GolfTV is experimenting with Netflix-style 'Originals' to fuel streaming app

How Discovery is building the world’s largest GolfTV platform... from scratch / Getty

Discovery’s fledgling golf streaming app GolfTV is developing an events franchise with the sport's elite, experimenting to build brand awareness, subscriptions, and its content library with compelling one-off broadcasts you can't get anywhere else.

With ambassador Tiger Woods and the PGA Tour, it is creating exhibition matches that might be live sports streamings' answer to Netflix and Amazon 'Originals'.

GolfTV was launched in January 2019 to bring non-US PGA Tour rights under a single global platform aimed at a younger, international golf audience. For $2bn, it secured 150 PGA Tour competitions in a 12-year-deal before splurging on Tiger Woods as a brand ambassador.

Discovery will put the PGA Tour at the heart of what it calls 'the' digital destination for golf - a direct-to-consumer streaming service populated with live coverage, highlights, previews, replays, player interviews, archive footage, and tutorials, at an unprecedented scale.

It comes after Discovery - also home of the Discovery Channel, the History Channel and Eurosport (European Olympics rights holder) - made a bold golf push as part of its "view and do" philosophy.

"It’s a sport. You don’t just watch, you play it. It is a lifestyle, you buy clothes, you organise travel, you bet, you seek out instruction - in groups and with friends," explained Discovery Golf president and general manager, Alex Kaplan, of the terminology.

"We are building a true golf ecosystem, developing an enhanced experience that incorporates everything consumers want around the game. From watching the action to instructional teaching, equipment advice, player aids and retail.”

In the ten months since launch, Kaplan said GolfTV is “exceeding expectations” but has “more hard work ahead”.

The Challenge

Some of this "hard work" includes organising unique events featuring the sport's elite.

The first taste of this came last week in Japan. Amid the buzz of the Rugby World Cup and typhoon season, Woods, Rory McIlroy, Jason Day, Hideki Matsuyama and rugby legends, faced off at The Challenge: Japan Skins, a spectacle designed to attract golf enthusiasts.

Ahead of Japan’s first-ever PGA tournament, GolfTV hosted the first tour-sanctioned skins match in a decade, a high-stakes charity exhibition match where each hole is designated a cash value. Several holes hosted unusual challenges - i.e. 'aim for any green' or 'use a single club' - introducing whimsy into a traditional sport where there's little opportunity to toy with the format. Such scenes were tailored to resonate on social media.

The opening hours of the unusually-banter-filled fourball from the outskirts of Tokyo were globally broadcast by linear TV partners, like Eurosport in Europe. Viewers were then routed to GolfTV to watch for free in a content and marketing play that piggybacked linear to swell subscribers.

The Challenge was broadcast early afternoon in Japan. This landed in the UK pre-morning commute and at midnight in New York. These audiences were funneled into catch-up formats by media coverage and social footage. One exec noted that those watching through the night halfway around the world could be classified as 'hardcore' fans.

On the event, Kaplan said: “We'd like to make this a franchise. It was an experiment, but we are keen to learn what works.”

One-off events remain uncommon in sports – organising around athlete, federation and audience calendars can be difficult. After-event toasts from the PGA and GolfTV detailed the long-hours required to bring the event together, but speakers expressed optimism that there was more to come.

Such executions could help GolfTV differentiate from rivals, develop a strong tone of voice, and provide sports’ answer to Netflix and Amazon 'Originals'.

However, it is unclear how many people viewed the skins. If Kaplan had a figure in mind, he kept it close to his chest – but the size of the audience will determine the feasibility of follow-up events.

A Discovery spokesperson said: “Initial indicators are that we exceeded our expectations on the platform and across our social platforms.”

The Yahoo Japan homepage, in particular, drove a significant volume of viewers with a live stream. Kaplan said the digital environment is making it easier to reach "new, younger and more international communities of golf fans". GolfTV is in a prime position to unify this "sizable and highly engaged, affluent audience" and singled out China in particular.

Tiger Ads

In addition to user subscriptions, GolfTV raises revenue from advertising. At the moment, the app hosts pre-roll video and display ads, although dynamic ad insertions (DAI) into live feeds are to come. Clients tend to be golf equipment manufacturers and tournament sponsors.

But Discovery has also recently acquired Conde Nast magazine Golf Digest and senior staff have been cross-pollinated to bring both properties closer, namely commercially.

“For the first time, these brands have a one-stop global shop to distribute their consumer message to golf fans globally to support their sponsorships, thanks to the brand portfolio and consumer offering the Discovery Golf business is developing," said Jonny Haworth, vice president of commercial at Discovery Golf, said.

“Before GolfTV, if a global brand wanted to activate a sponsorship it would have to engage multiple broadcasters and platforms. With GolfTV and Golf Digest, as well as our partnership with the PGA Tour, prominent international brands can see the advantage of having a truly global ‘one-stop shop’ and optimise how they activate sponsorships, both from an efficiency and impact perspective."

It will develop its live golf coverage, instruction, travel and e-commerce offerings in the coming years. But currently, a significant pull to GolfTV and GolfDigest, is access to “global content partners” - such as Woods.

Woods has a very clear effect on viewing figures. In one 2018 tournament, NBC noted a 40% bump on the previous year’s broadcast which was missing the star player. Similar spikes have been reported by other rights holders. Behind GolfTV's paywall are instructional video series, analysis featuring Woods. He can bring attention to the brand, and its ad partners - granting the property an undeniable pull.

Before The Challenge, GolfTV created apromotional video showing its golf superstars learning Japanese.

This showed a taster of what content top tier partners can expect from the talent.

Marketing or Content?

Julian Aquilina, a research analyst at Enders Analysis, acknowledged that the OTT space is becoming saturated but not so much in global, niche sports platforms. He said most sports broadcasters will have to offer an OTT product of some description.

“New online services are launching seemingly all the time now. But if you are a single sport pursuing fans of your sport, there isn't the same competition (as a multiple sport proposition like Dazn or Eurosport)."

The difficulty for DTC sports broadcasters like GolfTV is in marketing the app. Linear TV partnerships are vital to this. "You still need to get into as many homes as possible".

Few broadcasters will turn down events like The Challenge, but there is a balancing act in knowing how many rights to concede to a third party.

Furthermore, producing such events can be costly. Aquilina added: "If these events are profitable then do as many of them as you can. They will drive retention and drive interest in the service. If they are not profitable, then they are marketing exercises so how much you're willing to spend on marketing? And for how long before you're happy with the number of subscribers that you've got?"

But golf isn't the only vertical Discovery is pushing into.

Atop its ambitious Eurosport Olympics plan, Discovery secured a majority stake in the Play Sports Group and its cycling brand Global Cycling. In food, it recently launched the Food Network Kitchen, “the first-ever live and interactive direct-to-consumer cooking product,” and it boasts a 35% stake in digital media brand Group Nine Media.

On the evidence, Discovery has the foresight to reshape the digital media space. Meanwhile, GolfTV has had a good drive at growth, and is getting into the swing of things, but still has a fairway to go.

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