How to Build A Winning (Read: Moneymaking) U.S. Women’s Open? Design? Location? Tiger Woods?

We at BPBM are stunned by numbers and perception on a weekly basis, and not just in terms of “we probably should have clubbed up for that slope.” No…it’s usually album sales. “How could Ariana Grande outsell <INSERT NAME OF FRENCH BLACK METAL BAND>?” But this week it was different. As golf course architecture nerds, we were thrilled with the lead-up to the U.S. Women’s Open. On one hand, there was the salivation from a design standpoint, as The Fried Egg and others pushed the Country Club of Charleston, a lesser-known Seth Raynor Gem. And surely the Hank Haney controversy could only push viewers to the event, right?

No.

Numbers released this week indicate that Sunday only took a .6, only bringing in 790,000 viewers. That’s the lowest total in 30 years, and continues where it left off during the sluggish 2018. Clearly the architecture angle was niche hype (we should be used to this by now).

Obviously the LPGA needs to ask itself what can be done, both for promoting the game to women and bringing in advertising revenue to boost that promotion. In its defense, the winner’s paycheck broke seven figures for the first time in Tour history. That’s huge, but continuing that momentum takes cash.

So BPBM looked at the numbers to identify factors that bring the viewers.

Country Club of Charleston (Photo Cred: USGA)

1. Maybe it’s not just women. Maybe golf viewership is just down in general.

Fair enough. We found TV numbers for the last-ish 20 U.S. Opens for both genders (beginning with 2017 and heading backwards). And indeed, there’s a noticeable decline in viewership for both men and women’s tournaments. But while that trend stands true for the past decade, the two ratings don’t move in correlation on a yearly basis.

For example, the peak viewership for the U.S. Women’s Open came during 2006, with 4.26 million Sunday viewers. That same year was a relative downer for the men’s tournament, at 7 million viewers. Meanwhile during 2014, the last year where viewership cracked 2 million for the Women’s Open, doesn’t jive with the Men’s tournament. It attracted just 4.6 million viewers, the lowest audience for the male event during the past 20 years.

So no clear correlation yet.

Pinehurst No. 2 (Photo Cred: USGA)

2. Maybe it’s the course, dummy.

That 2014 peak? It broke two million, coming close to doubling the audience for any other U.S. Women’s Open final round from 2011-’19. One factor that stands out is the course: Pinehurst No. 2.

The men’s U.S. Open will never be at the Country Club of Charleston, and not just because it’s too short. It’s because you haven’t heard of it. There were many complaints regarding recent tournaments held at Chambers Bay and Erin Hills and—despite the actual issues regarding the former—we can’t help but feel most invective results from the old people who demand a Shinnecock every year. The same old people who imply a rota would fix the USGA’s problems. This crowd would not enjoy the women’s U.S. Open very much. Looking at the same group of 20 Opens, we would suggest only two occurred at courses we consider “iconic.” And we’re being very strict with our definition of “iconic”: courses that the everyday viewer has heard of. Prairie Dunes (2002) is among the greatest golf courses ever laid upon this Earth. But the majority of golf viewers have never heard of it. Pinehurst is “iconic” because of its popular recognition.

The other course that merits the “iconic” status—by our reckoning—was the 2010 host, Oakmont. Strangely, that 2010 event was just another bump on the downward viewing trend that began during 2006 and continued until 2013 (before the aforementioned 2014 spike). Only 1.19 million tuned in on Sunday to see Paula Creamer’s victory.

The Pinehurst argument was almost immediately rebutted by the men’s U.S. Open, which was held at the same venue during 2014. As we mentioned above, the relative high-point in viewership for the U.S. Women’s Open was accompanied by a tremendous low point for the men’s event.

Alright, so it’s not the course. Let’s veer away from golf-centric factors and into TV-centric factors to see if that helps.

Pumpkin Ridge (Photo Cred: Paul Seifert)

3. Maybe It’s A Time Zone Thing

Does a later start bring in more national viewers? It’s a fairly easy condition to test for, as only two of the U.S. Women’s Opens in our range were contested on the West Coast. Indeed, 2003 was one of the banner years for the Women’s Open, when it was held at Pumpkin Ridge Golf Club near Portland, OR (not a big-name venue, no offense). It brought in 2.97 million viewers—the fourth-highest total during that stretch. The 2016 event was held at CordeValle in California…but brought in only 1.31 million viewers.

Granted, that 1.31 million was still a relatively high point for the LPGA circa 2016—the previous year had brought in .97 million Sunday viewers, while 2017 would only grab .79. There’s significant reason (“significant” in the English sense, not the science sense) to suggest—based on the two results here, that West Coast locales feed into higher ratings. It could be argued that the 2005 Open at Cherry Hills (Mountain Time)—which brought in 3.9 million viewers—partially benefitted from the same phenomenon. But that fails to explain how 2006—which earned the highest ratings for any U.S. Women’s Open on our list—managed to score 4.28 million viewers while being hosted on the Eastern coastiest-of-coasts, at Newport Country Club.

Newport’s results, however, go a long way in pointing out the biggest factor in bringing in the biggest ratings.

Pebble Beach. But you knew that. (Photo Cred: USGA)

4. Maybe It’s Tiger Woods

So let’s go to the men’s game for a minute to find a definitive factor at the most successful men’s U.S. Opens of the past 20 years (we’ll get back to the women quickly, we promise). The three highest viewerships were with 2002, 2008 and 2000 respectively. You may recognize those as the three times Tiger Woods won the U.S. Open.

Together, they cover all the bases for elements we’ve looked at so far; classic courses versus “less classic courses” (Pebble Beach / Torrey Pines), and West Coast versus East (Pebble-Torrey / Bethpage Black). There have been four U.S. Opens with more than 10 million Sunday viewers during our timespan, and Tiger won the first three. The fourth, where Retief Goosen won at Southern Hills during 2001, probably owes part of its success to Tiger’s run of four-consecutive majors that preceded it.

The LPGA has never had a Tiger Woods (the WTA has). But it has certainly benefited from its biggest stars. Let’s look back at that 2006 U.S. Women’s Open at Newport. It was won by Annika Sorenstam…but believe it or not, she’s not the “Tiger” in this situation. It’s about more than just talent.

You can argue all you want about who the greatest (male) golfer of all time is, but Tiger dominates at least one argument: He’s the most marketable golfer of all time, by a long shot. He’s arguably the second-most marketable athlete of all time, trailing only that Michael Jordan guy. Annika Sorenstam, to no fault of her own, was not that gal (she is, however, undoubtedly the greatest golfer in LPGA history). We would argue she wasn’t the one driving viewership during the 2006 Open. Sorenstam was three years-removed from her last PGA event, and the headlines had slowed. Instead, the world was watching another female player who had recently made a PGA run. She would ultimately make three that year.

Michelle Wie.

She was 16, and she was the future of women’s golf. Her age made her a headline, and her ability to compete at that age made her a story. That she could come in third, behind only Sorenstam and Pat Hurst—another major winner—was the draw at the 2006 Open. And viewers came. When she withdrew in 2007, viewership dropped by nearly half, to 2.34 million. As she withdrew and missed cuts for the next six years, coming only as close as 35th, viewers began to distance themselves, and the tournament didn’t break 2 million at any point.

Finally, in 2014, after the hype had begun to wear off, Wie won her first major and 2.04 million tuned in to watch her do it. It was the most-viewed U.S. Women’s Open since the aforementioned 2007 withdrawal.

This doesn’t bode well for the LPGA. It can’t just “produce” a star (at least, ethically. We don’t think things are at the point where they’ll use sinister fixing methods to boost ratings…yet). Nor can the LPGA really prod Nike into going all-out in its promotion of Wie, who remains an apparel signee even after the brand dropped its club production.

You can’t make people care about FemaleGolferX as much as they do Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy, Dustin Johnson. And you can’t make people care as much about Wiegedood as they do Skeletonwitch, but you can have the former open for the latter, and at least excite a few fans willing to try new names. The PGA / LPGA could do the same thing.

For some reason, we get excited to watch professional golfers play with Bill Murray every year during the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro Am. We personally enjoy Bill Murray, but it’s still a colossal waste of our time. Congratulations to Glenn Frey on being a good golfer, but this is a black metal blog and we hate The Eagles. Replace the celebrities (and look at the Thursday/Friday scoreboard…a significant number of players are only “celebrities” to the extent that they have a lot of money) with the best of the LPGA. Pair Ariya Jutanugarn with Brooks Koepka. Pair Lexi Thompson with Justin Thomas. Tony Romo is a great golfer, but we reckon he’s not as good a golfer as Jutanugarn. We’d like her to have a chance to prove us right/wrong.

The PGA owns and operates the LPGA. This URL is an organization operated by the PGA. So is this. A one-event annual investment will pay metaphorical dividends into both of these causes. It will, theoretically, pay literal dividends into the LPGA itself.

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