Rio 2016 marks the first time in 112 years that golf has been included in the Olympic Games. You’d think athletes would be chomping at the bit to take home a gold medal. However, it appears otherwise.
The majority have released statements of growing concern over the Zika virus. Golf is played outside and in marshy terrain acting as a Petri dish for mosquitos. We get it.
However, Rory McIlroy took a more brazen and perhaps honest approach. He came out saying, “I didn’t start playing golf to grow the sport. I started playing to win PGA Championships. I’ll probably watch the Olympics but I’m not sure golf will be one of the events I watch.”
Rory’s statements sent a clear message that The Olympics simply aren’t a priority for the top players. Is this a missed opportunity for golf?
Numbers don’t lie. The London Olympic Games were broadcast in over 220 territories, had a potential audience of 4.8 billion and the average viewer consumed 7.5 hours of coverage. That’s over half the world’s population and almost 8 episodes of Game of Thrones!
When tennis was reintroduced to the Olympics in 1988, 147 nations were affiliated to the International Tennis Federation – today there are 211. Countries playing in the Davis Cup have risen from 74 to 135 and in the women’s Fed Cup from 36 to 102.
Even still six of the top twenty-four tennis players aren’t attending. Additionally, six of the seven top NBA players are sitting the bench. The difference is that unlike golf the NBA hasn’t seen a dramatic drop in viewing figures.
According to FIBA, at least 450 million people play basketball worldwide. If it continues to grow at this rate, it will surpass football as the most-played sport globally. This growth is why media sponsorship deals are being renewed at up to quadruple the previous amounts leading to over $5.2 billion in revenue last season.
Compare that to the 60 million international golfers. Even though the 2016 Tour is rich with Americans, only seven of the top twenty are from outside the US, the industry shouldn’t be strictly focusing on traditional golf playing nations. The Olympics would help expand to massive markets like China.
It’s ok that Rory didn’t start playing golf to grow the sport, which kid did? However he does currently have a responsibility to grow the game. He gets paychecks and endorsement deals because fans want to watch him play. We don’t see him turning down Nike because he didn’t start playing golf to have photographs taken do we?
We can’t force Rory and other pros to attend. Unfortunately, their absence means the sport and fans will suffer.