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WOMEN'S GOLF - IS PERCEPTION ITS GREATEST HANDICAP?

Lisa Parfitt, MD of ENGINE Sport, speaks to James Corrigan, Golf Correspondent for The Telegraph, to explore why women’s golf has to differentiate itself, shed outdated perceptions and seize the opportunities for brand investment in a very uncluttered space.

Today, the 16th edition of The Solheim Cup tees off. The Solheim Cup, you say? The bi-annual pinnacle of women’s golf? Europe vs USA match-play at its finest…?

Ok, you’ve made me say it: it’s the women’s Ryder Cup. And, therein lies the problem.

Unlike the most recent FIFA Women’s World Cup, no one blames you for not knowing what it is, when it’s happening and who’s playing. I’ve a head start having worked for the Ladies European Tour and on two Solheim Cups in the early 2000s.

Whilst women’s sport in the UK is booming, women’s golf is seemingly still trapped in the age-old cycle of lack of visibility and accessibility – both stifling engagement in and growth of the sport.

‘Success breeds success’ – an overused phrase in relation to women’s sport – where cycles of Olympic, Commonwealth Games and World Cup success have propelled homegrown female athletes into the public consciousness. But not for women’s golf. And yet, Britain has three players in the world’s top 40 – Georgia Hall, Charley Hull and Bronte Law – all under 25, with Tour wins under their belts (including a major in last year’s Women’s British Open for Georgia Hall) and leading the charge for Europe this week.

James Corrigan, golf correspondent at The Telegraph, is particularly perturbed by the invisibility of these athletes: “No one has even been in touch with me to set up interviews for the team playing this weekend – no one from the Tour and certainly no sponsors.” This is particularly extraordinary given not only the interest from the media (The Telegraph launched Telegraph Women’s Sport earlier this year, with Anna Kessel its first Women’s Sport Editor) but also the appetite from health and lifestyle media and blogs.

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Corrigan adds. “If they were tennis players, they would have better profile and hype. Georgia Hall won the Women’s British Open last year, and yet she didn’t even get on the shortlist of BBC Sports Personality of the Year, barely got a couple of seconds on-screen with Gary Lineker, and certainly didn’t get up on the stage. That lack of recognition really matters for the future of the women’s game.”

Golf is a complicated sport, with many disparate organisations that have a role to play. Recently, the R&A, the organisation ultimately responsible for the growth of golf, launched a ‘Women in Golf Charter’ to increase participation and develop a more inclusive culture for the sport. As Corrigan puts it: “The R&A has recognised the gap in the market and are increasing investment into the women’s game, but perception is still its greatest problem. Women’s golf needs modernising…but who’s going to do that?”

While Georgia, Charley and Bronte themselves don’t come from privileged backgrounds, golf’s greatest handicap is its perception. “Stuffy”, “elitist”, “sexist”, “long”, “slow” and “expensive” have all been words associated with golf – and it’s going to take a brand and marketing strategy to change this from the inside out. This isn’t new-news for sport, only this year England & Wales Cricket Board launched The Hundred – a whole new brand of cricket to change outdated perceptions and connect with new and young audiences – but what can golf do?

THE DISTINCT NARRATIVE

Women’s golf is treated in exactly the same way as the men’s game and competing for the same space. It’s time for the game and players to own their own narrative – offering them an opportunity to represent the antithesis of the conservative, tradition-obsessed, mainstream male sport. It’s time for the game to have a higher moral and ethical standard and some swagger. It could start by veto-ing any women’s tournament happening at a Trump course for example!

As Dave Roberts, Chief Content Officer at ENGINE puts it: “The appetite for new women’s sporting narratives has never been greater, which is a great place to start, for both women’s golf and its brand partners. However, as long as the stories coming out of the sport stay ‘within the ropes’, it’s going to struggle to resonate or cut through – same settings, same plots, same conflicts, same resolutions. Finding fresh, unexpected stories beyond the fairway offers the opportunity to open up the women’s game, help audiences find new ways in – new narratives with new heroes.”

PARITY OF PERFORMANCE

There’s an outdated, again sexist, perception that women’s golf isn’t as entertaining as men’s because they don’t hit as hard or as far when, in fact, women play with great finesse and accuracy, hitting, on average, more greens than their male counterparts. And unlike other sports, men and women can compete together – it happens up and down the country week-in, week-out – so how about the introduction of some more high stakes mixed tournaments? Allowing women players to showcase their talent – alongside men – on a course engineered for skill as much as strength, whilst also benefitting from the (currently) greater star power of their playing partner feels like a positive notion.

While the FA has been successful in using male allies in football to support and open new audiences for the women’s game, little has been done in this space for golf, which feels short-sighted given the untold riches on the men’s professional tours.

AN APPROPRIATE PLATFORM

If broadcasters are serious about women’s sport, it’s time to think about sharing the coverage, as is starting to happen in other sports like cricket. Corrigan says: “The shame is that’s it’s not on terrestrial TV more. If the BBC are serious about women’s sport and diversity, why were the highlights of the Women’s British Open on in the middle of the night?”

It could be that the 2019 Solheim Cup is timed perfectly after a summer that has delivered so much sporting entertainment. This weekend 80,000 people have bought tickets to witness the drama unfold at Gleneagles and see the very best in women’s players take each other on. “The atmosphere is going to be amazing – and the competition will be full of conflict, struggle and drama, the perfect story narrative. You’ve got to look at what the Ryder Cup has done for men’s golf, The Solheim Cup can do the same for women. It’s going to look cool and competitive – everything you want. It’s also on at a great time on BBC1 and BBC2, as well as being live on Sky.”

Along with outstanding performances at The Solheim Cup, next year’s Olympic Games in Tokyo is going to be another moment in quick succession for players to own a global platform. “The Olympics will be massive: if you had Georgia, Charley or even Bronte win a gold medal, can you imagine how big that would be? It’s on terrestrial TV – an Olympic gold would be a real game-changer for the sport.”

FINAL THOUGHTS

Whilst there is still work to be done on many levels and ultimately the various sporting bodies need to come together and focus on a single brand strategy, the repositioning of the sport provides brands and sponsors the chance to get involved at the start of that journey. Health and life insurance brand Vitality are reaping the rewards after investing in England Netball four years ago – long before that Commonwealth Games gold and before the players became household names.

Could golf be the next gamechanger for women’s sport?

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