In contrast to Tim Crow, columnist Richard Gillis argues the “sheer obviousness” of Woods v Mickelson in Vegas shows shows the folly of tinkering with golf.
It would be very easy to ruin the Ryder Cup.
For a glimpse into a parallel universe, take a trip to Las Vegas in November, to witness the $10m (€8.5m) one-off head-to-head between Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson.
As a sporting event, there is not a single authentic thing about it. From the contrived winner-takes-all fake jeopardy through to the excruciating Twitter banter, that reads like two tipsy estate agents at a Christmas do.
Worse than all that is the sheer obviousness of it all. The great game is stripped of what makes it interesting – it’s golf for UFC fans. Why not just put them in a cage and let them get on with it?
Running through the entire project is the assumption that the free market knows best. The Mickelson-Woods extravaganza is a proxy private-public sector battle in which the players, agents and their marketing advisors are positioned as sexy disruptors against the petty bureaucrats, the grey men in blue blazers, who hide behind consensus and committee to impede growth and innovation.
A more balanced view is that the game’s administrators have been a necessary counterweight in the system, who by accident or design have preserved the Ryder Cup’s integrity. “The single most difficult issue of the Ryder Cup is finding the balance between the authorities and the stars of the game on both sides of the Atlantic,” says Keith Waters, European Tour chief operating officer.
He’s not wrong.
Since its inception in 1927, the Ryder Cup has emerged as a wonderful sporting anomaly, a peculiarly-shaped thing that has largely – though not entirely – resisted the marketing industry’s impulse to dumb it down.
Three days of head-to-head competition every two years between two teams of twelve of the best golfers from Europe and America. The players compete in 28 matches in all, each worth a point, with a half point awarded for drawn matches. The first team to reach 14.5 points wins. Simple(ish).
The ownership and management of the event’s commercial rights are every bit as eccentric as the format. The PGA of America owns and runs the Ryder Cup in the US, and that role is replicated by the European Tour and the PGAs of Britain and Europe.
Because of its success, the Ryder Cup has been the subject of boardroom battles and power struggles on both sides of the Atlantic.
Most notable was an attempt to wrest control of the event by the PGA Tour’s then commissioner Deane Beman, one of the most influential people in the game’s history. Beman’s tenure ran between 1984 and 2004, a period in which the organisation’s total assets grew from $400,000 to more than $500m.
“The rest of the world was awakening to golf” he said, in his biography, Golf’s Driving Force. “And I thought if I could get control of the Ryder Cup, I envisioned making it a three-way match with the rest of the world”.
Luckily, Beman failed in this attempt, which led to the creation of The President’s Cup in 1994, an event that even its most ardent fans describe as a pale imitation of the real thing.
The ownership structure is often criticised by those who try to use the event as a brand platform. Marketing demands straight lines, and simple points of entry because multiple stakeholders and pan-regional owners mean more lines of communication and greater activation cost.
Nothing about the Ryder Cup is simple. The main assets are the players who are often conflicted by their own deals with competitor brands in the same categories as those being sold centrally.
What’s more the event’s relative scarcity makes it challenging to sustain a brand story in the two-year vacuum between cups.
The rise in profile of the two team captains is in part a reaction to this. Their every press conference answer is ransacked for meaning as to his wildcard choices and pairing decisions. The event PR teams work heroically to wrangle social content from the flimsiest of raw material, constructing tentpole moments that snare a newsline here and a headline there. But it’s thin gruel compared to the week-in-week-out cultural relevance of football, NBA or Formula One.
So, what’s to be done?
Having inherited such a dazzling yet imperfect jewel such as the Ryder Cup, what will the next generation of sports marketers do to take it to the oft-discussed ‘next level’?
There are two answers.
The first is to try and grow it further. Build the brand, stretch the format, create more stuff.
There is excess demand for tickets, so give them four days rather than three, something Colin Montgomerie once advocated. More tickets, more hospitality, more money. The next step would be to increase the frequency of the event by making it an annual competition. And finally, let’s get serious by adding prize money, pots of the stuff. It would be like the FedEx Cup but with national anthems.
The other solution to managing the future trajectory of the Ryder Cup is more radical, and arguably far more difficult: leave well alone.
Know when you got lucky and do nothing. Accept that the Ryder Cup is different, strange and nuanced, and that’s the very reason to preserve its unique place in golf and sporting calendar.
But doing nothing is one of the most challenging tests of leadership and history suggests that most people fail it.
Richard Gillis is an author, journalist and managing partner of Cake, the Havas sport and entertainment agency.