First Published in SportBusiness
That Asia is the new frontier for golf, or any number of sports you could care to mention, is far from a revelation to anyone keeping even a half-eye on the sports industry.
The next generation of major winners will be Chinese, golfing analysts predict, while a fifth major somewhere on the Asian continent looks ever-more likely as the years pass.
Why? The factors deserve an article in their own right, but it is a combination of growing middle-classes across the region taking up the sport and golf’s inclusion at the Olympics leading to greater participation at a youth level and in schools. Blue-chip and luxury brands, meanwhile, are seeing golf in Asia as a means of reaching a wealthy demographic, creating a vibrant commercial landscape for the sport, the profits of which are being reinvested into the elite end of the game.
Ten years from now, March 29 2014 may well be viewed as a watershed date. That day, the third and final of the EurAsia Cup matchplay competition between Europe and Asia, Japan’s Hideto Tanihara tied the final match against Spain’s Gonzalo Fernandez-Castano, resulting in the two teams sharing the trophy.
Played for the first time in 2014, the EurAsia Cup is based on the Ryder Cup competition played between Europe and the United States and was created by the European Tour and the Asian Tour, the primary golf tours on the two continents. And though the Asians didn’t win the 2014 EurAsia Cup, Mike Kerr, CEO of the Asian Tour, believes the fact they equally matched their European counterparts showed the golfing world that the continent’s stars can compete with the best of the best.
“In its first year, the EurAsia Cup couldn’t have been scripted any better,” says Kerr over breakfast in London. “The Asian team pulled off a draw going in as the underdog.
“The Europeans brought over nearly the strongest performing team they could have, with eight out of ten maybe at the peak of their game. Now they have seen what the EurAsia Cup is, and having seen the strong performance of the Asian team, we have effectively laid down a challenge. Psychologically, that is important – it wasn’t one Asian playing against one European, it was the whole Asian team playing the European team.
“The Asians are improving all the time, and they don’t play much team competition, but they have the individual skills to compete. The Europeans will see that in 2016 and I’m sure they’ll bring the strongest possible team to try and win the EurAsia Cup for the first time.”
Kerr says it took little convincing for him to make the move to the Asian Tour due to a long-held belief that golf in Asia has a huge scope for commercial growth – something the Asian Tour is perfectly positioned to take advantage of.
“I had thought that golf – and I still believe this – was the sport that had probably one of the best, if not the best, potential in Asia to grow and become a significant part of the continent’s business,” he says.
“If you look at globally relevant sports – there’s only a handful that every pay-TV channel would have to dip into. That’s football, basketball, tennis, motor sport and golf. You do have regional sports that are attractive and would come into that on a market-by-market basis – cricket in India for example – but that doesn’t translate across the region or globally.
“Football is dominated by the European game. So the barriers to entry from an Asian football perspective – to create a relevant football platform – are very high. The same exists in basketball – you have the NBA (National Basketball Association) and nothing else globally comes close. Motor sport is Formula One and while Formula One pops into Asia now and again, it’s more an entertainment opportunity and a circus. And it’s the same in tennis: it is globally administered by the ATP (Association of Tennis Professionals) and WTA (Women’s Tennis Association), who dip into Asia now and again, but to build something that could compete with them and attract sponsorship, would be very difficult.
“Golf is different and I thought there was a real opportunity. Golf is regionally administered, and before I joined, the Asian Tour already had players who were participating at the very highest level on merit.
“Then there’s the growth of golf, and that’s related to the growth of economies and of the middle-classes across Asia. As this happens, people have more leisure time and they are looking for lifestyle pursuits. Combined with the business opportunities golf can offer, that sets it apart once again. So it was a perfect storm for me – all of that combined was the incentive to get involved in the sport and just over two years later I see nothing that has changed in terms of the opportunity that exists.”