November 9, 2009

On Board For An Off-Season

When it comes to the golf season, less can very often mean more

Sometimes good things come out of bad situations. The truly innovative organizations get this, grasping the fact that in challenge resides opportunity. So the silver lining in the dark economic cloud that has hung over the world for more than a year is the realization that chaos requires a recalibrated mindset if order is to be restored. Professional golf faces such a situation.

In boom times, greed rules. The buzzword is growth and, driven by the mantra that bigger is better, planning expands to fill the bubble, never anticipating that the bubble will burst. Every nickel is milked from the cash cow. For golf, this meant higher purses, more tournaments and wilder ambitions -- even the misplaced dream it could compete with the National Football League. Often, it takes bad times to remind you what is good about your product.

What I present here is an argument that less is more. If professional golf -- especially the PGA Tour -- is moving toward an expanded off-season, which has been the case since the Tour Championship relocated in September in 2007, that could be a very good thing. As any baseball fan can tell you, absence truly does make the heart grow fonder. Anticipation is a strong emotion, and it can be a very bankable commodity.

There is a chance what's known as the Fall Finish will eventually go away. The PGA Tour lucked out in 2009 since almost no tournament-sponsor contracts expired. But 2010 will be a different story. We already know that Buick is out in 2010 and Verizon will be gone in 2011. Over the last two years, both Valero and Turning Stone have been moved from the Fall Finish to the FedEx Cup portion of the schedule to fill holes. It is not unreasonable to assume we may see more of that in 2011. While this will take some prize money off the table, especially for the second-tier players, it should not be viewed as a negative development.

Ending the season with the Tour Championship in September and then having a three-month break before the SBS Championship in Kapalua in January will only feed the desire of the fans to see the game's best players. Such a move would also end golf's futile competition with college and professional football, the two dominant sports in the United States.

Isn't part of what makes the PGA Championship a compelling major the fact that it is eight months until the next major -- the Masters? And didn't a scoreboard at the HSBC Champions in Shanghai bearing the names of Phil Mickelson, Ernie Els and Tiger Woods create a longing for a new PGA Tour season?

Between the far-flung European Tour -- which occasionally actually visits Europe -- some of the Australasia events and Silly Season competitions, there is just enough exposure for golf to keep the product in view while letting the hunger build. An off-season, or more accurately a semi-off-season, is like being teased with the aroma of dinner being cooked in the kitchen while you sit in the living room -- presumably watching football on TV.

To look to baseball once again for a shrewd business plan, let me ask you this: Why do new ballparks, including even Yankee Stadium, hold fewer fans than their predecessors? By limiting the quantity of the commodity, the owners drive up ticket prices and they encourage advance sales. We won't get into that whole luxury box thing.

Better buy a ticket for September in March because they may all be sold out if you wait. As a result, the ticket is sold even if the game turns out to be meaningless. No sport milks the off-season as well as baseball, and golf can do the same thing. It is in December and January that even Chicago Cubs and Pittsburgh Pirates fans think their teams have a chance.

It seems as if we are seeing the beginning of that sort of evolutionary change in professional golf. The HSBC Champions in Shanghai, China last week is a World Golf Championship event, but to the fan it has more the feel of another European Tour event played someplace that is not Europe. Except this year it had a remarkable field and an even better finish.

Because the PGA Tour, in reality, now does end in September for the top players -- no Fall Finish for Phil, Tiger and Ernie -- they have the time to travel half a world away and play. And what tournament director wouldn't sign on the dotted line right now for an event won by Mickelson by one stroke over Els, with Woods lurking just a few strokes back?

The LPGA, of course, has had an extended off-season for several years now, ending in late November and resuming in mid February. Their problem this year is that they had a couple of off-seasons during the season – three tournaments in April and another three weeks off in October.

But that's an entirely different situation. While the PGA Tour is still operating from a position of strength out of which it can redefine its product in a more economically efficient way, the LPGA faces challenges that strike at the very future of its organization.

If the 2011 PGA Tour schedule is one in which the season ends with the Tour Championship in September, is absent a Fall Finish, and resumes with the SBS Championship in January, it could be a very good thing.

Here is the real value of the just-completed HSBC Champions: It makes us crave the beginning of the PGA Tour season; it make us hungry for that wonderful stretch during which the Masters, Players Championship, U.S. Open, British Open and PGA are played in consecutive months. It makes us want more.

Like many industries, professional golf is redefining its business model. For the PGA Tour, that could mean an expanded off-season. What's wrong with that? Hey, for us Pittsburgh Pirates fans, the off-season is the best part of the year. That's when we dream. And isn't it a nice dream to have that same finish at the HSBC take place at the Masters next year, or the Players? Think about that while you are watching football.