Thirteen may be unlucky for some but for the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship presented by EGA, it was anything but. The 13th edition of the annual event this January delivered another quality spectacle on the course and an enviable spectator experience off it.
There is certainly nothing fortuitous about the upward trajectory of the tournament. IMG and the Abu Dhabi Sports Council have worked hard to maintain and improve this jewel in the UAE capital’s sporting crown.
Greg Sproule, IMG’s Vice President and Managing Director, MENA, has been involved since the inaugural event back in 2006. He has played a key role in developing the Championship. After a frantic few weeks and months, he has finally been able to catch his breath.
An eventful 2018 edition brought – among other things – a second successive triumph for Tommy Fleetwood, an 11 percent increase in attendance (to just under 77,000 spectators) and an important new presenting partner in Emirates Global Aluminium (EGA).
It can be difficult to step back and absorb an event that dominates your thinking all year round but that’s exactly what Sproule and his team endeavours to do – assessing how to continue to take the championship forward for Abu Dhabi.
“I honestly believe it was our best championship to date over the 13 years that we’ve staged the event for the Abu Dhabi Sports Council,” Sproule tells Sport Industry Insider. “The player field that we attracted – the quality and depth – was incredible.
“Away from that there was the spectator village, the corporate hospitality, the enhanced public viewing areas, our junior golf initiatives and much more – we raised the bar across all those areas. It was a phenomenal Championship and an honour to deliver it for Abu Dhabi.”
A major commercial development for 2018 was the arrival of EGA as presenting partner. A strong supporter of golf in Dubai for almost three decades, EGA’s association was a major coup for the Championship.
“We have enormous respect for what EGA have done in golf so to have them on board was validation that we are doing the right things for the best brands,” Sproule explains. “It underlines that this is a championship that can bring value to the business objectives to both international and domestic companies. It was commercially significant and strategically important.”
The partnership manifested itself in the tournament being renamed the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship presented by EGA and, with the help of Getty Images, EGA hosted an exhibition of the 50 greatest golfing images in the spectator village at Abu Dhabi Golf Club.
“The EGA also used their corporate hospitality and their Pro-Am spots intelligently,” Sproule says. “They are a B2B enterprise but they activate the Championship’s many platforms – and golf globally – to tell their story. It’s an intimate business setting that allows them to get closer to their stakeholders, key suppliers and partners, and their internal executives.”
While EGA were new to the party in Abu Dhabi, title sponsor HSBC returned for the eighth time to support the tournament. For Sproule, the bank’s decision to join forces with the championship in 2010 proved a seminal moment in the event’s history.
“I don’t think anyone could ask for a better title sponsor than HSBC,” Sproule beams. “They are an incredible partner. Their standards and their activation programs are exceptional and that makes us all better together. The players, the fans and corporate guests benefit enormously.
“They genuinely care about golf globally and the experience they deliver locally in the spectator village – provides a superb experience for adults, children and families. HSBC also care greatly for, and contribute meaningfully to, junior golf development – in the UAE, China and beyond.
“From a corporate point of view, they invite their top customers and partners from around the region into Abu Dhabi for the week of the Championship and really showcase their hospitality in an elegant setting.”
Those resources have certainly helped bolster a tournament that is well admired at home and abroad. An ability to attract attendees who aren’t die-hard golf is perhaps the most commendable aspect of the Championship and something of which the organisers are particularly proud.
“The evolution of the spectator village has been at the heart of the Championship experience,” Sproule explains. “Given the growing demand and Abu Dhabi Sports Council’s commitment to the best possible spectator experience, we extended the village by 35m in 2018, reconfigured key areas, included more live music, added larger jumbo screens, added more and better food trucks, introduced Top Golf Crush on the adjacent driving range and much more – it was more interactive than ever.
“The most satisfying element was to see how incredibly busy it was every day – with little kids, with adults with millennials, with Emiratis, and with expatriates – the whole spectrum.
“The players remain the building blocks for a great Championship. They give it credibility and global exposure.”
“The public are voting with their feet and we feel the Championship is becoming a must-attend event in the social calendar for people in Abu Dhabi and the UAE, a place that brings people together. We have gone far beyond the core golf fan and into the lifestyle and community space.
“It’s everything you could want for a great day out with your family and friends and that has evolved to a point that, humbly, I believe is the best spectator village in the world of golf. We’ve got space, consistent branding, tons of world-class interactive areas, perfectly manicured turf, entertainment, an amazing Nike merchandise facility, perfect weather, quality food and beverage – there is so much for people to enjoy, and together with the Sports Council we’re very proud of that.”
So could the tournament ever reach a tipping point where the field of golfers becomes of secondary importance to the action off the course?
“The mandate from the Sports Council is that it should be a golf-first approach,” Sproule says. “We warmly welcome and celebrate the non-golf fans who attend but we don’t want to overshadow the fact that the best golfers in the world are competing in Abu Dhabi for serious prize money and world ranking points. Fun and celebration should absolutely be part of the experience – but it should do so elegantly in a golf setting, so the golf is respectfully showcased.
“The players remain the building blocks for a great Championship. They give the Championship credibility and global exposure. The best player field brings in the 273 accredited international media that we hosted this year – including the Golf Channel. That increased exposure is important to the Abu Dhabi Sports Council and our commercial partners. It all begins with having an unrivalled player field.”
Putting together that field can be a painstaking task, one that begins in Q2 every year. When the 2019 line-up is being decided, one person is sure to be on the radar: a player by the name of Tiger Woods. Despite a tumultuous few years, Woods remains an undeniable draw, and Sproule suggests he would likely be considered.
“Our obligation with the Sports Council is to assemble the best and most relevant field possible. That includes golfers who are at the top of their game, it includes emerging young players and it includes golfers who have achieved greatness already. We’ve had the privilege of Tiger playing twice previously and we have certainly enjoyed having him. There’s no doubt about it, Tiger has moved the needle like no one else. We hope he is able to remain healthy and get his game back on track.”
“Every year our player field discussions start with a clean slate and when we start to look at the field for 2019, would we look at Tiger? That is a Championship Committee decision, and it would depend on how he’s doing and a number of elements but yes, we’d consider Tiger if that was deemed in the best interests of the event – it’s the same for any star player.
“The idea is that we will be absolutely open minded in doing whatever is best for Abu Dhabi and the Championship. If that means Tiger, then the Championship Committee would have a look.”
IMG and Abu Dhabi Sports Council are still very much deconstructing the 2018 event for now, collecting and collating feedback from sponsors, spectators and the media. An economic impact assessment is being conducted to ascertain how widely the ripples of the Championship are felt in the UAE’s capital.
— Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship (@ADGolfChamps) January 21, 2018
Sproule has been involved in the tournament from its conception, through infancy and maturation. But he still believes growth is possible and is determined for the championship not to stand still.
“Myself and my colleagues are honoured to have played a role in the creation and delivery of the Championship,” says Sproule.
“Looking back, getting the tournament off the ground 13 years ago was an achievement in itself. There wasn’t a lot of golf in Abu Dhabi at the time, but the government correctly believed that golf would be a great way to showcase the emergence of the capital city itself, through the power of television, to have the greatest golfers in the world come and play.
“Since then, the mantra that we have followed from the Abu Dhabi Sports Council and our other stakeholders is simply ‘make each year better’. We must be financially responsible, but that’s what we are singularly focused on and I believe we achieved that again in 2018. I can’t wait for 2019.”