This Is How Golf Brands Are Trying to Bring Millennials Back to the Game

A new focus on digital and youth icons

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When it comes to popularity, notably among millennial consumers, golf has gone from scoring birdies to tallying triple bogeys over the last decade, driven home by NBC earning the worst overnight ratings ever for its recent Ryder Cup broadcast.

Many lay the blame on the flameout of golf’s former golden boy Tiger Woods. But it’s not just television broadcasts that young adults are tuning out—they aren’t hitting the links themselves, either.

Dick’s Sporting Goods has blamed golf’s millennial problem for lagging sales. Meanwhile, brands are working to appeal to millennials. Golf Digest did a redesign, putting celebrities with youth appeal like Jimmy Fallon on the cover. And G/Fore has put a sexy spin on golf apparel.

Might digital media be in a position to save golf from an indifferent Gen Y, which sees the pastime as too slow, too difficult and too expensive?

Over the coming winter, the Professional Golf Association will try to flip the script, overhauling its Web properties while taking a hard look at its digital game overall.

“We can’t hide from millennials not playing the game as much as they could,” said Kevin Ring, CMO of the PGA. “We have to find ways of growing and evolving our social channels and digital platforms. We are in the middle of a transformational moment.”

The association points to emerging young stars like Rory McIlroy and Rickie Fowler—with social media followings in the millions—as marketing assets. The PGA could use a social boost. The association has only 155,000 followers on Instagram. This compared to Major League Baseball, which, even with Gen Y issues of its own, boasts 1.2 million.

Ring aims to make the sport more tech-savvy, implementing promotions like one this past summer during the PGA Championship that let fans decide online where pin placements were. But the marketing chief admitted he is still searching for the answer.

“Is it Instagram? What new digital thing haven’t we thought of yet to engage millennials with the game of golf where they feel it’s authentic and where their friends are getting involved in it?” he said.

Liz Eswein, executive director of social agency Laundry Service, suggested that golf courses themselves are a natural for share-worthy photos via social media. “They need to hit on the passion points,” she explained. “They’ve got to figure out how to tell a story about these [young adults] that connects emotionally.”

Matt Rednor, creative agency MRY’s chief innovation officer, had some far more radical advice. “They need to digitize the course,” said Rednor. “Maybe lights go up so you can see the putting line to help you make it. The clubs could show you how to swing better, so it’s like there’s a coach with you.”

But does a centuries-old sport really require a tech-centric makeover to survive in a digital age?

“Gorgeous advertising isn’t going to fix the brand—it’s just going to cover the blemishes,” said Thomas O’Grady, chief creative officer at Gameplan Creative.

After the spring thaw, it will be worth keeping an eye on whether the embattled sport can get itself out of this sand trap. Yet, there's a ray of hope with digital platforms. While, again, TV ratings for big events like the Masters, British Open and Ryder Cup have been abysmal (the PGA Championship, though, provided an outlier with its best number since '09) and generally flat year over year for smaller tournaments, The Golf Channel began drawing hundreds of thousands of daily viewers for its online live streams in the last few months.

Said Ring of the PGA: “We have to stay up to speed with what’s going on—if not one step ahead of what everyone else is doing.”

@Chris_Heine Christopher Heine is a New York-based editor and writer.