Video, Golf, North America

‘The lifestyle of golf lends itself to this’: Why Rory McIlroy and NBC Sports launched GolfPass

Mike McCarley, president of golf at NBC Sports, and four-time major winner Rory McIlroy lift the lid on the sport’s first ever digital membership.

by Sam Carp
‘The lifestyle of golf lends itself to this’: Why Rory McIlroy and NBC Sports launched GolfPass

If you were watching Jimmy Fallon's Tonight Show last Monday you might have seen Northern Irish golfer Rory McIlroy announce that he has teamed up with US broadcast giant NBC Sports to launch GolfPass, a first-of-its-kind direct-to-consumer digital golf membership.

In short, GolfPass is precisely what the name suggests. For US$9.99 per month - or US$99 per year – subscribers can gain access to an array of exclusive content including a podcast hosted by four-time major winner McIlroy himself, along with more than 4,000 hours of on-demand instructional videos and over 1,000 hours of library content from classic tournaments and behind-the-scenes programming.

In the words of Mike McCarley, president of golf at NBC Sports, what differentiates GolfPass from any other digital product on the market is “its intent to deliver on all of the comprehensive benefits that are tailored to a modern golfer's lifestyle.” In addition to all of its content – none of which, it should be pointed out, is live – the platform is equipped with a range of other perks, including the ability to book golf holidays, shop for clubs and clothing and receive an array of discounted offers.

Hot on the heels of Discovery-owned Golf TV’s content deal with Tiger Woods, GolfPass serves as the latest example of golf’s major broadcast players using one of the sport’s most recognisable faces to lure fans to their shiny new digital offerings.

However, GolfPass and Golf TV won’t be pitting McIlroy and Woods against each other just yet. Despite its plans to expand into the UK and Australia, GolfPass is initially exclusive to the US, where Golf TV is yet to launch because of the PGA Tour’s existing rights deals with NBC Sports and CBS Sports, and with Golf Channel, which expire in 2021.

Broadly speaking, though, GolfPass marks the latest development in golf’s ever-evolving digital landscape, one which is promptly dragging a sport long considered to be stuck in its ways to the forefront of 21st century consumption.

“We're building a business that connects golfers to the game, connects golfers to their passion,” begins McCarley. “We're really looking at this as building a media business based around the sport of golf that's forward thinking and will be around for the next 25 years, much like Golf Channel has been around for the 25 years since Mr [Arnold] Palmer founded it.”

Tailor made for golf

“I can't really think of another sport where people that watch at the top level, they play the game as well,” McIlroy asserts. “I don't really see that with football. Yeah, they might play, but again, golf is more of a lifestyle. It's a way of life that I don't think other sports can really offer, so I think that's why it's uniquely placed to be able to put something together like this.”

Indeed, golf is increasingly trying to promote itself as a lifestyle sport, one that encourages groups of friends to travel, socialise and simply participate regardless of age, gender or ability. Seemingly ready to make the necessary investments on apparel, equipment and merchandise, the fanbase is a highly affluent one, but it is also extremely knowledgeable and engaged. It is a sport that people aren’t just consuming on television, across digital or at the live event, but it’s a game that they are regularly playing in their free time and striving to get better at.

As any amateur golfer will tell you, the sport is much less frustrating when you aren’t hacking your way around 18 holes, and that desire to improve has led to a proliferation of YouTube channels dedicated to posting videos that analyse swings, offer tips on bunker shots and ultimately feed that appetite for instructional content.

I can't really think of another sport where people that watch at the top level, they play the game as well.

Now, with GolfPass, fans have access to that content in one place. It might have been described as a first-of-its-kind offering for golf fans, but it’s difficult to think of another digital platform in sport that houses instructional videos from some of the most respected voices – such as Nick Faldo and Gary Player - in the game. The likes of Sky Sports in the UK have dabbled in player-led demonstration segments during live broadcasts, but GolfPass stands alone as a service providing fans on-demand access to tips from the best coaches in the world.

“If you watch a baseball game on ESPN or Major League Baseball Network or any of the regional sports networks around the world,” says McCarley, “the next night you're not watching a show that's trying to teach you how to hit a 95-mile-an-hour fastball.

“But if you watch golf, you can also watch a show that's going to help you try to fix your slice or get ten more yards out of your drive. So the lifestyle of golf really lends itself to a product like this because while a lot of people are watching golf on television, there are more who are actually playing the game.”

GolfPass aims to provide fans with a sole destination for content, shopping and travel

Hole in one

Learning, however, is just one of five pillars that GolfPass claims to have been built upon. Alongside that are play, watch, shop and travel, essentially making the platform an unofficial one-stop shop for avid fans of the sport.

Want to play 18 holes? GolfPass will fund a free round of golf each month. Want to book a golf trip? GolfPass will provide US$100 worth of travel credits. Want to shop for new gadgets? GolfPass has 45 brands to choose from. The platform seems to have all the bases covered for prolonging engagement, and McCarley says it has been built firmly with that concept in mind.

“There's certain things that attract people to the game,” he says. “Some people really like to learn and take lessons. Some people like to travel and plan trips with their friends. Some people just like to get out and play as much as they can. A lot of people like to go buy the latest gear and equipment, and we've built a product that scratches that itch for every person who has a real passion for the game of golf.”

What this essentially means is that GolfPass is making life easier for fans on the device they use most. When avid golfers aren’t watching or playing the sport, you can bet that they will be following it on their mobile. Now, for example, they can use their phone to buy clothes for a golf holiday they’ve just booked without having to open a new browser or visit another website, which is something McIlroy says will appeal to the sport’s mobile-friendly fanbase – and something he believes would suit his consumption habits as well.

“I spend a lot of time, whether it be on my phone or iPad watching different content, whether that's golf or other sports or movies or whatever it is,” he says. “I think that is the way of the world nowadays.”

“People pay for things on their phone. Everything is on this little hand-held device that we keep on us, and I think that's why GolfPass is so good, because basically everything you need to be a golfer and to have for a membership is there when you need it.”

Pitching to a broader audience

Ask someone to paint a picture of the stereotypical amateur golfer and they will likely produce something resembling a middle-aged white man dressed in a baggy t-shirt tucked into three quarter length shorts. That may not be a fair reflection of the modern golfer, but there is no escaping that the sport’s history has been defined by patriarchy.

Now, however, at a time when nearly all golf clubs have lifted dated bans on female members, the sport’s fastest growing demographic is young girls, and McIlroy believes GolfPass can play a role in accelerating that growth and opening up the game to a wider audience.

“I think golf does need to obviously get more women playing,” he begins, “and I think there are some great initiatives out there to get, whether it be younger women or the millennial generation, to take up the game, and I think GolfPass is a part of that. I don't think it's the whole solution, but to definitely make golf more accessible and to make it a little easier and fun to be involved in and play I think is a good part of it.

“I think golf is in a great spot right now, but at the same time we need to encourage the younger generation to get out there and play more and also young females and women in the game as well.”

McCarley adds that digital is broadening the opportunities for young people to take up golf, making GolfPass something that should be able to slot seamlessly into that ecosystem.

“You're starting to see a real groundswell of other ways for young people who may or may not have been engaged in the game of golf to get involved in golf,” he says.

“Think about it as redefining a golf experience. It doesn't have to be the first tee at 8am in a pair of spikes. It can be 8pm at TopGolf in a pair of flip-flops, and if you have a golf club in your hand, you're hitting a ball, that's a golf experience.”