Golf – Struggling to make the cut with Millennials?

A quick confession: I saw very little of the BBC coverage of the PGA Championship, but the fourth round had everything you could hope for in a Major: big names competing, dramatic & high-quality golf, and a talented young player winning for the first time. Despite being heralded as a historic victory in bringing golf back to ‘free-to-air’ TV, BBC viewing figures of 2m lag a long way behind the 4.7m that watched The Open in 2015.The rights were acquired quite late, causing production issues, and a scheduling clash with the IAAF World Championships meant coverage was hidden behind the red button until 10pm, but 2m peak viewers will be a disappointing figure. As ESPN reporter Darren Rovell made the point (see below), the 2017 majors have fared poorly on TV (see below). It is also no secret that golf’s audience is older than any other major sport, with the average age of a PGA Tour TV viewer 64 (up from 59 in 2006).

One might argue that this is a natural consequence of ‘cutting the cord’ and the success of PGA Tour Live – their successful streaming platform that has a median age 20 years younger than their TV audience. Dig a little deeper though, and the TV ratings perhaps reflect a greater issue.

A recent snap poll of almost 15,000 people revealed that a third didn’t watch any of the golf majors this year as Tiger Woods was not participating – a sign that, without Tiger, golf no longer holds the same appeal. In comparison to the Tiger era, the current playing field is more even, with eight of the last nine majors won by a first-time winner, although this parity makes it more difficult to track winners.

Many casual fans were drawn to Tiger by the aura of watching who they felt was the best ever, something that is yet to materialise with the likes of Jordan Spieth or Rory McIlroy. Even though Spieth and McIlroy may not transcend the sport like Tiger did, PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan believes “he has a larger number of marketable stars than ever before” and he could be right, with Rickie Fowler, Hideki Matsuyama and Jon Rahm also inside the World Top 10.

The players themselves are doing a good job of opening the sport to new audiences; Fowler, Spieth & Justin Thomas’ #SB2K17 trip to the Bahamas helped humanise the players and distance the sport from the stereotypical stuffy administrators imposing strict laws and rulings. Justin Timberlake and Niall Horan are keen golfers and have high profile friendships with the players, whilst Steph Curry recently played in a Tour event as a sponsor invite. His appearance raised eyebrows and caused controversy for seemingly denying a professional golfer a place, but did boost the profile of a second-tier tournament. Beyond the players themselves, there is also a wave of golfing ‘creators’ such as the Bryan Bros, Paige Spiranac and Skratch TV, whilst Legendary Shots and Dude Perfect also frequently feature golf in their videos.The various governing bodies are working hard to freshen up their offering, with their own interesting and engaging content such as the European Tour Challenges or PGA Tours’ The Takeaway. The PGA Tour have amended their schedule for 2017/18 and will continue their team tournament (Zurich Classic), whilst the 2017 European Tour scheduled included a combined stroke / matchplay tournament (World Super 6s) and a shortened tournament (Golf Sixes). All three received mixed reviews and it is uncertain whether these three examples will be directly responsible for bringing in a new generation of fans, but the innovation should be welcomed.

As the PGA Tour continues to strive to reach new audiences, so too will its global footprint, with 2018 tournaments scheduled for Mexico, Dominican Republic and South Korea, whilst they have opened a London office to assist in finding and servicing sponsors outside the USA. The European Tour season finale meanwhile, is hosted in Dubai and the Tour will host the Ryder Cup in Paris and Rome in 2018 and 2022 respectively; only the second and third time it has been played on continental Europe. Whilst the traditional golf fan is a valuable consumer, there is a definite sense of ‘evolution, not revolution’, with a move outward from the USA and a desire to engage a younger, more diverse demographic.