By George Moore
(Last in a Series)
The United States Golf Association (USGA) and the PGA Tour are the titans of golf. And as such, both bodies are at least partly responsible for golf’s public image.
In their outreach to non-golfers, they rely mostly on weekend telecasts of golfing events, and we can thank Fox Sports and the USGA for much of the coverage.
A Really Big Deal
In 2013, Fox, which had never covered golf, signed a 12-year deal to pay the USGA $1.1 billion for the rights to cover the premier events of golf.
Golf Digest, which has been following the high-dollar matchup ever since, says that at the outset, the USGA felt the deal “was not just about the money,” but also about exposing golf to sports fans in general.
The goal, according to the magazine’s sources, was “to help grow the game’s spectator base.”
That said, it’s unlikely the USGA was thinking only about eyeballs on televised tournaments. The unspoken goal was/is surely to help grow golf participation, which would help the $84 billion golf industry.
The results of the Fox-USGA venture so far have been mixed. In 2016, ratings for the final round of the Barclays tanked at 1.8. This year, on the other hand, Sunday’s final round of the U.S. Open earned a 4.4 rating and 7.31 million viewers. Tiger Woods made the cut for the first time since 2013.
The overall trend, Tiger effect aside, suggests that Fox’s coverage of golf is not having much of an impact on spectator base or player base.
Golfing participation has been dropping in recent years, and in 2017, the annual number of played rounds dropped 4.8 percent. In 2018, nearly 200 golf courses closed their doors.
So why aren’t more spectators tuning into Fox’s coverage of golf and then trotting out to courses all over the country? It could have something to do with what they’re seeing.
Let’s manufacture a sports fan. We’ll call him Joe. He’s 30ish, fun-loving and consumes vast quantities of sports programming every weekend so he can talk sports with the guys at work on Mondays. He watches golf on Fox Sports, he’s played a few rounds, but he’s not really a golfer. He’s more of a “spectator.”
What are some of his takeaways after hours of watching golf on Sundays?
- Golf is painfully slow. (Nap time?)
- The players are bored, or at least they look bored.
- Nobody, not even the guy in the lead, seems to be having much fun. The players get mad at themselves sometimes.
- Too many delays. (Is it really necessary for a bunch of important-looking people to gather around a ball, stare at it for 10 minutes and mumble among themselves?)
- Coverage hops from player to player all over the course, making it confusing and hard to keep up with the scores.
- The announcers sound as if they’re covering a funeral procession.
Is Joe likely to run out, spend bundles of cash for clubs, a bag, some balls and golf shoes, and then trot over to a course to spend hours doing something that doesn’t even look like fun?
Only if he’s nuts.
Time to Rethink
All of which suggests that Fox Sports and the USGA and the PGA Tour need to rethink what they’re doing on television.
- Focus coverage on only the best players/last pairings. Yes, it would cut into advertising revenue, but it also would make watching golf a lot less painful.
- Make the viewing experience more interesting and engaging by adding insightful commentary and 15-second golf lessons or tips along the way.
- Provide better coverage of the golfers. Maybe some vignettes from their personal lives. In other words, turn the Walking Dead with golf clubs into likeable human beings.
- Hire a comedian (Ray Romano?) to liven up coverage.
- Interview some of the fans … uh, the sober ones. We always see them, but we never hear what they have to say.
Golf, the game, remains solid. But the golf industry is not so solid. The industry tells itself that cultural and behavioral shifts are to blame, but maybe greed, ignorance and arrogance have seats at the table, too.
The equipment manufacturers, the big-name players, the courses and the image-makers all need to understand how they’re failing the game … and then change.
For the good of the game.
Footnote: The USGA, to its credit, is trying to address some of the trends and has come up with a “Challenge Statement.” It says, “We will improve golfer satisfaction by 20 percent while reducing critical resource consumption by 25 percent by 2025.” How that’s working remains to be seen.
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LET US HEAR FROM YOU: Nobody has all the answers. If you have a question or comment regarding anything golf-related, drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org, subject line “Comment.” Our goal is to encourage a conversation about the world’s greatest game.