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.

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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?

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.

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.