SBJ/20100419/Media

If a sex scandal can’t draw younger viewers to golf, what can?

I was shocked when I saw how old the median viewer was for ESPN’s coverage of the Masters this year.

Golf always has attracted one of sports’ oldest audiences. Among televised sports, only horse racing has an older set of viewers, say several network executives.

I was confident that would change this year due to the tabloid interest in the Tiger Woods scandal. When gossip Web sites spend five months targeting your sport’s biggest star, you’d think younger viewers would tune in.

Then I saw the age of the median viewer for ESPN’s Masters telecasts for the first two rounds, and I had to look twice.

It was 57.8 years old.

57.8.

That number represents an increase of more than two years from last year’s 55.6. The median age for CBS’s two-days of weekend coverage was slightly lower, but showed the same type of increase.

Woods’ return to competitive golf certainly drove more viewers to the Masters — ESPN set golf viewership records for cable and CBS posted its best numbers in nine years. But rather than getting younger, it appears new viewers pushed the golf demo even older.

The percentage of viewers in the 18- to 34-year-old demo — the group most coveted by advertisers — dropped on ESPN, making up 12.5 percent of overall viewers.

Last year, that demo was at 15.7 percent.

Better with age? Masters on ESPN (Thurs./Fri. live)
Pct. of audience
Year
Median age
Ages 2-17
Ages 18-34
Ages 35-54
Ages 55+
2010
57.8
4.20%
12.50%
27.40%
56.00%
2009
55.6
4.40%
15.70%
28.70%
51.20%
Source: ESPN

Meanwhile, the percentage of viewers 55 or older last year made up 51.2 percent of the audience. This year, that number rose to 56 percent. “Golf has never been a young sport,” said Artie Bulgrin, ESPN’s senior vice president of research and sales development.

If a sex scandal can’t lower the age of golf’s TV audience, what can networks do to attract younger viewers?

I took that question to sports business students from Penn’s Wharton School of Business last week — sports fans right in the middle of the demo advertisers most want to reach. I asked three classes to watch at least two hours of the Masters tournament: one on ESPN, one on CBS.

Their comments show that golf has a long way to go before the younger age group really embraces the sport.

More than 30 percent of the 108 students surveyed are not golf fans. They would not have watched the Masters on their own and do not expect to watch another golf tournament this year. Those are viewers golf will never reach.

What was more interesting to me were comments from the casual sports fans that sampled the Masters because of the Woods saga. Eighty-five percent of the students who said they would have watched the tournament anyway said they were more likely to watch this year because of Woods’ troubles.

What they saw on ESPN and CBS left them wanting. To a generation more accustomed to fast-paced action sports, golf’s slow pace and hushed tones, accentuated at the Masters, certainly present a different experience. But many of the casual fans thought the networks could have done a better job presenting more information in those down times. They know Woods’ story. But what about Anthony Kim, who made a late charge?

Many of the students found that they were much more engaged in the telecast when they heard that Phil Mickelson’s wife, Amy, had been battling breast cancer for the past year.

The students said the networks could get at these personal stories with better interviewers than the ones that were used during the Masters.

In particular, several students panned Peter Kostis’ post-round interview with Woods on Sunday. Woods was testy during the interview, and Kostis wasn’t able to navigate the Q&A well, the students said.

“I thought the interviewers were really poor,” said grad student Danielle Josephs. “I would have liked to see the players drawn out. I wanted to see their personalities. And I think the interviews could have brought that out a little more, and they didn’t.”

Some casual fans found the graphics package lacking. They mentioned ball-tracking technology that would show the arc of the ball or graphics that better show the course’s undulation.

“One thing that would be huge in golf is coming up with some way to watch the ball,” said grad student Geoffrey Moore, who describes himself as a big golf fan. “Right now, the only way you can tell if it’s a good shot is by the golfer’s reaction. I don’t know how you’d be able to do that.”

Even with these changes, there’s little chance that the average golf viewer will become younger any time soon.

“You can’t force people into fandom,” Bulgrin said. “It has to happen naturally.” 

John Ourand can be reached at jourand@sportsbusinessjournal.com. Follow him on Twitter @Ourand_SBJ.

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