Golf on TV: Tour advances social-media agenda, but how much do fans benefit?

PARIS, FRANCE - SEPTEMBER 26: Rory McIlroy of Europe signs autographs during practice ahead of the 2018 Ryder Cup at Le Golf National on September 26, 2018 in Paris, France. (Photo by Stuart Franklin/Getty Images) Stuart Franklin/Getty Images

Golf on TV: Tour advances social-media agenda, but how much do fans benefit?

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Golf on TV: Tour advances social-media agenda, but how much do fans benefit?

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Prior to the past golf season, Rory McIlroy and his advisors met with PGA Tour officials to discuss McIlroy’s goals on social media. As a player with a global schedule, McIlroy especially was interested in expanding his Facebook audience.

With the Tour creating content – highlights, range sessions, photos, interviews, and other material – McIlroy’s impressions and video views have grown faster over the past year than any other Tour player.

“The fly-on-the-wall content works really well,” said Preston McClellan, the Tour’s senior manager brand marketing, whose staff of four spearheads the Tour’s efforts to increase its players’ presence on social media. “If our players’ brands are growing online, then the Tour’s brand is growing online,” McClellan added.

The Tour’s partner in this effort is Opendorse, a Lincoln, Neb., company that created a software platform that makes it easy for athletes to distribute content across various social-media platforms. Nearly 5,000 athletes in various sports use Opendorse.

The Tour could and does distribute the content itself, but it’s much more impactful coming from the players. Blake Lawrence, co-founder and CEO of Opendorse, said players’ engagement rate during the 2018 season was 3.07 percent; the Tour’s was 0.33 percent. (Lawrence defines the engagement rate as the number of people who like, share or comment on a piece of social-media content. It’s a metric that allows Opendorse to assess how athletes are performing online relative to one another.)

“Athlete content is always more engaging than the content shared by the league,” Lawrence said. “People want to engage with people.”

Lawrence attributed much of the Tour’s success in this area to the fact that it is the only league he deals with that allows players to distribute their highlights.

“As an organization, they are the first to fully embrace and understand the power of turning their players’ (online) handles into channels …” he said. “It sets an example for other (leagues), and we expect to see more of that.”

This initiative underscores the paradox of the PGA Tour’s media strategy and the presentation of its product. It often is ahead of the curve; witness its efforts in other areas, such as over-the-top media and virtual reality.

Yet its television product is light years behind other sports leagues, and the Tour can’t hang all of that solely on its network partners. I know I sound like a broken record, but for decades fans have been able to turn on ESPN and, more recently, NFL Network and listen to fresh on-field audio from the previous week’s games. Golf fans can’t do that.

In some facets of social media, the European Tour is running circles around the PGA Tour, perhaps reflecting greater buy-in from its players. The morning after the Ryder Cup, we awoke to a hilarious skit from European heroes Tommy Fleetwood and Francesco Molinari.

A friend asked, “Can you imagine Brooks and DJ doing that?” It was a rhetorical question. Of course not.

This gets to the heart of the disconnect in the Tour’s media efforts. It talks a good game about what McClellan calls a “fan-first strategy,” and Lawrence talks about making the players “more accessible” via social media.

But do you really feel more connected to the players now? I don’t. My sense is that the larger objective has less to do with the fans than business objectives. As Lawrence said, as the players’ social-media audiences grow, “there’s undoubtedly interest from sponsors and partners to tap into that audience.”

And that’s fine. There’s nothing wrong with the players maximizing their value. But let’s not confuse that with fans developing a deeper connection with the athletes just because players are posting their highlights. If we’ve learned anything about social media, it’s that the carefully crafted public persona doesn’t necessarily mesh with the celebrity’s private reality.

What we’re left with on social media is a safe, sterile presentation of Tour players, who are, by and large, already safe and sterile personalities. In this virtue-signaling era, where every social-media posting is scrutinized, there’s little incentive for athletes to stray beyond distribution of the most mundane content.

Just this morning, Heisman Trophy winner Kyler Murray awoke to a story about foolish tweets he had written when he was 14 and 15 years old. Murray immediately was forced to prostrate himself before the American public and issue an apology. Just ask Donte DiVincenzo, Josh Allen and Josh Hader, all of whom this year had their greatest sporting moments sullied by reckless tweets they had written as teenagers as young as 14.

Inevitably, despite the Tour’s best efforts to sanitize the message and protect the messengers, some young Tour star probably will get caught in this snare.

Just ask McIlroy, one of the Tour’s most likable personalities, who got pilloried on social media for playing golf with President Donald Trump. At times like that, platforms such as Twitter, Instagram and Facebook don’t seem like tools designed to build online communities; rather, they seem like weapons to brandish against those deemed to be apostates. Gwk

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