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Can the British Open Overcome Olympic Fever?

By Rick Horrow and Karla Swatek

July 20, 2012

If you sit down in front of your telly and flip on the British Open this weekend, it would hardly be surprising if, at least momentarily, you confused ESPN for the History Channel, as Royal Lytham & St. Annes, with its 206 foreboding pot bunkers, more closely resembles a World War I battlefield than it does a golf course.

But the battle the Open Championship is waging this year is not against the dreaded Huns, but rather a fight for regional relevance before the onslaught of the London Olympic Games.

In a typical summer, the British Open unequivocally is the United Kingdom’s marquee sporting event. Unfortunately, this isn’t your typical summer. It’s 2012, and the Summer Olympic Games kick off in London just five days after the British Open ends. The R&A, which organizes the Open Championship, expects economic impact for the tournament to be nearly $140 million. And that’s with several factors stacked against them.

The relatively obscure Royal Lytham & St. Annes course is about four hours from London. The five-day gap between the Open ending and the Olympics beginning is probably a drop too long for foreigners to make a vacation out of both. That leaves UK residents to decide whether they’d like to spend discretionary income on an annual golf tournament or a once-in-a-lifetime international spectacle. Add in that native sons Luke Donald (World No. 1), Rory McIlroy (No. 2), and Lee Westwood (No. 3, and a man near desperate to lose the title “Best Golfer Not to Have Won a Major”) have all struggled recently, and the decision looks easy.

For golf fans around the world watching the tournament on television, however, there will be no discernable difference from any other year. Longtime official patrons HSBC, Rolex, Ralph Lauren, MasterCard, Mercedes-Benz, and new patron Doosan, a global industrial infrastructure company, are front and center on signage around the links and in ads, and Nikon is still around to ensure the Open Championship is picture perfect. Earlier this week, Nikon announced its long-running patronage of The Open Championship will continue until 2017.

“We have established a strong brand presence over the years and are delighted that our core values continue to resonate through our support of The Open Championship,” says Takami Tsuchida, President of Nikon Europe B.V., “which is the most prestigious golf tournament in the world…we are delighted to be able to extend our association for another five years.”

Outside of such broadcast partners as ESPN and NBC’s Golf Channel, the world’s sports media has clearly decided to skip the Open in favor of the Olympics. The R&A has estimated that the tournament is hosting about 400 credentialed media, a smaller contingent than in years past, and it certainly does seem like print and digital coverage is scaled back considerably.

The Open Championship’s biggest wild card, of course, is Tiger Woods, who finished Thursday’s first round three strokes behind leader Adam Scott. The resurgent World No. 4 has been clear that winning the Silver Medal awarded to the leading amateur at Lytham in 1996 helped him to decide to turn pro rather than return to Stanford. He’s carded three victories on tour this season, the most of any player, and more importantly to his corporate fan base, his stature as a pitchman seems once again to be on the rise.

As Yahoo Sports notes, Woods’ current sponsors, including Nike, Timex, Upper Deck, Electronic Arts and Fuse Science, are "not only getting the benefit of hours of camera time this weekend at the British Open, but also the fairly safe assumption that Woods will not embarrass the brand on the course.”

Regardless of the relative dearth of media coverage, or of the play of Donald, Westwood, McIlroy, and Woods, the British Open will hardly be a bust. It’s still one of the sport’s Majors, and it is taking place in the golf-crazed United Kingdom. However, all things equal, we’re sure the R&A will see better years -- especially after golf becomes an integral part of the Olympic Games starting in Rio de Janeiro in 2016.

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Beyond the Scoreboard
Rick Horrow, America’s leading expert in sport business, and coauthor Karla Swatek give fans an inside look at the multibillion-dollar world of professional sport.
Beyond the Scoreboard eBook
Rick Horrow, America’s leading expert in sport business, and coauthor Karla Swatek give fans an inside look at the multibillion-dollar world of professional sport.
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