Tee time

Golf and the emergence of Super-Vertical

As The Open Championship returns to Royal Portrush for the first time in 68 years, the game of golf finds itself looking forward but with an eye firmly fixed on its past.

Few sports value history and tradition in the way golf does and, frankly, few sports have the history and tradition to be able to.

The long-awaited return to the jaw-droppingly beautiful Antrim coast is the backdrop to seismic changes in the way the sport is broadcast and points to a shift eastward, as new golf markets emerge, particularly in Asia.

It is three years since The Open left the BBC to be broadcast exclusively on Sky Sports. At the time, although the announcement attracted predictable criticism from traditionalists, the murmurs of discontent failed to reach fever pitch. There was certainly no repeat of the opprobrium that greeted the ECB’s decision to opt for revenue over reach in going all in with Sky back in 2005, a choice still drawing flak during this World Cup and Ashes summer.

Even so, the fear that by limiting the potential audience for The Open, less seeing would lead inextricably to less doing seems unfounded based on the latest data from England Golf’s Club Membership report.

Between 2016 to 2018 there was a steady rise in the average number of members at each golf club surveyed – the first increase in a decade – resulting in over two million people playing golf at least twice a month and almost four million teeing-off on a full-length track each year.

R&A, meanwhile, has a global brief, being responsible not only for The Open Championship – a truly global competition itself – but for the development of the sport worldwide, with the exception of the U.S. and Mexico.

As such, its broadcast sales strategy must be designed to generate the revenue necessary to fund this work rather than focusing on maximising the audience in markets such as the UK.

This is the context for the revolution in sports broadcasting that golf finds itself at the very heart of.

That the future of golf is Asian has been an oft-repeated refrain. The emergence of the Japanese professional tour, the dominance of Korean women in the LPGA and the growth of a golf-mad middle-class in emerging markets across the region are just a few factors that underpin this claim. China, meanwhile, continues to embrace the sport, although this progress is tempered by the Beijing government’s slightly schizophrenic attitude toward golf.

But the growth of the sport is also picking up speed beyond the far east. Another emerging Asian superpower with a growing middle-class, India, is embracing the sport and, further afield still, golf begins to build on the successes of a clutch of South American golfers in major championships over the years and the successful staging of the first Olympic golf tournament in over a century at the 2016 games in Rio.

This is the context behind what might be the most significant broadcast deal ever struck in golf and one which might end up becoming a blueprint for rights holders and broadcasters worldwide as the way fans consume their sport changes in tune with technology.

Discovery’s purchase of worldwide rights to the PGA Tour and European Tour beyond the US and subsequent establishment of GOLFTV is a very clear signpost for the direction of travel of sports broadcast agreements in the future.

Describing itself as the new global home of world-class golf, GOLFTV will combine live streaming and highlights from both tours as well as additional digital programming featuring Tiger Woods amongst other leading players.

Meeting the increasing trend away from linear TV viewing, GOLFTV will be available on multiple devices.

By assembling a tranche of high value rights in a single sport, Discovery’s assumption is that, over the coming years, a super-vertical broadcast offer, featuring the very best content a sport has to offer, will attract affluent viewers from the traditional golf nations of Europe and, perhaps most importantly, from the potentially vast emerging markets of Asia and beyond.

If it is successful, then the opportunity for sponsors and advertisers is clear – if you want to reach a valuable golfing audience, then GOLFTV is going to be the way to do so for years.

Meanwhile for broadcasters, with a super-vertical approach to right acquisition gaining traction in golf, the question becomes “which sport is next?”.

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