My son has a T-shirt that reads “I’m What’s Next.” It’s a little audacious for a 6-year-old, but my wife thought it was cute. I worry. What is next?
That is a question the golf world faces in the wake of a week where Tiger Woods couldn’t sit up for a press conference. It is no secret that when Tiger is done, so are thousands (if not millions) of golf fans who were really only fans of Tiger. We can no longer hope to court them. They’ve been given plenty of opportunities to fall in love with “other” golfers.
What the sport needs is to continue cultivating the 18-35 demographic. This weekend offered that chance.
Dustin Johnson became the No. 1 ranked golfer in the world. He’s uber-athletic. He hits it far. He wows you with his talent. He’s married to a social media sweetheart and model. He has a past full of controversy, partying and juicy innuendo. He is everything a bland sport needs to continue crossing over.
In Australia, the European Tour turned conventional 72-hole stroke play on its head with a Sunday overload of match play. In an effort to confront the lack of attention span, six-hole matches were fast and furious. Brett Rumford medaled in stroke play and won three matches to sweep the field. It was fun, including a 93-yard playoff hole. Tip of the cap to the European Tour, which has always been at the forefront of creative thinking. Your turn, Zurich Classic!
Did either of these events attract new and younger viewers to the television? We won’t know immediately, but how do we keep the momentum going and recruit more fans? Here are some ideas:
Skills Contests – After several good years, the NBA Slam Dunk Contest on Saturday night was weak, but the legacy of that competition was at the heart of the league’s popularity explosion in 1980s and 1990s. Yes, Michael Jordan helped, but casual fans flocked to the All-Star Weekend superlatives.
Golf needs an equivalent in primetime. Whether it’s target practice at TopGolf, or a game of HORSE on a range somewhere, let’s highlight how "these guys are good." Allow casual clothes, maybe a six-pack of beer and microphones on all players to get trash talk.
Pro-Am Access – Have you shopped the opportunity to play in a PGA Tour Pro-Am lately? Start saving your pennies. The pro-am model raises millions for the most charitable sports organization in the world. That’s important. However, it limits access.
How’s this: Every tournament has a lottery for two pro-am teams, open to any golfers aged 16-30. It connects younger players to the game, gets them interacting with professionals and breaks down some of the elite barriers that still exist.
There are many events that provide spots to folks with extenuating circumstances, but if this was a year-long policy, it offers a tremendous growth opportunity.
Stay Viral – The folks at Skratch are just getting warmed up as the PGA Tour invests in alternative entertainment to connect with the millennial generation. Trick-shot videos made Wesley Bryan a star before his best Tour finish yesterday. All of it humanizes a sport, condensed in quick online clips.
The added benefit: Young fans at home can actually hone skills and a love for the game trying to match those exploits. Knocking a bottle over with a chip shot is easy to try in your back yard, and gives a player plenty of reps. Does it lead to watching a five-hour round on TV? No, but it generates players. That’s a start.
The Other Winner
Each week during the season, I will offer up one player who, while not winning, escaped unnoticed with a big finish.
Thomas Pieters – Dustin Johnson’s 64 on Sunday morning ended the tournament early, but it was the low round of the week (63) by Pieters that afternoon that provided some ancillary fireworks. While many were properly introduced to Pieters’ talent at the Ryder Cup, his rise was no surprise to many.
Pieters won an NCAA championship at Riviera in 2012, which was lost in the shadow of Jordan Spieth’s team win at Texas. He’s risen through the ranks rapidly since. Now assured of a WGC start in Mexico, expect the Belgian to be a leaderboard stalwart for years to come.