As Ryder Cup director since 1995, Richard Hills has seen more changes and been the driving force of more improvements in the matches than any man in the modern era. He has outlasted players, captains, European Tour back room colleagues and many of the commercial partners who have worked with him.
Not someone who ever sought the limelight, Richard has been a smiling face in hundreds of Ryder Cup photos and media gatherings. His presence and his quotes for the press have been almost ubiquitous at new sponsorship announcements, official partnership deals and commercial breakthrough declarations as well as on TV for the captain’s pick programmes and some many other Ryder Cup events.
Richard has had an unprecedented positive effect on the biennial contest but has also understood and dealt with the threats to the matches. He has never sat on his laurels. “Everything is done carefully and methodically. It would be very pompous for us to say we are recession proof, for example. We know we aren’t,” he told me in an interview in 2014 for my book Ryder Cup Revealed. “We were at the top of the Celtic Tiger (the name given to the Irish economic boom of the mid-2000s) at the K Club in 2006, but it was Black Friday (the moment of the Wall Street collapse of autumn 2008) during Valhalla; that’s when the commercial world changed. There were lots of empty hospitality suites at the match in 2008, it was that week when Lehman Brothers went belly-up. People like the bankers from Barclays just did not attend. They couldn’t be seen to be at a golf tournament enjoying themselves.”
Despite recessions and reported declines in the number of golf fans in the world, Richard’s tenure as Ryder Cup Director has been filled with successes and will not easily be surpassed. After this 42nd Ryder Cup, it will be the turn of his successor, Guy Kinnings, to take the director’s role. But before that, here is an exclusive Golf Business News Q&A with Richard and me.
What has been the biggest change to the business of the Ryder Cup during your tenure?
“Simply put, the scale and profile of the event have grown immeasurably. I started my current role in 1995 but have actually directly involved in Ryder Cups since the 1981 match at Walton Heath. I worked for a sports marketing agency and that’s how I came to the industry. Back in the 1980s and even into the 1990s, the Ryder Cup was a relatively small-scale event. It has always produced unimaginable drama and excitement, but now it has a fitting stage as one of the pre-eminent events in all sport.”
What is the biggest change in your own job in the last 24 years?
“Well, that really relates to the remarkable growth rate of the event. Naturally, my job has become much less hands-on and it feels like every year the Ryder Cup Director’s role becomes more management based and requires the incumbent to try and take a more over-arching view. At the same time, you have to keep an eye on the here and now and try to balance the ever-increasing demands of everyone involved in a Ryder Cup, from the Captain and players to partners, stakeholders, media and, of course, spectators. All of those people want the next Ryder Cup to be the biggest and best ever.”
How difficult was it to move from a single sponsor strategy to official partners? What was the breakthrough moment?
“There wasn’t really a breakthrough moment as such. It was new ground for everyone involved, and there was a natural sense of caution because moving away from title sponsorship might not have been the best way to go. One umbrella sponsor was certainly easier to manage, and it also guaranteed a certain level sponsorship revenue. But it was also restrictive on the brand and identity of the Ryder Cup itself, and I think there was an unsaid consensus among us that we had an incredible opportunity to take the event forward that was too big to miss. We knew that to take the event and its brand to the next level, we needed to evolve and did a lot of research on the International Olympic Committee’s sponsorship model as they had recently moved towards developing ‘family’ of official sponsors. Thankfully, we moved to the Official Partner model which remains in place today and allows to maximise the commercial potential
of the Ryder Cup.”
There are huge contrasts between ‘now’ and ‘then’ with regard to so many aspects of the commercial side of the matches. Can you comment on the changes of the following: the Bidding Process; the Opening Ceremony; the Merchandising; the Hospitality; the Tented Village.
“All of those facets you mention are all key indicators in the overall evolution of the event over the past two decades, including the robust procedure which is now in place to select future European venues.
“The Opening Ceremony used to be watched by only a few hundred people and simply involved the players walking on stage and posing for a picture. This year, the Opening Ceremony is an event in its own right, with a huge focus on entertaining the spectators at Le Golf National as well as the millions of TV viewers around the world.
“Merchandising, Hospitality and the Tented Village have all grown exponentially too. Le Golf National will actually have two tented villages (the East and West Villages) this year; our merchandise tent is the largest ever constructed at a European host venue and we expect to welcome thousands of corporate guests this year in our state-of-the-art Hospitality facilities.”
Which was the most memorable Ryder Cup for you in terms of the job that you did?
I think the one that stands out for all of us who were involved would have been 2002. That match was scheduled to take place at the Belfry in 2001, but the September 11 atrocities that year forced us to postpone the Ryder Cup, which had been scheduled to be played just three weeks after September 11.
“That was a tough time, but thankfully we have an incredible relationship with our colleagues at the PGA of America, and together, we managed to go through the correct procedures and protocols to ensure the process of postponement ran as smoothly as possible in such tragic circumstances. You can probably imagine amount of negotiation involved with insurance companies; sponsors; our American friends and the myriad stakeholders who had invested in an event of the scale of the Ryder Cup. I certainly learned more about big business and insurance companies in that one year than most people learn in a lifetime. It was an eye-opening experience but one which certainly brought us even closer to our American friends and from which an even stronger relationship was forged.”
Is there any part of the business of the American Ryder Cups that Europe would still like to emulate?
“The one part you would like to emulate is the most difficult one: the size of their golf market. For no other reason other than the size of population, the American golf market is approximately five times the size of Europe’s, so the American Ryder Cup has a natural advantage there.”
What will you miss the most about the job?
“I’ll miss the people. I am very lucky to have led some incredibly talented people and to see those people thrive in what can be an incredibly pressurised environment for the benefit of the event and the team working on the Ryder Cup is hugely rewarding. I am very proud to have helped some of those people along in their careers and to have led such a talented group.”
Richard Hills, Thank you very much.