Golf journalists, analysts, and fans alike have been discussing the sport’s future at quite some length in recent years. Seemingly since that now infamous night
involving Tiger Woods in November 2009, when the most iconic sports icon came crashing (no pun intended) down to earth, golf has been searching for its next star.
When Rory McIlroy won the U.S Open in 2011 and then followed it up with a PGA Championship victory in 2012, everyone in the golf world let out a collective sigh of relief – they had a star again. They had a new face of the sport and someone to carry the PGA Tour torch for years to come. But slow down – sponsor, equipment and agency changes all contributed to Rory’s torrid pace returning to a more human level. The media then started to fixate its attention on personalities such as Keegan Bradley and Bubba Watson after their major championships. Adam Scott won the 2013 Masters, and recently escalated to #1 in the Official World Golf Rankings, but still the PGA Tour was without a face to drive its brand.
Now, a 20-year old kid out of Texas by the name of Jordan Spieth has taken the Tour by storm. With names such as those listed above; and others like Rickie Fowler, Hunter Mahan, Jason Day, etc; it is clear that the talent pool on the PGA Tour is deeper now than it ever has been. The Tour has no shortage of phenomenal athletes competing each and every week, and their fan support reflects this new level of competition.
What The PGA Tour is Missing
My assertion is not that the Tour is lacking star power, quite the opposite in fact. What they are lacking is a star brand: an athlete that they can bring to the forefront when promoting their brand, who will be universally recognizable off the course and a dominant figure inside the ropes. Too good to be true? I disagree. At the height of the Tiger Woods frenzy, in the late 90s through to the mid 2000s, when you thought of golf you thought of Tiger Woods. Now, when you think of professional golf there are any number of different names that come to mind, a list that of course still includes Mr. Woods.
It is my opinion that the PGA Tour would benefit from focusing their marketing efforts on one player rather than the broad approach they are taking now. I say this for a number of different reasons. The first is the reciprocal relationship that they will establish with the player. Using Spieth as an example: The more they promote him in connection with their tournaments and their brand, the more attention and endorsement deals he will garner from sponsors, and the more exposure he will get as a result. The increase in exposure will not only for his personal brand, but the PGA Tour brand as a whole. The cycle continues in this pattern, and both brands continue to grow as with one another’s success.
The tournament schedule on the PGA Tour is also extremely rigorous, and highly competitive. Naturally that leads to the younger players on Tour playing more events, and more events consecutively at times. If the Tour were to tie its brand more directly to that of a younger, rising potential star, they would see an uptick in the fan turnout at events that don’t usually generate a huge crowd or stellar field. Rather than Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson, who sometimes play less than 20 PGA Tour events per season, they would profit much more from a youngster who plays 25-30 events per season and hits both small and large markets.
The Future of The PGA Tour
It is no longer enough for a high profile professional athlete to simply be great at what he or she does. They now have to have the right image, the right demeanor and a slew of other intangible qualities that make him or her the right fit for the brand they are representing – and all of their respective partners around the world. The PGA Tour needs a star brand athlete to tie its name to and promote its brand. It remains to be seen whether Spieth, Fowler, Day or any of the other young guns on Tour can fulfill that role, but it is my opinion that until someone does, the PGA Tour will continue to lack the flare and the sex appeal that it once had.
Being a professional in the branding industry for more than 30 years, I have often advised against tying a brand to an athlete. This post is a case study that backs my very point. Athletes are human beings and are unpredictable. To err is human, so when there are personal, moral or physical issues, it is rare for an athlete to stand the test of time and extend the life of a brand beyond the athlete’s “15 minutes of fame” even if that 15 minutes lasts several years.
Professional sports need to brand the sport, and not its participants, to be healthy. One only has to look at the NFL. The organization has created a brand that has woven itself in to the cultural fiber that defines what most Americans do with their Sunday afternoons from September through January. A great player will come and go, but the popularity of the NFL brand lives on and continues to grow. We get caught up in community pride, rivalries between franchises and social gatherings more as spectators of the sport than any one star athlete. You could argue that I am comparing a team sport with an individual sport, but look at NASCAR. They’ve done a great job of branding their sport as a collection of individual achievers and rivalries versus a single driver carrying the brand.
What it comes down to is this… a brand is a promise of an experience…not a logo, slogan or iconic athlete. How the brand experience is designed and delivered will ultimately determine the brand’s success. To be successful, the PGA needs to learn what “experience” its fan base responds to beyond an individual player’s persona and turn that into a repeatable deliverable.
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My assertion is not that the Tour is lacking star power, quite the opposite in fact.
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Now, a Texan boy named Jordan Spieth, who is just 20 years old, is dominating the Tour. There is little doubt that the PGA Tour’s talent pool is richer than it has ever been with players like those mentioned above, along with Rickie Fowler, Hunter Mahan, Jason Day, etc. Every week, world-class athletes compete on the Tour, and the enthusiasm of the fans reflects the increased difficulty of the competition.
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