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.

Game On: Sport, Brands and Gamification

With March Madness now in full swing, there are an estimated 60 million ‘brackets’ completed, (including one from Barack Obama) attempting to predict the winners of each match from the first round through to the National Championship match. The official NCAA bracket challenge was predictably ambushed by an unofficial challenge offered by Quicken Loans & Warren Buffett, which offered $1 billion if someone could predict a perfect bracket, but with odds of 9.2 quintillion to one, equally predictably every entry was eliminated by the end of the first round.

The popularity of fan games in sport is not unique to College Basketball, with 3.2 million players registered on the official Barclays Premier League Fantasy Football game and NFL Fantasy Football being a huge part of the culture of being a ‘football’ fan. But despite this popularity, brand engagement in both remains minimal, with relatively low activation by partners. EA Sports’ association with Fantasy Premier League is limited to an EA badge offered for your personalised team kit, and doesn’t highlight their role as Sports Technology Partner – a missed opportunity perhaps.

An example of a brand leading the way in this type of activation is the Hilton Honors Fantasy Racing challenge in F1, which invites fans to select four drivers, two constructors, and an engine manufacturer, with their ‘team’ rewarded in points from actual performances at a Grand Prix weekend. As a partner of McLaren, Hilton is at the forefront of the experience – something that is rarely the case in fan games.

The PGA Tour Connect app and T20 World Cup Fantasy Challenge are relatively new additions from rightsholders, but with limited partner activity. As both rightsholders and brands seek to engage with fans in a meaningful manner, activation in the gamification of sport can be a rich area. The popularity of a major event is indeed often enhanced through gamification, as the various NCAA tournament bracket challenges show. With such games coming at a relatively significant cost, it makes sense that rightsholders would look to their partners for financial and marketing support.

Considering the popularity of many major sporting events, and the impact on public consciousness, it is perhaps surprising that many rightsholders and brands alike have not connected with fans like this. With the FIFA World Cup on the horizon, it could be a rewarding pursuit for non-sponsors looking to gain an association with the biggest single-sport event in the world. The official FIFA Fantasy Football, in association with World Cup sponsor, McDonald’s, will have a lot of entrants, but as the NCAA brackets show, ‘official’ does not necessarily mean other brands will not enter the field.

Wimbledon is one event which could lend itself to increased fan interaction: the huge global interest it attracts, combined with the vagaries of its many matches suggests there is more than enough scope to replicate the NCAA bracket format, with clear opportunities for brands to get involved and enhance the fans’ Wimbledon experience.

As we wrote in Synergy’s 2014 #NowNewNext, the gamification of sport is also exploding via wearable tech, pioneered by Nike +, and the gamification of playing, for example with vPar and GameBook in golf.

With rights holders and brands seeking new ways to credibly connect with consumers, gamification is clearly rich in potential both for passionate and casual fans, and of course to draw new fans into sport, but brand involvement has been relatively modest. Now’s the time for that to change.

Bubba’s Hover gives Oakley the lead in The Brand Masters

For golf fans, the onset of April is all about looking forward to The Masters, the year’s first Major and one of the jewels in the crown of global sport. That being the case, it’s also a key marketing moment for brands looking to leverage golf, which always sees a raft of campaigns unveiled. And first off the tee this year is Oakley, with a brilliant fusion of bravery, creativity and innovation, featuring reigning Masters champion Bubba Watson. The launch film – over 300,000 views in 24 hours at the time of writing – speaks for itself.

There are so many things I love about this idea and this film, but I’ll pick three in particular.

1. Its inspired use of endorsement. As Bubba is above all known for being unconventional, the endorsee and the creative idea fit perfectly – still a rarity in sports marketing and, at a time when the falls from grace of Tiger Woods and Oscar Pistorius among others are leading many to question the value of endorsement, a reminder that it’s still a very valuable asset in the sports marketing toolkit when you get it right.

(Related point. If Rory McIlroy was still an Oakley asset, I wonder whether they would have used him instead of Bubba.)

2. Its alignment with the Oakley brand. Oakley has a very strong point of view about innovation, which is absolutely key to its DNA and product portfolio. But on top of this, it also has a brand manifesto – ‘Beyond Reason’ – which it set out in a series of films launched last year, led by this.

Again, it’s a rarity in sports marketing to see brands committing so strongly to a point of view. More brands should do it, as a touchstone to guide everything they do. If Oakley hadn’t had ‘Beyond Reason’ as a framework for their thinking, I’d wager that making a call on Bubba’s Hover would have been a lot harder.

3. The film isn’t over-branded. Sure, there are some obligatory shots of the Oakley logo on the hovercraft, but overall the branding is subtle and lets the idea – and the Oakley point of view – speak for itself. Refreshing.

With brave content like this, the future is definitely sunny for Oakley…here’s hoping we see a few more bold brands making the cut this year.