The Potential Backfire of Golf at the Olympics: Men’s Golf Still Isn’t Attracting Millennials

#SorryNotSorry @IGFgolf, because it’s true.

One hundred twelve years of golf-less Olympics came to an end at tee-off of the men’s tournament on August 11th. Justin Rose of Great Britain and Inbee Park of South Korea took home the golds for the men’s and women’s tournaments, respectively, in this historic moment for modern day golf.

Yet the top four ranked male golfers in the world were not present: Jason Day, Dustin Johnson, Jordan Spieth, and Rory McIlroy. These four are not the only qualifying golfers who decided not to represent their countries (or their sport) in this year’s historic games in Rio — other well known players like Vijay Singh, Adam Scott, Charl Schwartzel, Louis Oosthuizen also declined invites. This lack of participation for the men (a phenomenon not observed for women golfers) of the sport is a troubling prospect given golf’s mission to increase awareness and viewership throughout the world. Not only does the absence of golf’s top players put golf in a precarious position in terms of the sport’s Olympic future, but the publicity these withdrawals are getting also does not bode well for their mission of increasing viewership — especially among the sought-after Millennial crowd.
To summarize the problem, in withdrawing from the Olympic games, golfers cited concerns with the Zika virus, security, and an already cramped PGA tour schedule. However, many people, including IOC President Carlos Nuzman, claim that the actual motivation behind the withdrawals is money. Winning the Olympics gets you a medal and bragging rights for your country. But it doesn’t get you any cold hard cash.
Millennial Power?
This selfish rationale for not standing up and representing their country and abandoning their sport is not going to help the image of golf. Though golf in the Olympics will provide the sport airtime in a variety of places it would not otherwise, the fact of the matter is golf is losing popularity, and fast. Millennials don’t care about the sport, and many people that cared previously are losing interest.

Millennials are the key. Born between 1980-2000, give or take, this generation has substantial buying power as the largest demographic group in developed countries1. So gaining this group’s loyalty could mean big business for golf. But Millennials, already uninterested in golf, are unlikely to turn to it given the publicized selfish behavior of the sport’s top players. Let us explain: Social responsibility is very important to Millennials; it impacts how they make and spend their money and what they do with their time2. Unfortunately, all we are hearing about are the top golfers in the world being socially irresponsible in relation to their countries and their sport. Golf does not necessarily market itself as socially responsible, but recent events make the lack of social responsibility extra salient — and that’s something that could turn away Millennials.
Changing the Message
If Millennials are all about social responsibility, why not share the work professional golfers are doing to help the world around them? For 20 years, the Tiger Woods Foundation has been empowering students to breakthrough stigma, labels, and restrictions to reach their goals. Ernie Els established Ernie Els for Autism in 2009; inspired by the diagnosis of his son, the organization works to increase Autism awareness. The Jordan Spieth Family Foundation supports multiple groups, including special needs youth and military/veteran service members and their families.
There are many, many more ways in which professional golfers support various social causes — and most likely, any Millennial can find a golfer (if not several) supporting causes about which they care. But Millennials aren’t going to go looking for the social causes that golfers support. It’s up to golf to get the word out by highlighting the prosocial work its players are doing.
All about the Benjamins, Baby
Maybe joining the Olympic games will get some extra viewership and exposure for golf. Maybe. But, in terms of Millennials, the Olympic appearance likely won’t inspire long term change in the overall viewership of/support for/participation in the sport. In considering Millennials, golf’s publicity with the Olympics may have even backfired — making everyone aware of top players unwilling to sacrifice for neither their country nor their sport. This leaves us to ask, what are golfers, and by extension golf, really all about? Right now, it seems that it’s merely about the Benjamins.

1 Dotson, Clark, Suber, & Dave, 2013

2 Baranyi, 2011; McGlone, Spain, & McGlone, 2011; Winograd & Hais, 2014

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