‘The Match’ shows the same spirit of format innovation that saved the Ryder Cup

In contrast to Richard Gillis, Tim Crow argues that innovation is the lifeblood of golf and that the Tiger Woods v Mickelson showdown will succeed because, like the Ryder Cup, it offers an alternative to sport’s staid formats.

In contrast to Richard Gillis, Tim Crow argues that innovation is the lifeblood of golf and that the Tiger Woods v Mickelson showdown will succeed because, like the Ryder Cup, it offers an alternative to sport’s staid formats.

Traditional sports all face the same existential crisis.

How can we make the next generation, distracted by always-on personal tech and infinite competition for their attention, become something like – anything like – the loyal fans that their parents and grandparents were?

The behaviours created by this technology and competition have handed traditional sport the biggest marketing challenge in its history.

And when you consider which sports face the toughest challenge, it’s difficult not to put golf near the top of the list.

The average age of a PGA Tour viewer in America is 63 and this trend is replicated worldwide. Playing numbers have also been steadily dropping for years. Only one player shifts the needle, and he’s back at the top of the leaderboard – but what happens when Tiger’s no longer there?

Then of course there are the sport’s legacy image problems and its association with Donald Trump.

And above all, a primary product – 72-hole individual tournaments played over four days – that is taking longer and longer to play, and therefore longer and longer to watch, when the rest of sport is creating products that are going the other way. If they aren’t already there.

New formats. Re-imagined formats. Shorter formats. Faster formats. Above all, more entertaining formats. Format innovation is key to taking on the biggest marketing challenge in sport’s history, so what should golf do?

The next few weeks will provide some pointers.

First up there’s the Ryder Cup. As always it will create stories, grab headlines, court controversy, ignite social media, and above all draw in tens of millions of people who wouldn’t otherwise follow golf.

And it is of course a triumph of format innovation.

In 1977 the tournament was all but dead, following years of predictable and overwhelming US victories over a hopelessly outmatched Great Britain & Ireland team. But in 1979, at the inspired suggestion of Jack Nicklaus, GB & Ireland became Europe to strengthen the team and make the matches more competitive. The rest is history.

In its search for new formats and new ways of marketing itself to new audiences, golf can take many lessons from the Ryder Cup. But I’d pick two in particular.

The first is that the Ryder Cup invites one billion people – over 700 million Europeans and 300 million Americans – to get behind their team. Teams that rarely compete under the same flag, and never against each other in a major sport. This makes it a much bigger deal, and much easier to buy into than tournament golf. Genius marketing.

The second is another fundamental truth about how we buy into the Ryder Cup. Yes, it’s about teams and identity, and of course it’s about who wins the match. But it’s also about players who, ordinarily, we don’t care too much about suddenly being transformed into household names.

All of which brings me to golf’s latest format innovation, ‘The Match’ aka #TigerVsPhil: the $9m pay-per-view match between Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson scheduled for Thanksgiving weekend in Las Vegas.

Inevitably, it’s already attracted a lot of criticism from traditionalists for being too commercial – the money, the trash talk, the hype.

But that, of course, is the point.

This is format innovation, the model here is pay-per-view boxing title fights, and you don’t make bank in the era of infinite competition by playing it safe.

Neither do you attract the attention – and the dollars – of the next generation.

And Woods v Mickelson is now even more of a guaranteed payday, because all those greying American golf fans who worshipped Tiger in his pomp will even more happily choose him over the NFL on Thanksgiving weekend, just as they did last weekend when he won the Tour Championship.

There’s also more than a little irony about traditionalists bemoaning The Match, because it’s actually a throwback to the genesis of modern golf marketing, when IMG founder Mark McCormack created ‘Big Three Golf’ made-for-TV money matches featuring Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player, and sold them to TV networks and sponsors in America and worldwide.

Format innovation is key. To market golf to a new generation, create new heroes for that generation, and find new ways to monetise it.

If McCormack was alive today, I have no doubt he’d be repeating the trick with all kinds of new formats to re-imagine and re-package golf, and market it to a new generation.

And maybe he’d start by combining what makes the Ryder Cup transcend golf with something like The Match.

Maybe golf should too.

Tim Crow has been at the forefront of sports marketing for thirty years. Formerly chief executive of Synergy, he now advises a range of companies at the intersection of sport, marketing, media and technology. Follow him @shaymantim.

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