Scott Simon, 27, got into the office at his sales job Thursday morning and clicked to life a livestream of the Players Championship teeing-off at suburban Jacksonville’s TPC Sawgrass. For Simon -- a golf fan that self-admittedly falls “as close to the die-hard category as you get” -- the tournament is one of the five must-watch PGA Tour events of the year. But while Simon will be tuned in for every swing, the oft-dubbed “fifth major” will barely register for most casual sports fans, who might pass the weekend without watching a single hole.
With its stellar prize money, big names, large crowds, memorable course and exciting past competitions, The Players Championship has component parts that should add up to a top-tier tournament. Its “fifth major” moniker hints that it’s perhaps on par with the PGA Tour's big four (The Masters, U.S. Open, PGA Championship and the British Open). Yet The Players seems to dwell in a limbo-zone somewhere ahead of the crowd-friendly Waste Management Phoenix Open, but behind the PGA Championship. Simply put, it still hasn't found a major-level audience after decades of spectacular swings and big golf victories. PGA officials are trying this year to reach new audiences through social media, but until the casual fan fully embraces the tournament as a major event, it's unlikely interest in the competition, or ratings, will take off anytime soon.
“In the minds of most golf fans, it’s clear that it’s not a major,” said John Fortunato, a professor with an expertise in sports marketing at Fordham University’s business school in New York City. “That doesn’t mean that it’s not a great event with certainly some unique holes.”
TPC Sawgrass is, in fact, one of the most recognizable courses on tour, with stunning features and a stadium design sprung from the mind of legendary architect Pete Dye. Hole 17 is a 137-yard crapshoot with an island green that slopes down into the water, often making fools of professionals.
The 2015 Players Championship boasts a $10 million purse, tied for tops on tour, drawing golf's biggest names such as Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy, Phil Mickelson and Jordan Spieth. The tournament also has history, most notably Woods sinking a winning putt in 2001 that saw the television announcer unbelievably stammering, “Better than most.” Past winners include Woods, Mickelson and the great Jack Nicklaus. But in a sport that anchors itself on four big events, it's been difficult for a fifth tournament to gain relevancy in the eyes of the casual fan. Instead, The Players might be destined to expand its hold on its current peg as the biggest golf weekend that isn't -- well -- one of the biggest golf weekends.
Ty Votaw, chief marketing officer for the PGA Tour, said he wouldn’t call The Players a fifth major, but said it’s certainly in the top five of stroke-play golf tournaments. “We’re just doing everything we can to try and improve on the event and let others judge us,” he said.
Golfers consider a win at TPC Sawgrass to be a major accomplishment. In part because of the huge prize money, The Players is a tournament known to boast one of the strongest fields. But the television ratings for The Players seems to indicate that fans aren’t getting onboard.
The Masters drew 11.1 million average viewers over its four-day broadcast in 2014, the PGA Championship 8.3 million, the U.S. Open 4.6 million and the British Open 3.3 million, according to Nielsen data. The Players averaged about 3.1 million viewers on Sunday in 2014 according to Nielsen. The Players' viewership for its most important round was about 200,000 viewers below the British Open, which typically airs at inconvenient times for U.S. fans. The tournament's 2.6 rating for the final day was reportedly the lowest such rating in 15 years. For some eye-popping context, the Super Bowl claimed 112.2 million viewers in 2014, according to Nielsen.
“One of the reasons the four majors in golf are so considered majors is the buy-in of the media,” said Galen Clavio, a sports management professor at Indiana University, adding that the golfers themselves, especially the stars, might have to push to bring the tournament to the forefront.
“They need to be acting like it’s a major," he said. "They need to be expressing that through media."
TPC Sawgrass began hosting the tournament in 1982 and it was designed to hold stadium-sized crowds, with fans piling in to cheer on the world’s best. The tournament broke an attendance record in 2014, drawing a record crowd for the second straight year. But its television presence and public exposure, which likely hold more significance, aren’t equal to that of a major. While all four days of the tournament are televised (and NBC uses it as a premier event), there is much less ancillary coverage. “ESPN’s not down there all week,” Fortunato said.
TPC Sawgrass is certainly a memorable place to watch a tournament because of a unique design that created purposefully difficult holes. The 17th hole in particular draws crowds because fans want to watch pros miss the island and splash balls haplessly into the water. But a great course attracts people who already appreciate the game and that core group is likely watching.
“I think it’s hard for most folks to see the difference between one beautiful 500-yard fairway and another 500-yard fairway,” said Victor Matheson, a sports economist at the College of Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts. The big money -- while an attraction for the players -- doesn't move the needle for an average-sports-Joe at home, Matheson said.
"I don’t think you ask the casual fan: 'Where is the big money in golf?' I don’t think anyone’s going to say ‘Oh, The Players Championship,'" Matheson said.
The PGA Tour, for its part, is pushing to increase visibility of The Players with millennial-esque technology. The tour used Twitter’s livestream tool Periscope for the first time at The Players this week and has a Snapchat story in the works for Sunday, Votaw said.
“This is where, if you're going to use social media to promote an event, this should be the guinea pig,” Clavio said. Even as The Masters remains must-see-TV for a lot of sports fans, perhaps tweets and video content can push The Players forward by entering golf into a new space. A not-quite-top event that still draws a large audience is “an opportunity to do new things,” Matheson said.
For people like self-described golf die-hard Simon, who are bound to tune in but can't watch up-the-minute analysis on ESPN, there's always the Golf Channel, which airs at least part of every round of The Players.
“I purchased my current cable package,” Simon said. “I overpaid for it for the Golf Channel.”