#AskAlan: What’s up with golf’s slumping TV ratings?

August 22, 2017

Well, that was one of the better golf weeks of the year. Lots to chew on, so let’s get to it…

“How much revenue is Ollie Schniederjans leaving on the table by not wearing a sponsored hat?” – Kevin (@kmo11)

More than a little. When it comes to endorsements, a pro golfer’s person is sliced up like a prized steer, and headwear is the most valuable cut, as it’s visible in every TV shot and photograph and interview. (Second most coveted spot is the left chest/sleeve.) On the other hand, it’s hard to stand out on the PGA Tour and Ollie’s luscious head of hair is very effective brand-building, so long-term maybe he makes it back in other ways.

“With Ollie hitting an iron 320+ off the tee courses need to be 10k yards. Right?” – Jerome (@ESPN_SwingCoach)

Down the stretch on Sunday he actually smashed a 1-iron 341 yards. It was a thrill to watch those low bullets but poor Donald Ross must’ve been rolling over in his grave. At 7,117 yards, Sedgefield played so laughably short Henrik Stenson didn’t deign to carry a driver and he still went a tournament-record 22-under. I’m still taking shrapnel for my column noting that when it comes to the major championships 9,000 or 10,000 yards is how long a course needs to be to properly challenge the pros. Various rebuttals pointed out that there are other deterrents to scoring, but Sedgefield boasted tiny, well-protected greens, narrow fairways and thick rough and still it got shredded. It was quite entertaining golf and for a slow spot on the schedule, that’s enough. But 7,100 yards has become a joke if we really want to challenge the pros.

“Given the absurd distances the male pro golfers hit the ball, I feel that watching the ladies is watching a much more REAL golf. Agree?” – @TurtleTraderBR

Well, they’re simply different games. What the men can do to a golf ball is awe-inspiring – not only the distances off the tee but the spin and control with the wedges, too. The women’s game is much more about finesse. They play 6,500 yards courses, just like many of us do, and hit the ball comparable distances. So it’s highly instructive to watch them take apart a golf course they can’t simply overpower. I don’t know if the women’s game is more real but it’s certainly more relatable for the average golf fan. Of course, Lexi Thompson is an outlier, which is part of why she’s a dominant force on the LPGA tour.

“While great, the Solheim Cup seemed to be missing a polarizing figure (Poulter/Reed). Who becomes that figure and elevates the event? #AskAlan” – @TroyBlamer

Yes, it’s enough to make one long for the spiciness of Dottie Pepper, whose likeness was once affixed to an actual punching bag by the Euros. Suzann Pettersen could be that kind of polarizing figure but she seems conflicted about playing the heel. Cristie Kerr has potential but she merely irritates the opposition, not makes their blood boil. Part of what makes Poulter and Reed so effective in that role – and before them, Seve and Zinger and Monty and Payne Stewart and a handful of others – is that they embraced the hate, from the other team and their fans. I’m not sure any of the players in the women’s game want that kind of blowback, which is understandable.

“Why did Stenson play the Wyndham Championship – isn’t his Tour card secure already for 2018?” – Oskar (@tallboy199)

Yes and no. He has all the playing status he needs from his British Open victory but to be a full-fledged member of the Tour – to vote on policy matters and other accoutrements – you have to play a minimum of 15 tournaments. Heading into the Wyndham, Stenson had teed it up in only 11 Tour events and was a mere 75th on the FedEx Cup standings. He was thinking that if he didn’t make it all the way to the Tour Championship he would fall short of his 15 events. Now he’s up to 23rd in the standings, giving him a strong chance to make it to East Lake and even have a chance to take the Cup if he stays hot.

“Did the USGA pay the U.S. Amateur finalists to not wear club manufacturer’s hats to exude the spirit of the game? Cubs and Peachtree lids were a refreshing look! #askalan” – David (@isaacson_dji)

I love the image of Mike Davis slipping these kids a few Benjamins. I wasn’t at Riv so I don’t know what kind of back-channel communication there was but I agree it was a great look. And you have to respect Doug Ghim wearing a Masters hat for his semi-final match…with a invite to Augusta National on the line!

“Did you see Dan Wolken’s tweet after the PGA Championship? He wrote, “CBS drew a 3.6 overnight rating for final round of PGA Championship. Lowest for event since 2008. Same as the U.S. Open and Open Championship in 2017. Golf has some charismatic young stars who aren’t connecting with the public at all beyond hard-core golf fans.” Thoughts? I disagree almost entirely. Had JT been the 54-hole leader, ratings woulda been better. But who knows who Kiz and Stroud are?” – Anna (@AnnaH247)

There’s been lotsa talk about this over the last week or so in the golf salon. I think people are still making the mistake of using the Tiger era as a yardstick; it’s not a coincidence that Wolken is citing the years since 2008, which coincides with Wood’s steep decline. He was a once-in-a-century combination of talent, hype, results and star quality. Tiger fooled a lot of people into forgetting that golf is a boutique sport. Justin Thomas is an immensely likable guy but I’m not sure he resonates with the casual fan: they see a little dude in preppy clothes whose dad is a pro at a country club and it reinforces a lot of stereotypes about the game. We all follow the sport closely but for the occasional fan, who maybe watches only the majors, how many of them had even heard of Brooks Koepka before Erin Hills? I think the players (and the Tour) have to work harder to break out of their little boxes. The money is so big, and social media is so easy and mindless, a lot of today’s young players (and their handlers) are loathe to do anything beyond a few Snaps and the obligatory post-round Golf Channel interviews. I have a little insight because SI is a more general interest magazine that reaches the coveted casual fan. The features I did over the last 18 months on Kevin Na and Pat Perez were, according to our metrics, very, very well read and impactful. Both of those guys gave me a lot of time and access and that allowed me to tell rich, compelling stories. Many times I’ve pitched similar in-depth profiles to the handlers of the game’s young stars and they simply have no interest. It’s symptomatic of golf’s myopia. To reach a larger audience the players have to get out of their comfort zones and try a lot harder. Until they do I’m afraid Wolken might be right.