How the European Tour is using digital media to shake up golf
One of the highlights of the European golf season takes place this weekend.
This is a sport which finds itself trying to fit into a niche in the digital world, but whilst the sport is enjoying some of the biggest hype that it has had in years – with the re-emergence of Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson as contenders and a raft of young charismatic players at the top of their game – the European Tour is peppering its season with new and exciting formats to diversify its appeal.
“We see ourselves as innovators in the game, or challengers in the market,” Roddy Williams Head of Content at the European Tour, tells me. “The PGA Tour is number one, but we want to lead the transformation of global golf and drive the innovation and agenda with new formats like the GolfSixes and the Belgian knockout or the Shot Clock Masters coming up in Austria.”
“72-hole golf is still going to be the pinnacle and it’s what people want, but there’s also a place for new formats, new initiatives and new ways of playing.”
This week, the BMW PGA Championship takes place at the iconic West Course at Wentworth, where the Tour’s headquarters are located, and with a prize purse of almost €6m, it’s one of the biggest events of the year. Despite experimentation with new formats to shake up the game and attempt to attract a younger more digitally-friendly audience, there’s still room for the traditional events.
“One of the beauties of golf generally is its unique challenges week-in, week-out,” says Williams. “Regardless of formats, you’ve got different courses, different conditions, fast-running links golf, parklands courses and mountainous courses. You need a different game for each of those combinations, and likewise you need a different game depending on the format of the tournament: playing just six holes is a fast sprint and anything can happen.”
“It’s important for us to show golf in all its different formats and show that golf is a fun sport because that’s ultimately what we are – we’re an entertainment company.”
It’s true that golf needs to be entertaining in order to get people watching, but the European Tour is also more than that, too. Like all other federations, leagues or governing bodies, it is also a custodian of its sport. On top of entertaining fans and putting on a show, the Tour has a duty to promote its players and ensure that the fans and wider public know who the best golfers in Europe really are.
“We’re very much a players’ organisation,” says Williams, “so we’re very different to football teams in that respect. The players are their own individual businessmen and everything that we do is to try to build their profile and to showcase their personalities.”
Handily, that’s a two way street. The players are professionals and many are big names, but they are also on a career path which they hope will take them one day to the top of the PGA Tour in America. So their willingness to embrace the self-promotion that’s on offer is also beneficial to the Tour’s content team who are helped massively by their ability pitch ideas to a vast number of players and receive positive responses.
That content has recently become award-winning content. Last month at the BT Sport Industry Awards, the European Tour was honoured with the Social Media Campaign of the Year award.
“It was fantastic to be recognised by the industry for the big pieces we do, but that’s just part of it,” Williams tells me. “It’s the week-in week-out content we have produced by the whole team who are really delivering some interesting pieces from every single tournament and from all corners of the globe.”
There are the everyday social media updates and post-round interviews alongside the viral videos we all know, but it goes beyond that, too. The incredibly in-depth Player Blog is a chance for the editorial team to sit with a different player at the start of every week to write a long-form article to really explore things. “Let’s sit down with them and ask some things that maybe you wouldn’t already know,” as Williams puts it. When you do that in an environment where the player knows it benefits him, you get the kind of article you’re unlikely to find anywhere else.
“Without the players, there’s really not an awful lot left of the European Tour – some wonderful destinations, admittedly, but the players are very much at the heart of what we do!”
Then there are the natural storylines. Week to week, form undulates and new players emerge. Given the differences between courses, the favourites change on a regular basis. But even within one tournament there’s a flowing narrative that changes on a micro level, sometimes from minute to minute. Dealing with a dramatic final nine on a Sunday must be a different beast to a sedate Thursday morning?
“The story changes, but the process from our side is consistent throughout the week: we have people following the action and trying to tell the story. Even if the actual story itself progresses as the tournament goes on.”
Golf can be overlooked as something of an anachronism, a stroll of a sport in a sprinter’s world. The truth is, it is perfectly suited to the social media age. Perhaps uniquely so.
A sport where every shot is an event means that every moment is a potential highlights clip. The whole week is followable on social media, and you know the best of the action will be there – even things you won’t see on a television broadcast, or indeed if you’re watching in person on the other side of the course.
“Golf in many ways is fortunate to have the likes of Twitter in that it’s being played over four days and there’s something going on all the time – and it’s quite often the unexpected.”
“It could be a great shot, it could be something amusing that we’ve spotted on the TV coverage, it could be something that the team on-site has picked up long before the TV coverage has started.”
“That gives us the opportunity to be really creative and to be innovative in what we’re showing, to react quickly. It’s an area we’ve focused on in the last few years and people are now seeing the benefits of that.”
There’s a balance to be struck. The viral videos of Ryder Cup captain Thomas Bjorn bringing the trophy to meet a fan who wrote him a letter, the Awkward Reporter series or Aaron’s Big Day are on the one hand. On the other is the everyday work showcasing players and their personalities. The same is true for the sport as a whole: the traditional stroke play events can be garnished with new and interesting formats throughout the year.
If the European Tour is the younger brother to the PGA, it is also the innovator and the risk taker. And it shows that golf is in a perfect position to use digital media to enhance the experience for its fans.
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