“We’re the stewards of golf’s future”: The R&A’s Neil Armit on the Open and beyond

Neil Armit, chief commercial officer of the Royal & Ancient, reflects on a hugely successful Open Championship at Royal Birkdale Golf Club, and discusses the difficulty in striking a balance between golf’s traditions and an evolving sports landscape.

“We’re the stewards of golf’s future”: The R&A’s Neil Armit on the Open and beyond

Golf’s Open Championship is one of sport’s longest-running and most prestigious competitions. Alongside the America’s Cup, the Claret Jug is among the oldest continuously contested trophies in the world, having first been won by Willie Park in 1860.

Naturally, much has changed over the course of the 146 editions of the Open that have been held since. But golf clings tightly to its traditions, and many things have remained the same during that century and a half. As both participation and viewing figures for golf in the UK continue to slide, part of the challenge for administrators lies in understanding how to strike balance between maintaining the traditions that define the sport - and make tournaments such as the Open in particular so prestigious - and attracting new audiences in a modern world in which the way sports are played and consumed are changing dramatically.

Neil Armit was installed as the chief commercial officer in 2016 with a brief to overcome that challenge and take the sport into the 21st century. A few days after Jordan Spieth claimed his debut Open title at Royal Birkdale Golf Club, Armit spoke to SportsPro to reflect on the tournament and look forward to the challenges that lie ahead for the game.

Northern Ireland's Rory McIlroy takes his shot at Royal Birkdale

SportsPro: This was your first Open with the R&A. How do you reflect on it, and what have you done differently in your short time with the organisation?

Neil Armit: I’ve been in this role for just over ten months - I joined in September of last year under a newly created chief commercial officer role, with Martin Slumbers on board as the chief executive for the R&A, setting a new strategic course for the business. Ultimately, we wanted to build on the organisation’s heavy investment into the Open in recent years, so we’re very much focused on ensuring that it’s a world class experience not only for the players but also for our commercial partners and the fans as well.

There’s been quite a significant investment into the Open brand, and a rebranding exercise that has taken place so the feeling was that it was a strong, premium event, but that there were opportunities to be able to generate more commercial success and revenue. Ultimately why that’s important is to enable the R&A to invest back into the sport.

Attendance figures for this year’s Open were very strong. Were you expecting such high figures or did it exceed your expectations?

We were very pleased with the success. Attendance was always going to be a significant focus in developing the commercial model. The feeling was that attendance really is a catalyst for growth in other areas, be it retail and merchandise, be it catering, hospitality, etc.

The attendance itself over the course of the week was 235,000. That’s the third largest Open in history, behind two that were held at St Andrews - one in 2000 which attracted 239,000, and then one in 2015 with 238,000. It was also the largest ever in England. So obviously we’re very pleased with that.

The focus for us certainly is in trying to attract more families and a younger generation to the Open as well. We had over 30,000 under-25s who came over the course of the week, which was again very pleasing. Our hospitality sold out and we also launched our free membership programme called The One Club, which was all about building stronger engagement, having a better dialogue with our fans. We had 70,000 members sign up for that.

Ai Mayazato competing in the Women's British Open, one of the R&A's three professional championships

Can you pinpoint any particular actions you’ve taken in your ten months in the role so far which led to the improved attendance this year?

There’s a number of things. We set about trying to understand where we thought there would be growth potential; I think we understood that we had probably under-invested in our sales and marketing capabilities as well, so the feeling was to better penetrate the existing golf audience through better communications, more content marketing-based initiatives.

We started our sales cycle far earlier, so we went on sale in September of last year. We created two distinct sales windows where there were incentivisations in terms of pricing for purchasing early, and then we activated around those windows. It was about creating a clearer set of products both in terms of ticketing and hospitality, and clearly being able to articulate the benefits of buying into a weekly ticket, or that you could buy and then under-16s would go free. Our communication was perhaps not what it could be.

It’s also been about investment into our own internal capability. That’s been through a growth of our marketing team, so we’ve invested into personnel, and we’ve done quite a bit of work with [digital sports agency] Two Circles, who have helped to support what we’re doing in terms of data, better understanding our customer, better understanding how we communicate with them so that ultimately we’re putting out the right message at the right time to the right person.

Fundamentally as a business, it’s been about becoming more insight-led. We did quite a bit of market research, looked at market sizing, we understood the golf audience in the region and essentially tried to move the business from being instinct to insight-led, using data, using market evidence to assist with how we were targeting the local population.

We’re very much focused on ensuring that the Open is a world class experience not only for the players but also for our commercial partners and the fans as well.

You’ve had a particularly successful year with the under-25s age group. Was that a target area for growth and how did you go about formulating a strategy for attracting more young fans?

It’s been about trying to use different channels far more effectively. We’ve used social media across Snapchat, Instagram and Facebook Live, so not only a diversification in terms of the channels that we use but also a real focus in terms of understanding in terms of content, tone, the degree that we interact with the audience to tell the right story. That can mean using some of the players that have some more relevancies with the younger generation and using that as part of our communication as well.

What Two Circles helped us to look at was just in thinking a bit more broadly about how we may have been slightly guilty of defining our fans a bit too narrowly in the past, they helped us to see our audience in multiple different types, recognise the different kinds of fans we have and engaging with the knowledge that, for instance, where there’s a parent there’s a child, so fundamentally trying to use different channels to communicate with our audience on a more targeted level.

How difficult is it striking the balance between respecting the 157-year history of the Open and updating it for a modern world and a new audience?

Going back to the brand work, that was probably the most critical first step in that. Thinking of the Open as the oldest major, the most prestigious major, the sense that what makes it different to other majors in terms of it being links golf, the greatest test of golf. There were certain things that absolutely make the Open unique and we very much wanted to communicate that really effectively. That hasn’t changed – if anything we have a stronger sense of that now and of needing to communicate that tradition and prestige to the world.

But then how do we balance the innovation? We continue to innovate in our broadcast coverage and we’ve taken control of the development of the global feed ourselves, working with European Tour Productions. That certainly allowed us to invest in the technology side of how we broadcast the Open. But again, the focus is on all the things that make the Open special, it being links golf, while being able to dial up significantly the level of technology we’re using and fundamentally working it through with [UK broadcast partner] Sky Sports so that we’re able to show every shot, from the first tee to the final shot on the Sunday.

We’ve got to make sure we’re striking at every opportunity to innovate, while communicating exactly what makes the Open special.

Having taken the global feed production in-house, is that a step toward delivering more content to fans on an over-the-top (OTT)  platform, perhaps with shorter-form clips for those who want to consume golf on the move or don’t have time to sit down and watch a weekend of golf?

Like a lot of rights holders, we’ve spent a lot of time looking at and considering where the industry is going in terms of linear broadcast and the potential future of OTT. Our view at the moment is that while we still feel that linear broadcasters are a very important aspect, we appreciate the need to grow our digital audience, which is not as sizable as we’d like at the moment and is something we need to grow significantly in the future which would give us more optionality further down the line as the digital OTT market becomes a bit more sophisticated.

What we’ve done with our existing rights is to carve out that we stream three-hole channel through theopen.com, and we also have two marquee groups that feature and we have certain clip rights as well. So you are able to consume elements of the Open through some of the R&A’s channels as well, and we continue to develop those. What we’re developing is a head strategy which is still focused on linear broadcast but growing digital audiences, continuing to carve out and reserve certain rights that allow us to be more agile and nimble and hopefully still allow people that don’t want to consume long-form content to still find something they can enjoy in golf.

We’ll be very much keeping an eye on the future with regards to our rights cycles and where there may be an opportunity to develop OTT but it really is a watching brief at the moment.

There’s a clear recognition that we need to attract a younger, more diverse audience.

It’s not just short-form content but short-form formats of the game. Is that something the R&A has an eye on?

I think we certainly have a responsibility in taking a leadership role. We’re the stewards of the game’s future, and clearly from our own surveys we’ve identified the fact that one of the barriers to playing golf is the amount of time that it takes, in a world where people are increasingly time-poor and have family commitments which make it difficult.

Certainly, we are keen to promote nine-hole golf. Our perspective is that that allows clubs that can use existing kinds of golf courses, two loops of nine, but encourages shorter games to take place. We ran a pilot competition this year that finished with a nine-hole game at Royal Birkdale so again trying to strengthen the connection between amateur golf and the professional game. But certainly nine-hole golf, from an R&A perspective, is felt to be something that we significantly want to promote.

But there’s no plans to launch any professional tournaments using that format. Our three professional championships - being the Open, the Senior Open and being the Women’s British Open - we see as remaining as the 72-hole format. We’re certainly supportive of the European Tour as they look at the regular staples of tournament golf in terms of adding and changing potentially the format, with the Super Sixes that [PGA European Tour chief executive] Keith Pelley is so keen on and has trialled. I think we all see the importance of shorter formats of the game in contributing to participation, which will sit alongside the traditional formats of the sport.

You’ve spoken in the past about having a ‘responsibility’ for golf. What is that responsibility and how do you see it developing across the next few years?

It’s all about that sense of balance. The traditions of the game are to some extent what makes it special but at the same time there’s a clear recognition that we need to attract a younger, more diverse audience and certainly find ways to retain people playing the sport when work and family commitments mean it’s difficult to spend as much time on the course. There’s a clear recognition of a desire to balance those traditions with a need to innovate and a continued need to work effectively through all of our national affiliates.

The game is in different phases of growth and flux throughout the world, so it’s also about continuing to adopt strategies that are supportive of different market places as well.