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INTERVIEW

Game

Following two score years and more of recruitment from within, it’s more than a year now since the European Tour decided not to go native when replacing the long-term incumbent George O’Grady by appointing sports media professional, the Canadian Keith Pelley to the role of CEO at the Wentworth-based organisation. Mike Wilson caught up with the Canadian, a man with a myriad and complex range of issues to resolve and opportunities to explore, but who goes into this year with confidence and the new Rolex Series under his belt.

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rue, the 52-year-old exPresident of Rogers Media inherited what looked – on the surface at least – a winning hand, a talent pool arguably as deep as the golden generation of Seve, Faldo, Greg Norman, Langer et al, total prize money of almost US$150million, plus the near US$40million on offer at the, ‘Majors,’ tournaments most weeks of the year across 29 different countries, 10 of them in Asia, a remarkable run of Ryder Cup wins and golf back in the Olympics at least until 2020. Pelley’s first major strategic announcement 50

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was his, ‘Players first,’ strategy, and, when asked whether widening and deepening the sponsor pool was not a greater priority, the Canadian said, “We are in the content and entertainment business with golf as our platform and the players are our stars. While our Players First Philosophy means doing what is best for them in terms of increasing prize money, increasing playing opportunities and improving the playing experience, we are also very much focused on a ‘Partner First’ philosophy too, working closely with our partners and sponsors and shaping our business model to reflect that and enhance their experience too.” HKGOLFER.COM

We believe we need a stronger content offering to enable us to reach larger audiences across multiple platforms, and that's what the Rolex Series is about. Then, the latest incarnation of the relationship between the European and Asian Tours, surely the longest engagement in sport without a marriage ceremony at the end of it emerged, a, ‘Strategic alliance,’ which looked and sounded like a rehash of the 2009 accord announced at that year’s Scottish Open. “As far as discussions with the Asian Tour go, we were delighted to announce a ‘Strategic Alliance’ which officially ratifies the relationship between the two Tours” he said, adding, “The formalisation of the partnership will see the two Tours now work together to develop professional golf in Asia – from a new joint office in Singapore – combining commercial and marketing resources to explore and maximise opportunities for both Tours not only across the continent of Asia, but globally,” continued the father-of-two explaining, “For members of both Tours this important development will also see a significant exchange of playing opportunities.” In theory, given the respective prize funds on HKGOLFER.COM

both circuits, that should benefit Asian players more than their European cousins, but Pelley appeared to rule out a formal merger between the two, insisting, “The Tours will, however, retain their own separate identity in terms of brand and logo, and will still be managed by their own individual Boards.” Keith Pelley ended last year on something of a roll, announcing the first seven events in the new Rolex Series at the season-ending DP World Tour Championship, including the BMW PGA Championship, the Irish, Scottish, Italian and Turkish Airlines Opens, the Nedbank Golf Challenge and the Dubai finale. The Rolex Series comprises an initial series of seven premium events each with a minimum US$7m prize fund, but the Canadian’s ambitious plans do not stop there. “We expect to have at least eight Rolex Series events in 2017,” he said, adding, “We’re currently under discussions with other partners as we speak. So, our goal is a minimum of eight in 2017, rising to 10 by 2018.

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constantly looking at all different ways to offer sponsors value for money and spectators fun and enjoyment. Look at the recent BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth for example. We had format innovation in terms of the made for TV Pressure Putt Challenge on the Wednesday night featuring our professionals and stars from other sports and we had the BMW Shootout on the Sunday afternoon where members of the public tried to hole in one on the second once the final group had gone through. “We also had digital innovation for our fans that week such as the use of Facebook Live and a 360 degree digital camera, while the success of some of our viral videos such as the Fastest Hole in Golf we shot at Valderrama a couple of months ago has been fantastic [and] we will be doing more of that in the coming months, engaging more with sponsors and partners along the way,” said the former Canadian TV chief, but, even with the new Super 6 format announced in conjunction with the PGA Tour of Australia, it looks like evolution rather than evolution down Wentworth way. And, speaking of Wentworth, rumours have been rife ever since Chinese conglomerate Reignwood controversially took over the exclusive stockbroker-belt club that the European Tour HQ could be on the move, something HKGOLFER.COM

Pelley refused to rule out. “The European Tour is a rapidly expanding global company which requires space to accommodate the growing staff numbers needed to manage such a business, so we are always looking at all options,” he explained, speculating, “If we did move away from our traditional Wentworth base, it would be 100% for space reasons, not for any other reason. In terms of other locations, we already have offices in Dubai, Singapore, Spain and Hong Kong and recently opened offices in China and Korea.” The culture at Wentworth under Pelley is said to be, ‘Less gentlemen’s comfortable club, more dynamic business atmosphere” and, interestingly, given his liberal use of the word, “Global,’ peppering our conversation, and with more than half its events outside European boundaries, one senses that an upwardlymobile, outward-looking European Tour could be emerging just in time for the UK to leave the European stage. And, with the recruitment of Josh Burack, a like-minded, fellow professional businessman at the helm of the Asian Tour, perhaps at last, could that lengthy engagement may end eventually end in consummation and marriage with a mutual meeting of minds and interests?

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Keith Pelley ended last year on something of a roll, announcing the first seven events in the new Rolex Series at the season-ending DP World Tour Championship. Matthew Fitzpatrick poses with the trophy after winning the title.

“We believe we need a stronger content offering to enable us to reach larger audiences across multiple platforms, and that’s what the Rolex Series is about, and we need a product that can grow and grow over time and also one that provides a strong financial offering for our young players so they don’t have to go to the United States, he said” Speaking soon after the conclusion of the last event of 2016, the UBS Hong Kong Open, the Canadian described the event as, “One of the leading events in the Far East,” adding, “There is something unique and defining about national open championships and the UBS Hong Kong Open has been central to the collaboration between the European and Asian Tours since 2002, boasting a wonderful Roll of Honour. “Miguel Ángel Jiménez winning the title on four occasions is a remarkable feat and when you view the other champions including Justin Rose, Rory McIlroy, José Maria Olazábal, Pádraig Harrington and Colin Montgomerie, it is clear not only how important this title is to our top players, but also the calibre of golfer you need to be to win it,” continued Pelley. “Last month’s UBS Hong Kong Open also underlined the continuing importance of the event to our members, with Justin [Rose], Miguel [Ángel Jiménez], Danny Willett and Ian Poulter amongst the European Tour contingent,” said Pelley, adding, “It is refreshing you see a new, young talent emerging and congratulations to Sam Brazel for edging out Rafa Cabrero-Bello with a fine birdie on the 72nd hole - it’s always great to see a tournament won in that fashion and when you consider there were 18 different nationalities in the top 30 in Hong Kong, with every continent on the planet represented, one realises just what a truly global circuit the European Tour has become.” ‘Pale, male and stale,’ has for some time been an alliterative accusation levelled at golf in general and the pro game in particular, with tournaments effectively offering sponsors and fans the same product and format as when the European Tour started out back in 1972, 72hole, stroke play, half-way-cut, pro-am, TV exposure, corporate entertainment, admittedly with a bit of social media tagged on today and Keith Pelley not only accepts that but respects it too, whilst keen to find new ways to draw new, and younger audiences. “Golf is a traditional sport and we will never lose sight of that, but that shouldn’t mean we should be frightened to innovate. The European Tour is at the forefront of innovation in terms of different formats and in terms of the way we view the game through our changing and evolving digital landscape,” he says, insisting, “We are

The culture at Wentworth under Pelley is said to be, ‘Less gentlemen’s comfortable club, more dynamic business atmosphere”. HK GOLFER・JAN 2017

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