Golf’s Six appeal
by Jonathan Rest
GolfSixes, the European Tour's answer to cricket's Twenty20, is entering its second season. Sportcal Insight examines its development and how the sport’s stakeholders are collectively embracing change. Author
2nd February 2018, 09:48

“Golf is a good walk spoiled.”

Whoever said it - was it Mark Twain? Winston Churchill? Neither? – it is certainly a claim that resonated with respondents to a recent YouGov survey, which found golf to be the UK’s most boring sport.

Out of the 70 per cent of polled people in the UK who had watched the sport and said it was “boring,” 52 per cent described it as “very boring.” Only 11 per cent said it was “exciting.”

Keith Pelley’s response?

“Totally disagree, and our fan engagement in 2017 would also suggest otherwise. Last year, the European Tour saw large TV ratings increases, while our social engagement increased by 35 per cent,” said the European Tour’s chief executive (pictured above, far left, with inaugural GolfSixes winners Lucas Bjerregaard and Thorbjørn Olesen of Denmark).

“All sports need to modernise, and we are leading the transformation of global golf with our players being some of the world’s largest sports personalities,” he continued. “If the poll was accurate, we would not be as successful and able to grow our business as we are doing today.”

Since assuming the top job in August 2015, Pelley has made no secret of his desire to experiment with new formats in a bid to entice a younger generation of fans.

First came the Hero Challenge, an innovative one-hole knockout event held ahead of the British Masters, in October 2016,  complete with a floodlit par-three hole, featuring a specially-constructed tee where the players made their entrances to a noisy welcome from the fans and pyrotechnics up ahead on the green.

GolfSixes is attracting a younger following and increased social media engagement

Seven months later, at the Centurion Club in St Albans, some 20 miles north-west of central London, the European Tour followed up with GolfSixes, a somewhat hastily-arranged event billed as “a revolutionary and novel short form of the game which further illustrates the Tour’s desire to embrace innovation and originality in professional golf.”

As well as being played over just six holes, meaning a round could be completed in little over an hour, instead of four to five hours for a full 18 holes, a shot clock penalised players for exceeding the allotted time.

Pelley’s biggest gripe, without question, is slow play.

Last month, in the same week that YouGov published those survey findings, the European Tour announced the return of GolfSixes for 2018, armed with stats: the 2017 tournament experienced a 42-per-cent increase in new golf fans, compared to standard European Tour events, while spectators – paying around £6 ($8.30) each – were also 14 per cent younger than those seen during the rest of the golfing calendar. 

By virtue of attracting a younger following, social media engagement around the event also exceeded the average rate seen at other European Tour tournaments by 24 per cent, delivering more than 20 million social impressions.

Having proved popular with players, fans and the media, GolfSixes seems to have established itself as the blueprint to become the sport’s version of cricket’s Twenty20.

Now, it’s the job of Max Hamilton, the European Tour’s head of commercial partnerships and a former NBA and Football Association of Ireland executive, and the rest of the commercial team at the European Tour’s plush Wentworth headquarters, to make it marketable.

Reflecting on 2017, Hamilton tells Sportcal Insight: “Sixes was put together in such a short period of time. The biggest plusses for us were that we could do it - it actually happened rather than it just being an idea - and the feedback we got from the major stakeholders; players, fans and media.

" When we looked back at it in terms of viewership on TV, but also its digital impact and social following, it was in the top quartile for both versus other more standard European tour events "

Max Hamilton, head of commercial partnerships, European Tour  

“When we looked back at it in terms of viewership on TV, but also its digital impact and social following, it was in the top quartile for both versus other more standard European Tour events.

“We saw a really refreshing response from the golf media. I’d say we were even surprised that we didn’t get as much pushback. They saw it as a needed change.” 

For 2018, the aim is to refine and then expand.

Hamilton continues: “We want to make sure fans that are on the course are very much aware of what is happening in all of the matches. We’ll learn with Sky [the European Tour’s broadcast partner] how this event works differently from a broadcast perspective but generally, like anything, you try it once and then there will be refinements. We have more time to prepare this year.”

There will also be greater sound quality on the microphones worn by players and caddies, to enable spectators and viewers to listen into tactical discussions.

Sixes won’t just be confined to a weekend in May either, with big plans in place to showcase the tournament at the Ryder Cup, which takes place at Le Golf National in Paris in late September.

“The Ryder Cup is one of the most prestigious sporting events, so to give GolfSixes that platform to showcase itself on a global scale demonstrates our commitment to the concept,” Hamilton notes.

We’ve been talking to all our promoters around the ability for them to have a Sixes event, say on the Tuesday night of their event, when they’ve got players already there  

“But we’ve been talking to all our promoters around the ability for them to have a Sixes event, say on the Tuesday night of their event, when they’ve got players already there.

“In an ideal world you’d be looking at an entity that takes place more than once and in more than one country each year.”

He continues: “2018 is about refining what we did in 2017. In all likelihood we will take a look at it in 2018 and see what direction it will take.

“The great thing with something this fresh and innovative is there’s no template. For example, we have looked at ladies’ involvement as well. We would be open to that if a [commercial] partner comes in and wants to look at that.

“We’d obviously need to work with the Ladies [European] Tour. While a mixed-gender team is not the plan at the moment, perhaps it will be in the future.

“This is about accessibility and pushing the boundaries, all to the benefit of the game.”

The European Tour is actively in the market to find a title sponsor for the GolfSixes, along with as many as four official partners.

“The nice thing about GolfSixes is that it is clean,” Hamilton says. “So one of the things we’re saying to potential commercial partners is there’s a great chance to come in and help us shape this. There is an ‘ownable’ element to Sixes at this early stage that could really work for somebody.”

The Centurion Club hosted the inaugural GolfSixes event in 2017

From a broadcast perspective, GolfSixes will once again be shown on pay-TV in the UK by Sky as part of an existing rights agreement with the European Tour.

However, the tour is - understandably considering it is championing this event as inclusive and youth-oriented - aware of the need to get free-to-air exposure.

Hamilton notes: “It could well be streamed. It would be pretty obvious that of all our events, could this be the one that will be allowed to live beyond the paywall, so to speak? That is certainly something we are exploring but obviously we have a very close relationship with Sky, so we would work with them on anything.”

Even after a single edition, GolfSixes is having an impact elsewhere on the circuit, with this year’s Austrian Open in June rebranded the ‘Shot Clock Masters’.

It will be the first European Tour event to embrace the initiative, with the first player in each group given 50 seconds to play any shot, and subsequent players having 40 seconds. Players will incur a one-shot penalty for exceeding the allotted time, and these penalties will be shown as a red card against their name on the leader board.

However, each player will have two ‘time-outs’ per round in which they have twice the afforded time to play a shot.

Pelley says of the dedicated shot clock tournament: “Not only will it help us combat slow play and reduce round times, it is also further evidence of our desire to embrace innovation.”

Hardly your archetypal ‘boring’ sport.