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European Tour commissioner Keith Pelley sees the pro game through a different lens

February 14, 2017

Keith Pelley was an out-of-the-box choice to become CEO of the European tour, and not just because he isn’t European. Pelley, 53, is a proud Canadian who cut his teeth in his home country’s sports and media worlds. He was a running back for a minor-league football team in Toronto and went on to become a top executive in the Canadian Football League. Subsequent stints at two large sports media firms imbued him a big-picture view that often eludes the tweedy types who have tended to rise through the ranks of golf’s bureaucracies. Since taking over the Euro tour in April 2015, Pelley has cut a stylish figure as he tries to modernize a global brand that this season will visit a mind-boggling 27 countries. I sat down with Pelley in Dubai to get a glimpse of his vision for the tour.

Alan Shipnuck: So let’s talk about the most pressing issue facing the European tour today: your eyeglasses. Did you ever imagine that they would create such a buzz?

Keith Pelley: Yeah, there’s been a lot of talk about my eyewear. I do have quite a few pair. I don’t know how I got into it. But somehow it’s become something that people quite like to talk about.

AS: All right, on to more serious topics. What interests me about your leadership at the tour is the larger context of how golf is changing at the top. Whether it’s Jay Monahan of the PGA Tour or Mike Whan of the LPGA tour or Martin Slumbers of the R &A, it seems like there’s this whole generation of younger, more dynamic, more open leaders. How is this trend changing the game?

KP: I don’t know if I would categorize it by that. We’re just new into the industry. Martin obviously came from banking, myself from a media background, Mike from a product background. Jay has been the one who has been in the golf business most of the time. I think it’s great to have fresh ideas. But I think at the end of the day, whether it’s new or old, all of us want the same thing: to grow the game globally. And in order to grow the game globally, I think you have to be prepared to adapt to a changing consumer environment. People are consuming content completely different than they ever did before. And that includes our game. And we need to be prepared to change with the times.

AS: Golf is built on tradition, but do you feel like there’s a little more acceptance that the game can’t just keep doing things the way they’ve always been done? In other words, how critical is innovation right now to the sport?

KP: I think innovation is critical to almost any business. And especially to all sports. And that’s why you’re seeing in the United States that Major League Baseball is talking about how long you can have a pitching change or how long between pitches. And that the National Football League has changed the line of scrimmage over the last couple of years, in terms of allowing freedom for the wide receivers; they’ve opened up the game to make it more entertaining. Golf will always have the traditional 72-hole tournaments. And we’ll always maintain the integrity of the game. But you need to look for new ways of bringing in different consumers to experience our game. And that’s the challenge for us as gatekeepers of the professional game and gatekeepers of the amateur game. We want more people playing the game. We want more people experiencing the game. Because at the end of the day, we want more consumers engaging with our brands across multiple platforms. For us, the goal is to drive as much revenue as we can, which allows us to put it back in the member’s pocket. And to do that, we need to engage different types of fans to our game. And for that, we need to innovate. It’s not anymore complicated than that.

AS: What is your most aggressive idea for reinvigorating the product?

KP: I think it’s a philosophy first. It’s a culture change within our organization. And we’ve accomplished that. I remember standing up at one of the first town halls and saying, “What business are we in?” And everyone talked about being in the golf business. I think we’re in the entertainment-content business where golf is but our platform. Golf is the platform that we communicate and the way that we interact with our consumers. If we don’t do it in an entertaining way, then we won’t be successful. So the number one strategy for us is to change the philosophy of everyone who is involved in our game, including our players, right? I constantly talk about our players being in the entertainment business. And if you just look at it as being strictly in the golf business, then it will slowly deteriorate over the years.

You will still have the majors and other big tournaments that are important to the game’s history, but you won’t be able to have the continuous growth of the game and you won’t have tournaments on a week-on-week basis. Because I don’t believe if you catapult ahead a number of years that there will be as many 72-hole tournaments worldwide that there are today. It just doesn’t make sense. And there’s no question that one of the biggest priorities that we have with the game is addressing Thursday-Friday. Because in the way that people live their lives, they want immediate gratification. They want to be able to get immediate results. And they want to follow things that are meaningful, because there is such a saturation of content. Our Thursday-Fridays are not as meaningful as they need to be. Yes, they position you for the weekend, but there is no result. There is no payoff at the end of Thursday or Friday. So what I’m turning our attention to internally is what are we going to do in 2018 to address Thursday-Friday? Because we need more engagement. We need higher ratings. I think that is a worldwide challenge for every tour. You’re the only person I’ve ever said that to.

AS: Well, Keith, I’m flattered. The European tour has definitely carved out an identity for cutting-edge social media and fan engagement. How far can you take that?

KP: We’re very proud of some of the content that we’ve produced. And it really is allowing people to follow that culture of us as an entertainment-content company while always maintaining the integrity of the game and putting the players first. Let’s be honest, the players are the recipe for success. They have to buy into this. So everything that we have done, whether it be the Little Interviews, the mannequin challenge, the Awkward Reporter, the players all are for it, because they know that we’re creating entertaining content. The way I’ve expressed it to our digital people is, “Be as imaginative as you possibly can. Don’t think anything can’t be done.” There will always be a check and balance, right? But think that you can do it as opposed to, “They’ll never let us do that.” So it’s changing the culture. It’s changing the philosophy. I think now it’s not only energized our players. It’s also energized our entire staff. Because it is a perfect way of illustrating the culture that we want and where I believe golf needs to go.

AS: Is the competition within the ropes off limits? Could you see a Twitter Q & A while guys are walking from the tee to their drive?

KP: We’ve done interviews during play. We did that last year. We’re going to do more of that. But first of all, if you catapult ahead, do you honestly believe that in five years there won’t be music on every single range? Of course there will be. And do you think in 10 years that any of the players won’t be wearing microphones? They’ll all be wearing microphones, right? Because consumers will demand it. Because many new things will be demanded from our sport.

AS: So why wait? Why don’t you do that stuff tomorrow?

KP: Well, I was quite astonished with the amount of discussion there was both within the golf community and in the press when we made the decision just to put shorts on for practice rounds. That’s all we did. And that was kind of an epiphany for me that said, “Whoa…”

AS: “…this is a stodgy sport.”

KP: More like, “We have a ways to go.” And as long as you take the players along with you, as long as everybody comes on board and sees the vision, you don’t have to run the hundred meters right off the bat. This is definitely a marathon, not a sprint. So we will make changes. And over time we started to add music on the range at some events. You will see a 1st tee presentation that will be completely different. There will be more entertainment around the game.

AS: What percentage of your players get it, and what percentage do you have to sell on this stuff?

KP: They all pretty well get it. I came here this week, three players said to me within the first five minutes, “Where’s the music?” I said, “We’re not there yet for every week.”

AS: O.K., if you are teeing off on the 1st hole and can pick your walk-up music, what song would you go with?

KP: That’s…since you’re writing this in press, I better say something cool.

AS: Clearly.

KP: I better say something like AC/DC.

AS: No, just be yourself, Keith.

KP: Be sincere? O.K., hang on a second. Because I really have to think about this.

AS: Honestly, you should have a whole committee that has already thought of this for you. This is a failure of leadership.

KP: Yeah, this is a real challenge. I would have to go with a Canadian artist. And I would go with …

AS: If it’s Bryan Adams, you’re fired.

KP: Burton Cummings as the lead singer of The Guess Who, doing An American Woman.

AS: Solid. Now am I correct that the European tour has to try a little bit harder than the PGA Tour, because they’re born into money and you guys are trying to make your own way?

KP: North America has 36-37 million golfers. What’s amazing is the U.K. has 4.5 million golfers. Europe as a whole only has about eight million. So there are a lot of areas where we play and a lot of key markets for us where the sport is not engrained like it is in the U.S. It leads you to a very easy conclusion that we need to change the way that our product is presented. And again, for us, the more that we can engage the Millenials the better. Which brings me to one of the biggest challenges we have: the speed of the game, right? The game has to be quicker. I think slow play is a problem not only for participation but also for marketing reasons. It comes from the amateur game. My boy is 14 years old. He was supposed to play in a tournament on a Saturday but he said to me, “Dad, I can’t play on Saturday. I have exams on Monday.” I said, “What do you mean you have exams next week? You can study on Sunday the whole day.” He says, “No, I think I better spread it out.” I finally got to the bottom of it. And he said, “Dad, you know what’s going to happen? There’s going to be a four-ball behind us, there’ll be a four-ball in front of us and it will be at least a five-hour round. I just don’t want to do it.”

AS: That’s the most tragic statement I’ve heard in a long time.

KP: Truly. It’s something we all have to help fix. I know it’s been talked about for a very long time, but it’s time for results.

AS: Yeah, honestly, I’m so tired of the discussion. Let me know when you actually fix it! It’s even worse on the PGA Tour than in Europe. Since we’ve arrived here, let me ask you a question about the PGA Tour: are you guys competitors or collaborators?

KP: We are definitely competitors but collaborators at the same time. Because our common goal is we need to build the game. And we need to build the game globally. So we’re aligned. But at times, we compete for players’ participation. I would say we’re more aligned than competitors because we need the professional game to be the strongest it possibly can. So the stronger the PGA Tour gets, then I think that we will benefit from that as well.

AS: Wouldn’t it make sense to have some discussion about the larger schedule? Where you say, “O.K., Dubai’s a big tournament for us and Phoenix is a big tournament for you. Why don’t we not play them on the same week?” Why can’t there be a unified schedule instead of this glut of events where you’re competing for players and TV time and corporate support?

KP: You have so many variables though. There are a plethora of professional players at every level. Our players want to play globally. They have so many choices, which is part of our respective organizations’ missions. But those conversations might happen down the road. We’ll see. Jay’s just taken over. I’m just over a year into it. We’ll see. But I’m optimistic that the relationship we have with the PGA Tour will strengthen. I think it will with the R & A. And I’m optimistic that we can collectively make some significant changes that are positive to our game and our respective schedules.

AS: Let’s talk about the Ryder Cup. It’s always been an important vehicle for promoting and growing the European tour. The U.S. has a lot of young superstars and clearly a new organizational plan for continuity in grooming its captains. The Americans are coming off quite a decisive victory. Is there any concern that the balance of power has quickly shifted from Europe and this is going to be a long-term problem?

KP: We’ve won eight of 11, have we not?

AS: But zero of the last one.

KP: We’ve won eight of the last 11. So I don’t think it’s time to push the panic button quite yet. But what we did is we worked with our top players. We brought in Thomas Bjorn and announced him as our captain earlier than we had named captains in the past. Thomas and I spent a tremendous amount of time over the last couple of months working and listening to our top players. And we created criteria that at the end of the day will, we believe, achieve our mandate. And that is to have our best possible team on the course in France, while at the same time continuing to support and allowing our tour to grow. However, no, I don’t think it is time by any means to have chest pain quite yet. I think our team will be strong. And we’ll be ready to go. Paris is going to be spectacular. It’s a great golf course, and our players are familiar with it. Now maybe the U.S. players will come over and play the …

AS: I detect a little woofing. You’re already playing the home-field advantage card.

KP: No, I think the Americans will probably want to come over and play the HNA Open de France to get familiar with the golf course.

AS: Now it’s turned into a sales pitch! You packed a lot into one answer there, Keith. Clearly, Europe could have used Paul Casey last time around. How do you avoid these scenarios where players have to choose between staying in the U.S. with all the attendant tax advantages and World Ranking points and good weather versus being eligible for the Ryder Cup?

KP: We have made it easy for players to be members of this tour. You only have to play four events, three with the Ryder Cup. And I think what we have to offer is we play in world-class cities and world-class locations. When you talk about playing in Paris and Rome and London, one of the greatest strengths of our tour is the diversity of the locations. It’s interesting. A couple of the players just said to me [here in Dubai], “I always watch this on TV. I’ve just never been here. That’s why I decided to play this week.” Abu Dhabi and Qatar and Dubai are an unbelievably exciting part of the world that if we weren’t playing here you might never visit. But what our top members felt was one of the reasons that Europe has done so well in the Ryder Cup is because of the strong camaraderie and strong chemistry and the unwavering will to succeed and to support each other. And that’s fostered here on this tour. One of the top players said to me, “If you can’t find it in you to join the European tour and play four events, then do you really want to be part of the Ryder Cup team?” That was a pretty defining moment. And a fair statement.

AS: This has always been a tour without borders. Now we’re in this political era of Trump and Brexit and other nativist trends that are sweeping the globe. Do you have any concern that you will be able to operate a global tour in five or 10 years? That you’re going to have a welcome mat everywhere you go, like you do now?

KP: I think you’ve always had challenges. It’s an interesting conversation that my wife and I had with our 14-year-old, who was talking about just what you just asked. We said, “You could look back into history from as early as the 1400s all the way through to some of the challenges they had in the Middle East in the past 25 years.” So there will always be different cultures, and unfortunately religion will often have an impact on world problems. But you have to continue to believe that at the end of the day societies want to work closer and closer together. And I do believe that it’s the onus of not only our sport but also sports in general to provide a wonderful entertaining alternative to everyday life. What we’ll try to do is create as much entertainment product as we can and link and galvanize communities, cities, countries together through sport.