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Rory McIlroy’s U.S. Open win a boost for Oakley

With a mighty swing, Rory McIlroy gave golf a new hero and an Orange County company a chance at outfitting a new generation of athletes.

Known mostly for high-end sunglasses, Oakley Inc. provided clothing for the 22-year-old McIlroy during his star turn at the U.S. Open last weekend. McIlroy, who on Sunday became the youngest golfer to win the tournament since 1923, wore a blue polo shirt, white pants and a belt — all Oakley branded.

Comparisons to Tiger Woods — and the sales he generated for Nike Inc. — have marketing experts predicting good fortunes for Oakley.

“The way he is being seen by the golf community, we haven’t seen since Tiger Woods,” said Nancy Lough, editor of Sport Marketing Quarterly. “If Tiger wore a shirt on Sunday, everybody wanted the shirt on Monday.”

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McIlroy’s win is a golden opportunity for Oakley, marketing experts say, providing the company a chance to show off and talk about its budding apparel lines, designed for athletes in such activities as mountain biking, surfing and motorsports.

It is aggressively expanding its golf line.

“They may not be well known in that space, but neither was McIlroy,” said David Carter, executive director of USC’s Sports Business Institute. “It gives both of them a chance to build something together.”

The firm has been quick to capitalize on the opportunity. On Monday, the front page of Oakley’s website displayed an exuberant McIlroy coupled with a note of congratulations. The firm also issued “a proud salute” in a news release, tying the young phenom’s accomplishment to the golf apparel he donned during the tournament.

“You will see more of that, ‘Hey! We’re the company that has McIlroy,’” Carter said.

For its part, Oakley is hoping that the connection with McIlroy will shine a spotlight on its clothing lines, which are not as well-known as its sunglasses.

“For a number of years now we have been busy trying to expand our story beyond sunglasses,” said Colin Baden, Oakley’s chief executive. “Rory is in a position to do a very effective job being our standard bearer.”

Apparel is growing twice as fast as the company’s optics business, Baden said. And Oakley expects its golf segment sales to triple in 2012 from this year. The line includes polo shirts, pants, golf bags, gloves and other items.

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Oakley was acquired by Italian eyewear company Luxottica Group in 2007 for about $2.1 billion. The company employs about 2,150 people at its Foothill Ranch headquarters.

McIlroy, a golf sensation since he was a teenager, grew up in Northern Ireland. He signed his sponsorship deal with Oakley in December. He is also endorsed by the Dubai hotel chain Jumeirah Group, whose name also appears on his clothing.

The golfer shot 16 under par at the U.S. Open, the lowest 72-hole score for the event.

While Sunday was a win for both McIlroy and Oakley, their relationship is still young. The benefits Oakley sees from the endorsement will depend on McIlroy sustaining his success and how often he plays in the United States, said Dany Berghoff, vice president of business development at 21 Sports and Entertainment Marketing Group Inc.

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And although Woods drove sales to Nike for years, Oakley would probably want to avoid a scandal like the one Nike endured with Woods’ extramarital relationships, details of which were plastered for months on tabloid covers worldwide in 2009 and 2010.

“He has won with class, and he has also lost with dignity,” USC’s Carter said of McIlroy. “And I think these corporations are looking for these athletes that can handle themselves well.”

andrew.khouri@latimes.com


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