Thursday, June 12, 2014

Could Fox Sports Ignite Interest in Women’s Golf?

Women’s golf is officially an afterthought.

After this week’s U.S. Open – an event that will draw millions of viewers, hordes of media and packed grandstands – the women will take over Pinehurst #2 for the U.S. Women’s Open. Yes, the biggest event in women’s golf is being played the week after a men’s major.

michelle wie
Could you imagine FIFA hosting the Women’s World Cup this August in Brazil? Or the WNBA having its Finals take place an hour after the Heat and Spurs finish up?

It’s absurd. It’s insulting. And yet, most of the golfing media is on board with the idea.

That should give you an indication of how far women’s golf has fallen off the map in terms of relevance. Can you name a women’s golfer that isn’t Michelle Wie? Do you know who won last year’s U.S. Women’s Open? Or this year’s first major?

Since Annika Sörenstam retired prematurely, the women’s game has completely and totally disappeared. The days of Nancy Lopez and Julie Inkster winning regular tournaments televised by ABC or NBC or CBS seem like an ancient relic of the past. That’s mostly because it is.

While the television rights for nearly every single sport you can think of have gone up and lead to fierce competition, women’s golf exists in obscurity. The Golf Channel devotes time to the LPGA Tour, but it is bottom on the totem pole. Women’s golf is only shown live if the Golf Channel has no live PGA, Champions or European Tour action. In some cases, the channel will give preference to the Web.com Tour, which is the PGA’s minor league.

I am sure you’ve read this far and wondering what the hell any of this has to do with Fox.

By Sunday night, you’ll understand. This is the last U.S. Open that will be televised by NBC, ending a partnership that began in 1995. It was a stunning and bold announcement when Fox won the rights to all USGA events in August with a 12-year deal worth roughly $100 million annually. It marked Fox’s first foray into golf and it was a deal that made sense for both sides.

For the USGA, they harbor grand visions of being the most important golf tournament in the world, even if it will never eclipse the Masters nationally or the British Open internationally. But it wants to try and NBC, while it has done a very admirable job of covering the tournament, has a lot going over the summer. It has the Stanley Cup Finals, the Triple Crown, Formula 1 and the French Open. The US Open has always been part of NBC’s Championship Season – a fun marketing gimmick – but the USGA wanted more.

For Fox, they desperately need live sports. As we have seen with the tough launch of Fox Sports 1, their properties are not resonating. The first year of the new Big East proved to be a failure. Major League Baseball is faltering in the regular season. NASCAR’s ratings continue to crater. As Fox looked over its sports calendar, it noticed a giant hole in the summer months.

Enter the USGA. Enter live sports.

Much of the focus, and rightfully so, will be on how Fox televises the U.S. Open. That’s the headliner. That’s the bulk of the $100 million every year.

But the deal with the USGA includes all other USGA events and that is where Fox can really gain value from the contract. And where it could provide the spark that women’s golf has been desperately craving.

With so much going on at NBC Sports between the Kentucky Derby in May and the Tour de France in July, the U.S Women’s Open simply got lost in the shuffle. Yes, they devoted weekend coverage to it – as ESPN did for weekday coverage – but it never made a mark. There are no marketing campaigns created for it. There are no SportsCenter specials or NBC running commercials for it during Rangers/Kings.

When the event moves to Fox next year, opportunity will knock for the game of women’s golf. It’s not that Fox will necessarily care more about the game than NBC – they will care more about building the tournament into something that drives ratings. Fox, when it comes to its non-NFL sports, is desperate for eyeballs and attention.

The U.S. Women’s Open provides Fox with an opportunity to develop something.

Women’s golf has been popular in the past and could prove to be again because the game is enjoyable to watch. While women’s basketball suffers from perception bias from fans accustomed to alley-oops, women’s golf, like women’s tennis, is very, very similar to the male version.

The game is not lacking for players that could be stars, starting with the aforementioned Michelle Wie, who broke through and won this year. The Pink Panther, Paula Creamer, set social media on fire in March when she holed a 75-foot putt to win a tournament. Stacy Lewis and Lexi Thompson are two Americans currently in the top five of the money list, which should put to rest the ridiculous notion that the sport is only made up of Asians.

Ultimately, it will be a year before we see how much effort Fox truly puts forth in marketing the U.S. Women’s Open.

Maybe, like NBC and the USGA, they will treat the tournament as an afterthought.

Potentially, they will treat it like a big event worthy of their full marketing efforts – and your eyeballs and attention.

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