Not too long into her tenure as WNBA commissioner, Cathy Engelbert famously said her league had “a marketing problem.” Focusing her efforts on addressing those inadequacies and revamping the league’s messaging paid almost immediate dividends for the W, and now another women’s sporting event is seeing the same upside: the U.S. Women’s Open.
The 2021 Women’s Open wound up being the most-watched Women’s Open since 2016, averaging 600,000 viewers across NBC and Golf Channel—good for a 62% increase year-over-year. Across U.S. Golf Association (USGA) streaming platforms, the championship was also the most-streamed U.S. Women’s Open ever. The spikes resulted from a revamped strategy by the USGA, with help from partner NBCUniversal, which operates the Golf Channel and reacquired the governing body’s broadcasts rights last summer. While the Women’s Open was just one event, its success captures the current momentum around women’s sports and shows how intentionally capitalizing on the moment can create growth opportunities for women’s golf going forward.
For the USGA, the momentum swing started with putting the premier women’s golf back in front of a golf audience after five years on Fox, which struggled to find fall broadcast slots for the sport after COVID-19 pushed the tour schedule back in the year and into contention with Fox’s NFL commitments. Eventually, the parties reached an agreement for NBC to take over the remainder of Fox Sports’ USGA agreement. Now on NBC through 2026, the Women’s Open found itself back on a network with deep roots in the golf business and an existing LPGA relationship.
The USGA said the Women’s Open, in particular, benefitted more than its other properties from the shift back to the Golf Channel.
“The LPGA is broadcast [there] each and every week, so they have a built-in audience of women’s golf fans,” said Julia Pine, assistant director of championship communications at the USGA. “When we were on Fox, those are sports fans—period. The Women’s Open really benefits from being near golf fans, as opposed to just generic sports fans, but we have also been running a number of campaigns and created a really cohesive promotional plan with NBC. As the USGA, we kind of reenergized the Women’s Open and wanted to make sure that it’s elevated to the stature that it should be for the incredible athletes that play in it.”
That revitalizing ramped up in December, when the 2020 championship was played after being postponed. With the PGA Tour dark that week, the USGA used the opportunity to key in on attracting new fans for the women’s game and women’s sports more broadly. The result was the USGA’s “Women Worth Watching” campaign, launched on the eve of the championship.
In the immediate aftermath of the solo championship spotlight and connected campaign, the USGA did what Pine describes as “brand work” on the Women’s Open and focused on working more closely with broadcast partner NBC and the Golf Channel as they disseminated new messaging together.
“We walked NBC through every step of the [Women’s Open brand campaign effort] so that when they’re creating tune-in spots or doing live reads, they’re talking about the Women’s Open the same way we do,” Pine explained. “It’s now one cohesive message that golf fans are getting, whether it’s from the USGA website or social, from tuning in to Golf Channel or from the things that we’re both putting out from a graphics and visual perspective.”
The joint promotion for this year’s June championship started as early as April’s Masters. The LPGA’s second major of the season, the Women’s Open was held at San Francisco’s Olympic Club, which has hosted five men’s U.S. Open’s and other tour events. NBC used drone footage to show off the course during the Women’s Open broadcast, all playing into the USGA’s goal of attracting “the general golf fan” (that is, the golfers who tune into the men’s tour to see the courses they’ve dreamed of playing on as much as to watch their favorite stars).
Courses can be a sole selling point for watching and a way of attracting new fans, and moving forward, the USGA said many of the courses selected for the Women’s Open will be the same as those that have typically hosted the men’s iteration.
Scheduling shifts were also part of the retooled approach. With the championship on the West Coast for the first time since 2016, when it was played just south of San Jose, Calif., the women’s event landed in more primetime viewing slots. The partners plan to continue to provide better broadcast hours in the future as well as features like featured group streaming and the 4D technology introduced this year to maximize consumption.
Other changes came on the network side. The Golf Channel’s popular “Live From” programing, used successfully around the men’s majors like The Masters, was brought back for the U.S. Women’s Open for the first time in years. Running for five days before and after play, the USGA said the shoulder programming helped drive tune-in to the broadcast—hooking more casual golf fans with its human-interest and storytelling components and providing the golf purists with comprehensive evaluations of each day’s play and analysis of the championship throughout the week.
The USGA has also leaned on social—where it coordinated its strategy alongside NBC and Golf Channel. That’s happened alongside increased social-media efforts from the LPGA itself, as evidenced by the #HoodieForGolf campaign around a tie-dye LPGA sweatshirt Michelle Wie-West designed. The sweatshirt, which took a page out of the WNBA’s Orange Hoodie playbook, went viral with the help of some famous athlete friends. The USGA’s blossoming standalone Women’s Open social accounts (only recently created) and a partnership with athlete marketing platform Opendorse, which helps get content into the hands of athletes for sharing on their personal platforms, have also helped.
“We are making an extra effort to not just have promotional content for the Women’s Open around the championship, but really 12 months out of the year, because the Women’s Open still does need to attract new fans to build these women into household names,” Pine said. “The other 11 months out of the year, we’re able to tell stories about the places that we go and the people who participate in the championship.”
As a new study on fans of women’s sports recently found, storytelling sells. Women’s golf partners agree. While the USGA notes that all of its efforts are a continuation of the work the LPGA is doing, there is consensus that things clicked at this year’s Open.