Battle of the fairways

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 13 February, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 13 February, 2011, 12:00am

Warring tours, court cases, conflicts of interest, rivals in bed with each other, threatened boycotts, players used as pawns, battles for TV rights - the gentleman's game of golf is anything but in Asia.

It's one big chess board with interested parties manoeuvring their pieces for a slice of the region's riches as the two major 'stakeholders' continue their stand-off - and central to it all is China.

As the Asian Tour prepares to open its forecast 26-28 event schedule next week in India, the divide between the tours has never been greater. The Asian Tour has strengthened its alliance with the powerful European Tour and also signed a 12-year television production and worldwide distribution deal with global giants IMG Media, with the promise of more tournaments and increased television exposure.

Meanwhile, rival OneAsia will launch its preliminary 13-tournament season next month, trumpeting each event as carrying at least US$1 million in prize money, including the flagship Volvo China Open in April. OneAsia's commercial partner is the Singapore-based World Sports Group, which bills itself as Asia's leading sports marketing, media and event management company. It is also the exclusive marketing partner of the Asian Football Confederation and in 2008 joined India's Sony Television network to secure the rights to the Indian Premier League (IPL), the officially sanctioned Twenty20 cricket league, for more than US$1 billion.

Having broken away from the Asian Tour and helped form the rival OneAsia Tour two years ago, the China Golf Association is restructuring the game on the mainland - but has only three tournaments on the OneAsia schedule this year. The VCO used to be in the Asian Tour stable and the hostility still runs deep with OneAsia being accused of stealing events and creating few new opportunities.

While OneAsia claims there is no war for control of the game, Asian Tour chief Kyi Hla Han has been scathing in his criticism of his former bed partners (both World Sport Group and OneAsia) and claims tournaments were 'forcibly' taken from his tour.

While the situation deteriorates with players forced to choose between the tours, and the market place in confusion about who controls what, the European and US PGA Tours are flexing their muscles. Industry observers fear they could wrest control of the region.

The European Tour's reach extends far and wide - its tour starts in South Africa - and most of the big-money events in Asia are co-sanctioned thanks to its clout. The Asian Tour proudly boasts prize money of US$45 million but strip away the European Tour's co-sanctioned events and it barely reaches US$5 million with at least nine events worth only US$300,000.

The US PGA Tour and its commissioner, Tim Finchem, have long coveted Asia and broke new ground by co-hosting the CIMB Asia Pacific Classic in Malaysia with the Asian Tour last year. A US PGA Tour event has long been rumoured for China and could happen this year. Meanwhile, there are development and challenge tours run in Asia by the aforementioned tours, along with ladies' events and senior events - all creating conflicts of interest. A new US LPGA event will also be held in China this year.

'There is more at stake than ever before,' says one veteran Asian golf analyst. 'Asia is the place everyone is positioning for a slice of the pie and looking ahead at how this is going to play out.'

The Asian Tour, which had 30-plus tournaments three years ago, has been badly hurt by the OneAsia alliance - comprising the China, Australia and Korea golf associations. It has banned its players from appearing in OneAsia events, sparking a court case where five players alleged a restraint of trade after refusing to pay US$5,000 fines for crossing the line. They lost the case in a Singapore court last October.

Kyi Hla Han says he has the backing of nearly all his players - the Asian Tour is a player organisation unlike OneAsia, which does not have members - and laments the situation where the players are forced into choosing sides.

'Looking back when we were partners with World Sport Group, we were battling the European Tour over TV platforms. If the players told me to join OneAsia, I would go with it. Ours is a membership organisation; we listen to the players. Every decision that is made, my players know about. I question that about OneAsia. It is not a membership organisation.'

The Asian Tour and World Sport Group were partners for five years but when the OneAsia idea was floated and bounced around for two years, Han said fundamental differences emerged - mainly in television rights - and the Asian Tour went cold on the idea. World Sport Group contested the termination of its television contract with the Asian Tour in the Hong Kong courts. The case is continuing.

'There was a conflict of interest. How could two big tours in Asia be controlled by one sports marketing TV group. It didn't make sense. One tour would have to go and I got the feeling they were looking at the Asian Tour to go,' said Han, a former professional and Asian Tour order of merit winner in 1999.

'It's sad for me that it has come to this - where the players are put in a position to make these decisions. It's a very intense situation and I don't see it changing. We feel we have the right platform going forward.

'I am happy to compete against OneAsia on a business and commercial front. Market forces will decide. Unfortunately, the players are in the firing line and that's not ideal.'

OneAsia Tour chief executive Ben Sellenger says his organisation is not at war with the Asian Tour - it is an 'elite platform' providing a pathway to a higher level - but he pulls no punches over players being banned.

'The simple fact is players should not need to choose between tours. Golfers, as independent contractors, should be entitled to play on whichever tour across the globe they wish. Nearly every leading golfer has membership of at least two, in some cases three or four, golf tours. And every golf tour across the world accommodates this - with one notable exception.

'The only thing making players choose is the ridiculous policy of the Asian Tour fining players who compete on OneAsia, and then banning them. For a member organisation that holds itself as a body to maximise the opportunities of its members, it is completely unjustifiable. From OneAsia's point of view, players can play on OneAsia and anywhere else they choose with absolutely no consequence,' he said.

Sellenger says OneAsia aims to provide the next step to the Asian Tour - an elite playing destination for Asian players, Asian sponsors and Asian audiences - that the existing regional tours, like the Asian Tour, feed their best players into.

'There is no battle, as our product is differentiated from anything else that exists in the market - and it remains exceptionally disappointing that no dialogue or co-operation is possible, and that policies continue to be implemented that force players to choose a side. Much of our success has stemmed from the strong support we have had from our founding parties, and the China Golf Association has been a key driver behind all our achievements within the China market. As we further our growth in China moving forward, this partnership will only continue to be integral to OneAsia's success, and we do view this as an extremely important market for not only OneAsia, but golf in general, in the years to come.

'Having said that, 2011 will see OneAsia grow to four events in Korea, and at least three in southeast Asia, including the national opens of Thailand and Indonesia, providing an even and balanced spread of significant events across the region.'

Sellenger dismissed criticism his tour was failing to expand opportunities in China.'On the contrary we are extremely excited by our position in China. We'll most certainly be expanding further within the China market, with more events to be added to our schedule in the coming weeks and months. Add this to existing events such as the HSBC Champions [in Shanghai] and the World Cup [in Hainan Island in November], along with a growing CGA schedule, and there are more events playing for more money in China than there has ever been - despite misrepresentations that have been made to the contrary. The figures speak for themselves.

'In 2010, the China domestic schedule had 22 events, playing for almost US$14 million in prize money. This included three OneAsia events, 12 events on the rebranded Grand China Tour at a minimum US$100,000 [up to US$350,000]. China has never conducted as many elite golf events in its history. We are only too pleased OneAsia is part of this phenomenal growth.

'We also built a strong TV platform last year, one which is now arguably the most comprehensive ever to have existed for Asia-Pacific golf - providing live coverage for four hours a day, across all four tournament days, and broadcast to over 400 million homes in more than 40 countries,' Sellenger said.

Coincidentally, the Asian Tour also trumpeted its television reach to over 40 countries and 400 million homes when it signed the 12-year joint venture with IMG Media last November.

Kyi Hla Han called it a 'milestone' in the tour's development and, 'given the strength of the landmark announcement', they were committed to staging a minimum of four new tournaments in 2011.

IMG's vice-president of golf in Asia and Australia, Grant Slack, says the Asian Tour's reach and its strong membership were important.

'The Asian Tour has always had the fundamentals right and importantly a loyal membership,' Slack said. 'The tour has travelled to 19 different countries with 24-28 tournaments annually and this Pan-Asian reach coupled to the great diversity and talent of its membership appeals to sponsors and broadcasters. We believe the tour will continue to have a strong membership of the leading Asian and international players and we hope this continues to attract sponsors and new events.'

Kyi Hla Han says the market place is 'pretty tough' because confusion still exists, but there are a lot of sponsors interested in getting involved, particularly in China. 'I have to blame that confusion on OneAsia,' he said. 'It is not good for the development of professional golf in Asia.'

Sellenger disagrees: 'Sponsors view OneAsia and the Asian Tour as distinct products, which was always the intention. They are not viewed as competing - this fallacy is a creation by the Asian Tour. What OneAsia offers sponsors in terms of television, positioning and leveraging across the region is completely different to what the Asian Tour provides.

'In many ways, if OneAsia has any commercial competitor in the Asian marketplace, it is the European Tour, which has been in control of elite tournament golf in Asia for several years and still controls every significant event on the Asian Tour,' he said.

Kyi Hla Han says he has the majority support of the golf tours in Asia, claiming the Japanese have taken a 'neutral stance and will not join OneAsia, contrary to the propaganda', while the Korea tour 'is fundamentally against the OneAsia structure' despite being a founding partner.

OneAsia narrowly averted a boycott last year by South Korean players, who cited discontent at the number of places available to Koreans at the Maekyung Open, the SK Telecom Open and the Korea Open. The issue was resolved when the players were given reassurances.

Kyi Hla Han also voiced his frustration with a former partner in China, saying their relationship was non-existent after they fell out over which direction the game should take. He says he has written to the CGA wanting to stage tournaments.

'I'm sure the CGA wouldn't agree with me or accept it but I feel golf in China is losing out. We see tournaments shrinking. When the Asian Tour was in China we had about six tournaments. Now with OneAsia they only have two,' he said. The VCO and Midea China Classic in October are on OneAsia's schedule with another event, earmarked as 'new', also in October.

'If OneAsia was so successful and with a market as big as China you would think that in two years they would have 10 or 12 tournaments. Why isn't China coming up with a dozen tournaments if the OneAsia platform is so attractive. That's what I would question. It is not good for golf.

'I can guarantee at least three tournaments now and give more opportunities for Chinese players. We have official proposals on the table.'

CGA vice-president and secretary general Zhang Xiaoning did not respond to e-mails, with his office saying he was too busy, despite having a month to respond.

Zhang has been widely quoted as saying: 'OneAsia is providing a higher level of playing opportunities for golfers in the region by increasing the level of competition and boosting prize money for players to build a professional career at home.'

World Sport Group has been actively involved in China for a number of years and it sees tremendous potential, says WSG senior vice-president of golf Chris Jordan.

'China is still a relatively young golf market, albeit with tremendous potential. With golf becoming an Olympic sport in 2016, the sports authorities are expected to commit more resources to the game and OneAsia is ideally placed to take advantage of any future expansion. The China Golf Association has restructured the professional game with a new Greater China Tour, which includes a six-tournament circuit in place of the Omega China Tour in 2010. The higher tiers of the Greater China Tour include events on OneAsia.

'Tournament golf as a sponsorship vehicle is a concept that many mainland companies are still coming to terms with. OneAsia Order of Merit winner Liang Wenchong is the country's only world-class player but as golf takes a greater hold with the approach of the 2016 Olympics and young talent emerges, more and more Chinese businesses are expected to see the benefits of golf sponsorship.'

Jordan says there is 'no battle for fairway supremacy in China' and warns the Asian Tour it could be the 'architect of its own demise'.

'There is a real danger that the European Tour and/or the US PGA Tour will control golf in the region. Indeed, the European Tour is already the dominant partner in its alliance with the Asian Tour and the US PGA Tour ran the joint-sanctioned CIMB Asia Pacific Classic in Kuala Lumpur.

'Arguably, the Asian Tour has strengthened its ties with the European Tour and opened the door to the US PGA Tour in an attempt to fend off OneAsia but the end result could be a total loss of control. In this respect, the Asian Tour could be the architect of its own demise.'

Asked if the European Tour has greater designs on Asia, Keith Waters, the tour's chief operating officer and director of international policy, said a new partnership arm showed its solidarity with the Asian Tour.

'The European Tour has a long standing relationship with the Asian Tour where we have many international sponsors and tournament promoters who have continued to support our co-sanctioned events. The two organisations have the same structure - player or member ownership ensuring any surplus is invested back into the sport and the tournaments. There are players who are dual members of our respective tours and the players are generally very supportive of the partnership.

'We formed EurAsia Golf Ltd, a partnership with the aim of owning and developing new tournaments as we have similar goals of building international events which our members want to play in. We have aligned our TV and media platforms to remove any conflict in that commercial area,' he said.

'The European Tour wants to continue to have strong events in the early part and end of the year to complete our schedule,' he said. That includes the UBS Hong Kong Open in November, one of the most popular events on both tours.

Waters also said they 'have a number of sponsors asking us to start new events in China', and they wanted 'to continue to develop our events in the country'.

However, the European Tour is obviously hedging its bets with China and despite its solidarity with the Asian Tour, it co-sanctions the Volvo China Open with OneAsia.

'If they [European Tour] had any backbone, they would honour their EurAsia relationship with the Asian Tour and decline to be a part of OneAsia and the Volvo China Open,' said one analyst and observer.

'That they choose not to, pretty much tells you their sole concern is looking after number one - even if that means undermining their self-proclaimed partners in the region.

'By their mere involvement in the Volvo China Open, the European Tour is delivering a painful kick in the teeth to the Asian Tour.

'Could it be that they were given an ultimatum by the CGA - co-sanction with OneAsia or you'll lose the event?'

While Sellenger believes his tour can co-exist with the Asian Tour, the battle for control of golf will continue unless Kyi Hla Han's members have a dramatic change of heart.

'OneAsia has always extended its hand of co-operation to the Asian Tour,' Sellenger said. 'We at OneAsia, as seems to be the general public sentiment, firmly believe working together is in the best interest of the sport and the players. But to date any attempts at dialogue have fallen on deaf ears.

'Taking it one step further though, in our view there is absolutely no reason why the two cannot co-exist, as both offer such contrasting products.'

Kyi Hla Han counters: 'We don't see how we can co-exist in the market place and how it is in the best interests of the players.'

Golf in Asia has become a game of chess and poker. Who is going to blink first?