OPINION: Will Golf Set the Bar for Exhibition Sports in 2020?

21 May 2020

In the wake of Sunday’s ‘TaylorMade Driving Relief’ event, and with the second iteration of ‘The Match’ in the works, Rob Garden, Head of Public Relations at Levergy, believes golf is well-placed to grab some valuable market share in the absence of any meaningful live sport.

In late-2018, Tiger Woods went head-to-head with Phil Mickelson in a made-for-TV event dubbed ‘The Match’, an event which is returning later this month under a refreshed guise, offering sports fans a taste of the live content they are so desperately craving. 

We’ve seen through similar events (sporting exhibitions) such as The Money Fight (Mayweather v McGregor) or the recent Match in Africa (Federer and Bill Gates v Nadal and Trevor Noah) that, through well-crafted, captivating storylines, such events have the potential to reach vast audiences and become commercial and publicity hits for their owners and for brands who tie themselves to them.

The key in finding success in this space, however, lies in being clear about the nature of the event. 

Neither of these events were real competitive match-ups. Their ability to attract fans lay in a powerful narrative and the ability to create compelling content off of this: the hype, pageantry, and, in the case of The Money Fight, the ability of their participants to play a character role in a broader story. 

The first iteration of The Match had the potential to be such an event. With two of the game’s greatest ever players and rivals taking each other on, with Woods in the midst of one of golf’s greatest comeback stories, going head-to-head for a winner-takes-all $10 million dollars, it seemed it had all the ingredients for success. 

Where they stumbled, however, was the positioning of the event as a real competitive outing with the ability to change the face of golf by attracting a significant number of new fans. The Match did not live up to this billing. It lacked the narrative hook to really appeal to existing or prospective golf fans. Tiger and Phil, although legends of the game, were unable to give the event a feel of real competitiveness and unfortunately lacked the ability to pull off the clearly orchestrated and often clumsy social media (promotional) and on course banter, which was aimed at adding an entertainment angle to the event. With the event for invited VIPs only, its participants rarely getting out of second gear in terms of their on course performances, and the winner of two of the richest men in sport pocketing $10m, The Match came across as contrived. Rather than the event to take golf to the masses as it was billed, the end product was nothing more than a Las Vegas betting exercise. 

The Match is now returning for a second iteration - this time dubbed ‘Champions for Charity,’ it seems its organisers are on a better path to success. With a clearer storyline and the addition of new ‘characters’, this could be the live TV event sports fans have been waiting for.

In addition to the fact that the opportunities for live sport are currently few and far between, The Match, as a made-for-TV exhibition, has now been given what it originally needed - an engaging narrative that is significantly different to what a golf fan is usually exposed to week in and week out, and a mechanism to drive new viewers to consider the sport for the first time.

Rather than a winner-takes-all money grab, this year’s event will see WarnerMedia and the golfers donate $10 million to COVID-19 relief. The kicker, however, is that Woods and Mickelson will be paired with NFL legends Tom Brady and Peyton Manning. We’ll also see a refreshed format, with the teams playing better ball for the first nine holes and a modified alternate shot on the back nine. 

With the recent NFL Draft setting viewership records - in excess of 55 million viewers - it is clear that all sports fans will currently tune into any live coverage they can get. This makes the addition of Brady and Manning an astute one, with the ability to attract both American football fans and general sports fans to tune in.

In addition to this, it adds an entertainment layer. All sports fans want to see a pro athlete try their hand at an alternative sport in a fun, entertaining setting – it humanises them (or in some instances provides the proof that they aren’t just mere mortals) and thus provides compelling viewing for fans of both sporting codes. 

From the early event promotion, it seems Brady and Manning have been able to bring the pre-match banter between the four participants to where it needs to be – creating an air of a ‘real’ competitive nature with the added humour we love seeing from sporting idols – giving us somewhat of an, albeit contrived, view into their ‘real’ personalities. It’s essence is now four friends teeing it up for the purpose of entertainment and charity – that is something as a sports fan (rather than a golf fan) I can get behind.

This is reflected in the commercial interest in the event with WarnerMedia selling out their slots for advertisers and sponsors a month in advance. 

The Match, through its new lens, is now more fun and less serious, has so far created the entertainment factor it lacked in its first iteration, is taking place for a better cause, and offers a compelling reason for any sports fan to tune in. Yes, it’s still going to be cheesy and without fans on the course (it will take place behind closed doors) it will lack an electric atmosphere – but it looks like this has been made up for through a fun and compelling character narrative.

If the addition of Brady and Manning can loosen up Woods and Mickelson and allow them to show a side of themselves fans haven’t yet seen on the course and add a competitive spark to the match, dare I say it, while other sports are currently floundering to maintain relevance, this could be golf’s best shot at drawing in a new, more youthful and diverse audience since the height of ‘Tiger mania’. 

With exhibition sporting events likely to become more of a regular occurrence in the remainder of 2020, it’s important that their organisers and brands tying themselves to them understand how to create compelling viewing for fans in lieu of the serious competitive sport which many view as hallowed ground (not to be tampered with). 

It’s obviously yet to be seen what The Match: Champions for Charity’s end product will look like, but from pre-promotion, they’ve got off on the right foot.