Is golf doing enough to engage 16-24s?

The Masters starts tomorrow.

It’s one of my favourite sporting events of the year. Something about the familiarity of the venue and the fact that (to me at least) it heralds the proper start of a new sporting year. 

I remember as a teenager watching the final rounds unfold on TV during the European ‘golden age’ of the late 80s and early 90s. Sandy Lyle’s miraculous bunker shot on 18; Greg Norman’s collapse against Faldo; Faldo beating Ray Floyd in a playoff; Woosie’s fist pump as his winning putt rolls in.

These are some of the most dramatic moments of any sporting event I can remember from my childhood.  And all before a certain Tiger came along.

Watching the Masters on TV was a big reason I got into golf as a teenager, and still love the game today. That coverage helped to instill in me a lifelong passion for the sport – as a fan, a player and a consumer. 

This got me thinking about the audience for golf and in particular how well it is managing to engage young people in this era when so many other distractions exist and the game is hardly visible on free to air TV in the UK – although both the European Tour and PGA Tour do a pretty good job on social media. 

At a basic level, what does the golf audience look like in the UK?

This doesn’t look too bad – 14% of 16-24 males have an interest in golf and as you’d expect, that rises to a fairly healthy 25% for 55-64 year old men. There is still a big job to be done (and an opportunity) with the female audience at all age groups.

Let’s dig into that 16-24 audience a bit more. How does their interest in golf compare to other sports? 

Well, it’s not great. Football obviously dominates, with 73% of male 16-24s and 46% of females having an interest. Golf is lagging quite far behind other sports that we might also perceive as struggling to engage this young audience – like tennis, cricket and athletics. 

Interesting that American Football has gained a decent foothold with this young UK audience and is now edging out golf, despite also being mostly behind a paywall. The NFL’s work in bringing regular season games to the UK, along with the innovative approach to highlights and social content – plus the inherent glamour of the sport and the cultural impact of the Super Bowl – seems to be working. 

But, obviously, it’s not just other sports that golf has to compete with. Gaming, music, film and Esports are all well ahead. While Esports isn’t quite as popular as we might assume, it’s already more popular than almost every other sport among 16-24 males. Gaming in general is huge – only football is more popular among the young male audience. 

Interestingly, fitness is pretty popular for 16-24s (again, more so than most sports), so this is far from being a sedentary, screen obsessed generation.

Back to golf and, looking at how many 16-24s follow the main events (either on TV or online), it’s not looking too good. The Ryder Cup makes a bit of an impression at 6.8% of the male audience, but otherwise most of these major events are struggling to engage even 5%. 

For comparison, the FIFA World Cup is followed by 61% of 16-24 males and 40% of females, and there are 32 sporting events that are more popular with this age group than the most popular golf event. There’s a gap between the general level of interest in golf and how well these events are cutting through. Undoubtedly some of that is down to them all being on pay TV, but it also has to be something to do with how they are marketed to this younger audience. 

Does any of this matter for golf? After all, if we look at the older age groups, golf is in a much healthier position and the game has enjoyed a participation boom during lockdown as one of the most naturally socially-distanced (but still sociable) sports available. 

There’s an argument that golf doesn’t need to chase younger fans. After all, the over 50s are the ones with all the time and money, right? That may be true, but self-evidently every sport needs to keep bringing younger fans through for its long term commercial health. 

In a post-Tiger era (assuming that’s what we are now in) can a true global superstar emerge that cuts through to this audience? DeChambeau is having a go, but it’s so hard for any one individual to dominate in the way Woods managed at his peak. 

Maybe it’s about new and different formats – like TopGolf – to bring young people into the game. Maybe it’s all about using content and influencers and technology to present the game in a much more engaging way.

No easy answers and lots of things have been tried, but I’d hate to see this brilliant sport and events like the Masters slowly wither away. 

Data from https://www.globalwebindex.com/

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