‘3’ pull plug on Irish Open

THE FUTURE of the Irish Open Championship hangs in the balance after telecommunications company 3 yesterday dropped their sponsorship of the tournament.

The decision came as a major shock to the European Tour who had a three-year agreement with 3 to cover the 2009, 2010 and 2011 Irish Opens and entertained hopes of extending the deal.

3 chief executive Robert Finnegan said his company were keen to concentrate their focus on a contract with the Irish football team which he claimed “will deliver the most commercial value for the brand into the future”.

In August, 3 became the FAI’s primary international team sponsor, worth €7.5m to the organisation over four years. Coming just as the network began a major push into the prepaid mobile market, the deal gives 3 premium branding rights on training and playing gear worn by all the FAI’s international teams. It also gives 3 branding on match tickets and a high visibility pitchside presence at the Aviva Stadium. 3 aim to maximise their return on the deal by offering football-related initiatives to customers, such as priority booking for big games.

3 began their support of the Irish Open in 2009 when Shane Lowry won in memorable circumstances as an amateur at Baltray. The 2010tournament at Killarney, captured by England’s Ross Fisher in an exciting finish from Pádraig Harrington, was voted one of the most successful in the history of the event.

The European Tour declined to comment last night but plan to issue a statement next week.

The timing could not be worse, given that officials are due to announce their 2011 schedule during the season-ending Dubai World Championship in a fortnight. Currently the Irish Open is pencilled in for July 28-31. The search for a replacement to 3 is underway but the Tour’s chief executive, George O’Grady, admitted in an interview with this newspaper earlier this year the growing difficulties his organisation faces in attempting to secure new sponsors in this volatile financial climate.

I understand that Finnegan met with executives of the Tour at their Wentworth headquarters yesterday and having broken the news, offered to work with them and Fáilte Ireland in their efforts to find a replacement.

The championship was initially staged between 1927 and 1953 before it lapsed and wasn’t revived until 1975 when PJ Carroll launched a hugely successful sponsorship of the event. They were replaced in 1994 by Murphys, who in turn gave way to Nissan from 2003 to 2006. The event was then staged by Tom Kane of Adare Manor without a title sponsor in 2007 and 2008 before 3’s arrival last year.

Finding a replacement in these difficult economic times will be an onerous task and there is a strong possibility that a country which featured two of the European Tour’s biggest events as recently as 2007 will have no tournament in 2011. The Smurfit Kappa company pulled out of the European Open three years ago little more than a year after the staging of the Ryder Cup at The K Club.

All the indications were that the Irish Open would return to Killarney next year and Maurice O’Meara, the club’s general manager, expressed disappointment at the news.

“We were aware that the end of November was the cut-off point for 3 and that no decision had been made about a venue for next year,” he said. “But we were hopeful of staging the tournament again and are still hopeful of doing so should the Tour and Fáilte Ireland find a replacement sponsor.

“We believe that we showcased Ireland as a major selling point with the full support of the townspeople. Everything about it was positive and we were hoping to build on that in 2011.

“We are still more than willing to discuss the possibilities with any new sponsor.”

It remains to be seen how talks between the Tour and 3 pan out but this is very obviously the end of the road where the partnership is concerned.

“In a challenging marketplace, 3’s focus in 2011 and beyond, is to grow the brand in the mass consumer and business markets,” explained Finnegan.

“Following a review of the sponsorship portfolio, a decision was taken to streamline activities. 3 believes its support of the Irish football team will deliver the most commercial value for the brand into the future.

“We have worked tirelessly over the last two years and invested over €8m to support the return of the Irish Open to world-class status.

“Following a great Irish finish with Shane Lowry in Baltray and having worked hard to secure a new date on the August Bank Holiday weekend, attendance at this year’s tournament in Killarney hit 82,000, the highest for many years.

“We wish everyone involved in Irish golf the very best for the future.”

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