Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Paddy's Sports View 25th January 2005

From the "Emirates Evening Post"

If Tiger Woods knows the sporting aphorism “Class is permanent, form is temporary” he must have had some doubts as to whether it applied to him over the last year or so. Although he has won one or two matchplay and other tournaments he had not had a strokeplay win since October 2003. This is an extraordinary period of drought for a player who was regarded by some as the finest golfer ever. This has now changed with Woods win in the Buick Invitational last weekend – and the smile on his face was a yard wide when he collected the trophy.

The factors affecting Woods comparative decline were both physical and mental with the need for a remodelling of his swing because of back problems very significant. The American TV coverage of the Buick showed Woods when he won the same tournament as a tyro in 1999 and compared his swing then with now. The elegance and confidence is the same – but the power seems more effortless since the remodelling. There is less attack through the ball, which might cost Woods a few yards in distance, but surely places less of a strain on his dodgy back. This year the Tiger putted exceptionally well and that is a threatening thought even for the world number one Vijay Singh. If Tiger has sufficient control to guarantee reaching the greens in regulation every time, and putts as well as he did at Torrey Pines, then he will be unbeatable again. In fact Woods long game was a bit shaky in the Buick. He was only 49th in the statistics that the PGA produces in respect of “greens in regulation” – but he was 2nd in respect of Putts per round (only 26.5 per round) and this made the difference. Drive for show – putt for dough!

Whilst improved physical fitness and confidence helped the Tiger that other factor in golf, Lady Luck, played a part as well and no more than at the final hole. The eighteenth at Torrey Pines has a character which will be very familiar to Dubai golfers – it is a long Par 5 with a final shot across the water. Just as at Emirates the call for the pros is whether to lay up with your second or go for the green. The American Charles Howell was in contention at the final hole and he elected to lay up. He then hit a superb wedge of perfect length and distance and watched as it fell into the cup – and then out again! The shot definitely entered the hole (the rattle was audible) but it then somehow not only managed to jump out again but it actually rolled back into the water. A certain Eagle 3 became a Bogey 6 and Howell’s chance was gone. Tiger hit a good drive and elected to go straight for the green. He then totally mishit a 2 iron but luck was with him and instead of heading for the water it skewed to the right of the green. Tiger got down in two (with a 20 yard putt) for a birdie and a tournament win by three shots. With rounds of 69, 63, 72 and 68 it was a well merited win for Tiger Woods - but he would be the first to admit that the golfing gods were with him!

Tiger Woods’ win so early in 2005 sets the year up nicely as we can expect that there will be a battle royal between him, Singh and Ernie Els at the big tournaments. Singh is an extraordinary player blessed with the perfect temperament for golf and with an absolute drive for success. Els is the more talented stroke maker but the Big Easy seems less obsessive and driven. Nevertheless Ernie will be annoyed about being in contention for three Majors last year and letting them all slip. He will want to put that right in 2005. There is also a gathering posse of young Turks eager to move closer to the top in the rankings – Howell, Donald, Campbell, Scott and Casey look the pick of the bunch behind. Predicting Major winners is a mugs game – there have been many surprises in the last few years. But I would expect Sergio Garcia to win one soon and Goosen and Mickelson will be sure to be in contention. So an attractive golfing year is in prospect – look out, the Tiger is on the prowl again!

Friday, January 21, 2005

Paddy's Sports View 21st January 2005

From the "Emirates Evening Post"

A common feature of most cricket stadiums around the world is the array of refreshment outlets around the ground. From samosas in Delhi to hot corn soup in Port of Spain there is usually a good choice of food and drink available to sustain spectators during a long day’s cricket. At the “Oval” in London there is a vending point called “Mario’s Lamb delights” from which Mario himself sells delicious lamb kebabs and well-filled lamb rolls to hungry customers. Between the innings at the ICC Champions Trophy final last year I made my way to Mario’s. His stand was there as usual, but a large blank sticker had been place over the word “Mario’s” on the fascia above his stand. All other references to Mario’s name had been similarly obscured. “What’s up Mario?” I said “Are you suffering from an identity crisis?” “No mate”, he replied, “It’s the ICC innit. They won’t let me display my brand.” And indeed, for that day only, the “Oval” had been transformed so that any brand name (even one as low key and innocuous as Mario’s) other than that of the ICC’s main sponsors had been obliterated. I recalled the same from the Cricket World Cup in 2003 where there was an almost totalitarian control of advertising at the stadia. If you had a bottle of the wrong brand cola in your bag it would be confiscated and woe betides any spectator who wore a “Things go better with…” T shirt!

Sponsors pay a lot for the privilege of having their brands on display at sporting events and in a way one can understand the wishes of the ICC and other sporting administrators to deliver the maximum value to the brands which pay. But there are limits - and the ICC has become almost paranoid in its determination to pander to the sponsors. But then anyone who doubts that all of the ICC’s decision making is driven by commercial considerations has not understood the realities of the world of international cricket that the ICC is striving to create. If you want to know more then do read Nasser Hussain’s excellent autobiography “Playing with Fire” in which the ICC’s amorality over Zimbabwe, their failure fully to get to grips with match fixing and corruption in the sport and their naked pursuit of commercial advantage is well-described by someone who was at the centre of international cricket for a long time.

In many ways sponsors have transformed sport and the much better incomes that sportsmen have, and the much better facilities at grounds these days, are in part attributable to the funds that sponsors provide. When it is done well sponsorship can add a lot to the game. When it is done badly it can be intrusive and even (worst of all) it can actually impact upon the sport adversely. One of the smartest companies when it comes to sponsorship is Emirates Airlines which seems to get it right most of the time. For Emirates there is a clear strategy to get brand name recognition through such sponsorships as that of the umpires who stand at international cricket matches. The “Fly Emirates” slogan is visible on the umpires’ shirts and there will be few watchers of the sport on TV who have not seen the message. A similar strategy has been followed as shirt sponsor of Chelsea Football Club (a bargain given Chelsea’s success this year) and in the securing of the naming rights of Arsenal’s new stadium (the “Emirates Stadium”. The key thing here is that Emirates see their brand recognition sponsorship as a part of their overall communications plans and that they also produce quality advertising with “reasons to buy” messages. As a sponsor of the Ferrari Formula 1 team Shell has been similarly successful and smart. The key point about an oil company’s sponsorship of F1 is that it is more than a badging or a brand name recognition game. Although, of course, Shell pays a lot for the privilege of sponsoring Ferrari there is much more to I than that. Shell technicians work with Ferrari engineers to get the maximum performance from the fuel and lubricants that Shell provides. Then Shell exploits this in advertising - “Why Shell’s partnership with Ferrari improves their products for the ordinary motorist”. It’s a good positioning to take and Shell does it well.

Friday, January 14, 2005

Paddy's Sports View 14th January 2005

From the "Emirates Evening Post"

The introduction of golf in such climatically unpromising countries as those of the Arabian Gulf is one of man’s more remarkable triumphs over the elements. To turn a few acres of barren desert into a verdant golf course like Emirates or Creek is an astonishing achievement - but one that perhaps visitors and residents alike now almost take for granted. But as in other areas of modern life where the technology and the resources exist to make changes it is vital that golf course development is sustainable – i.e. that it is not only short term commercial considerations that drive decisions. In some parts of the world golf tourism is now so lucrative that the side effects of golf course building are sometimes ignored.

The need for a sustainable development plan to be in place both for new and for existing golf developments is essential and on my recent trip to South Africa I saw for myself what can happen if the balance between competing stakeholders for resources is not maintained. The most important raw material for golf is water – and water in very substantial quantities indeed not just in the construction phase but over the lifetime of the course. In Dubai the first course developments had the guarantee of water in sufficient quantities and at reasonable cost from the start. Emirates, for example, uses water that is a by product of Jebel Ali’s industry and that works well. More recent developments may not have such an advantageous commercial position but although they may pay more for their supplies they can guarantee sufficient quantities are available and they can factor the cost into their business plans. There is sufficient water (at a price) for all. In South Africa this does currently not apply and authorities are faced with difficult judgments as to how they allocate water which is a very scare resource in many areas. In the Western Cape, for example, a long period of drought has meant that there has been a serious water shortage for some time. Even those of us who love the game of golf, and who admire South Africa’s many fine courses, would not argue that they should have precedence over people and communities when it comes to allocating water supplies! This has to be an area of public policy decision making and it would be quite unthinkable that water allocation be left to the market.

During my South African trip I visited a number of courses in the Cape Town area and played on some. Now a sun baked fairway suits my “game” as my topped drives can scoot along a concrete like surface far greater distances than if they were stopped by the healthy grass of a well watered fairway! However the brown tops on the approaches to many holes were not designed to help the high handicappers – they were a sign that water is in short supply. At “Erinvale” a course twenty kilometres or so or so from the centre of Cape Town, the professional told me that they had half the water that they really needed and that if there was not a significant amount of rain in the next three months the course might be forced to close. And this is one of South Africa’s premier courses where major tournaments are held.

I do not know the extent to which sustainable development considerations played a part when speculative commercial golfing ventures like Erinvale were at the planning stage. That a golf course created from barren land can over time establish its own eco-system we have seen in Dubai and one of the great delights of playing at Emirates, the most mature of all our courses, is that there is now well established flora and fauna to be seen that belie their desert location. A bird watching expedition around the Emirates lakes will throw up many surprises. In the UAE there has been proper planning of all aspects of golf course development and providing adequate water can continue to be made available at acceptable prices there is no reason why an almost unlimited number of courses cannot be built. But in a highly populated country like South Africa, with desperate needs for water just for normal living, golf course plans need to be very robust, and the social aspects need to have been properly considered, before authorities should give permission for any new course construction.

Wednesday, January 05, 2005

Paddy's Sports View 5th January 2005

From the "Emirates Evening Post"

At the very top of International sport, coaches and sportsman alike always seek that magic recipe that will make the difference. It may be a piece of equipment, an innovative motivational programme, a new fielding position or a new formation for the team on the pitch. But how often, I wonder, do they think of trying to use the hidden advantage that dedicated spectators and supporters can bring. At the end of a successful football or cricket match the winning team will often go to their spectators (especially at away matches) and return the applause. This is a smart as well as a courteous thing to do. It may seem obvious but the reason that in most sports the home side has an advantage is because they can hear and respond to the support they receive. Conversely the visiting team may find the atmosphere hostile and that can prevent them from playing at their best.

I am at present in Cape Town for the third South Africa v England Test Match and one of the most remarkable phenomenons at the ground is the English team support. The Barmy Army has quite a few battalions here in South Africa and they make much more noise than the Proteas supporters who outnumber them. The extent of the penetration of the Barmies into the psyche of English cricket supporters became clear to me at a remarkable event on New Years Eve. I was at a very good, if rather formal, Cape Town sports club to see in the New Year alongside more than twenty members of the Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC). Now MCC members are generally as well behaved as they are well heeled. In the spectrum of British society MCC is well to the conservative end – not a membership that would be a natural resting place for the radical. But as the strains of Auld Lang’s Syne died out after midnight I heard a small rumble beginning at the MCC tables. Suddenly these pillars of the community to a man and a woman started a loud and raucous “Barmy Army, Barmy Army…” chant! It was very funny indeed – not least because of the shocked reaction of the good (but rather sedate) burghers of Cape Town at the other tables!

The MCC’s willingness to align itself with the sometimes outrageous (and always irreverent) Barmy Army was an amusing jape at a rather over-dignified event - but there is a serious point to be made. Although not all English cricket supporters who follow the team abroad are members of the Army we all rather admire what they do. In the West Indies last year the huge Barmy Army presence really did make a difference and England’s overall success in 2004 can be in part attributed to this hugely vocal set of supporters. For the team to know that they have support in the ground from a large group who have travelled thousands of miles at their own expense to be there is very motivating. The Barmy Army is unique, and whilst I would not suggest that it is necessarily a model for other cricket teams, it does show that vocal and good natured support can help a team’s performance.

At Newlands, the Cape Town ground, the South African cricket authorities made a very smart decision in respect of the spectators. During the lunch interval we were invited to go on to the playing area and to walk around and have a look at the pitch. Obviously the pitch area itself was roped off but we could go anywhere else. Thousands took advantage of this invitation and everybody behaved well and obeyed the stewards. By their decision the organisers of the Test Match have made many friends amongst local and visiting supporters alike. It was a smart move which cost nothing and where the risk of abuse was small. No doubt the International Cricket Council (ICC) will not be amused if they hear the story. The ICC is obsessed with rules in respect of all aspects of International cricket and they prefer to keep cricket spectators at their distance at matches and put a raft of other onerous constraints on them. Try wearing a Coca Cola T shirt at an ICC event if you want to see what I mean! It might be time for the millions of cricket supporters around the world to ask to be treaded with respect and to be trusted - and the ICC could do well to look at the example of the Barmy Army to see why supporters are so important.