The Sporting Year Ahead brought together over 100 leaders from the Sport for Business community in Dublin on January 18th.
We had a great line up of speakers including Malcolm Booth from the R&A to talk about the arrival of the Open Championship to the island of Ireland in July.
A Very warm welcome to Dublin
It’s a great pleasure to come back to Dublin where I spent many happy summers as a child
It’s a massive event, one we could barely have imagined as feasible up to a few years ago. When did it begin to come up on your radar as a possibility?
It started really with the great success of Irish talent on the course. Padraig Harrington became the first European to win a major from Europe in eight years when he won the Open Championship in 2007. He was followed by a surge from Ireland with two more, then Graeme McDowell, Rory McIlroy and Darren Clarke winning in quick succession.
There was a groundswell of support in Ireland and it became impossible to avoid bringing the Open here. That was married with the efforts of the European Tour in bringing the Irish Open to Portrush.
That was the first time in 59 years going North of the border and it gave us a perfect test case in how the course and the area could handle a major event.
The logistics are mind-boggling. The area is stunning in terms of natural beauty but it is not the easiest place to get to. How much of a challenge is bringing 200,000 and more people to the Open?
Our Operations team is used to dealing with what’s in front of them. We are one of the biggest travelling circuses you can imagine and we do it every year. What we didn’t have with Royal Portrush was our own blueprint but we watched the Irish Open with great interest.
We have that blueprint for the other nine courses to which we go but in many ways not having that with Royal Portrush was liberating and it has given our team an opportunity to reimagine the Championship in some exciting ways.
We will have 230,000 people. It’s one of the biggest events we have ever staged and one of the biggest put on in Ireland.
We have a great record of support in recent years for the Irish Open, one of the few events in Europe that sells out. That would have seemed to be a challenge though so far North and not on our annual calendar. Were you surprised at just how quickly the tickets were snapped up?
It was unprecedented. It is the first time in our history we have gone all ticket and we were looking at whether it would sell out in three months, six months or nine months. The fact it did so in less than six weeks was a testament to the enthusiasm for the event not only in Ireland but further afield as well.
35 per cent of attendees will come from Britain or further afield with a big contingent coming from the US as well.
What is the breakdown of fans from Ireland?
20 per cent of the total will travel up from the Republic of Ireland and 45 per cent will be local across Northern Ireland.
In terms of planning how advanced are you now ahead of the start date on July 14th?
The planning started back in 2014 when we made the announcement. We had to build two new holes which takes time. We have a spectacular finishing hole now.
We saw the success of the Irish Open but we will be bringing in twice as many people each day and that presents challenges which the team has to work through step by step.
In general terms, we have as an organisation moved on a long way from the perception of the R&A as a quite sleepy body.
Our planning cycles have changed enormously and this is an incredibly professional organisation now, as you would imagine.
When it comes to the Open, how big is the commercial reach, given there is no likelihood of a title partner?
We have a very strong portfolio of fourteen commercial partners but there are still some opportunities to get involved.
The general admission tickets sold out in six weeks. The first phase of Corporate hospitality went as quickly but there are still some opportunities to get involved at a corporate level.
How broad is the reach of the Championship in media terms?
The media centre will house over 1000 journalists. we will broadcast live to 150 countries and into more than 600 million homes around the world. The reach is absolutely huge.
It really is like nothing else in golf, on this side of the Atlantic at least, with the possible exception of the Ryder Cup.
What has it been like dealing with the Irish authorities?
Well, of course, I am going to say it has been the best place in the world to stage the Open Championship.
In all truth having a fresh set of Government agencies and tourism bodies has been refreshing. Our own increased professionalism married to that has really driven us to be better than ever before.
How many workers will be on site?
Our own staff is 200 and we have around 150 contractors, many of whom have had people on site for months. The build starts in April and the de-rig will run through to August.
By the time we get to the 14th, we will have around 6,000 people on site to look after the 230,000 guests we will be welcoming. That’s a mix of paid staff and volunteers.
What are the ways in which the R&A is looking to develop the game?
As part of our evolution, we have been taking a much greater interest in the Women’s game. The Women’s British Open is being given a much higher profile and our merger with the Women’s Golf Union. We are looking at the ways we can drive engagement and commercial support for the Women’s game.
Hate to mention it but is Brexit likely to have an impact?
It is a challenge. As a Scot, we are still scratching our heads as to how it has happened. Clearly, we have contingency plans in place. We have something like 2,000 heavy vehicles looking to drop material via sea transport but the plan is that much of that will have taken place before March 29th.
Nobody knows what will finally emerge but we will cope.
We have no doubt and just to wrap up what opportunities are there still to experience the Open in 2019?
We still have some availability on tickets for the practice days. There are opportunities in hospitality and really, it will be difficult to recreate the excitement of coming back to Ireland for the first time in such a long time.
Malcolm Booth, Director of Sales & Marketing, The R&A, was speaking at The Sport for Business ‘The Sporting Year Ahead’ at The Iveagh Garden Hotel in Dublin. Booth was speaking ahead of The 148th Open which will be held at Royal Portrush from the 14-21 July, returning to Ireland for the first time since 1951. Hospitality packages for The 148th Open at Royal Portrush can be purchased www.TheOpen.com/hospitality