Over the last 12 months, I’ve listened to many of the top golf podcasts, read hundreds of articles from leading golf publications, and viewed dozens of interviews from players & pundits alike – all on the state of the professional golf game.
Nearly every stakeholder involved seems aligned that the current state of professional golf — how it’s viewed and consumed and how players are compensated/treated — is at a breaking point. Lines are being drawn – which is never a good thing for building common ground. Advocates for the traditional legacy tour structure and the PGA Tour are on one side and those in favor of change and a new week-to-week experience seem to be aligning with LIV Golf – the upstart Saudi Arabia backed golf league funded directly through its Public Investment Fund (PIF).
I have heard ideas on how to bring both sides (LIV and the PGA Tour) together. As long as there is an irrational financial actor of sorts (in this case, the Saudi/PIF backed LIV) maneuvering full steam in pursuit of what it believes are sound sovereign objectives, there will be no quick path to resolution or cohesion amongst interested parties.
With that in mind, establishing common ground with LIV as an entity should not be the objective for the PGA Tour. In contrast, the PGA Tour’s operating objective should be to strengthen its underlying product which will indirectly thwart competition over time.
PGA vs LIV & The Plight of Professional Golf
In theory, the business of golf and sports should only continue to grow over the next decade and more sports leagues (see soccer/international football and Super League) will face the risk of being disrupted by wealthy owners or actors alike – simply because of the opportunity for wealth gains. There are numerous structural factors driving this increased competition (globalization, digitization, and the growth of sports media, etc) but it’s mostly just a tenet of capitalism – the pros and cons of which are not worth debating here.
We can (and should) of course be vocal about the moral concerns of a sovereign nation aiming to buy a sport (particularly a government like Saudi Arabia with a horrendous human rights record); however, screaming this from the rooftops is unfortunately not going to change the path for the PGA Tour.
For over a decade, I have worked in a consultative capacity (PNC Financial Services, PwC Advisory, Markacy) advising hundreds of companies on strategies to improve the performance of their underlying products and services. This experience has provided me with the ability to perform detailed root cause analyses of different business situations, understand business and marketing strategy best practices, and help organizations improve overall decision making in relation to their goals. While every organization is unique, this background informs my perspectives with respect to advising the PGA Tour.
To expand, any successful organization acts in the best interest of its stakeholders – which often includes building barriers to entry to thwart off new entrants. However, corporate entities cannot fully take up the business of directly deterring new entrants. In fact, a better tactic is often to focus on driving excellence in a product so that the cost of another enterprise stealing significant market share outweighs the perceived gains.
To this effect, I have heard productive ideas for how the legacy PGA Tour can improve its product and provide a defense against more detractors to LIV or LIV-like organizations. However, I have not seen an approach that organizes the possible tactics the PGA Tour can explore in a comprehensive and structured way. In this post, I am sharing possible tactics the PGA Tour could use to retain popularity for years to come, which are derived from years of experience in management consulting, finance, and marketing.
This will start first with an assessment of the customer fanbase across professional golf and then second, a dissection of the key factors that should be addressed to maximize the PGA Tour product. The playbook presented here may include similar tactics for other legacy professional tours (Korn Ferry, DP World, LPGA) but those are less in focus for the purposes of this article.
So, How Big Is The Market For Golf?
LIV is investing as if there are hundreds of millions of golf fans globally and that the market for golf is tens of millions of weekly viewers. Yes, it’s true that approximately 70 million people ‘play’ the sport of golf globally. But there are not even close to 70 million legitimate golf fans or customers that can attract advertising/sponsorship dollars (only approximately 10m viewers tune into the Masters – arguably the most popular event in the sport). Perhaps LIV feels there could be ‘if only the product and experience of golf improved’.
My argument is that sports are rooted in generational interests and to suggest that a flashier product is all of a sudden going to attract millions of more viewers into golf each week (away from basketball, football, soccer, etc) is not reasonable.
Niche sports leagues can experience accelerated growth in short periods of time. Pickleball for example has attracted a lot of attention lately as a niche upstart league. But the idea that it will be a major sport or sports league with annual revenues in the next decade comparable to the big 3 US sports leagues (MLB, NBA or NFL) or global leagues like the English Premier League is not legitimate according to any reasonable business forecast.
Further, no executive running the PGA Tour or even aiming to build a new golf tour should be making financial decisions assuming golf is more than a niche professional sports market right now. People like pickleball because it’s different and fun to play (across all ages) but the television viewing product is mediocre at best. The same can be said for golf. Just because people like to play a sport does not mean they want to dedicate hours of time toward viewing it.
Yes, the market for golf and perhaps viewing golf is growing, but not at a pace that justifies the financial investments we’re seeing in the LIV landscape.
Who Is The Typical Golf Fan?
While there are infinite ways for performing a customer segmentation analysis, from my perspective, golf audiences can essentially be lumped into the following categories:
- Hardcore Golf Fans
- ‘Major’ Viewers
- Casual Golf Fan
Hardcore Golf Fans
Out of transparency, I put myself in this category. I was first introduced to golf as a little kid as my late father was a golf nut. He was self taught (picked the game up at the age of 13 committing swing tips from Ben Hogan and other greats to memory) and ultimately became a pretty good amateur player. He was a competitive golfer in high-school, became a teaching pro for a period of time in his early 20s, and would often compete for club championships and other local amateur events in his 30s, 40s, and 50s. He was also lucky enough to tick off a good chunk of the top 100 U.S. golf courses.
But more than all of that, Dad would preach the greatness of the game and help anyone he encountered with their swing; and while I did not commit to playing the game with intent until the more recent years, I always appreciated his passion and shared a true love for the sport.
Now while every hardcore golf fan has their own story in terms of what got them into the game, they all tend to have one core characteristic in common: They love playing and watching golf.
They may enjoy following the careers of upstart players (e.g., Sahith Theegala, Tom Kim, and other Korn Ferry studs who recently obtained their PGA Tour card), tracking performance on Friday of the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro Am to watch Jordan Spieth make a move, or just simply tuning in to see whoever is leading the Memorial headed into the weekend.
This is not because every golf tournament is fascinating or that the television broadcast consistently captivates the hardcore golf fans but because they simply love golf. Many love prepping for the golf majors (almost as if they’re playing themselves), they tolerate the FedEx Cup but engage because it’s golf of course, and they obsess over the Ryder Cup.
Golf is a year long activity for them – both viewing their favorite players and trying to bring new tips into their own game.
The common misconception is that the hardcore fan is only a traditionalist – one who wears country club collared shirts and khaki pants. Yes, that group may represent a big part of the segment; but there are many other golfers who also classify as hardcore fans who not only tune into numerous tournaments throughout the year but also consume golf content over YouTube, prefer a more casual golf attire, and are open to a new golf product.
In some ways, hardcore golf fans as a group cover the widest spectrum in how they view golf and themselves within the golf world. But whatever form they show up in, hardcore golf fans need to be viewed as golf lovers and important customers for growing the golf market.
Hardcore golf fans are the main viewers of week-to-week PGA Tour content and make up the majority of revenue, but are dwarfed in number by the next segment during a few ‘special’ weeks of the year.
These people play golf (many are very good, some less so) but they primarily watch and consume golf only during the four major championships. They love the Masters, like the British and US Open Championships and may tune in for a PGA championship once in awhile. Some can call upon historical moments about the majors in casual conversation and name 40+ professional golfers, while others only track the biggest of names.
All in all, major viewers are a large percentage of the total market and a big reason for why the number of weekly golf viewers wells from ~2m on average to 10m + during major weeks.
This group golfs from time to time and may even watch a major championship (i.e., Masters) but golf is not a consistent part of their life. It could be in the future, but most are content playing occasionally vs watching golf weekly and will choose to watch other sports when given the choice.
It seems that LIV backers are operating under the assumption that golf has a massive base of ‘casual fans’ — like the NFL does — who perhaps play golf and will love watching the sport even more if the product was only presented in a different form.
Perhaps over multiple decades this may pan out, but I don’t see this as an achievable near/mid term state. Golf is still an expensive and nuanced sport. It requires a lot of time to appreciate and understand, and frankly most people just don’t find the pace of this play or viewership that interesting.
That’s OK. The NFL doesn’t pretend to be something it’s not and still succeeds with its target audience at a high level.
Casual golf fans are certainly a growth market that could be swayed by a new experience because there isn’t the same allegiance to the PGA Tour that many hardcore golf fans and major viewers have; but I don’t think the PGA Tour should over-rotate here if that means it has to market itself in a way it’s not well positioned for.
How Should The PGA Tour Move Forward?
In my view, the history of any professional sport and especially golf matters because it sets the tone for future standards of performance. In general, I’d recommend the PGA Tour work to preserve the overall history of the game while welcoming in productive enhancements.
In essence, the PGA Tour needs to continue to appeal to hardcore golf fans (by improving its product considerably) while introducing new significant enhancements that will help grow its week to week market share with casual fans and major viewers in a way that doesn’t change who it is.
In order to strike this balance, I’d like to present a framework that encompasses four categories of possible adjustments the PGA Tour can undertake:
- On-Site Experience
- The TV Product
- Week To Week Format
The current PGA Tour schedule (which is undergoing some necessary tweaks now that will impact the 2023 season and come more into effect in 2024) has traditionally operated under a nearly year long calendar of events (45+).
Along with major tournaments, international competitions and exhibition events, this means the top players have the ability to essentially compete every week of the year. Imagine if the NFL or NBA (notably more physically demanding) tried to attract viewers 50+ weeks out of the calendar year. The product would become significantly less exciting, and frankly less good.
Scarcity drives eyeballs, and fewer events also means players are more well rested and prepared for the ones they do play in. If I’m the PGA Tour, I’m significantly reducing the number of events and maximizing the purse within those set events.
Though I understand the counter-arguments, I would not be too concerned about annoying sponsors. If the product and ROI potential is good, there will always be a marketing team ready to deploy capital.
The tour’s main changes right now include:
- (i) establishing more elevated events (effectively to ensure its top players are competing together more often — this also indirectly creates a tour within its tour where lesser established players can compete on the smaller stages to increase their standing in professional golf),
- (ii) doing away with the current wrap-around season, and
- (iii) establishing a ‘new fall season’ that will possibly feature no-cut, international centric events (the schedule in aggregate may shorten some though that’s not fully clear at the moment).
Yes, this new fall schedule could offer some exciting exhibition formats – perhaps with the inclusion of team events, competing amongst golfers who are all using the same equipment (unlikely to ever get sponsors on board), or more format variation (scrambles, alternate shot, etc). But at the end of the day, changes to the fall professional golf schedule (presumably after the tour championship and majors) will only be looked at as an exhibition and this does not make the core part of the competitive spring/summer/early fall schedule any more desirable. It just makes the ‘off season’ suck slightly less.
To me, these new changes from the PGA Tour (in alignment with the elite players) are a step in the right direction, but it’s still too much PGA Tour golf to provide a premier product each week. It makes no sense that top players are OK taking off ~40% of the pga tour schedule (e.g., Jordan Spieth may play 25 events out of the 40+ on the PGA Tour Schedule).
Imagine that in another professional sport — even with the NBA’s ‘load maintenance’ tactics, it would be unfathomable if a healthy LeBron only played in 50 games. Plus, this change is partly because of the fact that the grand prize in golf is really the major championships which are not administered by the PGA Tour.
The Tour would be so much more valuable if the top players competed against each other every week (and were excited to do so) – building up to a year long grand prize. I know scarcity is a near impossible act for a sports league (i.e., the NBA should have fewer than 82 games, MLB should less than 162 with perhaps an extended postseason, the NFL didn’t need to go to 17 games) but organizations need to put their product first at all times. Without that, you become vulnerable for disruption and the costs are far worse.
From my review, there should be approximately 25 – 30 PGA Tour events from January to September, and top players should be expected to play in all of them. While there are some cons with significantly reducing the schedule and I am sensitive to making sure ‘all members’ have meaningful opportunities to compete, I don’t think it’s in the Tour’s best interest to be overly concerned with having fewer money making opportunities for lesser established players unless doing so diminished the product of the PGA Tour.
Frankly, if you’re on the PGA Tour, there should be a modest (in professional sports terms) guaranteed salary to all your members of ~$500k – enough to recognize being on the Tour but not enough to discourage competing for prize money each week. You can also give out money for top performances on Thursday and Friday of tournament weeks (e.g., lowest 10 daily scores get a bonus) so even golfers who do not make the cut are still incentivized to compete hard. The Korn Ferry and other development tours may only be strengthened if the reduced number of tournaments means budding professionals can play there in off weeks.
Beyond the reduced schedule, I would make several other major changes:
- I would hold a mid season 36-hole tournament for the top 40 players in ranking points. The top 10 individual performing players in the FedEx or year-long standards would get to captain and pick teams of 4 (draft style and it would be televised). There would also be an opportunity to introduce all-star/skills type challenges into this event (an exhibition type format is always better and more engaging in season vs in the off season). Plus if the team concept (see below) gets off the ground, it would be exciting for fans to hypothesize about players who didn’t start on the same team shifting around based on who they like playing with/etc.
- I would further invest in the annual season ending championship (FedEx 2.0). Regardless of the sponsor, the FedEx Cup Playoffs format needs to evolve. Some of the golf courses in recent years are good but it’s often challenging to host a golf tournament in the Northeast in late August weather-wise (course are often soft and not as challenging as they should be). Perhaps the Northeast courses could shift to other tournament venues pending the final revised schedule but the FedEx 2.0 should be hosted on major-calibur courses with major-like conditions. I would consider keeping East Lake Golf Club in the rotation but frankly would showcase other courses as well.
- I would host FedEx 2.0 over two consecutive weeks and restructure it around a two-week long match-play tournament. There is no real significance to the current FedEx structure that has three (3) distinct weekly tournaments other than to force a winner each week which feels unnatural. I would argue that’s not necessary and in a playoff structure, it’s better to just build toward the final event where you ultimately crown a winner.
- In FedEx 2.0, the top 72 individual player finishes during the year (based on a points based system similar to the current season long structure) would qualify for the two-week playoffs. The top 8 season long individual finishes would get a bye to the final playoff round (week 2) while the other 64 would compete in the Week 1 playoff round.
- Week 1 would entail breaking up the 64 players into 16 teams of 4 (seeded based on the season long points system to reward strong annual performance). Each player would play three (3) 18-hole matches against the other players in their group across Thursday – Saturday, and the top points leader within each group would advance to the final round on Sunday (16 players). Any ties at the top within each group would go to a 3-hole playoff and then sudden death (if needed) until a group winner was identified. On Sunday, each of the 16 players would play 1 match (seeded by season long points) and the 8 winners would make it to the final round, Week 2, to compete with the top 8 season long point finishers. With this system, the Playoff Finals would feature many of the world’s top ranked players along with the hottest players from Round 1.
- Week 2 would then be a standard individual match play bracket (in essence a Sweet Sixteen March Madness format) that takes place over four days – seeded by season long points. Four (4) wins would result in the top prize and winner of the FedEx 2.0 Championship.
- Despite concerns over the Match Play format from a TV coverage perspective, it is a significantly underutilized format that creates great intrigue for golf viewers. Stroke play with a small field often leads to too much statistical variety of outcomes and less interesting storylines.
- Team golf needs to be incorporated into the schedule (I go into more detail on this in the Format section below). Depending on how the team golf model is executed, FedEx Cup 2.0 could be adjusted to incorporate the top teams.
- Last, the PGA Tour needs to continue to play on better and better courses. I know some of the most exclusive ones (Pine Valley, Cypress Point) are tough gets and may lack support from their membership base as well as some of the necessary on-site production requirements for a gallery but I’ve heard too many excuses. The PGA Tour needs to seet a higher standard for showcasing its players on the most elite courses every week. This does not have to always be the most exclusive courses but the courses have to be elite and exciting as providing a true golf course test is one of the most important part of the product to a Hardcore Golf Fan.
2. On Site Experience
Anyone who has even been to a professional golf tournament can likely attest to the challenge viewing experience. Perhaps on a Tuesday/Wednesday practice round or an off Thursday/Friday can you get nice close up views of the players. But for marquee events or weekend play, it’s often a zoo.
The challenge is multifold. Golf takes place over 100-200 acres (not in a fixed stadium) and this requires multiple stand setups, extensive roping and maneuvering and overall clunky logistics to allow patrons sufficient access to players without disrupting the event. Some tournaments do this better than others but the overall experience isn’t what it could be.
From an entertainment perspective, I do think LIV Golf has added a few interesting dimensions:
- The skill challenges in particular seem really fun for young kids and aspiring golfers alike.
- The idea of a concert/party post tournament is an interesting way to elevate the vibe but a Sunday evening party doesn’t quite fit with the American work schedule (no one wants to party after the football game, it’s always before when tailgating). I’d like to see more of the fan engagement and energy incorporated into the event but in a way that builds excitement for the day not closure.
With heavy on-site attendance, stands are often the best way to view golf shots. Not every course can (or should) have a Waste Management or TPC Players type setup, but the PGA Tour should be working to create more elevated angles throughout each golf course and bring in more scorecards with live replays of shots so that golf shots can be viewed more accessibly when on site.
Additionally, while there are many cons to creating a price driven experience (alienating fans who can’t afford expensive tickets), golf should consider more tailored experiences beyond the corporate tents that allow certain fans better access to viewing golf shots during the live tournament (perhaps this is a separate roped off or staged area).
Consumers would be willing to pay for this like they do for court-side seats at a basketball game. This wouldn’t necessarily benefit everyone, but it would add to the allure of being at a golf event and increase revenue potential.
3. TV & Media Product
Golf is still primarily consumed online via traditional tv channels but there are many ways to improve that experience. The use of shot tracers and improved camera angles has meaningfully improved the golf experience over the past decade plus but the available technology on the market is so much more better than what fans are getting each week. Sadly, some YouTubers showcase their casual exhibitions as well as the PGA Tour showcases the best golfers in the world.
- For the PGA Tour, every shot should have a tracer with detailed analytics (ball speed, club head, distance, etc) and better viewing perspectives.
- We should be shown live stats on putting performance for the year, likelihood of making a putt from a certain distance, etc.
- We should get regular drone views of tee shots so we can put into better context where the golf ball landed on a given hole.
- We should have more close ups of the lie to understand the playing conditions.
- We should be able to better size up depth in terms of how up-hill an approach shot is or how short sided a chip shot is. Yes, depth is hard to display from a camera at times but the technology is available to produce multiple angles of a shot in real-time — not only via a one off shot displayed on a YouTube highlight after the round or through someone’s point of view video that they share on social media.
- The PGA Tour (and its production partners – CBS, NBC, etc) are capable of giving us this enhanced experience in real time and it’s inexcusable that the product is not better.
- Further, without picking on any specific commentators, golf needs more voices – especially modern ones that appeal to all aforementioned customer segments.
- While this is somewhat out of the PGA Tour’s control, they need to work with their media partners to demand better performances from the broadcast crew and find ways to continue to experiment with bigger personalities to continue to find week to week voices that resonate more with multiple generations.
- Last, the PGA Tour has done a better job of this but it should continue to seek out ways to introduce the caddie/player relationship to the audience.
- Athlete sound is a touchy subject when it comes to live sports, and aiming to avoid hot mics in vulnerable situations is very fair. However, the ability to consistently hear the thought process that goes into a shot in trouble situations and complex shots would be an incredible value add to many viewers and specifically the hardcore golf fan.
4. Week To Week Format
In addition to overhauling the schedule, the format of the week to week format needs to be adjusted in a few big ways.
i. Introduction of the team golf component.
If team golf is a side show, it’ll never get traction. It needs to be woven into the fabric of the sport during the most competitive weeks – which is a challenge for how individually based a sport like golf is. That said, there seems to be extensive interest among players and fans for a team based component, so I think the PGA Tour strongly needs to consider it.
The best possible path in my opinion is for the PGA Tour to work with existing sponsors and golf manufacturers alike and establish a core set of teams (perhaps 10). Every participant on the PGA Tour would be part of a team so you’d have 15+ players per team (e.g., Team BMW, Team TaylorMade, Team Titleist); however, only the top 4-5 players would contribute to the team score/points each week (this can change based on performance and team decisions).
I also would not make the players owners or primary decision makers regarding team selections to start. Upon initially launching, I would work to build in a management structure to avoid placing that responsibility on a Justin Thomas or Jordan Spieth.
Ultimately, if successful this would go a long way toward creating additional revenue for the sport through incremental sponsorships and interest in the sport (by maintaining the engagement of hardcore golf fans and major viewers on more of a week-to-week basis and also getting more casual fans on the fence to shift their attention to the PGA Tour) – warding off interest to LIV.
ii. Create more available spots for top trending golfers.
Hardcore golf fans and often major viewers love to learn about the next up-start player. The PGA Tour needs to continue to create opportunities for recent winners/strong performers on the Korn Ferry tour to immediately get into the next PGA Tour event).
iii. Pace of play needs to be more seriously addressed.
The PGA Tour says it holds groups of three (3) to 4 hours and 3 minute foundations – this hardly seems the case. As mentioned above, it would be great if the caddie/player dialogue could be picked up more and selectively presented on TV to show the thought process and strategy but there has to be some balance from a time perspective. The game will not grow if the Tour lets players take three plus minutes to play a golf shot consistently.
iv. Increase field size and restrict hole cuts.
As far as field size, I would increase it to the maximum amount each week (156+) and be more restrictive on the 36 hole cuts (for example only the top 50 or 60 should advance to the weekend vs 70+ which is common currently). That way, you’re giving your broader membership (along with any exemptions) the chance to compete weekly during the dedicated season but you’re mainly watching the guys who are playing well come the weekend.
Performance is the great equalizer and everyone should have an equal chance on Thursday and Friday to make the weekend. If needed, the Tour could consider shotgun starts on Thursday and Friday and groups of 4 to get through big cut fields (either way, I don’t see this as a major hindrance to the viewer on a Thursday/Friday of a golf tournament).
v. Stroke play is still an exciting way to watch a tournament given the number of possible outcomes.
I’m confident with more scarcity over the product, improvements in the golf courses/golf course setup, and consistency of seeing top players compete together that there would be fewer issues with stroke play seeming repetitive. I do think match play should be incorporated in 1 additional tournament (in addition to the WGC Austin tournament) along with the requested change to the FedEx Cup Playoff Final.
vi. Bonus (non-profit status and payment boosters to players).
From a golf fan’s perspective, these issues are all semantics. I think the current non-profit status for the Tour is great and if they can continue to maximize donations to charities while providing a high-quality product, that’s fantastic.
If the 401c status is getting in the way of the product and the Tour’s ability to properly allocate resources, there should be a broader review of optimal corporate structures as ultimately, the PGA Tour and its sponsors are not donating to charity for altruistic purposes. There are direct and indirect financial benefits they are ultimately after.
And as far as payment boosting to players via the Comcast Business Top 10 and Player Impact Program (PIP) tactics, these are insignificant in so far as they appeal to all golf customer segments. They only serve as a work-around to the non-profit structure. Ultimately, they are destined to fail and should be replaced with more appropriate financial incentive structures that reward performance and impact to the Tour holistically.
The Wrap Up
With the hype behind the PGA Tour Documentary airing on Netflix in Q1 2023 and its striking similarity to Netflix’s popular Drive To Survive series, the pressure on the PGA Tour to drive meaningful improvements in its product will only intensify further in the coming months.
And while I cannot possibly get into every recommendation in full depth in this article or address every pro and con (why golfers won’t want to use the same manufacturer, how to unpack on site production logistics, misses with the current season long points system, impact of the distance debate on performance – that’s really beyond the PGA Tour’s purview, etc), I’m hopeful this piece at least provided a structured and consolidated view of the best ideas (some partly in motion, others needed review and action) that the PGA Tour needs to evaluate in order to sustain its organization over the mid and long term.