Natural Evolution of Advertising Hits Golf

ProBagAds might be changing how player sponsorship and advertising for golfers work. SBJ reports the company has released a golf bag with a built-in H-D, weatherproof digital display that can show advertisements, similar to the outdoor digital billboards that are growing in popularity. Tour player Michael Allen debuted the bag in August.

At a time when sports sponsorships have come under fire, hitting golf particularly hard, and with technology innovation creating new, potentially valuable inventory this product is a natural fit. For those who say digital advertising on a golf bag would mar the traditions of the game should go look at what sponsorship has already activated, look at the Fed Ex Cup format, and the purses that golfers earn at each tournament. In the end, if golfers want to earn the big paychecks and support each other, the golf community needs to be open to these ideas.

Don’t expect to see Tiger or Phil walking this course with these bags anytime soon. They don’t need to, since they garner so many top notch sponsorships. It’s targeted to the middle and lower tier players, those scrapping through with less fanfare. Even if those player’s previously had sponsorships, those sponsors have to question the ROI of paying individuals with less media exposure and less probability of contending for wins. This brings those players back in play – and creates potential opportunities for tournaments and the Tour itself to boost revenue.

I envision a formula similar to online ad networks emerging, where ProBagAds (or an agency representing them) will sign players on to use the bags for a percent of revenue generated from their bag. This incentivizes and rewards good play, since golfers who make the cut have four rounds of inventory instead of two, plus national television exposure on the weekend. ProBagAds can find a way to price inventory different for players in contention receiving more media exposure on the weekend, and subsequently pass through the additional revenue to those players.

On the sponsor side, ProBagAds can then go sell a network of inventory across many players to the sponsors. This mitigates the risk of sponsoring an individual, expands the reach and exposure of a golf-based campaign, and reduces the cost of entry by sharing it across many advertisers. Further, the digital component offers space for more compelling creative, calls to action, and better recognition overall thanks to the clarity of the screen. Inventory is probably best sold on a time basis, similar to TV.

While more complicated, tournaments and the PGA Tour could potentially get a stake in the process by signing up players without other sponsorships and offering some form of compensation. Then they could sell advertising or create more value for current sponsors, and use that to help underwrite the growing purses that have put some tournaments at risk.

Outdoor digital advertising works, and works well. The economics are sounds – the screen only costs $2500-$4000 to install, which the product will easily make it back in short order. It’s a great way for brands to get involved with the sport without committing big money, a way for players not earning millions to supplement income, and golf properties to earn incremental revenue. The questions remains though, who will play the role in sales and representation as the product evolves.

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PGA Shows Online’s Ability to Attract International Fans

Omniture data showed South Korea accounted for .9% of Turner’s record setting web traffic for Thursday of last weekend’s PGA Championship, ranging up to 2.3% for Sunday’s final round. In absolute numbers the 30-50k unique users may not move the needle, and Y.E. Yang may not be the player that captivates a nation (at least yet). However, take South Korea, add in the many other countries on that side of the globe with an interest in the sport, either because of Tiger or country representation in the tournament, and on the aggregate these fans add significant valuable.

I’ve wrote about this in the past – golf and tennis are two of the sports that can most benefit from live streaming and in-depth, user oriented online coverage. The individual play that creates simultaneous action in multiple locations, and international tilt of the players create an opportunity. Golf embraced live, free online streaming last year, tennis more so this year, thankfully removing the pay wall from Wimbledon – or maybe not. Live streaming does call for a “fremmium” model, free sampling of coverage provided by the network, then a fee-based service to give users the opportunity to control their own experience, follow who they want, get advanced stats, etc.

Neither sport is their yet. South Korea tunes in and they want to Yang. England tunes in to tennis and they only care about Andy Murray. Digital providers need to allow fans to really customize their experience and give them the tools to watch any player they want online. Provide access to archives of that player, let them see his/her greatest shots, past performance at the tournament, even throw a camera on the practice range. An all-encompassing experience needs to be possible.

Not everything must be HD or professionally shot, sometimes a web-cam in the sky is sufficient for a tertiary view to feed the long-tail of viewer interest. Leagues can generate engagement with the data and archived video they already own. Once they put all of that online in an accessible format, expenses to provide the customized experience should remain low, with potential revenue increasing.

As a marketing tool, which digital is though people often forget this point, it promotes the game in these various countries. Live streaming, minimal spending on aggressive viral awareness campaigns can lead to audience sampling, and if they like what they see these sports can start to build a sustainable audience into the future. This increases the value of holding international events, selling international television rights, selling separate sponsorships through the digital platform, and someday integrating more overseas sponsors into live events), if they can generate enough interest.

With TV ratings suffering, particularly on the women’s side, and TV coverage waning between majors, online is a critical component to the long-time sustainability of these sports. It can drive attendance, introduce new revenue streams, enhance ancillary revenue streams, and most importantly build a new fan base.

Buick Open Worth Saving (Sponsors Needed)

Did you see today’s Final Round of the Buick Open, likely the last of the annual event in the Detroit area? Outside of Happy Gilmore, never have I seen a golf crowd (gallery for those golf insiders) so into the tournament, having so much fun, yet still respecting the game. Not Bethpage, not the Ryder Cup, nowhere ever. Tiger charging down the stretch with the lead helps any tournament, but this was different. Even through the TV, you can feel the passion of the fans – for the golf, for car industry, and the pride in where they live. Chants of “Let’s Go Buick” emanated from the stands.

After watching this unfold, how could the PGA let this tournament die? Maybe it would have been different if it wasn’t going to be the last year, or if Tiger didn’t play and carry the lead on Sunday, but they deserve another shot.

For the right brand, it’s a great sponsorship opportunity. Seeing the passion the fans showed for Buick today, another brand with the right fit could generate tremendous positive recognition and yield a measurable return by partnering with Buick to sponsor next year’s tournament. GM is significantly cutting back its sports sponsorship commitments, though not to $0. If they were to kick in a percent (say 10-25) of the title sponsor fee, another brand could pay the rest, and they would share tournament naming rights (i.e. Buick Open presented by Brand or The Buick-Brand Open). Tournament officials could manage expenses by minimizing big hospitality expenditures and working with the tour on purse money. Maybe not the most extravagant tournament, however positive PR for the tour, for players, and for the partner brand.

After seeing the passion in that crowd today, if the right brand steps in, that entire region would view them as saviors. It’s a good way to generate brand awareness or shed positive light on a troubled brand. The Communications teams can publicize how the company stepped in to help Buick, how committed they are to the area, and engage in community activities to solidify that. At that point, the brand has a highly engaged audience in the Detroit area, plus a compassionate national audience, they could deliver product messages and position the brand. The end game is sales, and when you bring a brand to the forefront in such a positive manner, customers will listen to the message and are more likely to follow through with purchases.

Without seeing TV ratings, attendance figures, and other measurement data, or understanding corporate performance and company strategy’s for that region, it’s hard to pinpoint potential partners and target price tags. It could be as straight forward as a retailer, like Walmart, on solid standing and marketable to people looking to cut expenses, or a big name QSR could find an angle to work with Buick or use the time to intro a new product.

Without more analysis, I don’t know the best answer. But I do know that after watching that crowd, any brand that partners with Buick and rescues this tournament will be embraced with open arms. Do any of these media exposure valuation companies put a dollar value on having an entire gallery chanting your brands name on national television with Tiger Woods walking on the screen?

LPGA Needs Visionary Leader and Game Changing Support

It’s not often that an entire league of players unifies against a commissioner without any intermediary coming to the latter’s defense. Usually these disputes have two sides. Not so here, Carolyn Bivens performed so poorly nobody could logically defend her. She leaves the tour in a vulnerable situation heading into 2010 with major questions surrounding its schedule, lack of interested sponsors, and dwindling fan support – among other problems.

Bivens situation played out quickly in the end, an immediate resignation avoided another negative situation for the tour. Now the hard part. The next commissioner steps into a make or break situation. How the next year or so plays out for the LPGA will determine if it survives as a major sport in the next 5-10 years.

Many quality people are in the running for the job now occupied by acting commissioner Marty Evans – Donna Orender and Cindy Davis among them. However, does the next commissioner need to be a woman? Although it makes sense to have a powerful woman as the face of a woman’s sport, last check Larry Scott did a pretty good job with the WTA. The tour needs someone with a plan, someone with a track record of action and decisiveness, and most importantly a charismatic commissioner that can sell the sport to sponsors and sell the plan to players. It does not need to be a woman.

Looking at the current LPGA situation analogous to past labor disputes in major sports, in this case the players and leadership acting as the league side and the title sponsors, advertisers, and fans as the union. Before making any progress with sponsors and fans, the league side needs to get on the same page. The next commissioner needs to come in, get the players – past and present – in a room and create a plan by soliciting input from everyone. The tour must present a unified front and execute it. In-fighting shows weakness and creates a negative public perception. The player language issues, Twitter, you name it, Bivens presented her stance, then almost immediately most players disagreed with her. That must stop.

From the outside, Bivens seemed brash and approached negotiations from a controversial, adversarial perspective. That does not fly in today’s market, nor is the LPGA, without a strong national TV deal or tremendous fan support, in position to dictate terms. The next commissioner needs to develop a partnership model that adds value to the tournament sponsorship, find ways to manage costs more efficiently, not impose increased purses and production costs on tournaments without providing more value. They have multiple routes to achieve this. One such idea is to make the tour a platform for woman that transcends golf. Specifically target the entire female demo with different initiatives for young woman, adults, and older woman. The key is taking it beyond the sport. While promoting the sport, the fan base must exceed the participation numbers. Further, creating this platform that woman can rally around gives sponsors a marketing tool to reach the target demo and showcase products.

The tour needs to act quick and decisively in selecting the commissioner, then the commish needs to do the same when taking office. Pumping life back into the tour will take a concerted effort by everyone involved, but its not out of the realm.

Tiger Sets Model for Recovering Golf’s Image

Everything in golf comes easier when Tiger Woods is involved – sponsorships, TV ratings, attendance, media coverage, energy, excitement, everything. So it’s no surprise that the tournament Tiger hosts, last week’s AT&T National, and Tiger eventually won on the final few holes, scored tremendous ratings and record attendance. But how they drew the attendance opens the door to how golf should think.

Tiger let kids under 12 and military officers in FREE. It may not directly effect TV ratings, but it certainly helps draw attendance. The overall effect may return positive net revenue. Families on the fence about attending because its an expensive proposition for a family of four, suddenly looks at it as a value entertainment option. Instead of not attending the family comes, the adults pay, and the tournament yields concessions and merchandise revenue from the children. Though tough to quantify, golf as a sport, and the local tournament specifically, penetrates the younger generation, earning new fans, and a lifetime of revenue potential.

In the bigger picture, golf and golfers rely on sponsorships more than other major sports, since it makes the tournaments possible and subsidizes many players. The recession has exasperated sports sponsorships. Commissioner Finchem argued that golf’s charity work is not highlighted, and too much focus placed on sponsorships and spending. Well, I say do something about it instead of complaining and pointing at the media. The sport controls perception to an extent. If they feel community work deserves more attention, emphasize it, talk about it, make sure it’s done publicly. While not exactly charity work, allowing youths and military free entrance qualifies as goodwill.

Indirectly, as positive public perception grows, fans are drawn to the sport. Plus, welcoming the youth demo and executing on the entertainment portion, creates a new segment of interest. The result – better, and somewhat Tiger-proof, TV ratings.

Golf is the rare sport where seating capacity does not limit attendance, so outside of the major tournaments courses should be able to support a few extra people. It’s an easy way to leverage unused capacity to generate additional revenue for the tournament, create positive PR and a fan friendly brand image for the sport, and yield long-term benefits for the sport. Contrary to Jim Brown’s comments, Tiger does take public stands. Not everything needs to be political or racial to have an impact.

More Golf Commentary: Turner Extends PGA Partnership, US Open Decisions

Turner announced a long-term extension to continue carrying the PGA Championship and operating PGA.com. The burning question – when will they start to leverage the asset for the value its worth? Turner should take a note from the USGA’s digital presentation of the US Open – then take it up a notch from there.

Golf is event driven, the website should reflect this with tons of in-event interaction for fans. Golf should embrace live streaming, and give the user more opportunities to customize the experience. A golf event is a microcosm of the “long-tail” effect of digital media – many story lines simultaneously playing, each with some interest. Put small, low cost cameras out on each hole, so a fan can follow players around the course, watch a mosaic view and skip around to holes, or view a specific hole. It doesn’t need to be HD production, since viewers still have the TV coverage, but supplement it.

In addition, unlock the archives and all its potential. Let users watching a hole call up shots that the same player hit in past years on that hole, or check what recent champs did on that same shot, or watch the best all-time shots on that hole or by that player or on that course – get the point, endless options. Get the footage online and tagged. Building on that, have a player instruction section with tips, have caddie’s blog, make more interactive games like the US Open, also put Fantasy games to generate more interest, allow fans to debate golf strategy and club selection during an event. Bottom line, digital media is more than throwing up some video and a Twitter feed. The PGA and Turner are behind the curve, and need to make progress for this partnership to succeed.

Back to US Open for a second, one of the most poorly run big sports events in history. Lessons. Be proactive, not reactive to potentially damaging situations. The USGA was shamed into allowing fans from Thursday’s rainout use their tickets on Monday, and were lucky to have a Monday. They should have a contingency ready for what is obviously a possible situation.

Another lesson, be content with not finishing on Sunday. Starting the third round at 7 PM on Saturday night, and the 4th round late on Sunday made NO SENSE. Golf is meant to be played in 18 hole increments, don’t start when you have no chance to finish. Fans had trouble following the tournament, players were not in the same rhythm they follow each week. Live with the fact you need Monday to finish. People will flock to the US Open, don’t put a low-quality product out to meet time constraints. It hurt the ratings, and hurt the tournament.

Another comment on fan experience, outlawing cell phones does not work in 2009. Fans complained about not being able to meet each other, not knowing the weather situation, and not knowing what’s going in general. They need to change this.

Athlete Actions Feed the Sponsorship Stereotype

One action served as a good example of why two stereotypes currently plague the world of sports sponsorship. As the public continues to criticize public companies for frivolous spending during a recession and the people cringe at the ever escalating salaries of athletes in walks Vijay Singh sporting his Stanford Financial sponsored apparel.

The same Stanford Financial wrangled in Federal case into a Ponzi scheme run by its leader. Ironically, the same day articles about Allen Stanford’s trial ran prominently in the Wall Street Journal.

It shows poor judgment by Singh and his representation. By adorning Stanford gear he is essentially advocating the brand and associating himself with the company – one that lied to customers and lost lots of money for lots of people. In fact, the very $8m paid to Singh to sport the company logo could have come from this fraudulent activity. Does Vijay Singh advocate how Stanford runs its business? I have a hard time believing otherwise considering he is well aware of the news and still wears it.

Earlier this year, Stanford pulled its sponsorship of an LPGA tournament, so why is the company allowing Singh to flaunt its logo during what should be dark days for the firm. It’s not the time to build brand awareness or try to repair public perception. I’m sure lawyers and agents can work out a deal to get Singh the money he’s owed and prevent him from this negative association.

Thoughtless actions like this are what increases public outcry against sponsorships and pressure companies to avoid sports sponsorships. Athletes should act more responsible. Companies should step in and control the situation more. One negative action like this can damage the efforts of everyone else trying to make good.