How Jay Monahan’s PGA Tour is adapting to changing times - part two

Jay Monahan is five months into his new role as commissioner of the PGA Tour, an executive position widely regarded as the most powerful in world golf. In the second instalment of a two-part interview with SportsPro, Monahan explains how the tour is using new media and technology to reach out to younger fans.

How Jay Monahan’s PGA Tour is adapting to changing times - part two

“We are extremely pleased with our domestic television partners and, with 89 international members from 23 countries playing on the PGA Tour, there is enormous interest in our product globally,” says Jay Monahan. “Our reach through television extends to 230 countries and territories and an estimated one billion households.”

Domestic TV rights are the lifeblood of any major sports organisation, and the PGA Tour is no exception. Its current broadcast contracts with CBS, NBC and Golf Channel are believed to be worth in excess of US$3 billion combined, and are locked in until 2021.

But those deals, while lucrative, were signed in 2011, before the emergence of new streaming options and the arrival of social media platforms to the sports broadcasting marketplace. Indeed, the media landscape has evolved enormously since those deals were negotiated, with the certainties of just a few years ago no longer assured amid increased digital consumption, cord-cutting and dwindling attention spans.

“The world has changed, no doubt about it,” Monahan says during an exclusive email interview with SportsPro. “But I believe in the value of all forms of delivery, be it linear or non-linear. The former has been the way of the world for years and we are familiar with that; but the latter is where we need to get more educated and more innovative because it will help us reach a wider fan base.”

According to figures recently compiled by Magna Global on behalf of SportsBusiness Journal, the average age of the PGA Tour’s TV viewer rose from 59 in 2006 to 64 in 2016. While similar trends have been seen right across the industry over the past decade as younger sports fans shift towards digital platforms, the truth is that the tour’s linear audience in the US now skews older than any other major sports property.

In response to this changing media environment, the PGA Tour has embarked on a new media strategy. Having taken back its digital rights from Turner at the end of 2012, it has initiated what it calls ‘Digital 2.0’, an initiative that led to the launch of PGA Tour Live, the tour’s over-the-top (OTT) streaming offering, in July 2015. Offered on a subscription basis, the service provides live streaming of select groups and early-round action from events throughout the year, complementing the scheduled television coverage provided by national networks.

Since the launch of PGA Tour Live, which was preceded by the creation of Skratch TV, a new social video network designed specifically for the golf community, the tour claims to have seen the benefits of being where younger fans are consuming sports content. Though the average age of its TV viewer has risen in the past ten years, the average age of those visiting the tour's digital properties skews markedly lower.

“When you go to PGATour.com, the median age is 55 and for our PGATour Live, the median age is 20 years younger than on broadcast,” Ty Votaw, the executive vice president of global business affairs at the PGA Tour, told SportsBusiness Journal recently, responding to the Magna Global survey. Votaw also pointed to the fact that total visits to PGATour.com are up ten per cent this year, while the number of PGATour Live subscribers has grown by a third and streams are up 42 per cent.

In recognition of these varying demographics between linear and non-linear audiences, the tour’s emphasis on digital has only intensified under Monahan, who notes the way in which the PGA Tour organisation itself has begun to reflect the audience it is at pains to engage.

“39 percent of our 800-plus PGA Tour team members belong to that millennial audience,” he says, adding: “I’m fortunate to have a very short walk whenever I want to engage in this topic. And, believe me, I’m engaged. Millennials are connected to the world via their phones and tablets, so it’s imperative we deliver the PGA Tour on those platforms. We are moving faster than we were before in this endeavour and it had to start within, which it has.”

Honestly, the world of media is changing so fast, it’s hard to predict what it’s going to look like for us two years down the road, let alone ten.

In an effort to broaden its appeal, the tour has switched up its approach to media in other innovative ways. This year, for example, the tour’s entertainment division partnered with Intel Sports Group to begin providing live virtual reality (VR) and 360-degree coverage of tournaments, following initial trials with the immersive technology in 2016. At May’s Players Championship, coverage of the 17th hole was provided in VR while Monahan says the tour also invited a group of bloggers from outside the world of golf to cover the event.

This new approach comes after several tour executives, including Monahan, paid a visit last summer to tech companies in Silicon Valley in an effort to gauge the way in which golf is perceived by a younger, tech-savvy audience. Monahan recalls how the trip, which included visits to Amazon, Google, YouTube, Facebook and Apple, highlighted the extent to which the tour needed to do more to increase its brand exposure, and also how more video content would only help elevate its positioning among millennials.

“My biggest takeaway was that we were making progress, but we weren’t moving fast enough,” he says now. “We’re upgrading and improving our apps and we’re continuing to liberalise our social media guidelines that allow media to produce content in new and creative ways. Progress, all of it, but we’re not done.”

Social media has been an obvious area for improvement for Monahan, who replaced Tim Finchem as the PGA Tour's commissioner in January. The first rights deal announced by the tour after he took office, for example, was a streaming agreement with Twitter. That deal, which followed initial toe-in-the-water trials on the platform in 2015, includes 70 hours of live tournament coverage this year, with Twitter streaming the first 60 to 90 minutes of play during the early rounds of tournaments on Thursday and Friday mornings.

Though the Twitter partnership essentially includes the tour’s least attractive action - both for fans and for traditional broadcasters - it represents a marked departure from its previously conservative, linear-focused media strategy. Still, it could be some time before the tour’s most valuable content - live coverage of final rounds, for example - makes it way on to digital or social platforms.

“Honestly, the world of media is changing so fast, it’s hard to predict what it’s going to look like for us two years down the road, let alone ten,” Monahan says. “But we’ve been thrilled by how PGA Tour Live and our Twitter partnership have been accepted, how people are watching our marquee players Thursdays and Fridays, so certainly we are warm to the idea of social platforms.

“But it’s a big step to just connect the dots and say we’re going there with final-round coverage. What the changing world does do is put us in a position of strength because the most powerful commodity is live action, and we control that.”

For all its efforts in the digital space, then, the tour knows it cannot overlook the importance of its traditional linear product. In recent months, there has been some speculation that it might look to launch its own cable network when its domestic TV deals come to an end, or if it exercises an opt-out clause written into its existing contracts with CBS and NBC and which comes into effect next year. Monahan himself has accepted that creating such a network would be a “very complicated” thing to do, but he has also refused to rule it out as something to be considered in future. 

One stumbling block in the creation of such a network concerns the tour’s relationship with Comcast Corporation, the owners of NBC and also Golf Channel, a network that is heavily if not wholly reliant on its PGA Tour coverage. If the tour were to end its relationship with Golf Channel in favour of launching its own cable offering, it would then find itself in the difficult position of having to negotiate carriage agreements with Comcast’s cable subsidiaries in order to ensure its network’s long-term viability.

Whatever comes to be, much remains up for discussion and, for now, Monahan refuses to be drawn on the tour’s thinking. Instead, he says, “much has changed since 2011, yes, but here’s what hasn’t changed: our TV partners remain great partners even in this dynamic marketplace. It wouldn’t be fair to talk about what discussions we’re having or will be having.”

Complexities aside, launching a tour-owned TV network would emulate a model employed by other major North American sports properties, many of whom Monahan says he looks to for inspiration. Asked who he thinks is currently setting the standard in the media space, he specifically points to Major League Baseball (MLB), whose highly successful multimedia arm, MLB Advanced Media (MLBAM), is often held up as a blueprint for the rest of the industry when it comes to distributing and commercialising digital video content.

“I’m also friendly with MLB commissioner Rob Manfred and have reached out to him on digital inquiries,” reveals Monahan, who previously directed sponsorship sales for MLBAM before joining the PGA Tour. “He’s been extremely helpful.”

The key is remaining faithful to the fabric of the game that goes back generations while pushing for the need for young and colourful personalities.

Yet, in the interest of engaging younger fans, it is the NBA that serves as a model to follow. Perhaps more than any other sports league globally, basketball’s preeminent competition markets its players and personalities above all else. It has come to be known as a forward-thinking early adopter of technology and nascent forms of media distribution, one which prides itself on catering to smartphone-obsessed millennials better than anyone and has reaped the rewards of allowing its copyrighted content to be shared across online platforms.

“[The NBA] seem to really know their audience and do a great job of delivering content to these fans,” notes Monahan. “They are very aggressive and very willing to try new things.”

Inspired by that experimental ethos, Monahan wants to take a leaf out of the NBA’s player-first, content-centric playbook. He speaks of “liberalising” social media guidelines, “encouraging players to be their own networks", and the need to embrace “cultural changes” when it comes to media. In short, he knows that it is the players and their personal stories, not the game per se, that keeps the modern-day sports fan coming back.

But acknowledging that reality is only the first step towards engaging a younger fanbase; much is dependent upon the players themselves and their appeal in the eyes of an increasingly distracted millennial audience.

Unlike Finchem, Monahan does not have the luxury of a Tiger Woods in his prime, dominating the tour and winning majors at a canter. He does, however, have “a larger number of marketable stars than ever before”, including the last two FedExCup champions, Rory McIlroy and Jordan Spieth, current world number one Dustin Johnson, and a host of up and coming youngsters such as Justin Thomas and Jon Rahm.

While those names lack Woods' star power, they are all actively engaged in marketing and promoting the PGA Tour’s brand of golf, be it on-site at tournaments or via social media. Nevertheless, it is down to the tour itself to ensure its overall product appeals to the widest possible audience.

Monahan himself has made it a priority to look into various ways of improving the tour’s on-course product, from initiatives designed to speed up play to exploring new tournament formats and the possibility of tweaking the annual calendar so as to avoid clashes with other major sporting draws in the US, such as the opening weeks of the National Football League (NFL) season.

Each of those efforts relies on the support and collaboration of other industry stakeholders, of course, but in essence they all tie back to one all-important imperative: how can the PGA Tour engage new fans and commercial partners whilst continuing to serve the existing hardcore golfer or long-time corporate benefactor?

“That’s the challenge, but it’s one we embrace with a ‘fan-first’ attitude in every aspect throughout our organisation,” says Monahan. “The key is remaining faithful to the fabric of the game that goes back generations – golf is a game where history is cherished – while pushing for the need for young and colourful personalities.

“We have aligned with newer sponsors who love the ‘old-school’ makeup of the PGA Tour, that players earn their keep and engage with corporate guests. We have maintained long-term relationships with sponsors who have adapted to changing times and are on board when it comes to building kids’ zones and letting players brand themselves because it helps grow the game. It’s a wonderful balance.”

To read part one of this interview - in which Monahan outlines the PGA Tour’s global growth strategy and explains how he plans to continue Tim Finchem’s legacy - click here.