Without Woods and McIlroy, Nike still won the British Open branding war
Golf fans were treated to a historic British Open this year: the tournament finished on a Monday for the first time since 1988 and it ended with a thrilling three-way playoff. Sports apparel brands, meanwhile, were treated to an event at which Nike was virtually absent from the course. Rory McIlroy didn’t play due to an injury, and Tiger Woods missed the cut. There was nary a swoosh logo on the links.
It didn’t matter; Nike won the branding battle anyway.
Social analytics firm Networked Insights ran the numbers for Fortune and found that during the four days of the tournament, there were 1.3 million golf-related posts on Twitter, blogs, and Internet forums. Of the portion of those posts that mentioned a brand, Nike grabbed 40% to Under Armour’s 29% and Adidas’s 28%.
Despite all the discussion and hype around Under Armour getting big brand benefit from its endorsement of superstar Jordan Spieth, it still didn’t generate the same buzz on social media as Nike. This is a surprise, considering how heartily golf fans and pundits bought into the premise that without Rory and Tiger, Nike must surely be kicking itself, watching in frustration as Spieth brought attention to Under Armour. (CNBC even suggested Spieth’s performance was so key to Under Armour’s business that the company’s stock fell a dollar on Monday because he missed his final putt.)
The stats show, in a basic sense, what the sports branding world already knows: it’s tough to beat Nike. (The brand also dominated the social conversation around the U.S. Women’s World Cup, despite Adidas being the official sponsor of the event.) The stats also arguably show the prevailing wisdom of Nike’s golf strategy: apart from its multi-million-dollar men McIlroy and Woods, who each have long-term, head-to-toe endorsement deals with the brand, it doesn’t sponsor any other golfer that could reasonably be called a star. Thus, with the two of them absent at the tournament, many thought Nike would be absent from the conversation. Club-maker Titleist, to cite one example, has the opposite strategy with its sponsorships: it has dozens of golfers in its portfolio, including Spieth and all three of the men who made the playoff at this year’s Open, but reportedly pays none of them even a fraction as much as Nike pays its two marquee faces. And in many cases Titleist merely has “equipment deals” with the golfers, meaning they get free clubs but no endorsement fee.
Adidas, meanwhile, got just as much attention as Under Armour thanks to having three different Adidas-clad athletes in the top-ten finishers: Jason Day, Justin Rose, and Sergio Garcia.
And yet the numbers, gathered by Networked Insights senior analyst David Porche, also show that as much as we in the media may parse the sports-business angle to every golf Major, fans don’t really care or notice the brands and logos. Only 1.2% of those 1.3 million British Open-related social posts actually mentioned a brand. So Nike’s dominant 40% was the lion’s share of a small number to begin with. Here’s the full table:
Oakley, which endorses the eventual winner Zach Johnson, couldn’t compete with the big three. But look for the company to do more marketing of Johnson, who has now won two Majors, in the days leading up to the final Major of the year, the PGA Championship in August. (I discuss the future marketability of Johnson on NBC’s Golf Channel in the clip below.)
To be sure, there are other ways to measure brand exposure than social media.
Under Armour undoubtedly benefited throughout the tournament from both Spieth and amateur Paul Dunne, who wore Under Armour without being paid to do so (though soon enough he may well strike an official relationship with the brand). This year’s British Open was up 29% in ratings, grabbing 1.94 million eyeballs, all of which repeatedly took in an Under Armour-clad Jordan Spieth. This year’s Masters and U.S. Open, both of which Spieth won, also had ratings increases (26% and 41%, respectively) over the year before, though as the web site Awful Announcing reports, those two tournaments in 2014 had record lows for ratings.
For now, sports marketing experts say that Under Armour has, believe it or not, restrained from marketing Spieth too hard. Bob Dorfman of Baker Street Advertising speculated to Fortune that the apparel company hasn’t wanted to take too much of the young star’s time by making him shoot advertisements or other such marketing “activation” efforts. But if CEO Kevin Plank wants the interlocking U.A. to show up in social media chatter as much as the iconic swoosh, he’ll need to get Spieth to Baltimore to pose for some promotional photos, pronto.