Why The Ryder Cup Is A Sports Marketing Phenomenon

There's golf, and there's the Ryder Cup. Like nothing else in golf, it dominates the headlines, courts controversy, ignites social media, and draws in millions of non-fans. So how did what started as a low-key exhibition match in the 1920s, and which was dying by the 1970s, become a sports marketing phenomenon?Re-invention

The Ryder Cup heralded a trend which has shaped modern sport: the creation of new and re-imagined formats. Consider for example the huge success and influence of the Rugby World Cup (born in the 80s), football’s Premier League and Champions League (the 90s), cricket’s Twenty20 and IPL, and most recently eSports. And there are many more.

So it was with the Ryder Cup. Following years of predictable and overwhelming US victories over a hopelessly outmatched GB & Ireland team, by 1977 the event was on its last legs. But from 1979, at the inspired suggestion of Jack Nicklaus, GB & Ireland became a European team to make the matches more competitive. And the rest, as they say is history.


Three players, who will all cast giant shadows over this Ryder Cup, stand apart for their marketing impact on golf: the recently-passed Arnold Palmer, who with Mark McCormack as his salesman, led golf into the TV era and made it a big business; Tiger Woods, the sport’s first truly global icon whose impact was only truly felt after his disgrace and withdrawal; and Seve Ballesteros, who transformed the image and appeal of European golf in general and the Ryder Cup in particular.

When Nicklaus made his suggestion, Seve was the inspiration. Seve duly became the talisman of the new European team and inspired its first game-changing victories over the US in the 80s. Brilliant, charismatic and fiercely competitive - especially against the US players and galleries who he perceived as having slighted him early in his career - Ballesteros was, above all, the catalyst for the Ryder Cup phenomenon.

Less Is More

One of modern sport’s biggest problems is that there’s too much of it. Football, rugby, tennis, cricket and golf have all over-supplied the marketplace, leading to numerous negative on- and off-field consequences. This has increasingly worked to the Ryder Cup’s advantage. It doesn’t come around very often, but when it does, we can’t wait. Less is more.


Above all, one thing makes the Ryder Cup unique, and uniquely powerful as a sports marketing platform: it’s Europe versus the USA. This happens nowhere else in major sport. Nowhere else in major sport does Europe compete under one banner, uniting hundreds of millions of fans. And it’s easy to forget that sport in the USA is a primarily a domestic affair: the dominant US team sports are all contested internally. As a sporting nation, the USA rarely ventures outside its borders onto the world stage. So when it does, it’s rare, and it’s a big deal. And this year, owing to Brexit, this particular aspect of the Ryder Cup story is even deeper. 


The Ryder Cup is entirely unlike the golf that we see week-in, week-out, all year. Tournament golf is selfish: the Ryder Cup is selfless. It’s not about individuals playing for a title and multi-million-dollar purses. It’s about teams, about playing as part of the team, about winning for the team, and – that extreme rarity in big sport - not about money – the players aren’t paid to appear in the Ryder Cup. And this works and appeals in a way that tournament golf simply doesn’t. It gives the fans a team to support, and that in turn makes it bigger, more emotional, and easier to buy into than tournament golf - remember, worldwide, it’s team sport that rules. It makes heroes and villains out of players who, ordinarily, we don’t passionately support or oppose in their tournament identities. And most importantly, it works because it demands of the players something different, something other, something somehow better.


It may not like it, but the fact is that sport thrives on controversy. Controversy creates today’s stories, history’s legends, and tomorrow’s fans. Controversy sells. And since the Ryder Cup was re-invented in 1979, and the contest became as close and as fierce as anything that sport can offer, controversy has never been far away: indeed, it’s become part of the event’s DNA and its global appeal, part of why we look forward to it, part of what we expect from it. Golf’s traditionalists might not like it, but that controversy is another element that sets the Ryder Cup apart, and gives it an appeal way beyond golf’s normal fan base and media footprint.

Defining Moments

We regularly tune into marquee events hoping to see something special, only to be disappointed. But since its re-invention, the Ryder Cup has never disappointed. Every event since 1979 has produced unforgettable, defining moments that have entered the sporting – not just golfing – pantheon. And this isn’t about serendipity: it’s the inevitable result of the contest being re-invented to become even and unpredictable, blending perfectly with a format which is guaranteed to produce moments that win – or lose – the match. The Ryder Cup is a perfect sports marketing template.

Synergy is working with Standard Life Investments, the first Worldwide Partner of the Ryder Cup.


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