Eyes wide Open: The R&A’s Neil Armit: ‘We understand inclusivity in sport is incredibly important’

Golf’s oldest and most prestigious major, the Open Championship, has begun embarking on a modernisation project to make an event built in the 19th century fit for 21st century consumption. Its organiser, The R&A, now envisages a similar journey for the sport as a whole, using commercial and digital means to tell new stories to new audiences and get a different range of people to play.

Eyes wide Open: The R&A’s Neil Armit: ‘We understand inclusivity in sport is incredibly important’

The Open Championship needs no introduction. One of the longest-running competitions in all of sport, golf’s British major is the source of so much of the game’s legend and prestige. Yet what its organiser, the R&A, has been attempting is more like a reintroduction: a move to bring a 19th century tournament into the 21st. 

“I think we’ve developed a very strong brand strategy around The Open,” says Neil Armit, chief commercial officer of the R&A since 2016. “We feel that of all the majors, we’re the most international. Our qualifying events are played all over the world, from Japan through to Australia to the US. We’re the oldest major championship as well, dating back to 1860 so that very unique sense of heritage, the iconic players that have played at The Open and have won through The Open.

“And then, really, that sense for us that we feel we’re a premium event that blends tradition and innovation with that heritage, a very strong international audience, a very good upscale global TV audience. We feel that’s very attractive to brands looking to associate. It’s an interesting, unique cocktail of old and new.”  

Armit (left) is speaking to SportsPro in London in July, shortly before heading north to Carnoustie for the 2018 tournament where he saw Italy’s Francesco Molinari hold off a star-studded final-day charge from the likes of Jordan Spieth, Rory McIlroy, Justin Rose and one Tiger Woods.

Long before the drama of last weekend, in fact months before the first ball is even driven, grandstands, spectator villages and other temporary infrastructure were all in put place by a traditional body that is now looking further into the future. 

“We’re always planning several years ahead,” Armit says. “We’ll actively be working on four Opens, a huge amount of work and time has already gone into Royal Portrush next year over in Northern Ireland, we’re down in St George’s in 2020 and then have the 150th anniversary in 2021.”

There are currently ten courses on the Open rota and the organisers are “in constant dialogue with those venues”. St Andrew’s, the Scottish home to The R&A and many would suggest the sport itself, is now expected to recur as a host “roughly once every five years”, and will be the scene of that 150th edition. 

“Certainly, we’ve been moving our whole sales cycle a lot further forward,” says Armit. “We launched ticket sales for Royal Portrush yesterday; we’ve been on sale with hospitality for Portrush since May of this year. So at any given time we’re actually now also selling two events at any given moment in time. There’s a lot of forward planning, a lot of work that goes into assessing the venues, assessing what the needs are from an infrastructure perspective.”

From a broadcaster or sponsor’s point of view, Armit does not see a huge variance in terms of the look and feel of the venues rotating through use for the Open – each, he notes, is a world class links course. But the longer-term planning does give greater certainty to other stakeholders. 

“We are now looking to try to structure more multi-staging agreements,” he explains. “So we have in place an agreement, for instance, for Royal Portrush that we’ll host the Open there two or three times in 30 years. That helps when we’re working with some of the local government agencies around investment into infrastructure that they know The Open is returning.”

That long-range strategy is about more than just The Open – the R&A is managing change across golfing culture. In 2014, the St Andrews-based Royal & Ancient Golf Club from which the modern-day R&A sprung finally agreed to accept female members. In 2016, Scotland’s Muirfield course was dropped from the rota for the Open after its members rejected a similar move; they relented in a second ballot last year and will now also admit women.  

Earlier this year, R&A chief executive Martin Slumbers led calls for local clubs to lead a further push for diversity. “If we can change, there is a huge opportunity for golf, but we have to change and we have to change fast,” he said.

“The R&A group of companies was formed in 2004 and is distinct from the Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews,” notes Armit. “Saying that, it was a very important step for the club to introduce female members and that’s gone relatively smoothly. I think we absolutely understand as the R&A that inclusivity in sport is actually incredibly important. 

“We merged with the Ladies’ Golf Union in 2017. That’s certainly allowed us to have more expertise within the organisation of women’s golf. We’re now staging a series of women’s and girls’ amateur events as well. We’ve recently launched a Women in Golf Charter, which is a real statement of intent from the R&A to encourage the industry to really embrace inclusivity within the sport, to encourage more women and girls to play, to encourage more women to work within the industry as well. Then, working with our national affiliates to promote women’s golf, to promote family golf, and also work with clubs to encourage them to be more welcoming as well.”

The R&A want to bring golf to a wider audience

At a time when the high average age and narrow demographics of golf’s fanbase are causes for concern, Armit sees the R&A’s emerging role as setting a “virtuous cycle” in motion for the sport’s future. “Recently, we’ve embarked on a rules modernisation project which has been quite a significant body of work over the last three or four years, working with the USGA [the United States Golf Association, with which the R&A shares responsibility for administering the sport’s rulebook]. "That’s about making the rules more simple and easier to understand to help attract more people into the game,” he says. 

Among the organisation’s primary responsibilities are the implementation of effective governance for golf outside the US and Mexico, and the management of professional and amateur events. Beyond The Open itself, the R&A stages key tournaments like the Women’s British Open and the Senior Open for veteran players. Its “core purpose” now though, Armit insists, is “to make golf more accessible and appealing and inclusive”, and it has committed UK£200 million to that cause over the next ten years – doubling its investment over the past decade. 

“People wouldn’t necessarily recognise how involved the R&A is in actually developing the sport around the world,” says Armit.

The resources to sustain that can only come from the body’s commercial activities and Armit underlines the importance of taking the R&A’s brand identity and its sponsorship programme in a more appealing direction. 

In recent years, the organisation has contracted the London-based Two Circles agency to mine for data insights and better target its messaging and spend. “I think we’ve become increasingly data-led in pretty much everything we do within the commercial space,” Armit says.

That creates additional value for sponsors but it is just one piece of the R&A’s commercial progression. For Armit, it is as important to the organisation’s aims that partners can “help us with our reach and the ability to invest into specific initiatives but also to help change the narrative of golf from being perceived to be ‘male and pale’ to a game that can be played by anyone, anywhere”.

People wouldn’t necessarily recognise how involved the R&A is in actually developing the sport around the world

To an extent, this kind of backing is already in place. “Someone like an HSBC, which has been a longstanding supporter of golf but has invested quite significantly into supporting grassroots initiatives around the world as well,” Armit says. “They have an initiative called ‘Golf for Everyone’, which again is about encouraging golf to be more diverse and more inclusive, to have a stronger gender balance as well.” 

Luxury watch brand Rolex, with its support for the R&A’s work across rules and governance, amateur golf and sustainability, is another sponsor making a significant contribution, while Armit suggests that MasterCard’s commitment to “a very strong equality agenda within their business” also chimes with work to bring a more diverse set of players and fans into the sport. Finding “synergies” between a partner’s ambitions and the R&A’s is “a good sweet-spot” for developing projects. 

Still, the historic base of golf sponsors is narrow: blue-chip financial brands and luxury goods manufacturers dominate. While Armit salutes the “incredibly important” efforts of these kind of partners, he accepts there will be a need to bring in “different types of organisations” to help meet that range of fundamental objectives. 

“I think it will be around where we have the ability to tell a really credible story,” he says. “So as we do more work around the importance of sustainability in golf, working prospectively with a sustainability partner that shares in that agenda. We’ve got a study in place around the health benefits of golf as well, so working prospectively in the future with an organisation that has a more health-oriented business portfolio. 

“I think as we start to really focus on the aspects of what the R&A’s work will be in the future, trying to work with companies and brands that are involved in those spaces in order to be able to tell a compelling and genuine narrative around it will be important.” 

Armit believes the R&A can reach outside its traditional fanbase with the right strategy

Internally, there is a further push to reach outside the sport’s core followership with a more intelligent digital project. “Certainly, the data showed us that if you can get your content strategy right,” says Armit, “then you really can engage different segments that are very much outside your traditional golf fan.” 

The approach to attracting new fans to the sport has both digital and practical elements. Armit cites the introduction of free entry passes for under-16s at The Open as the stimulus for growing interest in golf among families – something that is then further encouraged by the embrace of shorter-format versions of the game that can be played together by different generations. 

The content strategy, however, is vital. In the UK, the event moved behind a TV paywall for the first time in 2017 when Sky Sports began a five-year deal worth a reported UK£15 million a year. That has brought with it a pivot to digital as a primary means of growing audiences. At the same time, the R&A took control of the global broadcast feed, working with European Tour Productions.

The R&A has invested in its digital storytelling capabilities, while also carving out certain rights, with a focus on being able to get the right output to the right sections of its prospective fanbase and on properly responding to the shift to mobile. The ban on smartphones at the Open, lifted in 2012, is now a distant memory, though their use is carefully marshalled throughout each tournament. 

“We see shareable content as a really important part of that [strategy] and we would actively encourage people to share their experiences and share the content – their own content or the content that we are producing,” Armit says. “We feel that’s a very effective way of growing the level of interest and engagement around the Open.”

The tournament, of course, is part of a packed European sporting summer made busier in 2018 by the presence of a Fifa World Cup at the start and a Ryder Cup in Paris at the end. In other years, Armit adds, “it will be the Olympics, it will be the Tour de France” competing for popular attention. He sees this rich schedule, however, as something that can strengthen the Open’s position and as an opportunity to work towards better practices.    

We feel that the Open is a genuinely preeminent, world class sporting event, but we recognise that every single year we want to do things better

“We feel that the Open is a genuinely preeminent, world class sporting event, but we recognise that every single year we want to do things better, continue to learn, look at what other golf events are doing but also look at what other sporting events are doing,” he says. “What are they doing around their fan experience? What are they doing around their content and digital strategy? Media consumption has changed so significantly in the last few years and we’re continuing evolve and be progressive in that space. That comes from looking and learning what other people are doing effectively and then blending that into what’s going to be appropriate for the R&A and the Open.”

Last year a partnership with horse racing’s Grand National at Aintree promoted a Royal Birkdale-based Open among potential spectators in England’s north-west, and helped to deliver course-record attendances of around 235,000 through the week. Armit also believes the R&A has a “very good relationship” with its counterparts at the All-England Lawn Tennis Club, whose multi-platform cross-promotion of the Championships at Wimbledon has won many admirers within the industry. 

“There’s a good level of knowledge share there,” he says. “I think Wimbledon have done an extremely good job over a number of years now around their social and digital; they’re probably one of the leading organisations in that space. 

“We’re learning, we’re also investing ourselves into our capability in that space, bringing more of that capability in-house. And then working effectively with our broadcasters as well, because they have a vested interest in seeing more consumption of digital, more consumption through mobile as well.”

There are auspicious times ahead for the R&A. Planning is in the early stages for “a whole host” of activities around that 150th Open at St Andrew’s in 2021, celebrating a “blend of tradition and heritage with innovation”. 

The vision for the sport as a whole is further-reaching than that. The R&A is embarking on a project to “ensure it’s thriving in 50 years’ time”. 

“People have respected the integrity that the club and the R&A have shown over the years that’s given us a foundation to have a very important leading role in trying to help manage the game,” he says. “The traditions and the values of the game are incredibly important but it’s about balancing them with a clear recognition that the game does need to modernise, does need to evolve, and to embrace innovation and technology in our world.”