Saturday 18 November 2017

Golf's big earners tee off in battle for online dominance

Regardless of what happens at Gleneagles today, Europe's golfers are eclipsing their US rivals on social media, says Michael Buteau

Rory set to take time off
Rory set to take time off

Michael Buteau

European Ryder Cup team members have won 14 tournaments this year, including three major titles. The US squad has eight victories, with one major.

Off the golf course, the match-up is even more lopsided, with the Europeans, and particularly Rory McIlroy, amassing a sizable lead on the social media scoreboard. Shawn Spieth, the father of US team member Jordan Spieth, is trying to change that.

Spieth Senior is helping his 21-year-old son, who will be playing in the biennial event for the first time, and others, turn their athletic success and fame into off-course pay cheques. Spieth co-founded Dallas-based MVPIndex.com in 2012, in part, to measure the social media power of athletes and match them with companies looking to sponsor them.

"Social media is still a bit of a wild wild west in sports," says Spieth, who spent more than two decades working in the data analytics and information technology field before founding MVPIndex with Kyle Nelson, a friend with a background in software development and social media marketing. "Our goal is to collect enough data and analyse it in a structured way," Spieth says. "Once we have enough data over enough time, we will be able to start to draw some monetary conclusions."

So far, the European Ryder Cup team, which includes four of the six top-ranked players in the world, is the runaway social media leader.

According to MVPIndex data, European players have 1.07m 'likes' on Facebook, led by 613,000 for Rory McIlroy, the number one player in the Official World Golf Ranking. By comparison, US players have 360,000 Facebook 'likes'.

The squad from Europe, which has won five of the past six Ryder Cup meetings, also has about 2.8m more followers on Twitter than the Americans.

Spieth and Nelson, along with friends and family, have invested about $2m in MVPIndex and are trying to raise $10m more. The goal, Spieth says, is to become the "standard for social media measurement in sports and entertainment". The company plans to add an entertainment industry-related product within six months, he adds.

Marketing agencies, teams, athlete representation firms, companies and professional sports leagues pay $1,000-$10,000 a month for the data, depending on their needs. The company tracks almost 10,000 athletes from major sports, including the Olympics. Currently, few companies measure the impact of social media in sports. Most, such as the Davie-Brown Index, determine an athlete's influence by surveying fans.

"It was shocking," Nelson says about the lack of social media analytics in sports. "Only a few athletes really knew how to leverage their brand and talk to companies and fans."

MVPIndex measures the reach (followers) of an athlete or brand, engagement (interaction) and the conversation that surrounds the athlete or product across platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube and Google Plus. The company, using its own algorithm, then combines the three areas to generate a ranking.

Tiger Woods, who isn't playing in the Ryder Cup at Gleneagles in Scotland this weekend due to a back injury, has the most reach, with more than 1m followers on Twitter and 3.1m Facebook 'likes'. However, he ranks outside the top ten on the MVPIndex because of a low engagement rate with fans. There's also quite a lot of "negative conversation" around Woods, adds Spieth.

The only area where the US team has a social media lead is on Instagram, where the Americans have almost 200,000 more followers than the Europeans.

Rickie Fowler, who is number two on MVPIndex's golf rankings behind the 25-year-old McIlroy and the 28-year-old Keegan Bradley, accounts for about 470,000 of the US's 652,000 Instagram followers.

The data also show demographic variations. The 25-year-old Fowler has no presence on Facebook, a company founded in 2004. He prefers to use three-year-old Instagram as his primary way to reach supporters.

American Jim Furyk, whose .321 rating ranks tenth out of the 12 US players, is among the least social on the team. "I couldn't even really tell you what Instagram is," said the 44-year-old Furyk in an interview. "I think my kids are on it. I have a business Facebook page. Does that count?"

Only Phil Mickelson, 44, and the 24-year-oldPatrick Reed rank lower than Furyk. Mickelson's official social media existence is limited to his @MickelsonHat Twitter account (which is run by his sponsors at KPMG), while Reed has no social media presence for himself or his Callaway Golf hat.

Irish superstar McIlroy leads all players with a .961 MVPIndex rating, three points higher than Fowler.

"He's got four majors now, so that probably has a little something to do with it," Fowler says of McIlroy's lead. "Sponsors are a bit more aware of it."

Fowler, who has primary sponsorship agreements with Puma and Red Bull, then grabbed a Red Bull-branded water bottle from his bag and sipped on it. "You've got to do it in a way that's natural," he said. "Authenticity helps. If it's good product placement, you can do a lot of good things with social media."

©Bloomberg

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