Past time to prioritize fans; so what's the plan?

Past time to prioritize fans; so what's the plan?

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – Amid the incessant talk of billions and benefits, points and posturing, legacy and leverage, there has been one important segment of the professional golf ecosystem that has seemingly been overlooked.

But fear not: In his annual state of the PGA Tour address here ahead of The Players Championship, commissioner Jay Monahan mentioned the “fans” 24 times.

How he knows fans have fatigued of the ongoing civil war.

How the Tour is poised to innovate and engage and activate them in new and exciting ways.

How they’re going to “dimensionalize our great athletes” moving forward.

“All of this talk about investment and growth,” Monahan said, “I want you to know that we’re focusing that energy on bringing forth the most competitive and entertaining Tour possible for you. This is a transformational time for the sport we all love, and we’re excited to take the lead.”

The question, of course, is how they plan to do that.

Entering its flagship event, the Tour remains in a tenuous position. More players have defected since last year’s Players, none more critical than the reigning Masters champion, Jon Rahm. The Tour’s big-money signature events haven’t been met with universal support. Ratings and interest are down across the board.

There are various theories and explanations why, and Monahan offered a few of them Tuesday in his first press conference in seven months. How weather has impacted three tournaments this year, including at Pebble Beach, shortening the $20 million signature event to 54 holes without a Sunday finish. How there have been three times as many winners outside the top 100 in the world than inside the top 25. How the top players — many of whom have not played their best in the season’s first three months — are desperate to “put an end to that narrative,” suggesting more compelling events are ahead.

Left unsaid, though, was perhaps the easiest explanation for the downturn — that some of the Tour’s biggest draws are plying their trade elsewhere. The Tour developed the Player Impact Program as another way to reward the game’s biggest needle-movers for their contributions, but it also, unintentionally, created a list for a rival league to target. Since those rankings were unveiled in early 2022, LIV Golf has launched and lured away six of those top 10 players. The clear No. 1 on the list, Tiger Woods, is 48 years old and no longer a full-time player.

No matter the spin, no matter Monahan’s insistence that the current Tour structure can “regenerate” stars, that’s a lot of firepower to replace.

Worse still, nine months after the stunning announcement that the Tour would partner with the Saudi Public Investment Fund, there’s been no definitive progress on a formal agreement. The biggest sticking points remain how to incorporate team golf into the Tour schedule and developing a pathway back for LIV defectors, but the longer the drama drags on, the more fan apathy is bound to set in.

Monahan acknowledged that unifying the game is one of his chief priorities. The resolution just doesn’t appear to be imminent.

“I think if you just unified the game and brought us all back together in some way, that would be great for the fans, I would imagine. I think that would then put a positive spin on everything that’s happened here: OK, get together, we all move forward, and I think people could get excited about that,” Rory McIlroy said. “I don’t know what that looks like, and that seems like it’s probably further away than it should be, but … I think we need to try to reengage the fan and reengage them in a way that the focus is on the play. The sooner that this is resolved, I think it’s going to be better for the game and better for everyone, the fans and the players.”

World No. 1 Scottie Scheffler seemed to take umbrage with the idea that fans have grown disillusioned or disenchanted with the product on Tour. After all, he said, it wasn’t these players who have caused the division.

“If the fans are upset, then look at the guys that left,” Scheffler said. “We had a tour, we were all together, and the people that left are no longer here. At the end of the day, that’s where the splintering comes from. As far as our Tour goes, we’re doing our best to create the best product for the fans, and that’s really where we’re at.”

“Improving the product” has been the latest mantra on Tour, the urgency and importance only increasing in the wake of the deal with the Strategic Sports Group that is set to infuse up to $3 billion in the Tour’s new for-profit entity. That consortium of pro sports team owners didn’t invest in the Tour simply because they love golf; they’re savvy businessmen with decades of experience who expect a return on their investment. (The New York Times recently reported that NBA superstar LeBron James and rapper Drake have also invested in the Tour.) This is a critical point in the Tour’s future that, if executed correctly, can capitalize on the current tailwinds that saw more rounds of golf played in the U.S. last year than at any other time.

THE PLAYERS Championship - Preview Day Three
THE PLAYERS Championship - Preview Day Three

Here’s what Homa would do to improve golf’s viewing experience

While he doesn’t want to nitpick, Max Homa has a few little ideas on how to improve the television product for pro golf.

“It’s a niche sport, and I would love for it to grow a bit,” Max Homa said. “I think through COVID a lot of people have found a love for playing the game, and I’m hoping that translates to them watching more. But if not, then that’s all right.

“I think this is just kind of what we’ve been. But I think the nitpicking of it is getting kind of tired, and we could just do a better job of just shutting up and playing some golf and doing our best to entertain.”

It’s instructive, too, to look at what could aid their efforts, even if the details, to this point, remain vague.

Monahan pointed to the PGA Tour Studios, which will house the circuit’s media production assets and is set to open at the beginning of 2025. “It will help us bring live golf and other live content to our fans in a more dynamic way, bringing them closer to our players and closer to our sport,” he said.

Monahan said they’ll invest in more technology, data and insights programs that will allow fans to more easily track their favorite players’ performance, with the minutiae that golf junkies crave.

The TV product is another area of emphasis. Fewer commercials, more shots shown. More mic’d-up interactions. More dynamic visuals and innovations. More player engagements, such as the “Happy Hour” segments that have led to Jordan Spieth and Homa donning a TV headset.

THE PLAYERS Championship - Final Round
THE PLAYERS Championship - Final Round

Who’s winning The Players? We pare 144 players to one

Through process of elimination, we use past history and stats to whittle The Players Championship field from 144 players down to just one potential winner.

TGL, the indoor simulator league tailored to a younger audience and gambling enthusiasts, will finally be rolled out in early 2025 after a year delay.

With SSG now on-board, the on-site fan experience is also supposed to receive an upgrade. McIlroy likened the potential future of tournaments to a Formula 1 race: a lively happening that draws about 400,000 people, only some of whom are actually interested in the results. The Phoenix Open, in other words, just with slightly less debauchery. “Even fans that don’t necessarily watch golf week-in, week-out,” McIlroy said, “but you try to bring them to a tournament and get them introduced.”

But McIlroy also knows that the onus, eventually, will fall to the players. To entertain with both their performance and personalities. To embrace the changing landscape. That’s what makes the new equity structure with PGA Tour Enterprises so intriguing – the stars, in particular, are now financially motivated to play along.

“This is the problem with a members’ organization – things are created for the members. And then once those things are created, you’ve got to go sell those things to fans, sponsors, media. To me, that seems a little backwards,” McIlroy said. “I think what needs to happen is you need to create things for the fans, for the sponsors, for the media – and then you have to go sell that to the players. To tell them to get on-board with that, because if they get on-board and we’re all part of the business now, if the business does better, we do better. That seems pretty simple to me.”

Of course, nothing about the past two years of nonstop conflict has been as easy as it seems. There’s more infighting, more unhappiness, more uneasiness about the future.

But both McIlroy and Monahan seem to be in agreement on this issue.

“Our business thrives when, together, we’re all laser-focused on delivering for our fans,” Monahan said. “If we fail on that front, we fail on every front.”

Welcome to a new era for the PGA Tour – adapt or risk being forgotten.