Wies Brave New Economic World

RSS

Ten million dollars. Twenty million. Majors, Masters, two tours, sponsors exemptions, girl golfer poised to become world woman ' the layers of potential in the Michelle Wie story go deep and wide.
 
But will golfs latest phenom deepen and widen golf participation?
 
Michelle Wie
Michelle Wie has millions of reasons to smile.
Fortunately, theres a template. True, Michelle Wie is not Tiger Woods, Tiger is not Michelle. Even the stages onto which they stepped upon turning pro are different, albeit just nine years apart. But in that almost-decade, we have had a chance to see what the coming of a monumental talent has ' and has not ' done to move the golf worlds economic needle. And the No.1 lesson?
 
Its all about execution.
 
Tigers professional debut in Milwaukee in 1996 and the heady weeks leading up to it ' including a stunning third U.S. Amateur win, with Nike chief Phil Knight following every stroke of the final at Oregons Pumpkin Ridge ' had everyone feeling the euphoria of potential. The air seemed thick with the aroma of money on the wing, flying into numerous wallets, 401 (k)s and vacation homes. Surely this rising tide would lift an armada of boats. The industry was home free. Even those ordinarily reserved in their economic forecasts couldnt suppress a triumphant grin. Rounds, equipment sales, minority participation and more were expected to rise.
 
It didnt exactly happen that way. No doubt, Tiger Woods, architect of an already amazing career before the age of 30, has done great things for golf. General interest, however such things can be measured, has increased. Golf is closer to the mainstream of world culture. But the number of core golfers in the United States, those adults who play at least eight rounds per year and an average of 37, those who spend close to $1,500 per year on fees and equipment, has hovered between 11 million and 13 million since Tigers debut, with a peak of 14.1 million in 2000. The trend line is upward, but compound annual growth has been about 1 percent over the last 13 years, a rate that has equipment manufacturers trying to steal market share from each other instead of finding markets to expand into. (All figures are from the National Golf Foundation.)
 
Tigers presence made golf one of the only sports to show a positive trend in television ratings (NASCAR was the other). But the blessing was two-edged, because ratings history has shown that the numbers often dip when Woods doesnt play or is out of the hunt. Thats one of the reasons the PGA Tour is said to be reengineering its 2007-2010 television rights negotiations approach to be less Tiger-dependent.
 
Woods status as a minority ' he is African-American and Asian ' can be said to have increased golf awareness and interest among minorities. Again, interest is a hard thing to measure with any exactitude, and although there may be more minority golfers now than in 1996, no clear-cut, year-to-year statistical evidence yet supports that assertion. But anecdotal evidence, especially from large cities with diverse populations, backs up the idea that minority participation has increased ' but it has hardly been the revolution some expected.
 
Did we ask too much of The Tiger Phenomenon? Perhaps. At any rate, he has held up his end. What we have learned is that interest alone wont do the job. It needs to be converted into behavior ' buying behavior, playing behavior, golf behavior.
 
Theres more people that watch, but theres not more people that play, said Sean Toulon, executive vice president of TaylorMade-adidas Golf. That said, I think Michelles great. Shell definitely get people talking about golf more.
 
But what will convert interest into intent?
 
Rounds that dont take six hours would help, Toulon said. Rounds that are less expensive would help. How do we get golfers into the gameand staying into it?
 
Ah. Familiar problems. The time, expense, and difficulty hurdles to greater golf participation have become the industrys evil triad. Now that we have seen how one amazing players beginning can pump interest, but wont (by itself) pump money, perhaps we can make the best of this second chance. Oh, and we still have the first guy around. And others who can raise the crest of this second wave: Sorenstam, Els, Mickelson, and more.
 
How to best use the inevitable celebrity of Michelle Wie is best left to the marketing experts. But in a culture super-obsessed with celebrity (and with Wie hooked up with the William Morris Agency, which has a 106-year track record in the entertainment industry and the contacts to go with it), the effort could involve innovative alliances with everyone from new Wie endorsee Sony to powerhouses in cosmetics, food, travel, movies ' you name it. And that tide will indeed raise many boats, including those sailed by the superstars named above.
 
If the execution is there, it could be a brave new world for golf ' a world much bigger than one teenagers $10 million.
 
Email your thoughts to Adam Barr