Keith Pelley: addressing Thursday-Friday format 'big priority'

European Tour chief executive tackles some of golf's biggest problems

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Golf.Com's Alan Shipnuk sat down with European Tour chief executive Keith Pelley in Dubai. 

Read the interview in full here. 

AS: What interests me about your leadership at the tour is the larger context of how golf is changing at the top. Whether it’s Jay Monahan of the PGA Tour or Mike Whan of the LPGA tour or Martin Slumbers of the R&A, it seems like there’s this whole generation of younger, more dynamic, more open leaders. How is this trend changing the game?

KP: I don’t know if I would categorise it by that. We’re just new into the industry. Martin obviously came from banking, myself from a media background, Mike from a product background. Jay has been the one who has been in the golf business most of the time. I think it’s great to have fresh ideas. But I think at the end of the day, whether it’s new or old, all of us want the same thing: to grow the game globally. And in order to grow the game globally, I think you have to be prepared to adapt to a changing consumer environment. People are consuming content completely different than they ever did before. And that includes our game. And we need to be prepared to change with the times.

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AS: Golf is built on tradition, but do you feel like there’s a little more acceptance that the game can’t just keep doing things the way they’ve always been done? In other words, how critical is innovation right now to the sport?

KP: I think innovation is critical to almost any business. And especially to all sports. And that’s why you’re seeing in the United States that Major League Baseball is talking about how long you can have a pitching change or how long between pitches. And that the National Football League has changed the line of scrimmage over the last couple of years, in terms of allowing freedom for the wide receivers; they’ve opened up the game to make it more entertaining.

Golf will always have the traditional 72-hole tournaments. And we’ll always maintain the integrity of the game. But you need to look for new ways of bringing in different consumers to experience our game. And that’s the challenge for us as gatekeepers of the professional game and gatekeepers of the amateur game.

For us, the goal is to drive as much revenue as we can, which allows us to put it back in the member’s pocket. 

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AS: What is your most aggressive idea for reinvigorating the product?

KP: I remember standing up at one of the first town halls and saying, “What business are we in?” And everyone talked about being in the golf business. I think we’re in the entertainment-content business where golf is but our platform. Golf is the platform that we communicate and the way that we interact with our consumers. 

So the number one strategy for us is to change the philosophy of everyone who is involved in our game, including our players, right?

You will still have the majors and other big tournaments that are important to the game’s history, but you won’t be able to have the continuous growth of the game and you won’t have tournaments on a week-on-week basis. 

And there’s no question that one of the biggest priorities that we have with the game is addressing Thursday-Friday. Because in the way that people live their lives, they want immediate gratification. They want to be able to get immediate results. And they want to follow things that are meaningful, because there is such a saturation of content. 

AS: So why wait? Why don’t you do that stuff tomorrow?

KP: Well, I was quite astonished with the amount of discussion there was both within the golf community and in the press when we made the decision just to put shorts on for practice rounds. That’s all we did. And that was kind of an epiphany for me that said, “Whoa…”

AS: The European tour has definitely carved out an identity for cutting-edge social media and fan engagement. How far can you take that?

KP: Let’s be honest, the players are the recipe for success. They have to buy into this.

The way I’ve expressed it to our digital people is, “Be as imaginative as you possibly can. Don’t think anything can’t be done.” There will always be a check and balance, right? 

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AS: Am I correct that the European tour has to try a little bit harder than the PGA Tour, because they’re born into money and you guys are trying to make your own way?

KP: North America has 36-37 million golfers. What’s amazing is the U.K. has 4.5 million golfers. Europe as a whole only has about eight million. So there are a lot of areas where we play and a lot of key markets for us where the sport is not engrained like it is in the U.S. It leads you to a very easy conclusion that we need to change the way that our product is presented. 

And again, for us, the more that we can engage the Millenials the better. 

The game has to be quicker. I think slow play is a problem not only for participation but also for marketing reasons.

Truly. It’s something we all have to help fix. I know it’s been talked about for a very long time, but it’s time for results.

AS: Wouldn’t it make sense to have some discussion about the larger schedule?

KP: You have so many variables though. There are a plethora of professional players at every level. Our players want to play globally. They have so many choices, which is part of our respective organizations’ missions.

AS: Let’s talk about the Ryder Cup… is there any concern that the balance of power has quickly shifted from Europe and this is going to be a long-term problem?

KP: We’ve won eight of the last 11. So I don’t think it’s time to push the panic button quite yet.

We brought in Thomas Bjorn and announced him as our captain earlier than we had named captains in the past. Thomas and I spent a tremendous amount of time over the last couple of months working and listening to our top players. And we created criteria that at the end of the day will, we believe, achieve our mandate. 

AS: Clearly, Europe could have used Paul Casey last time around. How do you avoid these scenarios where players have to choose between staying in the U.S. with all the attendant tax advantages and World Ranking points and good weather versus being eligible for the Ryder Cup?

KP: We have made it easy for players to be members of this tour. You only have to play four events, three with the Ryder Cup. And I think what we have to offer is we play in world-class cities and world-class locations. When you talk about playing in Paris and Rome and London, one of the greatest strengths of our tour is the diversity of the locations.

But what our top members felt was one of the reasons that Europe has done so well in the Ryder Cup is because of the strong camaraderie and strong chemistry and the unwavering will to succeed and to support each other.