It takes a lot to get anything through the war-washed news cycle these days. You know there’s serious business going on in the world as Parades only make third billing on Paddy’s Night RTÉ News. Or when the Taoiseach can catch Covid and be stuck in America for 10 days with nothing more than a general shrug of indifference. The nightmare in Ukraine puts everything in its place.
Anything but, it seems, the good folks behind P&O Ferries. Even in an era of black hat nastiness that will reverberate for centuries, they still managed to keep the noise down last week, laying off 800 employees at a Microsoft Teams address. It should be impossible to bring yourself into global disgrace at a time when a totalitarian maniac threatens a nuclear apocalypse. Maybe P&O Ferries has also sacked its public relations department.
The sheer cowardice of it all was what really sang. The fact that it’s not done live. The fact that it was a one-sided show with no opportunity for workers to ask a question. The fact that the superiors all swerved and left it to an HR lackey to break the news. The fact that it hasn’t been made clear anywhere that P&O Ferries’ parent company is a global juggernaut whose revenues jumped 27% in 2021, to a record $10.8 billion ($9.7 billion euros).
This parent company is DP World, an entity well known to sports enthusiasts. It is, in business terms, a multinational logistics company with multiple interests, one of which is the operation of 70 huge ports – and by extension the shipping lines that feed them – around the world. They are estimated to represent 10% of global shipping container traffic.
Since 2003, they have owned P&O in various labyrinthine corporate forms. They bought, sold and repurchased it over the course of two decades without ever leaving the general ownership of the Royal Family of Dubai. Back and forth and back and forth and all that led to 800 workers staring at their phones last week, watching a three-minute recorded message handing them their cards.
The overwhelming minutiae of global commerce are beyond the interest and bandwidth of most normal people. We are, however, simpler people in sports and we have more practical ways of measuring things. We are able to tell how big DP World is just by looking at how various different sports are willing to bow to them. That usually says as much about us as it does about them.
Take golf. The European Tour was created in 1972 to give some relief to the often chaotic organization of professional golf tournaments on this side of the Atlantic. It has not always been an example of gleaming corporate excellence, but its growth has been organic and vigorous, and its employees should be proud of it. It will never be the PGA Tour but it is the second largest entity in a reasonably global sport and that is no small thing.
So how did the European Tour celebrate its 50th anniversary? He changed his name. It’s now officially known as DP World Tour, thanks to a mega-deal signed last November. At a time when golf’s applecart looks increasingly likely to be upended by Saudi money, it was the European Tour’s last best hope of keeping everything steady. This year, touring prizes will exceed $200 million (€181 million) for the first time ever, with DP World signing the checks.
And so a venerable old institution with a great history and a hard-earned foundation in the game gave up its identity, just like that. It was not enough to have a high-end backer, the European Tour took on a title sponsor without the slightest resistance. Golf’s ability to falter at the slightest suggestion of improved cash flow is nothing new, of course. The fact that there was precisely no outrage or objection from anyone – and indeed the deal was welcomed on all fronts – tells its own story.
But again, why should golf be any different from any other sport? The same Dubai ruling family that ultimately owns DP World has for decades poured oceans of money into horse racing and breeding in these islands and around the world. Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum has long been one of the most well-known and beloved figures in the race. He remained so, even after a UK High Court ruling last year found he used military-grade spyware on his ex-wife to target her phone during a court battle in the UK. about their two children.
Racing did not get rid of Sheikh Mohammed nor would they dream of doing so. Operation Maktoum Godolphin is integrated into the sport itself at this point. Just like, in their own way, the other Gulf States have immersed themselves in football, Formula 1, boxing and everything in between.
And just like DP World turned into golf. Today and in the future, it is the name that will resonate with one of the most popular sports in the world. The PGA Tour has big name sponsors, but they only have one week at a time to get their money’s worth. The tour continues every Monday and Valspar becomes Dell becomes Valero and so on. DP World is golf’s second tour, week after week, no matter where it’s played.
Of course, DP World can spend its money where and how it sees fit. P&O Ferries were, on their own, losing £100m (€119m) a year – that’s a lot of money to spend and business is business. The most innocent among us might still say it’s a better use of your money than supporting players like the Dutch Open, but global finance probably doesn’t work that way and it is probably the height of stupidity to even mention both things in the same sentence.
So yes, it is entirely up to DP World how they run their operations. It would be nice if the sport weren’t so eager to get closer to the kind of people who summarily fire 800 people via video link.