The recent backing out by Emirates from the naming-rights sponsorship of the Australian Open served as a reminder of how regularly golf drops outgoing sponsors faster than a hot pie. Very quickly the Dubai-based airline ceased to have any visible ties to our national championship as the shopping process for a replacement sponsor began.
What’s more prevalent in this situation is the largesse extended to a new sponsor when they come on board. Instantly the new benefactor seems to be handed a treasure trove of the tournament’s past.
‘Instantly the new benefactor seems to be handed a
treasure trove of the tournament’s past.’
In truth, our circuit keeps a pretty clean record in this department; the US PGA Tour behaves far worse. When a new sponsor there engages with a tournament, almost overnight they inherit the history of an event that might own a decades-long legacy. When Ben Hogan was busy winning five editions of the Colonial National Invitation in the 1940s and ’50s, was Dean & DeLuca the tournament sponsor? The tour would have you believe it.
American golf writer John Feinstein first brought the curious practice to light in a thoughtful and entertaining column penned for Golf Digest mid-last decade. His words still ring true today.
“These days the tour would tell you (with a straight face) that Byron Nelson beat Ben Hogan to win the 1939 FBR Open, and that Arnold Palmer won the FBR Open three straight years beginning in 1961,” Feinstein wrote in 2004. “That’s remarkable, because FBR didn’t exist until 1989.”
“Look, we all understand that there’s nothing the tour can do when it loses a corporate partner and has to go out and find a new one, and we’re grateful to all the new sponsors,” tour veteran Billy Andrade told Feinstein in ’04 when asked about being the 1991 champion of what had recently become called the Booz Allen Classic. “But you don’t wipe out history. I’ve got a trophy in my house that says ‘1991 Kemper Open champion’ on it.”
In many ways golf has done itself few favours with sponsors through the years, and the media has played its part in the fractured relationship. When MasterCard sponsored the Australian Masters, most golf writers working on-site at Huntingdale Golf Club did what they thought was the right thing. They dutifully included the sponsor’s name in their copy, calling it the MasterCard Masters. Newspaper sub-editors and editors, however, scrubbed the commercial reference in favour of the traditional name.
At one point, the exasperated managing director of MasterCard Australia lobbed into the tournament media centre looking for blood but not finding any because the culprits were spread across the country behind desks in office towers.
More from Feinstein: “The corporate sponsors get plenty of bang for their buck from the tour. It isn’t just the constant reminders all through a telecast, it is with signage all over the grounds throughout the week, not to mention the 412 thank-yous to the sponsor required at every awards ceremony.”
It begs the question: exactly what rights should a sponsor have to the history of a sporting event? I would argue there’s a distinct timeframe and backdating isn’t part of it.
One of my pet hates is the merry-go-round that is stadium names, which leaves football fans guessing which ground Lottoland or 1300Smiles Stadium or Qudos Bank Arena really is. I’ve always contended that a ground sponsor should have to sign-on for good just so the same name is retained for consistency and clarity.
But in golf, as with most sports, it’s unrealistic to expect a sponsor to remain commercially involved for life. Most companies last a handful of years and then, once they feel their message has been deployed, direct their sponsorship dollars elsewhere. This was the case with Emirates.
One final anecdote in this department. During the stretch from 2010 to 2012 when the Australian Open was played at The Lakes Golf Club, at one stage the host television broadcaster threw to on-course commentator Andy Maher but he was unable to hear the cross due to the unmistakable presence of a loud, low-flying aircraft so common in that part of Sydney. Maher’s answer was instead, “Boys, the biggest Qantas Jumbo you’ve ever seen just flew over my head and I couldn’t hear a word!” There was a brief pause before the response from the booth came back: “Ah, Andy, don’t you mean an Emirates plane?”
If the coverage were broadcast today, the fuselage on that plane could very well be backdated to instead read Virgin Australia, Jetstar, Air New Zealand or some other carrier. For a price, of course.