I was watching the Victorian PGA final round on tele, a rare Aussie tournament on show, and I was struck by a few things. Firstly, by the low key nature of the championship with competitors pulling their own trolleys sans caddies. Maybe this is a good thing in the bigger scheme of life, but it looked diminished in comparison with the big tours in America and the Middle East. The golf itself looked pretty good but the event lacked camera angles and better production. The absence of money and sponsorship for Australian professional golf is apparent. Australian business and the corporate world here are tight arsed in their commercial neglect of golf. It is pretty shabby when you consider that all these executives play the bloody game recreationally. Why are Australian businesses so damned cheap when it comes to golf?
Record Profits Declared By Corporate Australia
Aussie banks are declaring record profits in the billions on the back of rising interest rates. The supermarket duopoly of Coles and Woolworths likewise are raking it in thanks to price rises and high inflation. The mining companies make a motza in Australia because of generous tax concessions by governments. The LPG companies have been making squillions over the last few years thanks to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Despite these favourable economic results I do not see professional golf tournaments benefitting from any substantial sponsorship to lift the tour out of the mire of irrelevance on the sporting calendar. Why does the business world neglect their responsibilities when it comes to local professional golf?
Corporate Australia Giving Golf The Cold Shoulder
None of the big corporate players are putting their hands in their pockets for Australian golf. The local tour has been a ghost town for longer than I care to remember. Golf has been in a boom period for clubs and retailers for a number of years now. Memberships have peaked around the nation at golf clubs during and since Covid. More people started playing golf regularly around the country. Therefore, the audience is there for professional golf at the pointy end. Millions of people play golf in Australia and will watch the best do their stuff on TV. So, where is the corporate support for golf in this nation?
Internationally men’s pro tournament golf is being taken over by the Arab states. Saudi Arabia is buying the PGA Tour. The European Tour spends much of its time playing tournaments in the Middle East. The Asian tour is growing in leaps and bounds. Australia could resurrect itself as a golf hub for professional golf if it could find some sponsors. We have many fine young professional golfers. There is, also, a bunch of seasoned touring pros ready and able to compete for prize money – if purses could be found.
“It’s a somewhat sad reflection on sport that Minjee Lee might hit No.1 in the world before she so much as turns a head in the street at home. Call her the Invisible Champion of Australia.
She can’t even pick up an Australian sponsor. The top-ranked golfer in this country is at No.2 on the world rankings, and she plays plastered in the corporate logos of a string of overseas companies, right down to the Hana on her cap, endorsing the big Korean bank.”
Sponsorship Concerns In Sport
“Sports have long been a go-to for marketing spend; your company’s logo is emblazoned on guernseys to rack up exposure through TV coverage, while your brand bathes in the reflected glory that Australians bestow on our sports stars.
It’s a lucrative market, with many companies, and even some countries, prepared to invest big to reap reputational benefits. But this mainstay of marketing has become increasingly fraught and contested in recent times.
Controversy continues to swirl around awarding the FIFA World Cup to Qatar – which prompted Australia’s Socceroos to release a powerful video criticising human rights abuses in the Gulf country.
Saudi Arabia has also been accused of ‘sportswashing’ after it recently funded a rebel international golf tour, hoping to distract from poor treatment of women and minorities, along with other conduct such as the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
Meanwhile, the influence and impact of our sports stars and codes is also increasingly being harnessed for social, as well as commercial, purposes. Major leagues have introduced pride rounds and are taking strong stances on racism.
The growth of social media has seen more sports stars becoming brands in their own right, amassing huge followings on their personal channels. And just as modern brands want to be perceived as having purpose, today’s sportspeople want to be associated with causes that reflect their beliefs, and distanced from those that don’t.
These factors, along with the increasingly lucrative sponsorship market underwriting some codes, are setting the scene for a rolling series of crises across the sponsorship landscape.
Conflicts between the businesses backing sports and those who play them are becoming inevitable, as demonstrated by the furore over the $15 million Hancock Prospecting netball sponsorship, and Pat Cummins’ questions around Alinta Energy’s backing of the Australian test team, due to a dubious record on climate change.
Netball’s Diamonds backed an Aboriginal teammate – who expressed concerns about company policies and historical statements by Hancock’s founder that some Aboriginal communities should be sterilised so they would “breed themselves out” – refusing to wear Hancock’s logo.
Then Gina Rinehart managed to magnify the PR damage by withdrawing the company’s sponsorship and attacking the players, stating “there are more targeted and genuine ways to progress social or political causes without virtue signalling or for self-publicity”.
With an election in the air, Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews stepped in with a $15 million state government sponsorship for Netball Australia – and reaped the publicity benefits.
Interestingly, the media, and social media, took a more aggressive approach to the netballers than towards the captain of Australia’s men’s cricket team, Pat Cummins – who said he would no longer appear in advertising for the team’s sponsor Alinta because its parent company is one of Australia’s biggest carbon emitters. The netballers were called arrogant and ignorant (of commercial realities), spawning #wokeandbroke hashtags.
The gender contrast was even more marked if you examine the earlier coverage of the Manly rugby league players who refused to wear a multicoloured guernsey for a pride round and were praised for standing up for their beliefs.
More headaches for clubs and codes are coming, as sponsorships are increasingly seen through a moral lens. Beer and spirits make up the largest slice of sponsorship spending in Australia and elsewhere, and gambling is not far behind.
A Resolve Strategic survey last month found only 25 per cent of respondents believed gambling and betting companies should be allowed to sponsor sports and 62 per cent wanted them banned. Four in ten said alcohol companies should not be allowed to sponsor sports, while just over one in four wanted fossil fuel companies banned.
The AFL prides itself on leading the charge on social issues, but gambling ads are ubiquitous across the code and coverage of it. It is just one of the timebombs ticking away across the sports sector and as community expectations continue to rise, along with those of the players the games are built on. Testing times lie ahead.”
- (Mark Forbes, Director of Icon Reputation)
“The inaugural season of golf’s controversial Saudi-backed LIV Golf League will receive free-to-air coverage across Australia after securing commercial broadcaster Seven Network as a broadcast partner in the country.”
Golf in Australia has long been unsupported by Australian business, well before this new world of extra concerns around ethical behaviours by corporate sponsors emerged, so, I would hesitate to lay the blame in this direction too readily. Surely, there are clean corporate entities or some thick skinned enough to wear a little flak who can get behind the professional golf tours in Australasia? It would be great to see a few more well presented golf championships flourishing on the local scene every year.