US Open Makes Strong Push Into Digital and Social Media, Supplemental TV

Heading into the final week before the US Open at Bethpage Black, the USGA has pieced together the most coherent, immersive digital media experience of any major sports even in the fledgling digital age. I’ve ranted about the unique position of golf and tennis to capitalize on digital media because of the international appeal, simultaneous play that TV can’t capture, depth of stats and strategy that invoke discussion, and multitude of different ways fans can experience a tournament. The USGA has stepped up to start attacking this user opportunity.

After the Masters, the USGA launched a casual online game at USOpen.com that allowed fans to play Bethpage Black. They setup various golf related competitions with leaderboards and prizes attached. Graphically, the game does a fantastic job of recreating the course and will attract fans just interested in looking at the hole layout. It also has many critical characteristics to create an attractive, sustainable gaming experience – element of competition, easy to play, ability to play in small chunks of time, and the aspect of interacting with reality in the form of the golf course.

Games have become a necessity in the online experience as users spend more and more time immersed in games, and games create new revenue opportunities. Same can be said for social media, its become a necessity. However, that has led to many useless implementations. Commend the USGA for creating a strategy, and then aligning its use of each tool with that strategy.

SBJ reports the tournament will use four Twitter feeds – one with general tournament information, which they have used well to disseminate information thus far, and three others that will follow three individual players selected by the fans around the course. Interactivity is one of the pillars of digital media. Giving the fans the vote on who they want to see is a good implementation. The next step is following each group and letting each fan follow who they want.

In partnership with IBM, the USGA has launched a free iPhone app that will stream live video and provide news and information (scores, updates, etc.). Mobile is a perfect distribution platform for golf. Fans at the event can use it because they can only see one or two holes at a time, while almost every hole has action, so it allows them to follow the entire tournament. The way fans view golf, one shot at a time, makes it a great mobile video play, fitting the short-form paradigm that has proven successful. It’s also a no-brainer because of the constant leaderboard changes and scoring updates.

Unfiltered message boards and online video will supplement the offering to create a complete package of interaction points for fans.

On the TV side, in addition to the ESPN and NBC coverage, DirecTV will offer three additional channels, similar to its Masters coverage. With one channel focused on a marquee group, one at a signature hole, and the third providing updates and presumably going around the course. While great for the golf fan, I view this coverage setup as a prelude to how the USGA – and golf in general – should approach online streaming. Add more user choice (as they are doing with Twitter), give the option for access to archives of past highlights from either the hole or the player, throw in some statistic applications, integrate the Twitter feed and/or the message board thread for the hole/player and its full-functional interactive experience. Fans will likely be willing to sacrifice quality for quantity and choice, so lower quality cameras, but more coverage. Golf should consider that as an online or interactive television play.

While the US Open deserves commendation on creating a solid strategic plan before delving into the digital space, they still need to execute and eventually monetize – a discussion I held off on here, but its certainly top of mind. One note, they did release the iPhone app with IBM, a great value-add sponsor integration for both sides. More to come as the Open plays out.

Advertisements

Twitter-LPGA Debate Misguided, Focus Should Be On Fans

Thus far, the debate on LPGA players tweeting during tournaments has focused on the divergent views of Commissioner Carolyn Bivens desire to have players actively messaging on the course and the players and media outspoken refusal to tweet during competition. However, the real underlying question is if players tweeting on the course can move the needle for a sport quickly moving toward absolute irrelevancy.

The LPGA tour is at a crossroads. They did sign a television deal earlier this year, but a small one at that without wide reach. Multiple tournaments have lost sponsors for this year or the coming year and been cancelled, with many more at risk. Television ratings barely register – if you can even find them on television, as the costs far outweigh the benefits.

Women’s golf lacks the Q rating that individual sports thrive on – the Williams sisters, Sharapova, Tiger, Federer. Michelle Wie was anointed that person, but has failed thus far.

Back to Twitter. Bivens is desperate to do anything to make the tour relevant and to gain attention. While most leagues have sampled the social media tool, she outwardly called for its use, embracing in hopes to win over fans. The question remains though, can Twitter, or any other social media platform, make the LPGA relevant?

No proof exists that it can. Bivens assumes more people will consume LPGA golf if the players are more accessible and bring fans behind the scenes more than other sports. That may be true, however it will not work in and of itself. A strong grassroots and digital marketing campaign needs to accompany Twitter. The players and tour do not have a strong enough presence in the online world yet.

Twitter is a social phenomenon at this point, nothing more. It has not YET proven its business merit, or ability to boost sales, or increase popularity. Most people are following celebrities, or people they already knew. It’s not opening the door to new products or reinvigorating brands.

On the flip side, no players on the LPGA tour should adamantly refuse to do anything at this point. The sport is on life-support. That’s your prize money, your job, your life, you should be willing to do anything and everything when the environment threatens it. Players need to keep an open mind.

Social media is all about interaction and innovation. The LPGA needs both in a desperate way – but it needs a lot more, and it needs it quick. Twitter is a complementary utility, not the core of any strategy. I’m sure the commissioner understands that and wasn’t implying otherwise with her comment, however the visible actions of the tour have not proven otherwise. Bottom line, they need to do more than Tweet.

Golf Needs to Revisit Business Model

Golf is arguably seeing the most direct impact from the economic recession. The higher income, older demographic of golf fans attracts a higher proportion of financial institutions as sponsors than other sports, many of which have had to pull back advertising. Not to mention that Buick and Chrysler have bigger problems than golf sponsorships right now.

The PGA has lost two sponsors for next year already, has had two other sponsors who received TARP money remove their name from tournaments (though still pay for the sponsorship), and has almost 1/3 of its tournament sponsors up for renewal after next year. A few non-PGA, made-for-TV tournaments have also been canceled. On the women’s side, a sport already at the fringe of sports, is facing significant problems due the recession, already losing three tournaments.

Sports sponsorships are already difficult to measure results against, with golf it’s more difficult and a riskier investment because it’s a one weekend deal. Sponsoring baseball or football gives the sponsor an entire season to integrate its brand with the sport and make an impact on fans, a prolonged time period to leverage new business. Golf gives a sponsor four days, or a week if you count the pro-am. And no guarantees on who is going to play, which impacts TV ratings and attendance more than in any other sport.

On top of participation and short time periods, golf tournaments have become increasingly more expensive to run – primarily thanks to skyrocketing payouts. According to a recent SBJ article, purses have doubled since 1999, an unsustainable rate that is raising costs for sponsors and tournament operators.

In the face of sponsorship problems and a growing popularity problem (when Tiger doesn’t play), golf needs to reinvent itself somewhat. On the sponsorship front, it needs to become more creative. A generic title sponsor doesn’t cut it anymore. The sport needs to do a better job of adding value for its sponsors, and helping them unlock the value that a golf sponsorship can provide. For tournaments struggling to find major sponsors, one idea is to localize. Put the name of the city on the event, or the local commerce bureau, and gather multiple local businesses in the area to come sponsor the event. Hold networking events, get employees involved with the players, find a way for each sponsor either to generate sales or leads through the tournament. The key is to focus local, and maximize the value by connecting sponsors with the community in a meaningful way, when you can’t sign national title sponsor.

Taking this a step further, golf should investigate creating a central authoritative body to work on sponsorship and revenue generation for the sport. The PGA, USGA, players, tournaments, it’s a hodge podge of stakeholders. The various constituents should jointly form a group – not too dissimilar from the internal consulting groups that most major leagues not use – to help with sponsorship sales, possibly leading to the point where companies can sponsor multiple tournaments, or maybe the entire season, through one entity. Tournaments working individually will not be sustainable in the long run. At the least, the smaller tournaments need to share resources.

On the player side, purses need to be scaled back and participation mandates put in place. Joe DiMaggio said he always played his hardest because there might have been one kid in the stands who had never seen him play before. Golfers should consider that when they decide to play one event a month – that means you too, Tiger. No matter how good you are at any sport, no player is bigger than the sport. Many systems have been considered – from a certain number of events per year to playing each event at least once every four years, but the question is what is the penalty and how to enforce it. The WTA mandates participation or they fine you. What could you possibly fine Tiger to make this enforceable? Again this comes back to creating a more centralized organization, one where the tournaments help each other. I think the best way is to create participation rules and the penalty for not meeting the requirements is not playing in the majors – with injuries and other personal reasons as the exceptions, just like other sports. Basketball teams don’t sign players each year just for the playoffs, the play all season to qualify for the playoffs. Golf needs an incentive system that forces players to play more than they do.

Revenues should dictate purses. Less television dollars, lower payouts. Less sponsorship money, lower payouts. Look to the other sports. Golf is an individual sport and fundamentally different than the major leagues, but it can use better governance and a more centralized approach.

One final thought on sponsorship, the title sponsor category lacks significant endemic sponsors. Where is the Nike Open? Yes, they sponsor individual players, but how could a tournament sponsorship not benefit a club or ball manufacturer. The product integration and sales possibilities are tremendous. If not a title sponsorship, a secondary or category sponsorship seems like a good idea. Overall, golf needs to reevaluate its structure and move to make the changes that have wide ranging impact on the business of the game.

Perfect Storm Damages PGA Tour

When Tiger Woods announced he was done for the season after an historic US Open performance, all eyes were on golf to see if any eyes would watch without Tiger. Greg Norman helped boost generate some interest at the British Open, yet SUnday ratings still tumbled 15% without Woods.

Back in the States, the final major of 2008, the PGA Championship, already fourth of four in terms of noterity and history was already facing an uphill battle without Woods. How about this for timing: the Opening Ceremonies for the Olympics falls right smack in the middle of the tournament, Brett Favre gets traded on the eve of the opening round, and bad weather prevents the leaders from even teeing off in the third round. Bad things come in threes, well that’s three knockout punches for the weakest golf major.

Golf needs to generate interest outside of Tiger, something they have failed to do this decade, however this weekend there is impossible to guard against. The Summer Olympics is once every four years, and is not always the same weeks of the summer, never mind an Olympics with as much anticipation as Bejing has generated, mostly for non-sports reasons. Plus, the Favre story took over the headlines and reached a peak at the wrong time for golf. They could not have prepared for this perfect storm – except to have people care about the players in contention, and without Tiger there, few do.

Can Golf Turn A Problem Into An Opportunity

PGA Officals could not have asked for a a better US Open, other than if Phil played the part of Rocco Mediate, though an aspect of the everday man helped bolster interest. However, a day later, when Tiger announced he was finished for the year, the outlook turned bleak.

It’s well documented that without Tiger TV ratings decline sharply, attendance decreases, sponsorship dollars are lower, basically the event becomes secondary on the US sports landscape. This week the problem is magnified with Tiger unable to appear at his own tournament, the AT&T National in Washington DC. A Tiger-less tournament is not exactly with the golf course, the sponsors, the network, or the ticket holders signed up for when they made their respective committments.

Business is business, none of the profit centers involved will give back committed money because Tiger is not playing. It’s the chance sponsors, ticket holders, and TV makes with sports, the uncertainty. Fox paid for the World Series already, whether its Yankees-Cubs or Devil Rays-Diamondbacks they will broadcast it, but clearly the revenue and ratings will be significantly different. Darren Rovell on CNBC.com raised the question of reimbursing sponsors since Tiger is not even appearing at his own tournament. I don’t see that as feasible, nor will any sponsors of tournaments Tiger was scheduled to play in later this year receive any reimbursements – at least not this year.

As mentioned, golf’s appeal without Tiger is significantly lower. If the rest of this season play’s out in that fashion – lower TV ratings, lower attendance, less buzz, and decreased ROI for sponsors, we may not be far from having “Tiger Provisions” in every contract. This year proves you never know what sport will throw at you. Few imagined Tiger would lose a whole season to a torn ACL in a non-contact sport. To protect themselves in the future I can envision sponsor’s and TV Networks paying two different rates for rights to a tournament – one if Tiger plays, one if not. 

However, with this threat on hand, golf has an opportunity to broaden its horizons. Now is the perfect time to market new stars. Make Trevor Immelman, DJ Trahan, and Adam Scott household names that casual fans know rather than players that draw a “who’s that” comment when they appear on the leaderboard in a major. Appeal to the international strength of the tour – KJ Choi, Geoff Ogilvy, Immelman, Sergio Garcia. THe tour boasts young stars abound from numerous countries around the world, an attribute no other major sport played primarily in this country can boast. The other major sports receive most of their imports from a small set of countries, while tennis not played in the US most of the season and has a myriad of its own problems.

Schedule these players for appearances, book appearances on sports talk shows, have one of them do the popular ESPN tour (when a player goes to Bristol for a day and appears on every show under the sun), hold cross-promotional events with big names/teams in other sports to draw fans from other sports. THrow out the first pitch at baseball games, sing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” at Wrigley, you name it they need to do it. Get these players in front of the American public. And put them closer to the fans with public appearances, hold clinics for kids during the summer tournaments. Work on having players appear in more commercials, have stories appear in ESPN Magazine and SI. Now is the time.

Without Tiger, more playhers have a chance to shine, and the Tour has a chance to provide the stage. Golf needs more young fans, after reaching a peak following Tiger’s initial impact, growth in golf, particularly youth golf and minority golf, has slowed or even slightly regressed. Marketing multiple players, and the game itself, rather than one player, will appeal to more people.

The longer golf waits to do this, the more risk they take on. Even when Tiger is active, the gap will continue to grow between Tiger and non-Tiger events. In a Ryder Cup season, with two major’s still left to play, now is the perfect time to introduce the new generation of players to the world. And they should market the heck out of the Ryder Cup, the closest thing to the Olympics in golf.

Masters Leaving Money on the Table

CNBC’s Darren Rovell wrote in his blog last week how the Masters is probably the most valued sports entity that tries not to make money (http://www.cnbc.com/id/24065180), citing the lack of sponsorships, reduced ticket sales, and limited merchandise. Going a step further, Augusta is missing unmatched opportunities to capitalize in digital media, both financially and expanding its fan base.

To call Augusta National conservative is a monumental understatement. The club feels it has a responsibility to uphold old-school tradition, avoiding commercialization at any cost. It took years for it to allow CBS to provide full final round coverage, or allow sponsors on premise. This year they took the plunge, partnering with ESPN for early round coverage. However, television alone no longer cuts it, evidenced by decreased ratings almost across the board in network televised sports.

The Masters did increase its live online video this year, providing live video of the Amen corner holes, complete coverage of holes 15 and 16, and one hour of complete coverage each day leading into the television broadcasts, on Masters.org and CBSSports.com. Supplementing the live video feeds with blogs, interviews, interactive games, and a mobile component, Masters.org registered 5.4 million unique visitors through the week who requested a total of 6.7 million video streams, 16% and 59% increases over last year respectively.

However, that is only the tip of the iceberg. Golf in general, particularly the Masters franchise, holds a unique position to capitalize on digital media by supplementing, rather than duplicating, television coverage. In an era where networks take wide criticism for following Tiger Woods’ every move, ignoring the rest of the field, the Masters and CBS has an opportunity to lure more golf fans by expanding live online coverage to every hole. No longer held hostage by TV decisions, viewers can create their own experience, as if they were at the tournament, watching a particular hole all day, or following a particular group.

Imagine a complete interactive experience, where a viewer watching the famous 13th hole can pull up video of past champions playing the hole, or memorable shots at the 13th hole. A devoted Freddy Couples fan has a chance to relive his performance on a given hole, then watch him play the hole live.

Take it to the next step, put a blogger on every hole for the entire tournament, or following select groups, chronicling the day as it unfolds. Connect the bloggers with fans through a social networking component. Provide a message board, let fans play a game where they guess what club a player will use, incorporate them into the event.

Though some may seem far-fetched, the opportunities are endless. If Augusta wants to continue leaving money on the table to keep the franchise non-commercial, so be it, they need to leverage this opportunity for the good of the sport. Expanding digital coverage opens the door to the younger audience, and more international exposure, two important demographics for golf, both of which the Masters inherently ignores with his old-fashioned mentality. A fan in Korea is more like to watch if they can follow K.J. Choi’s every move, from first tee right through signing his scorecard. Younger fans will flock to the interactivity, and the ability to customize the viewing will keep them tuned in, as opposed to the occasionally slow, somewhat boring TV coverage, sprinkled with feature stories that may not appeal to the entire audience.

New media allows for deeper penetration with the group I call “die-hards”, the fans already tuning in or attending the event. Golf is the rare sports event where a fan attending will see an insignificant portion of the total action because everyone plays simultaneously. Using mobile video to distribute the live streams enables these fans to follow the action around the course using their handheld devices. This year Masters.org used mobile alerts to send tee-times, pairings, scoring updates, and tournament info. Organizers can increase online and mobile video by alerting fans when a leader is putting for birdie, or if someone just hit a hole in one. Fans may want to receive a text message each time Phil Mickelson is putting, or whenever Vijay Singh tees off. Overall, it creates a more engaging experience for fans in attendance, or just not at home watching.

Money is there to be made with ad dollars online growing each day, if the Masters feels capitalizing on new media would denigrate its franchise, that’s its choice, other golf events and media outlets owning golf rights have these same opportunities. At a cross-roads where TV ratings hinge on whether Tiger plays or not, with a slight decrease in popularity and play since peaking earlier this decade, golf has a unique opportunity to leverage new media to build interest across the globe. They must take advantage before other sports reel everyone in. Hopefully they are not too rooted in tradition to see this.