trainor said.
“Of the respondents who said they were interested in golf, 41 per cent were in the AB [upper=-middle and middle-class] categories and 33 per cent were in the C1 and C2 [lower-middle and skilled working-class] categories.”
Adding further momentum to the game was the announcement, earlier this year, that the Ryder Cup would be held at the JP McManus-owned Adare Manor resort in Limerick in 2026. High-profile players confirmed for the JP McManus Pro-Am, taking place at the same venue next July include Lowry, McIlroy, Tiger Woods and Xander Schauffele.
“When you have someone like JP McManus investing in the game and mapping out this vision underpinned by his belief in the sport, that brings its own momentum,” Trainor said.
“Then we’ll have Team Ireland players at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics – more than likely McIlroy and Lowry on the male team and Leona Maguire and Stephanie Meadow on the female team. Half of the country will have some level of interest in the Olympics, so that will give golf another boost. Then we’ll be into the Ryder Cup next September. All of these factors together will draw more public attention to the sport.”
In addition to golfing apparel and equipment companies, Trainor said individual players in the sport tended to attract corporate sponsors from the world of business.
“Apart from the endemic brands such as Titleist and Srixon, the other pretty common [sponsorship] category for individual players is professional services. Irish golfers Paul Dunne and Leona Maguire are both sponsored by KPMG. On a global level, KPMG aligns itself with top golfers like Phil Nicholson. In Ireland, Shane Lowry has Bank of Ireland, which has also supported Pádraig Harrington," Trainor said.
“In terms of the money on offer, it’s a pretty wide spectrum. At the very start of their professional careers, players would be getting in an around the low six figures. By the time they start to make a name for themselves and reach the level of the likes of McIlroy or Lowry, they can attract seven-figure sums.”
The launch of Golf Ireland in January 2021 will see the Golfing Union of Ireland and the Irish ladies Golfing Union amalgamated into a single governing body.
Headed up by newly-appointed chief executive Mark Kennelly, former chief of staff at the Department of the Taoiseach, Golf Ireland will seek to reverse the current decline in golf club membership numbers in the Irish market.
“From a sponsorship perspective, I think Golf Ireland will potentially create new initiatives and properties that brands can align themselves with,” said Trainor.
“I would expect the organisation to look at new ways to attract younger players and particularly young kids and teenagers, both male and female. Golf as a sport just hasn’t been on the radar for this age group over the past decade in Ireland."