Golf and its Continued Transition

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For three days at the end of September the eyes of the sporting world were focused on Paris and the Ryder Cup. For three days every two years, golf becomes the most important sporting event on the planet. Once again golf delivered – incredible drama, personal narratives and continent-wide togetherness. However, the feelgood factor should not mask the issues facing the sport as it struggles to juggle centuries of tradition with the demands of the digital millennium to combat the challenges of this new age, namely:
 

  • Media rights values are not growing. This summer Sky, the UK’s ‘home of golf’ which deems it important enough to have a dedicated channel, elected not to show the fourth major of the year, the PGA Championship;
  • Participation is falling –in 2003 almost 31 million people played golf in USA; by 2017 that number was down to below 24 million. In the UK, the fall was from 4 million to 2.8 million. For a while the sport placed its hopes on China - until a government crackdown in 2017 that led to 117 courses being closed;
  • Equipment sales have been in decline - Nike ceased golf equipment production in 2016, and Adidas spent three years trying to sell its loss-making TaylorMade subsidiary in the face of a sharp decline in sales;
  • The sponsorship environment is challenging - most starkly seen on the Ladies European Tour, which has struggled to create a viable calendar for several years;
  • And most importantly it still has an image problem - dismissed by many as out of touch, elitist and worse.
     

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Golf risks a downward spiral unless it embraces the need for radical change. More than almost any other sport, in golf the professional and amateur games are mutually dependent. Media rights are depressed through reducing interest; equipment sales fall through lower participation, which decreases the sponsor pool available to players. Solutions therefore need to be found at every level, not merely in some media-friendly format or digital distribution service.

So what could be done?
Outside the constraints of ‘traditional’ golf, new approaches are redefining the very concept of the game for a new generation. The most successful has been TopGolf - an informal, urban hybrid of a driving range and a bowling alley, offering a lively alternative to the lengthy, rule-laden game. Marketed as a social evening activity, clubs can be rented from the same desk you place orders for food and beers. The rules are simple - get the ball in (or near) the hole. Jeans can be worn, shirts can be untucked and there are no pitch marks to repair. Similarly, crazy golf - once a staple of tired seaside resorts - has been rebranded as a social, alcohol-assisted event. Chains such as Junkyard Golf and Puttshack have succeeded in giving golf an edgier, more inclusive face.
Crossover into the traditional game remains limited (last year over 8 million off-course ‘golfers’ in USA didn’t go anywhere near grass), and many of the players would in no way identify themselves as golfers - but the crowds and enthusiasm are evidence that there is an appetite for golf; just on completely new terms. Golf needs to embrace and welcome them.

In the 21st century, a sport that was codified by Edwardian gentlemen feels alien to many. Very few people have the ability - or even want - to be away from home for six hours each weekend. A raft of rule changes being introduced in 2019 are intended to speed up play - but do not go nearly far enough. More radical change is required.

Matches of six, nine or 12 holes are easily possible on today’s courses and much more in tune with today’s lifestyles - and need to become the norm rather than the exception. To do this will require a change in the professional game to give them an official seal of approval. In the same way that men’s tennis grand slams are the only five-set tournaments remaining, in golf the major tournaments could retain a four-day, eighteen-hole format - but beneath them there is plenty of scope for change. Head-to-head competitions – such as the Tiger [Woods] v Phil [Mickelson] shootout this November - can also create narrative and allow some personality to escape the carefully controlled media environment.

In the professional game, speed of play remains an issue, which bleeds down to the amateur game and deters yet more players. A shot clock - and a willingness to impose genuine penalties for violations- should be standard, rather than a once-a-year gimmick.

Shorter, more focused tournaments will also be of more appeal to a wider range of broadcasters, which will help with both exposure and rights values. Some form of free to air broadcast is vital for the sport, which needs to resist the short-sighted lure of pay-TV revenues to the exclusion of everything else. The exposure that sponsors require - and the inspiration for the next generation of players and fans - can only come from a broader availability outside the current (and shrinking) bubble of those already interested. Right now, it appears that the only people with their eye on the best interests of the sport are the committee at Augusta National - not known as a hotbed of radicalism - who insist that their tournament is covered live on free to air television.

There are opportunities for dramatic change - and they need to be seized 

Golf has deep-seated perception issues. Rightly or wrongly, it is seen as elitist, expensive, out of touch and outdated, where race and gender are concerned. While many are hidebound by arcane club rules and committees, there are opportunities for dramatic change - and they need to be seized.

In 2016 golf was readmitted to the Olympics and was presented with a once-in-a-century opportunity to redefine itself in front of a global audience. So, what happens? A four-day stroke play tournament, indistinguishable from a hundred others, that became - at best - the sixth or seventh most important event in the sport that year. Instead, golf could have seized the agenda - and staked out a unique position for itself (and for once, the moral high ground). A mixed tournament, with nations represented by pairs of players, playing together as a team. Think about how Rickie Fowler and Lexi Thompson vs Justin Rose and Charley Hull would have looked - and how a new generation of golfers - of both sexes - could have been inspired. There is still time - just - to change what happens at Tokyo 2020.  If it doesn’t, golf might not get invited back.

At the top end of the sport, the PGA Tour dominates the game. It seems that the transition to a global tour - with a ‘European swing’ encompassing the top events - is almost inevitable. Below this, regional tours would offer a pathway into the global elite. The same structure needs to happen - just more quickly - for the women’s game, where the Ladies European Tour seems unsustainable.

And finally: as with all sports, golf will need to embrace the digital opportunity. Hybrid distribution models - with depth, data overlays and multiple feeds available to the hardcore fans, and the ‘back nine on Sunday’ widely available to a casual audience are likely to be the value-maximizing strategy. Sky has already shown that even its appetite for golf has limits. If this continues, a direct to consumer service - possibly facilitated by the PGA Tour’s recent deal with Discovery - is the most likely next step.

Golf still has a sizeable, attractive fanbase and can create moments of almost unparalleled narrative intensity (this year’s Ryder Cup has added many more to the Woods chip on the 16th, Darren Clarke playing through the tears of everyone at the K Club, or McIlroy v Reed at the last Ryder Cup, and the atmosphere of the first tee this year will be remembered). The sport needs to ensure that future generations are as captivated as we have been.
 

This article was originally published by our partners Sportcal, and part of their series of opinion articles focused on ‘disruption of sports in the digital age’.


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