Thursday, June 23, 2011

Golf and Brazil's International Olympic Growth Potential (part 2)

 August 5th 2011 marks five years to go before Rio de Janeiro hosts South America’s first Olympics and golf returns to sports’ biggest stage for the first time since 1904. Tim Maitland looks at how the sport is evolving in Brazil as 2016 inches nearer, from building awareness in the sport to golf as an international business. Read the first segment here, What Will Olympic Status do for Golf in Brazil?

Building Awareness

Typically, tournament golf is one of the biggest drivers of awareness in any emerging golf market, but the days when Gary Player, Ray Floyd, Jerry Pate and Hale Irwin etched their names on the Aberto do Brasil or Brazil Open trophy in the 70s and 80s are a distant memory. And the European Tour’s Brazil Rio de Janeiro 500 Years Open and Brazil Sao Paolo 500 Years Open as part of the celebrations of Pedro Alvaras Cabral’s “discovery” of the country in 1500 did no more than mark the anniversary and quickly disappeared.

For the moment, it’s left to the limited-field unofficial HSBC LPGA Brasil Cup to fly the flag as the only truly international tournament. From a perspective of golf’s heartlands it might be hard to believe that a US $720,000 event could sustain the role, but the feedback locally says otherwise.

Rachid Orra, with his South American Golf Federation hat on, described the victory by Columbia’s Mariajo Uribe at the end of May over a field that included both Cristie Kerr and Suzann Pettersen, as being as significant to the region as Jhonattan Vegas’ victory at the Bob Hope Classic in January; even though Vega’s win has single-handedly changed Venezuela president Hugo Chavez’s attitude to the sport.

Mariajo Uribe

“Symbolically, it’s the same thing because it’s a girl that has beaten some of the best players in the world!” declares Orra.

“It’s very important for us. It’s an example for the young girls that want to play golf to see one girl from Colombia – a country like Brazil – can win a very important tournament. The coming of the HSBC LPGA Brasil Cup was a very important step for us, taken three years ago. This is another one. Both are very, very, very important.”

Before the event, Rio’s biggest newspaper, O Globo, shoved aside some of its wall-to-wall soccer coverage to give Pettersen and Kerr posing at a photocall on Botafogo beach prime position on the second page of its sport section, briefly relegating the news of Flamengo, Fluminense, Botafogo and Vasco da Gama. Such coverage of golf hasn’t been seen in recent memory.

It was fantastic. That helps a lot. I think the last time was back in the 70s when there were fewer things to cover and it got more space, but it was still very limited and very few people read newspapers at that time,” says Ribeiro.

“The HSBC LPGA Brasil Cup is a huge driver in terms of creating interest. People are not accustomed to seeing golf. The exposure on TV is very limited normally. The Majors and big championships are on just one cable channel or maybe on the Golf Channel, which is still very small. The HSBC LPGA Brasil Cup is covered by SporTV, which has five times more viewers than all of the channels that carry golf combined. Just with that we’re reaching five times the average audience for golf.”

Naturally, the LPGA is eager to expand its tournament, but the business of tournament golf is caught in the same Catch-22 in Rio; for events to grow there need to be more people who have got the golf bug, but to get the golf bug you have to get infected first, and for most people that means swinging a club somewhere…but where?

Counter-intuitively, one of the best ways of developing tournament golf in Rio de Janeiro may be to move out of Rio for the time being. One could argue that taking the seedling that is international tournament golf to the more fertile nursery of Sao Paulo, one of the biggest financial centres and richest cities in the world where there are almost fifty golf courses, would allow more rapid short-term growth. There, an event could forge closer links with the international business community, moving back to Rio as a more robust sapling once the opening of the new Olympic facility had created the significant increase in the city’s golf population that such an event needs.

Golf’s International Business

That’s not to say that relatively slow spectator growth has to hamper the development of the tournament as a whole. As Kotheimer explains, having the only international event in a sport that resonates with the international business community is a powerful tool to educate and inform potential clients about his business’s ability to cross borders.

We have a tournament with thirty golfers and if you look at the list of players you see a Canadian golfer, an Australian golfer, an Argentine golfer, Spain, Chile, the US, Brazil, England, Paraguay, Taiwan, Sweden, Columbia, Norway, and Korea. The global connectivity of this sport pretty much mirrors the connectivity of HSBC around the world. Our focus for our clients in Brazil is the connectivity between Brazil and China, Brazil and Mexico and so on. There’s an alignment with what golf is doing internationally with what we’re doing internationally,” he says.

Yet, even if Rio doesn’t solve its dilemma quickly, things are still evolving exponentially. It would be wrong to say that Olympic status has opened doors for the sport because, such is the elite nature of golf’s status in Brazil that most of the great and good were all ready members of Itanhanga or Gavea, but it has thrown golf right into the middle of much bigger conversations.

The landscape is changing, too. The Confederacao Brasileira de Golfe has just announced a domestic national tour, starting small with a plan for three events in 2011. By the end of the year the Tour de las Americas is likely to be absorbed into a far larger Latin American PGA Tour covering South America and the Caribbean and providing the region’s top players a direct route into the Nationwide Tour and, hopefully, following Brazil’s Alex Rocha and Jhonattan Vegas into the big leagues.

“It’s a big effort. It’s a very, very important thing, because it’s a new tour made for South America and the money-size of South American tournaments and with the help of the biggest tour in the world. It’s a big step. This will help to form new players and make them grow. We hope in the future we will have many Jhonattan Vegases and a Tiger Woods from Brazil,” Orra states.

High Society Meets the Favelas

Golf is reaching out, which given its high-end origins is one of the most impressive aspects of the way the sport is changing. Maria Priscila Iida is talking during a short break between helping teach groups of children from Rio’s favelas, the city’s infamous hillside slums and shanty towns, the day before the 2011 HSBC LPGA Brasil Cup at the Itanhanga course. The idea of clinics for disadvantaged children before a professional tournament is nothing new to the golf world, but it represents an enormous quantum shift in the mentality of the Brazilian golf community caused by Olympic status.

“This thing with the children is incredible. Who would have thought we could do something like this?” Iida asks rhetorically.

“Most of the golf courses are private; if you came here nobody would let you through the gates, but now they’re calling out and trying to make something bigger.”

Photo credit:
1959 Brazil Open Golf Championship Medal Commemorative on eBay

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Oliver Grensch said...

Nice article! I imagine as Rio (and Brasil in general) continues to grow, golf will only become more popular, but it's interesting to catch a glimpse of the sport's popularity while still in its infancy in such an unique country. I look forward to seeing how golf changes as it becomes more accepted out side of the upper class there.

Anonymous said...

Great article.If golf becomes famous rio,brazil then their home game and their love and craziness for football may decrease down.And golf's players and the sport's majority goes on climbing.