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Volume 21 No. 26
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Golf’s powerful foursome

How the youth movement has the golf industry buzzing about the years ahead

Around noon during the opening round at the recent BMW Championship, three of the brightest stars in golf — Jordan Spieth, Jason Day and Rickie Fowler — lit up a Conway Farms tee box at the penultimate event of the FedEx Cup Championship.

It was the first time Spieth, 22, Fowler, 26, and Day, who at 27 is the old man in the group, had ever been paired together in an official PGA Tour event. Their youth was reflected in Fowler’s signature flat-billed Puma hat, Spieth’s Under Amour-sponsored attire, and Day’s 314-yard average drive that soon would soar off the tee.

Jordan Spieth (left), Rickie Fowler and Jason Day found themselves paired during the first round of the BMW Championship at Conway Farms Golf Club.
Photo by: Getty Images
Later that afternoon, 26-year-old Rory McIlroy, then the No. 1-ranked golfer in the world, also would begin his push to win the FedEx Cup and its $10 million bonus, which ultimately would be won by Spieth, who finished the 2014-15 season with the top ranking.

Total 2015 wins among the four stars who represent golf’s new world order: 15, including the U.S. Open, the Masters and the Tour Championship won by Spieth, and the PGA Championship won by Day.

Thanks to that group’s winning run and their approachable and authentic style, golf’s stakeholders are confident about the upcoming golf season and a post-Tiger Woods era instead of worrying about the future of a sport still looking to fully recover from the recession.

“The debate of whether it’s the ‘Big Three’ or the ‘Big Four,’ who knows and who cares,” said Mike McCarley, president of NBC-owned Golf Channel. “The fact is that these young guys are the future of the game and lots of people are taking notice.”

On Golf Channel, the week of each of golf’s majors this year has delivered to the network its best or second-best viewership, while PGA Tour coverage across all networks is up 21 percent, McCarley said.

“The torch has been passed,” Tom O’Toole, president of the U.S. Golf Association, said of the infusion of young talent now roaming the fairways on the PGA Tour. “It is invigorating.”

Some perspective, however, should be applied to the enthusiasm.

Breakout box (listing other stories to link to. This one is on the right side)

Woods still moves the golf needle — consider when he made his first appearance this summer in the Wyndham Championship, ticket sales skyrocketed and a contending Woods helped lead CBS to its most-viewed, non-major final round broadcast since the 2012 Quicken Loans National, which Woods won.

But PGA Tour ratings this year on CBS no doubt reflect the increased interest in golf that is tied to the game’s youth movement.

After two years of double-digit percentage declines, CBS saw its viewership for PGA Tour events this season — excluding majors — jump 29 percent. CBS averaged 2.7 million viewers for 19 events during the 2014-15 season, the network’s best figure since it drew 2.75 million viewers for 20 events in 2012.

After Spieth won the Masters and the U.S. Open, he kept a commitment to enter the John Deere Classic played the weekend before the British Open in July. Spieth won the John Deere tournament, giving CBS its best audience for the event since 1999 and up well over 130 percent compared with last year. CBS also saw a rise for this year’s Wells Fargo Championship, which McIlroy won.

When including CBS’s coverage of the Masters and PGA Championship, CBS averaged 3.5 million viewers, up 28 percent from last year and up 15 percent from 2013. Spieth’s win at Augusta gave CBS a 26 percent bump this season, while the final round of the PGA Championship, which saw Day win his first major, was up 19 percent.

“The interest is reflecting in our ratings and our advertising sales, “ said CBS Sports Chairman Sean McManus, adding that CBS met or exceeded all ratings guarantees to advertisers this year. “Nothing will quite reach the heights we saw with what Tiger gave the networks, but we are beginning to see what I call the ‘Young Guns’ era. We all have been waiting and hoping that they would have a real impact in the sport and indeed that is what is happening right now.”

Getting more people to play?

The increase in viewership, however, hasn’t yet translated into more play.

According to the World Golf Foundation, the number of rounds played this year remains flat compared with 2014.

“We are trying to crack the code on trying to appeal to the millennial generation,” said Steve Mona, chief executive officer of the World Golf Foundation, who is banking on the star power of Spieth & Co. to drive further participation in the game.

“Those four have a different image of what the game is,” Mona said. “They are part of the millennial generation that see that golf is played by people who look like me, are about the same age as me and that the players have a different vibe.”

But there are signs that golf’s youth movement is beginning to influence a younger generation where the number of junior-age golfers has increased from 2.7 million in 2012 to 3.2 million in 2014, according to the National Golf Foundation and the Sports Fitness Industry Association.

It also is no coincidence that the PGA of America recently named Fowler as a PGA Junior League Golf Ambassador, joining MclIroy and LPGA pro Michelle Wie.

“It is a great moment in time now where we have these young superstars who are engaging, approachable and undeniably athletic,” said Pete Bevacqua, chief executive officer of the PGA of America. “They are young and in the prime of their careers and to see them duking it out on a grand stage gets everyone excited about that game and that is what we need. We have already started to see the impact on growing the game.”

Sponsors take note

Those involved in selling sponsorship around the game and the young players point to nontraditional companies and new categories investing in golf as a sign of a resurgent interest in the sport.

This year, Ace Hardware and United Rentals signed on as new sponsors with the PGA Tour, while Rolex renewed its deal with the tour with a 10-year agreement. At the tournament level, Wyndham Hotels signed a 10-year renewal to sponsor the Wyndham Championship in Greensboro, N.C.

“There are a lot of quality players over a sustained period of time, and other first-time winners as well, and we’ve seen some new categories,” said Brian Oliver, senior vice president of corporate partnerships for the PGA Tour. “It bodes well for the future.”

Online mortgage company Quicken Loans not only sponsors the Quicken Loans National tournament hosted by Woods, but this year increased its investment in golf by signing Fowler to an endorsement deal. Day also has a deal with Concur, and Fowler has a deal with Red Bull. Both are hardly conventional golf sponsors.

“There are more people paying attention to golf and the corresponding result is that more companies are investing in golf,” said John Moscatello, executive vice president and managing executive of golf for Wasserman Media Group, which represents Day and Fowler.

More than 60 percent of the PGA Tour’s sponsors now have deals for five years or more, according to the tour.

“Four years ago we created a campaign around two themes; one was competitive friction and the other was creating more favorite players, and we are now seeing the evolution of that campaign,” said Ty Votaw, chief marketing officer of the PGA Tour. “We see the results today in terms of what the competitive landscape looks like and the number of players that are fascinating to our fans. There is a positive uptick in the tone and the tenor to be associated with the sport.”