This article first appeared in Sports Business Journal written by, Nick Blenkarne, Head of Strategy UK.
Golf. Opened up. These were the words adorning the brightly coloured graphics around the Fan Village at the AIG Women’s Open, played last month at Walton Heath Golf Club southwest of London.
For someone who’s never been to a golf tournament, this might have seemed like the usual sort of vibe you’d expect. But as someone who has attended many golf events on the men’s and women’s sides, I can accurately say this was far from the norm.
R&A has gone all-in on women’s golf, investing heavily, alongside sponsors like AIG, aiming to bring in family crowds with a festival village. Martin Slumbers, the CEO of R&A, in his pre-tournament press briefing, expressed the aspiration to draw in families and extend a warm invitation to young girls who might not have wielded a golf club but yearned for an enjoyable day out. This vision permeated the entire event, evoking a tangible transformation.
Fan areas at golf tournaments are not new, with the spectator village at The 151st Open Championship in July proving hugely popular and the European Tour’s BMW PGA Championship fan village getting bigger every year, but the “Festival Fan Village” at the AIG Women’s Open was something entirely new.
Situated close to the practise range and a short distance away from the 18th fairway, the village offered an array of colour, noise, and excitement and provided almost the perfect way to engage with those experiencing the sport for the first time.
Golf lessons were available for those of all abilities, with crazy golf and putting challenges for more casual fans, but a noteworthy feature was the number of non-golf activities on offer for families to enjoy.
A gaming area, cornhole, and outdoor shuffleboard were just some of the activities available, while a range of street food and craft beer provided by Kerb was there to entice those watching the live golf - sat on deck chairs and bean bags - on huge screens in the middle of the village.
A small stage hosting live music, podcasts and Q&A sessions with recognisable names meant there was always something to see or do for those not wanting to go out onto the course. A comprehensive Adidas store and extra stalls around the area also added to the festival experience. This could and should be something that other sports events use as inspiration.
Ellie Goulding performed on a main stage worthy of a legit music festival, situated on the practise ground. And all of this worked, attendance was significantly up on the previous year’s tournament at Muirfield, with the strategy to continue letting under-16s go free with a paying adult resulting in significantly more young people in the crowd than you would typically see at a major event.
Those who have followed the fracturing of golf through the arrival of LIV (Golf, but louder), might notice some similarities in the way this tournament aimed to appeal to a different demographic of fans. But there’s a crucial difference here - at the heart of this tournament remains a credible, competitive golf tournament that people there and tuning in online actually want to watch because it’s built on sporting integrity and competition.
LIV’s “grow the game” claims are clearly nonsense, but if it has in some way given traditional institutions like the R&A some ideas of how to shake up the fan experience, then that’s at least something.
With the specifics of the new alliance between the PGA Tour, DP World Tour, and PIF still being worked out, it looks likely that this injection of cash will continue, unlocking even greater potential for enhanced fan experiences across the golfing landscape.
Many other sports are facing similar challenges to golf - ageing viewing audiences, difficulty attracting new players at the grassroots level, and a continuing gender imbalance. It’s why we’re seeing a proliferation of new, short-form versions- from cricket’s The Hundred to MLB’s Home Run Derby X. But sports governing bodies and organisers should also consider how they can reimagine fan experiences around their core properties. As the R&A and AIG have shown, it was truly transformative in bringing in a whole new audience.
Next year's edition of the Women’s Open heads to the Home of Golf for the third time and first since 2013, with St Andrews’ historic Old Course the venue for Lilia Vu's title defense next August. Will the R&A be brave enough to continue this fan experience at golf’s most traditional venue? Let’s hope so.
Head of Strategy, Imagination London
As Head of Strategy, Nick is responsible for laying the strategic foundation for inspiring brand experiences working with clients such as Visa, Major League Baseball and LG. Working symbiotically with creative and project delivery teams to deliver insight-driven campaigns grounded in experience, and amplified by compelling content and smart uses of social. With a focus on effectiveness, he employs a mix of planning tools and techniques to ensure those experiences are both solving business problems and adding value to customers.