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With one big tournament lost and prize money reduced in another,India’s fastest growing sport is feeling the effects of the economic slowdown.

Written by Daksh Panwar | Published: March 8, 2009 4:42:44 pm

With one big tournament lost and prize money reduced in another,India’s fastest growing sport is feeling the effects of the economic slowdown. Is this just a temporary phase.
Dove Mountain is an oasis in Arizona’s hottest dry lands. It was here in the Sonoran desert during the Match-Play Championship last week that people saw a mirage. The high god of the golfing pantheon was back,albeit briefly,and so were the faithful. But if that made you believe that money would quickly follow suit,it doesn’t seem like happening anytime soon.

As the global economic engine seems to be going phut,the corporate world’s dearest sport has taken a direct hit,and it would take more than a man’s effort to bring golf back on track,even if that man is Tiger Woods.

If any further proof was needed,St Andrew Links Trust,one of the most powerful bodies in the sport and the one that literally owns the ‘Home of Golf’,decided last week to shelve jobs in the wake of the financial crisis. Close on the heels and closer home,the slump forced tournament organisers to cut the prize money for the Asian Tour SAIL Open by 25 per cent in order to keep it on the calendar.

Of all sports in India,golf seems to be the most severely affected by the downturn. While the country hosted four huge events — two on the European Tour — with a whopping $6.4 million prize purse last season,this year’s scenario has so far been bleak. With real estate being one of the worst-hit sectors,the title sponsors of the flagship Indian Masters,Emaar-MGF,had to shelve the tournament for the year. Security concerns in the wake of 26/11 also prompted the sponsors to withdraw,but even before the Mumbai attacks,the same organisers had pulled the plug on the $170,000 Ladies Masters.

Falling profits
“Sport is an obvious victim of recession,” says an official of another company that had sponsored the game on a big scale in the past. “(During recession) you need to prioritise. Staying afloat is the most important thing,while advertising,of which sponsoring sport is a part,is tangential. So when you decide to cut corners,you start with things that are tangential. If cutting expenses means saving a few jobs,we’ll obviously do it,” he said,on the condition of anonymity.

The SAIL Open,scheduled for later this month,seems to have taken the brunt of sagging profits of the steel giant. The company saw a 56 per cent drop in after-tax profits in the third quarter of the fiscal year. But the organisers say the prize money cut was in dollar terms,not in rupee terms (the greenback,which was trading around Rs 40 last year,has scaled to over 50 now).

But it’s not scrapping of events or prize money cuts that worries former Asian Games gold medallist Rishi Narain. “As a result of the downturn,real estate developers aren’t coming up with new golf courses and are in fact withholding existing projects,which will hamper the expansion of the game. The effect is more there. Losing an event for a year is no big deal,” says Narain,who runs a sports management company and has been associated with organising golf tournaments for over a decade.

Digraj Singh,formerly a director at another sports management company,Tiger Sports Marketing,says: “It’s not only golf,recession has hit all sports. The events that have been cancelled or have seen prize money cuts are big,international events. But golf is not all about that. There are different levels at which the game is played,so you have to put things in perspective.”

One of India’s top amateurs in the 1980s,he adds: “Ladies golf,for example,will keep growing,even in these times. From a sponsor’s point of view,it’s inexpensive and gives good return on a small investment. The same can be said of junior and amateur golf. On the other hand,corporate golf certainly has taken a hit,for obvious reasons,while for domestic professional golf,which operates on a bigger scale,it will be difficult to bring in more sponsors at this time. For them,the key should be to not lose the existing sponsors.”

Sanity in diversity
Around the world,one factor that has hurt the game the most has been golf’s over-reliance on certain sectors for sponsorship. The US PGA is feeling the pinch because the patronage traditionally comes from automobile and banking firms,who are now facing the heat directly. Another victim of the sub-prime-triggered crisis,the realty segment,has been one of the key cash cows for the European Tour.

Is there any lesson for Indian golf to be learnt? Diversity,in terms of sponsorship,could be one. “We can’t compare golf in India with that in the US and Europe. The scale of operations in the West is at another level. There,about 35 per cent of the population can tell you the difference between a birdie and a bogey. In India,I would be surprised if that percentage is more than 0.4 or 0.5,” Digraj says,insisting that unlike cricket,not everyone is inclined to put money in golf.
“Having said that,having sponsors from diverse backgrounds does hedge losses,” he adds.

Right now,it isn’t the case. The bulk of the money for the Professional Golfers’ Tour of India (PGTI) comes from one business conglomerate: the Avantha Group,which sponsors,among others,the season-ending Bilt Open. Incidentally,its chairman Gautam Thapar happens to be the president of the PGTI.
“It’s almost a one-man show now,” says an expert. “And that is a cause of concern. The day such a company is affected by the slowdown,Indian golf will also be.”

Weathering the storm
The PGTI,meanwhile,is stressing on consolidation. “The total domestic prize purse last season was Rs 6.3 crore. This year,our target will be to maintain that figure,” says Padamjit Sandhu,PGTI’s sales and marketing director. “We have commitments from our sponsors,and I don’t see any reason why we won’t achieve that target,” he says.

The confidence may stem from Indian golf’s resilience. It has seen crises in the past — in 2000-01,when professional golf in India was still fledgling,came a Union government directive that barred tobacco companies from sponsoring events,but as ITC pulled out,Hero Honda stepped in. These,however,may be slightly different times.

Then there was a fight over rights,with players breaking away from the Professional Golfers’ Association of India to form a new body,the PGTI,in 2006. In three years,golf has established itself as the richest,if not the most popular,sport in the country after cricket. Riding on the graph,it’s not surprising there are some players to whom the word recession sounds foreign.

“I won Rs 10 lakh in 1999-2000 and won the Order of Merit title,” recalls Mukesh Kumar. Last year,15 pros made more money than that,with Mukesh again on the top of the heap with Rs 34 lakh. “Tournaments are reducing because times are bad,but hopefully this will only be a temporary phase,” he adds. Then there is SSP Chowrasia,who pocketed Rs 1.6 crore from his historic Indian Masters win at the DGC,but didn’t get a chance to defend his title.
The “fastest growing” sport in India is hoping it can get back on the rails again.

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