SBJ/December 17-23, 2012/OpinionPrint All
I have been around the game of golf since I first hit a ball when I was 3 years old. That was 80 years ago. I still have interests in golf course design, course ownership and so on, but I haven’t really played competitive golf for quite some time. So as 2012 comes to an end, I’m seeing the game as you do: as a casual player, as a fan and as a businessman. And I like what I see.
This year marked an important but painful anniversary for me. A half-century ago, I lost the U.S. Open in an 18-hole playoff to a young up-and-comer named Jack Nicklaus. That was an agonizing loss, but with a half-century of hindsight it’s clear to me that such challenges are the key to growth. This is as true for athletes as it is for businessmen, and as true for sports as it is for industries. Look at our own game. Golf has been kicked around some in the last few years. Whether it was the glut of golf courses; the damage of a Great Recession, during which politicians rushed to make the sport a scapegoat; or the soft television ratings from a few years ago, the game has faced its share of tests.
As we look back on 2012 and into the future, however, I see an increasingly vibrant and healthy game emerging from those examinations. It doesn’t take a scratch player to be moved by Bubba Watson’s personal story, his daring style and his gutsy Masters win. The rest of the major champion class of 2012 — Webb Simpson, Ernie Els and Rory McIlroy — underscore the global reach of our game and the lasting appeal to both young and old.
At the amateur/club level, the game is stabilizing as well. According to the National Golf Foundation’s latest available figures, 25.7 million Americans played at least one round of golf in 2011. Of course, in these tough economic times, players are leaving the game. One underlying sign of golf’s strength: Even with the ebb in golfers, rounds played in 2012 are up 7.4 percent over 2011, the biggest one-year increase since the turn of the century.
Staying with that grassroots theme, I marvel at what The First Tee has accomplished. In the first 14 years since its founding in 1997, The First Tee has positively impacted the lives of more than 6.5 million youngsters. By 2017, the organization expects to influence an additional 10 million youngsters. That’s inspiring.
Palmer looks forward to golf’s return to the Olympics, led by the game’s global growth.
Photo by:GETTY IMAGES
Today, however, the game is as global as can be. In November, a 14-year-old from China named Tianlang Guan won the Asia-Pacific Amateur and earned a spot in next year’s Masters. He’ll be the youngest contestant in tournament history. Think of the impact that alone will have on golf across Asia in 2013 and beyond.
The men are not alone. As the year comes to an end, we celebrate genuine global female stars as well, hailing from places as diverse as Chinese Taipei, Korea, Norway, Japan, the U.S. and, again, China. All of this bodes well for golf’s well-earned, long-awaited return to the Olympic Games in Rio in 2016. Oh, to be young again! What a thrill it would have been for me to represent my country in the Olympics.
Do we have issues? Sure. What truly global enterprise doesn’t? We need to keep bringing the game to youngsters and women. We need to address the distance that today’s ball travels. Slow play is turning time-starved people away from the sport. We need to encourage nine-hole rounds. We have environmental concerns to deal with and we have to keep a vigilant eye on the standards of sportsmanship that set our game apart. The U.S. Golf Association and R&A recently announced a ban on the practice of “anchoring” clubs — usually a long or belly-length putter — against the body. I applaud them for not only their ruling, but also for the patient and thoughtful approach they took, studying the issue for years and across all levels of golf before making their decision. There was nothing knee-jerk about it. The game is in good hands.
Golf has been played for the better part of 600 years, and while the men and women who play it may age with every passing season, the game has an uncanny way of renewing itself. As I write this, dozens of hopeful tour players — the next wave of stars and major champions — are sweating out the final stage of Q School. Thousands of miles away, on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, purists and modernists are heatedly debating changes to the treasured Old Course at St. Andrews. Meanwhile, in Asia, a 14-year-old boy is months away from his first breath of Augusta’s spring air. It doesn’t get any better than that.
> WHITHER THE NCAA?: Easily one of the biggest questions of the two-day conference was the future of the NCAA. SEC Commissioner Mike Slive said, “The issues that need to be thought about are, ‘What should the NCAA be doing?’ and ‘What should the NCAA not be doing?’” He added, “It certainly needs the value of championships, the value of umbrella legislation, the value of infractions and compliance. Whatever organization exists is going to have to do those kinds of things. I think that the issue, at least from my seat, is whether or not in certain areas we can be accurately accommodated for those issues that we believe are good for us, and often times good for student athletes. … At some point it’s going to be very important that Dr. [Mark] Emmert be able to continue to find a way to accommodate us in those areas. Whether changing an organization is the answer ... I think the answer more is accommodation.”
Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany didn’t offer a rousing endorsement of the NCAA’s future when he said, “I think the NCAA can survive; it’s always been a little bit of a lightning rod for schools and conferences who really have a hard time governing themselves.”
Notre Dame AD Jack Swarbrick also hit on it when talking about the biggest changes in college athletics in the next few years: “The big one is, as the difference in business models, on a university-by-university basis, increases, whether membership in a single association continues to make sense. Time will tell.”
> ALWAYS BEEN A MATTER OF TRUST: NCAA President Mark Emmert expressed concerns of trust eroding among peers due to conference realignment: “The unintended collateral damage is an erosion of the trust that used to exist between presidents of institutions and fellow ADs. When you run a conference, you have to have some level of trust. If you make a commitment to [stay], and you suspect that the person you just made a commitment to is now in the hallway trying to get out of a conference, that’s a tough relationship. This has cost people’s friendships and congenialities and I’m really concerned about that.”
N.C. State AD Debbie Yow seemed to concur when she said, “The presidents of the ACC trust each other and had an agreement that they would be contacted [by any school considering leaving the conference]. That’s the trust factor, and that didn’t occur. I know [ACC Commissioner] John Swofford was trying diligently to get in touch with people and they didn’t respond for two days. Not cool.”
More Yow, on Maryland leaving the ACC: “They’re going to be missed, there’s no question about that. But they’re going to be on a plane going to Madison, Wis., to play men’s basketball in the middle of winter. Good luck. I hope the money is really good.”
> COULD CONGRESS ACT ON COACHES SALARIES?: Nebraska Chancellor Harvey Perlman said the rising salaries of college coaches is the biggest issue he sees in college sports: “We know the antitrust laws prohibit us from agreeing to cap coaches’ salaries, so there’s really two options. One is to figure out a creative way to do it within the antitrust laws. Or, second is to get the antitrust laws changed. I know there’s great reluctance, but there’s been conversations within the NCAA about going before Congress and doing something about this.”
Emmert countered, “It’s been discussed for years, but the notion right now of going before Congress and trying to figure out a highly complex, highly political bill, or an antitrust model for intercollegiate athletics, would probably have more unintended consequences.”
> SOFTNESS IN STUDENT SALES?: A theme quietly discussed in private during the two-day conference was concern with in-venue attendance, the in-game experience and even the length of time of sports events. Swarbrick was one of the few who publicly said that today’s college students find games too long and that he’d like to increase the pace of action. Others I spoke to expressed real concern in the softness of ticket sales among today’s students and a real need to improve the stadium experience, something discussed in depth at the pro level. A story in the Birmingham News seemed to validate such concerns, as regular-season attendance at Football Bowl Subdivision schools dropped to 45,274 fans per game in 2012, the lowest average since 2003. It marked the second straight decline, and while the data shows that college football drew more than 35 million fans, the average regular-season attendance has dropped 3 percent since peaking at 46,739 in 2008.
> SOMETHING CHANGES ON NEW YEAR’S EVE: One of the more progressive steps taken this year was the 12-year deal to establish a four-team college football playoff. There is still a lot to figure out — revenue split, game sites and, oh yes, a name, anyone? But the accomplishment of bringing together disparate views and agendas to get a system enacted will remain one of the biggest legacies of 2012. It’s already resulted in ESPN paying more than $5 billion over 12 years to carry this new playoff exclusively. What I’m interested to see is how it changes the sports culture in the U.S. BCS Executive Director Bill Hancock told me, “We will change the nature of New Year’s Eve in this country with our playoffs.”
> LOOSE ENDS OF 2012: Stories from this year that have legs — in addition to the ever-increasing rights fees marketplace: One can argue the sale of the Los Angeles Dodgers was just a team transaction, but I believe the deal represents so much more. It reset the entire marketplace, not only on team and real estate valuations, but on media rights and even the pool of potential ownership groups. And the team’s aggressive free agency foray sends a clear message that it will spend what it takes to be competitive. This deal changed the financial landscape of sports. … It may seem far in the rearview mirror, but the success of the London Olympics can’t be overlooked. I was struck by the strength of the Olympic movement this summer and how it captured mindshare. In addition, NBC’s success in both the traditional TV broadcast and digital and mobile production will be a blueprint for other big-event media strategies. As I wrote after the Games, I have doubts about Sochi, and Rio is a big unknown. But the success of London should fuel growth for the Olympics overall. … We all have lockout fatigue. But coverage of the NHL lockout ranks among the top stories in each issue of SportsBusiness Daily. People in the industry are fascinated by the personalities and leadership of both NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman and NHLPA Executive Director Don Fehr. Once a deal is reached, the future of these two executives will be one of the main stories to watch in 2013. … An NHL Stanley Cup and two MLS Cups in 13 months makes for a pretty good year for AEG’s Tim Leiweke, which segues to the two biggest stories I’ll be watching early in 2013: Who buys AEG and what that means for the sale of IMG. Here’s something not to overlook: That Phil Anschutz doesn’t get the price he’s looking for and decides not to sell.
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All of us wish you a Merry Christmas and a safe, happy and healthy holiday season.
Abraham D. Madkour can be reached at email@example.com.