BRENDAN O'BRIEN: Dubai Duty Free’s successful sponsorship can make Irish Open a marquee draw on European Tour

Colm McLoughlin, left, executive vice-chairman, Dubai Duty Free and George O'Grady, chief executive, European Tour. Pic: John Dickson / Sportsfile

Dubai Duty Free chief Colm McLoughlin believes there are good times ahead for the Irish Open, writes Brendan O’Brien.

Colm McLoughlin, like everyone else who played golf in Dubai for three decades and more, was accustomed to carrying around a patch of astroturf on his rounds after he made the move from Shannon.

The strip of fake grass was required when addressing a shot on loosely designated fairway and a large yard brush adorned every green. That and a sign that declared: ‘please brush the browns’. It is an image with which many an ex-pat around the world down the years could relate to.

Yet the ambition to dust up the Emirates’ sporting image was already evident.

McLoughlin wasn’t in situ long when the decision was made to build a new golf course far out beyond the then limits of the city. Scratched heads abounded. Now the population has multiplied 15 fold and that golf course doesn’t sit far from the epicentre of the new urban area.

It is a symbol of the staggering rate of expansion in that part of the world and McLoughlin, who is the executive vice-chairman of a Dubai Duty Free operation sponsoring the Irish Open, is clearly proud of the progress.

Padraig Harrington on the openingday of the open
Padraig Harrington on the opening day of the open

Born and bred in Ballinasloe, and an alumnus of Garbally College, McLoughlin retains embedded links to Ireland, but his embrace of the lifestyle and the breadth of ambition to be found in his corner of the Middle East is apparent in his choice of pronoun as he gushes about the place.

“The population in Dubai has grown from 250,000 to almost three million and that continues to grow,” he explains. “We have the most modern metro system in the world. We have the tallest building in the world.

“We have the most rapid growing economy in the world. Our staff (in Dubai Duty Free) come from 48 different countries. We have Emirates Airlines, which is one of the fastest growing airlines in the world. I think it is only a 10th of the way there.”

That epic growth slowed down considerably when the global recession hit in 2008, but the longest shadow cast over the region’s success story has been the consistent accusations of human rights violations of workers from the sub-continent and other parts of Asia.

McLoughlin’s initial reaction to that point — “In my opinion, a lot of the reports you read about labour abuse and that is nonsense.” — would hardly sit well with many, though he goes on to reframe his response to the experiences of staff in his own operation.

“If I give you an example, and I can speak about our own company, Dubai Duty Free, we are owned by the government of Dubai. Our staff turnover in the last four years is just over 6%. Now that is extraordinary. If you look at anywhere in the world, staff turnover in the hotel business and various businesses is over 25-30%.

“We have 32 of our original staff still working for us. We have 260 staff who have done over 20 years working for Dubai Duty Free, so none of those figures would indicate in any way staff abuse. I think the very opposite is the case and a lot of the reports you read, in my opinion, are escalated. Now I am only speaking … I know Dubai and I know the United Arab Emirates. I am not speaking about the region in general.”

Golf’s expansion has had its own critics. Building courses in the desert, something which has long been widespread in the drier parts of the US, is hardly ecological best practice, but the greening of Dubai and the region in general shows no sign of stopping.

The number of courses in Dubai alone has mushroomed into double figures and there are no browns to be brushed anymore. More, including designs backed by Donald Trump and Tiger Woods, are soon to join them on the ever-changing landscape.

“It will continue to grow and grow,” McLoughlin says of the game’s footprint.

Not everyone agrees that the escalating advances made by golf, or by the Emirates in general, will continue indefinitely, but McLoughlin and DDF have an impressive track record when it comes to backing the right horse in the sports business game.

The company had just 100 staff when McLoughlin arrived in 1983 to import the lessons learned at the ground-breaking Shannon Duty Free operation and it recorded a turnover of £20m in 1984. Staff levels now are over 6,000 and climbing, just like a turnover that reached $1.9bn in 2015.

Dubai Duty Free’s successful sponsorship can make Irish Open a marquee draw on European Tour

SPORT was identified as a lever to those ambitions from the off.

Tennis has been their greatest success. What started as a small tournament in the mid-1990s has now blossomed into the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships which, according to the WTA and ATP tours, carries a value in media coverage to the emirate of $803m.

The first winner of the men’s tournament was a top 10 player called Karel Novacek, but the star wattage brightened thereafter. Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, and Novak Djokovic are all on the roll of honour. Venus Williams, Martin Hingis, and Justine Henin-Hardenne adorn that of the women’s.

McLoughlin’s company has been sponsoring races at Newbury for over 20 years as well, but their first major step onto the Irish sports sponsorship scene came with the decision to sponsor the Anglesea Stakes race at the Curragh.

When Budweiser dropped their title sponsorship of the Irish Derby shortly after, DDF stepped in. That was over a decade ago and McLoughlin has made similar noises about the potential of extending their support for the Irish Open long beyond the current three-year term.

All of which makes for a comforting backdrop for those hoping to make the tournament being held at the K Club this week all the bigger and better.

McLoughlin’s interest in it from a business standpoint was first piqued by Nick Tarrett, the European Tour’s representative in the Middle East, and it was fanned further by a sitdown with JP McManus and Rory McIlroy at the Omega Desert Classic early last year.

Rory McIlroy on Day 1 of the Irish Open
Rory McIlroy on Day 1 of the Irish Open

The pitches worked. Everyone could see that the tournament had suffered for some time. The absence of a title sponsor was the clearest indication of its fall from grace, but DDF spied potential and signed on for 2015 initially.

“We insisted it be called the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open and we were very satisfied with the effort that the European Tour made to give us good value. Royal Co Down had 110,000 spectators during the four days. We thought the tournament had great potential so we decided to renew it and we have done that for a further three years.

“This is the first of the three years. We encouraged the European Tour — we are not taking credit for it — to put the prize money up in our first year involved in it, which they did, by half a million euro. We encouraged them to keep that trend going and they have now raised the prize money to €4m, which makes it a big, decent tournament.”

McIlroy’s stamp, through the Rory Foundation which is hosting the tournament, has been a “very important” brick in the wall. The infusion of PGA tour talent, including Ricky Fowler, prompted the Golf Channel to feature the event at Royal County Down last year and courses such as that venue and the K Club add further to the sheen.

There are fewer US attractions this week, though Danny Willett’s Masters win makes up for that somewhat, and the figures still add up for Dubai Duty Free. The company was already a global sponsor of several European Tour events and Emirates flying twice a day between Dubai and Dublin strengthened the case to continue with the Irish Open.

The Irish links between McLoughlin, McIlroy, and McManus have clearly played their part in greasing the wheels, but emotion or national loyalty play a distant second fiddle to hard-nosed business interests when it comes to analysing the bang for buck. There is no doubt the tie-up would be loosened if it wasn’t benefiting both parties.

“We’ve done an assessment on the media and TV coverage we have got and the sums are coming out right. We don’t ever pretend we have money to burn or anything like that, but in our business we spend 2.5% of our top line on promoting Dubai Duty Free: the airport, the city, the lifestyle, the home of sport. Stuff like that.

“That 2.5% includes any advertising we do, sponsorship, and this is one of them. We have been very satisfied with the Irish Open. They are talking about it being one of the five premier events on the European Tour. They are talking very seriously about rotating it each year between the Republic of Ireland and the North of Ireland and that suits us just fine.”

Here’s a little extra sport: BallTalk TV preview the Munster Senior Hurling Championship clash between Cork and Tipperary.

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