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New US Open marketing effort part of broader USGA revamp

Craig Annis, USGA chief brand officer, details the new marketing for the US Open at the association's recent annual meeting in North Carolina.

  • New branding campaign follows extensive outreach effort
  • Flagship tournament funds nearly 75 per cent of all USGA operations
  • Association looking to revive national championship after years of mishaps

The United States Golf Association’s recent move to re-market its flagship event and one of golf’s majors, the US Open, represents a significant move to reset both the organization and the tournament after a series of self-caused issues.

During the recently held USGA annual meeting held at Pinehurst Country Club in North Carolina, the organization responsible for the sport’s second-oldest major championship opted to solicit guidance on how best to elevate the stature of the event. And from that meeting emerged a new branding campaign and event slogan that will be the tournament’s new rallying cry, “From Many, One.”

This year’s US Open is scheduled for June 18-21 at Winged Foot Golf Club near New York. The 2020 iteration, however, is more than the just the first US Open in a new decade. Rather, it’s one where the USGA is clearly seeking to turn the page from a number of mishaps that marked the prior 10 years.

From certain poor venue choices, rules imbroglios, and key players growing dissatisfied with the administration of the event, there was a general sense the championship of American golf appeared to be in perpetual free fall. 

To its credit, the USGA saw the need to avoid denial-based responses or seek to foster a bunker mentality. Instead, a rather comprehensive planning model was engaged, centered in part on seeking out key stakeholders for comments.

“Our goal was to develop a distinct and powerful brand platform that allows us to celebrate what makes our championship unique and to tell the stories that drive our audiences to attend, watch and engage with the US Open year-round,” says Craig Annis, chief brand officer for the USGA. 

Gary Woodland of the United States poses with the trophy after winning the 2019 US Open at Pebble Beach Golf Links on June 16, 2019 in Pebble Beach, California. (Ross Kinnaird/Getty Images)

Crucial Revenue

How important is the US Open to the USGA?

Critical, as it turns out. The event generates $165m (€191m), representing nearly 75 per cent of the organization’s total annual revenues, fueled heavily by a 12-year, $1.1bn rights deal for Fox to broadcast the tournament between 2015-26.

In short, the US Open is the primary vehicle for the USGA in building its identify, furthering its overall mission, including staging 13 other national championships, and staying financially viable overall.

And historically, the US Open’s heavy emphasis on well-rounded player skill and requiring them to play their entire bag arguably made the event golf’s foremost challenge.

But over the past decade, an extended series of operational mishaps diminished the luster of the event and caused many within the broader golf community to seriously question if the USGA was still capable of delivering an event at a consistently high level. 

Among the prior issues were logistical and course layout issues at the 2013 event at Merion GC outside of Philadelphia; unsatisfactory putting surfaces at the 2015 event near Tacoma, Washington; a rules controversy the following year at Oakmont near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; more course set-up issues in 2017 at Erin Hills in Wisconsin; and player complaints over pin locations in 2018 at Shinnecock Hills on Long Island, New York. 

The cumulative result of all the issues was an extended embarrassment for the USGA, and given the outsized fiscal impact of the US Open, a threat to the organization’s financial health. 

“Given that the US Open drives nearly 75 per cent of the USGA’s revenue, the success of the championship directly impacts the work we do to support millions of golfers who enjoy the game,” Annis says.

Several other business indicators further detailed how far the US Open had fallen. A recent Golf Digest survey of 46 current PGA Tour players found that the Masters was the major that respondents would most like to win, and that tournament’s permanent location of Augusta National was the players’ favorite major championship venue. According to the survey, just seven per cent of players would most like to win the US Open, compared to 77 per cent for the Masters.

Similarly, just once in the last 15 years have US Open television ratings in the US come close to those for the Masters, though the Masters has something of an inherent scheduling advantage given it is the first major of the year after the winter offseason.

One of the new creative pieces for the USGA’s new “From Many, One” marketing campaign for the US Open

Looking Outward

Among the USGA’s key steps was retaining Zambezi, a Culver City, California-based advertising and marketing agency. Zambezi was charged with collecting feedback on the association and the US Open, and developing a branding campaign aimed at rejuvenating the stature of the tournament.

Zambezi’s outreach brought the agency in contact with a variety of key stakeholders around the sport, including elite players, former USGA champions, media members, corporate partners, host site representatives, and even ordinary fans. Questioning was designed to generate a large battery of feedback on how recent US Opens have functioned, and how future iterations could be improved. 

That research was then used to help create the new branding campaign. And the “From Many, One” slogan seeks to highlight the US Open’s model in which nearly 10,000 golfers vie to be among the 156 who will begin the tournament, and then the one who is ultimately crowned tournament champion. 

“To balance the heritage of a 120-year-old major championship, a modern audience, mental challenge, athletic triumph, and American heritage in a campaign wasn’t easy, but to see it all come to life has been unbelievably rewarding,” says Gavin Lester, chief creative officer of Zambezi.

The USGA and Zambezi then received further aid from the Reston, Virginia-based Buffalo Agency to assist with the public relations elements with the marketing campaign’s execution.

Within this effort, there has already been an amplification of US Open marketing, particularly through media partner Fox Sports. Viewers of the National Football League playoffs, NCAA basketball, and Nascar racing on network platforms have seen tune-in promotions for the US Open featuring actor Don Cheadle.

Rear view of Chez Reavie in action during Sunday play at Pebble Beach Golf Links during the 2019 US Open Final Round. (Kohjiro Kinno /Sports Illustrated/Getty Images)

Cheadle, who serves as a US Open brand ambassador, provides his voice and stature as an active golfer himself to a variety of video content, including multiple US Open brand television spots. Other television promotional videos will also come forward as the event nears.

“The brand platform will be the perfect vehicle to share the story of the US Open, a celebration of the accomplishments, of the players who compete for the championship and everyone who makes the event so special,” says Mike Davis, USGA chief executive.

Beyond the marketing campaign, there also will be operational tweaks on-site at Winged Foot, as ticket sales have been reduced from 30,000 per day when the course last played host to the event in 2006 to a new maximum of 25,000 in an attempt to ease fan congestion. 

The USGA is also looking ahead over the next decade, and has prioritized proven courses such as Pebble Beach and Pinehurst as future tournament hosts, and has raised the operational bar for untested facilities to bid for the event, in an effort to avoid some of the course and operational issues of prior years. 

But after all the changes, the USGA is well aware that having a controversy-free and successful 2020 tournament at Winged Foot will represent an important first step toward forging long-term success.

“The US Open is more than a golf event, it’s more than a test or evaluation, it’s an experience that brings people together to share in the electricity that comes from players pushing themselves beyond their limits to achieve their dreams,” Davis says.

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