In Arabic a majlis is a meeting place, and that day in 2019 a dozen or so people had gathered in a room in the “Year of Tolerance” majlis, at Jumeirah Golf Estates in Dubai. European Tour officials Keith Pelley and Guy Kinnings, respectively the chief and deputy chief executives, and Max Hamilton, commercial director, were making a presentation to bosses of DP World, Yuvraj Narayan, chief financial officer, and Daniel (Danny) van Otterdijk, chief communications officer. Slides flashed up on screens as did videos of pre-recorded player interviews supporting the proposal. There were flow charts, graphs, papers, banners, all the normal bells and whistles of a modern business meeting. Security was tight though those present could look down from the majlis to the 18th green of the Earth course and see golfers completing their morning rounds on the second day of the DP World Tour Championship.
From 11.00 to 13.00 questions and answers filled the air before it was agreed to proceed with the ET’s proposal. Those 120 minutes marked the start of the multimillion-dollar deal announced in Dubai three weeks ago. With effect from Monday November 22 and for the next 10 years the European Tour will be renamed the DP World Tour, an arrangement believed to be worth $70 million annually to the tour. “We had been thinking and talking about rebranding for years,” Pelley said. “In fact, I suggested it when I was interviewed for the chief executive’s job. But that meeting in Dubai was pivotal. It was the game changer.”
The ET tour has rightly been praised for its conduct during the COVID-19 hiatus. Though it had to lay off nearly 70 employees, it maintained a creditable schedule of events for its leading players despite an obvious loss of revenue from sponsors, ticket sales and the like. Sometimes it staged and financed such events. This in addition to the extra costs involved in the medical procedures created by the pandemic.
Last Tuesday’s announcement by the second-largest golf tour in the world capped a successful 12 months. In that time it had formed a strategic alliance with the PGA Tour. The PGA Tour bought a 15 percent interest in European Tour Productions for a sum believed to be in the region of $100 million paid in annual increments. Also in the preceding months, the ET had renewed its contract with Rolex, an important sponsor, as well as signing up 10 new sponsors. Thus the ET’s finances have been turned from what some described as parlous to what others call prosperous.
“We wanted maximum impact and I think that was achieved.” – Guy Kinnings
There is currently a struggle in golf between the defenders, who are intent on maintaining the status quo at the highest level in professional golf, and the disrupters, those intent on changing it. The defenders are the PGA Tour and the European Tour, newly realigned, as well as South Africa’s Sunshine Tour. The disrupters are the Asian Tour and LIV Golf Investments who are backed by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund and an alleged war chest of $1.5 billion. LIV Golf Investments are headed by Greg Norman and thought to have Phil Mickelson on their side even if not signed up.
Norman has been stealing the headlines lately with the announcement of a $200 million, 10-tournament series on the Asian Tour that will start next spring and the recruiting of some leading American golf officials as well as talking to officials in Europe. Norman, chief executive of LIV, is going at his task with the lip-smacking relish with which he walked onto the tee of a drivable par-4.
The ET’s announcement significantly bolsters the defenders. Late last week rumours began circulating of a PGA Tour proposal – an autumn series of four to six events involving 50 or 60 players and no 36-hole cut, to be held in Europe, Asia and the Middle East. If true this will have further strengthened the hand of the defenders.
Sitting in the middle of all this as the new world order in golf begins to unfold, though probably more aligned to the disrupters than the defenders, is the Premier Golf League headed by Andy Gardiner. PGL want to alter the traditional routine of the game but hope to do so in conjunction with the defenders. They are more conciliatory than the combative LIV.
Gardiner recently sent the PGA Tour an “Invitation to Discuss” (PGL’s proposals) but as of last week had received no reply. Last week he wrote to Rory McIlroy, chairman of the PGA Tour’s Player Advisory Committee, suggesting that if the PGA Tour won’t reply to his proposals, then maybe the players, though the PAC, should require them to do so. McIlroy had yet to reply at the end of last week.
“When I heard about the ET’s deal I thought, ‘Should I be more alarmed?’ ” Gardiner said last week. “Then I thought, ‘I am not.’ I am delighted for the European Tour. A year ago there was genuine concern for the future of it. This deal has given them strong financial independence for the next 10 years. A strong European Tour is essential. They are to be congratulated.”
An ET insider admitted to being puzzled by both the aims and approach of the Saudis. “It seems as though they want to control the world of golf,” he said. “For them money is king. They think they can throw a few billion dollars in and that will let them stay in the golf ecosystem and even run world golf. They want to be the big dog. The Saudi initiative is bound to fail. They are not going to get 40 players to give up all that golf stands for. The golf public are not stupid either. They can see this is a money carnival and they will turn against it.”
At the end of last week Kinnings’s smile was still of Cheshire cat dimensions. “There were so many synergies between us because there is so much the two brands do together,” he said. “DP World is a shipping and port authority and growing into logistics does not have lot of competitors so there is not a lot of conflict. Also, it was 50th anniversary of UAE and Euro Tour and that their name had the word ‘world’ in it. These were all factors that made you think this is serendipity.”
Last Tuesday after the announcement in Dubai the ET officials were joined by David Howell, chairman of the tournament players committee, and Thomas Bjørn, a former incumbent of that office, among many other players and DP World officials. They moved from the ground floor to the first floor of DP World’s stand (“It was bigger than several large countries,” Kinnings said) where the host company and laid on snacks and drinks. It was quiet. Celebrations will come later.
“Deals like this take a lot of getting over the line,” Kinnings said. “Heads of Terms agreements between the European Tour and DP World were signed in January 2021 and a Long Form agreement executed in April. We wanted to wait for Expo to open and for the amazing DP World pavilion that was the backdrop to the launch to be fully open and operational and also having two back-to-back tournaments in Dubai – the 2021 AVIV Dubai Championship and the 2021 DP World Tour Championship – made for ideal timing. We wanted maximum impact and I think that was achieved.”
Pelley was in a reflective mood. “It was an incredible deal but I don’t look back and say that (signing it) was an incredible moment,” he said. “The moment when it hits me has not yet arrived and probably won’t for some time. I’m looking forward, not back. Now we have to concentrate on how we work with DP World.”
Before catching an overnight flight back to the UK, Kinnings, a cricket enthusiast, drove to Abu Dhabi to watch England’s game against New Zealand in the semi-final of the men’s T20 World Cup. England lost. It was about the only thing that didn’t go Kinnings’s way last week.
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