|There's golf, and there's the Ryder Cup. Like nothing else in golf, it dominates the headlines, courts controversy, ignites social media, and draws in millions of non-fans. So how did what started as a low-key exhibition match in the 1920s, and which was dying by the 1970s, become a sports marketing phenomenon?Re-invention|
The Ryder Cup heralded a trend which has shaped modern sport: the creation of new and re-imagined formats. Consider for example the huge success and influence of the Rugby World Cup (born in the 80s), football’s Premier League and Champions League (the 90s), cricket’s Twenty20 and IPL, and most recently eSports. And there are many more.
So it was with the Ryder Cup. Following years of predictable and overwhelming US victories over a hopelessly outmatched GB & Ireland team, by 1977 the event was on its last legs. But from 1979, at the inspired suggestion of Jack Nicklaus, GB & Ireland became a European team to make the matches more competitive. And the rest, as they say is history.
Three players, who will all cast giant shadows over this Ryder Cup, stand apart for their marketing impact on golf: the recently-passed Arnold Palmer, who with Mark McCormack as his salesman, led golf into the TV era and made it a big business; Tiger Woods, the sport’s first truly global icon whose impact was only truly felt after his disgrace and withdrawal; and Seve Ballesteros, who transformed the image and appeal of European golf in general and the Ryder Cup in particular.
When Nicklaus made his suggestion, Seve was the inspiration. Seve duly became the talisman of the new European team and inspired its first game-changing victories over the US in the 80s. Brilliant, charismatic and fiercely competitive - especially against the US players and galleries who he perceived as having slighted him early in his career - Ballesteros was, above all, the catalyst for the Ryder Cup phenomenon.
Less Is More
One of modern sport’s biggest problems is that there’s too much of it. Football, rugby, tennis, cricket and golf have all over-supplied the marketplace, leading to numerous negative on- and off-field consequences. This has increasingly worked to the Ryder Cup’s advantage. It doesn’t come around very often, but when it does, we can’t wait. Less is more.
Above all, one thing makes the Ryder Cup unique, and uniquely powerful as a sports marketing platform: it’s Europe versus the USA. This happens nowhere else in major sport. Nowhere else in major sport does Europe compete under one banner, uniting hundreds of millions of fans. And it’s easy to forget that sport in the USA is a primarily a domestic affair: the dominant US team sports are all contested internally. As a sporting nation, the USA rarely ventures outside its borders onto the world stage. So when it does, it’s rare, and it’s a big deal. And this year, owing to Brexit, this particular aspect of the Ryder Cup story is even deeper.
The Ryder Cup is entirely unlike the golf that we see week-in, week-out, all year. Tournament golf is selfish: the Ryder Cup is selfless. It’s not about individuals playing for a title and multi-million-dollar purses. It’s about teams, about playing as part of the team, about winning for the team, and – that extreme rarity in big sport - not about money – the players aren’t paid to appear in the Ryder Cup. And this works and appeals in a way that tournament golf simply doesn’t. It gives the fans a team to support, and that in turn makes it bigger, more emotional, and easier to buy into than tournament golf - remember, worldwide, it’s team sport that rules. It makes heroes and villains out of players who, ordinarily, we don’t passionately support or oppose in their tournament identities. And most importantly, it works because it demands of the players something different, something other, something somehow better.
It may not like it, but the fact is that sport thrives on controversy. Controversy creates today’s stories, history’s legends, and tomorrow’s fans. Controversy sells. And since the Ryder Cup was re-invented in 1979, and the contest became as close and as fierce as anything that sport can offer, controversy has never been far away: indeed, it’s become part of the event’s DNA and its global appeal, part of why we look forward to it, part of what we expect from it. Golf’s traditionalists might not like it, but that controversy is another element that sets the Ryder Cup apart, and gives it an appeal way beyond golf’s normal fan base and media footprint.
We regularly tune into marquee events hoping to see something special, only to be disappointed. But since its re-invention, the Ryder Cup has never disappointed. Every event since 1979 has produced unforgettable, defining moments that have entered the sporting – not just golfing – pantheon. And this isn’t about serendipity: it’s the inevitable result of the contest being re-invented to become even and unpredictable, blending perfectly with a format which is guaranteed to produce moments that win – or lose – the match. The Ryder Cup is a perfect sports marketing template.
Synergy is working with Standard Life Investments, the first Worldwide Partner of the Ryder Cup.
I’m a big fan of the beta feature in Google Trends which enables you to compare search volumes since 2004 for just about anything, and often use it to add additional insights to our work. (Warning: if, like me, you’re into data, it’s pretty addictive). Recently, it’s also provided a really interesting angle on the end of the Tiger Woods era in golf, and what looks like the beginning of a new era marked by the rivalry between Rory McIlroy and Jordan Spieth.
For most of his career, Tiger has been the world’s most Googled golfer, as shown by this chart, also shown below, comparing his search volumes since 2004 to those of his nearest rivals – although the most notable feature is of course the huge spike in December 2009 marking Tiger’s disgrace.
You can also see that in the last couple of years the gap between Tiger and his rivals has closed. I’ll come back to that shortly.
Google Trends also enables us to compare how searches for Tiger compare to megastars in other sports. Here he is compared to Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo and LeBron James for example.
So Tiger may have ruled golf, but both before and after his fall his Google search volumes didn’t compare to the biggest stars in bigger sports – if you play around with other big names you get similar results.
But back to the main point. How is Tiger’s apparently inexorable decline in form and the simultaneous rise of Rory McIlroy and Jordan Spieth reflected in recent Google search volumes? Does Tiger still rule, or is the new McIlroy-Spieth era evident on Google as well as the golf course?
This chart, also seen below, shows how it played out in 2014.
Despite making only seven appearances during the year owing to injury, Tiger was still comfortably the most-searched of the three players on average in 2014, with his biggest spikes both coming from the two majors he appeared in: a missed cut at the US PGA and a 69th place at The Open.
Rory’s average in 2014 was around half that of Tiger, and like Tiger his biggest spikes also came at The Open and the US PGA, but obviously for very different reasons as Rory won both tournaments. His other big spike came in May, caused by his break-up with Caroline Wozniacki and subsequent win at the BMW PGA Championship.
In contrast Jordan Spieth wasn’t really a factor in 2014, except – in a sign of things to come – for a spike for his second place finish on debut at The Masters, where he also outscored McIlroy by seven shots when they played together in the second round.
Fast forward to 2015 and it has of course been Spieth’s year so far, with wins in both majors, The Masters back in April and the US Open earlier this month, which the chart below and here clearly shows.
(Interesting that Spieth’s Masters win generated a much higher spike than his US Open win. This could be for all kinds of reasons, but I suspect the two biggest are the novelty factor of Spieth’s debut major win and the Masters being a bigger deal worldwide than the US Open, as this chart shows.)
What’s also clear is that, driven unquestionably by the media, there is as much interest in Tiger’s poor performances as there is in a great performance by Spieth or McIlroy. For example, Tiger’s missed cut at this year’s US Open generated almost as much search interest as Spieth’s win, and Tiger’s missed cut at last year’s US PGA generated more search interest than McIlroy’s win. Which is why Tiger’s average search volumes are still the highest – although Spieth especially is closing the gap.
So, for now at least, Tiger still rules golf on Google. But not in a good way – and probably not for much longer.
Let’s see whose spikes are biggest at the next major – the biggest of them all – The Open at St Andrew’s.