Lessons from Golf

Triathlon on TV. That statement is contradictory. Twice a year triathlon hits the big time and can be viewed on NBC. Repeats of various Kona races are shown on Universal Sports and here and there a race shows up on Vs. The claim: triathlon is not spectator friendly and people do not have the attention span to sit through races that last as long as an Ironman (or even a 70.3). I believe that claim is erroneous. I, along with millions of Americans, watched the final round of the Masters Golf tournament. Golf, seriously?

Let’s examine the game of golf. It is not terribly exciting; watching a ball roll on green grass and guessing where it will stop provides nearly all of the suspense. If the ball lands in the water or reaches the hole in one shot, you will hear extra gasps from the crowd. The players walk to each hole rendering the game slow. And, it is so quiet the sounds of chirping birds are deafening.

Yet, an estimated 42 million Americans watched some weekend coverage last year, and the numbers are probably higher this year with the hoopla surrounding the return of Tiger Woods. Triathlon needs to revamp its image and use golf as a model to make the sport more watchable.

  1. Golf only shows the pros. Have you ever watched a tournament that cut away to weekend warriors playing a round with their buddies? Triathlon should focus on the pro race and cover that well.
  2. Golf sends the players off in pairs. In triathlon, drafting represents a continuing problem that will only grow worse as the athletes’ abilities become more comparable. A perfect solution, send racers off two at a time with a sizable gap between pairs. TV coverage could follow the pairs and see how they fare against each other, as well as showing the virtual leader and how everyone compares to that person. Perhaps Ironman is still not truly viewable to the masses, but Olympic distance and 70.3 certainly fit the bill. The pair’s format would also provide more uncertainty as the winner would not be determined until the last pair finished.
  3. Golf is shown on TV on a regular basis. The players have a following. Triathlon is on TV infrequently. Triathletes are unknown.
  4. Golf has multiple TV cameras offering a variety of angles and the ability to show several players at once. Triathlon has so few cameras that when races are aired it appears that there are six people competing. More cameras would provide better coverage of the course and allow viewers to observe all of the incredible individuals putting it on the line.
  5. Golf shows every hole. Can you imagine if they showed the first 8 holes, took a break, and then came back in time for the last 3? What an outrage! In triathlon, actual time dedicated to the race is probably 20 minutes. The average viewer has no concept of the length or difficulty of the race. Commercials break up the action, only one or two racers are highlighted, and so much of the course is overlooked the naïve viewer has no clue why most people are wearing looks of anguish.
  6. The courses for the Major golf tournaments are known for their beauty, history and difficulty. Take away sand traps, water hazards and bunkers and what are you left with? Clearwater!  Give me a St. Croix any day, now that is an Augusta.
  7. Golf does not interrupt play for “special interest stories”.  What would viewers think if the Masters was interrupted to show Tiger in rehab or Phil Mickelson in the hospital when his wife received cancer treatment? I well understand that adversity is interesting and inspiring. It should not be coupled with sporting events.
  8. In golf, the announcers are live on the course providing commentary. The voice over’s in triathlon are obviously taped after the event and sound scripted. If Jim Nantz and Nick Faldo can supply hours of live commentary over several days , surely someone can provide a few hours of live commentary every few months. This is the perfect opportunity to familiarize the audience with the athletes, speak about the special equipment and describe the importance of the course.

Americans obviously have the attention span to hunker down and sit through a long sporting event. Triathlon just needs to refine its image as not being spectator friendly. If people can settle in and watch golf they will watch almost anything.

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4 Responses

  1. Leif Baradoy says:

    Good points. I think an additional issue is that triathlon simply doesn't have the following to warrant TV coverage. Triathlon doesn't have the same population of participants as golf. Therefore, media companies won't move to televise the sport until they know there is a demographic who will pay attention (which will secure advertising dollars).

    I would like to know what the comparison is, in the USA, between the number of recreational golf players and number of age group triathletes? I strongly suspect that there are exponentially more golfers (partly because the sport is older, partly because, at the recreational level, you don't need to be fit to play it—you can drive a golf cart, drink booze while playing, and don't have to break a sweat).

    I'd like to see triathlon grow and TV coverage would certainly help, but I see TV coverage resulting from increased popularity rather than inaugurating it. I think the better strategy to increase the size of the triathlete population is to have more local, fun races that get people of all levels involved in the sport.

    That all said, I've heard people like Greg Bennett suggest that elimination triathlons might make for great TV, since there is an increased element of suspense.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Seems like the only model out there is the NBC Ironman coverage. The ITU coverage is better but even then its dilluted down to 20 minutes and only a highlights tape.

  3. Brandon says:

    You should add that this is coming from someone who got more coverage at Hawaii for walking, throwing up, and SURVIVING then Crowie got for finishing second in his first attempt. HAHA JZ! You were a human interest story!!! You should have crawled across. That would be worth at least another 10 min of coverage.

  4. Anonymous says:

    I think Leif is right – you need the interest and participation first (which is growing), and then the TV coverage will come. Also, individual golf shots are interesting and impact the outcome. So people are interested in seeing how each shot comes out. Watching someone hammer along on the bike or run for hours…not so much.