On and on he went. On and on and on. Under bridges, along canal towpaths, past towns with names like Egham and Melksham and villages called Claverton and Monkton Combe. Along A roads, B roads and roads with no classification at all. Thomas Bjørn had spent hours and hours walking around London during lockdown, satisfying two of his well-known characteristics – a fierce curiosity and a strong restlessness – but this was a different proposition.
This time he was walking from the European Tour’s headquarters at Wentworth in Surrey to Celtic Manor, Newport, in Wales, a distance of 210 kilometres. And he was doing it in four days. The aim was to time his arrival with the concluding day of the Celtic Classic, the fourth of the six-event UK Swing.
“It was emotionally the hardest thing I have ever done,” Bjørn, the 2018 Europe Ryder Cup captain, would say later of his walk. Saddling up at the start of the third day and poking at his blistered feet, he spoke of how hard it was to get into his shoes and that he’d had a teary moment the previous afternoon. “If somebody asks me what is the hardest thing I have ever done, then I would say I am in the middle of it right now,” he said. “Oh my God!”
“Our athletes are some of the most creative and entertaining in the world. They just needed to be sure that their reputations would be respected and they were going to be showcased in the greatest light. When you have that trust and once you start creating all the videos, all the players want to be a part of it.”
– Keith Pelley
Yet on he went. Left, right, left right. Slowly the kilometres disappeared beneath his feet. He walked 60 the first day, 60 the next before easing off. Bjørn, a massive Liverpool football fan, was helped when Jürgen Klopp, the team’s manager, called. “Thomas, you know the Liverpool anthem is You Never Walk Alone don’t you?” Klopp asked. “Well, in your mind, you never walk alone.” One afternoon his phone buzzed and up popped a picture of Rory McIlroy, a baseball cap back-to-front on his head, speaking from the US. “What you’re doing is very good,” McIlroy said. “I’m young, thin and fit so it’s obviously all good,” an obviously very tired Bjørn replied. Pop singer Niall Horan called. “When I’m back in London we’ll have a beer,” Bjørn said to Horan. “You’ll need it after all this,” Horan replied. Captain Sir Tom Moore, whose efforts to walk 100 lengths of his garden in his 10th decade had raised more than £30m for the National Health Service, called: “From one captain Tom to another,” he said.
A call from Rory McIlroy to lift spirits.
— The European Tour (@EuropeanTour) August 15, 2020
For months before Bjørn made his first step, the European Tour had been preparing his walk and then promoting it on social media. They dubbed it the Wentworth2Wales Walk. As many as 100 people were involved at one time or another with 10 accompanying Bjørn. A skeleton crew was readied to record the walk and make a 17-minute film and promote two of the European Tour’s sponsors (BMW and Doubletree by Hilton) within the body of it. Kit Gartrell and two of the medical staff cycled the first 70 kilometres to recce the route. Then during the three days, ET employees blitzed social media to get the word out about Bjørn’s achievement. The campaign for the Wentworth2Wales Walk achieved 394,058 engagements, 10.3 million total impressions, 2.75 million media views and raised £35,000 for Golf for Good and Unicef, Bjørn’s two charities.
It was as good an example as any of the European Tour’s social media work, which has become so admired recently. Its variety and originality of content and its humour have won numerous awards and commendations. The ET’s social media work won the BT (British Telecom) Sport Industry awards for Best Social Media campaign in 2018 and was nominated for awards on four other occasions. That same year it won the Best in Sports Media presented by Sports Business Awards, and in the Leaders Sports Awards, the ET was nominated twice, in 2018 and 2019, for the Creative Content Award competing against the likes of LA Galaxy, the soccer team, the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA), and the International Basketball Association (FIBA).
“The European Tour’s social media is not just the best in golf. It’s the best in sports,” an American said unprompted recently. “I love those videos,” one leading US golf administrator said. “Anything that makes a golfer or golfers better known is good for the game. And when humour is involved it is even better.”
“When you think that we (the European Tour) have 300,000 followers, then to do a video that has a Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and YouTube total of several million views and a reach of nearly 33 million is quite something,” European Tour content director Michael Gibbons said with justifiable pride.
Liz Valicenti was director of digital marketing at Titleist until late last year and is now senior director of consumer marketing and engagement at Global Golf Post. “After comparing these numbers to PGA Tour, LPGA Tour, Callaway, Titleist and TaylorMade, my assessment is that, yes, the European Tour statistics are very, very successful and skew much higher than any other golf social channel,” she said. “And the main reason I think this is true is that no one else actually creates original content like this in campaigns that are in general, not really golf related but they’re human, funny, some are altruistic and not at all commercial.
“If you look at the PGA Tour, almost all of the videos are just clips from events or instructional or highlights of one amazing shot or shots from a broadcast clip,” Valicenti added. “ET is creating content specifically for the social channels and the numbers show that viewers like this.”
— The European Tour (@EuropeanTour) November 16, 2016
This then is evidence that a philosophy that Keith Pelley, executive director of the European Tour, talks about at every opportunity, does work. If Queen Mary I of England had Calais written on her heart, Pelley has the words entertainment, platform and content on his. “We’re in the entertainment business and golf is the platform,” Pelley says again and again with messianic verve.
“Engagement is another form of currency,” Pelley continued. “TV ratings are a form of currency. The more TV ratings you have and the greater they are, the more you are going to be able to charge media agencies and such. Same with social engagement. If your brand is strong and you have more social engagement, you are going to be able to drive more revenue. People want to be associated with strong brands, strong content and so what we needed to do was increase the engagement that we had socially.”
The campaigns to promote golf, the European Tour and its players have been thought up by a small group that includes Gibbons, Tom Greaves, Tom Jackson and Will Pearson, all of whom worked for the European Tour or associated companies before coming together to form the social media group. Jamie Kennedy was among them until leaving the European Tour in 2019 and is now working for GolfTV.
Clearly these men are talented at their various specialities, but among them Gibbons is recognised as being exceptional. His skill is the strength of his relationships with the players, which enables him to persuade them to participate in these stunts, convincing them it is good publicity for them and for their profile. “He has what they call a Hollywood mind,” Pelley said. “I am always saying to him you should be in the entertainment world, the world of theatre, the world of motion pictures. So, we took him out of the communications department and made him content director. He has been a key talent in the tour’s (social media) success for sure.”
How do they work? Imagine a conference room with half a dozen men sitting around. Coffee cups are strewn on the table. A whiteboard covered with writing stands near the conference table. The atmosphere is relaxed. There is a lot of talking, some jokes, some shaking of heads. Every so often someone has a “Eureka!” moment. “That’s it,” Gibbons says. “Let’s get started on that. Let’s knock that idea into shape.”
Thus is born another idea that will become a piece of social media. “As much as there have been successful times when we have come up with a great idea there have also been times in the past few years when we have bounced a lot of ideas around and then looked at them the next day and said, ‘This is absolute nonsense,’ ” Pearson said. “We clearly had too much coffee. The ideas were too outlandish.”
The first video was made in 2013, in George O’Grady’s time as executive director of the ET. It was a Happy Gilmore type of video in which players had to run up to a ball and hit it. A dozen golfers were involved, including Phil Mickelson, Pádraig Harrington, Paul Casey and Shane Lowry. “We had two cameras, we edited it very quickly and overnight it had run up nearly 1 million viewers,” Greaves said.
Things moved on slowly until at Valderrama, in southern Spain, in April 2016 when “we filmed a team of French professionals setting a new Guinness world record for the fastest time for a hole,” Pearson said. “I remember we were at dinner on the night it went out, refreshing our phones from time to time, and the numbers were literally jumping, 50,000 or 60,000 every few minutes. That was the first one that went crazy, and to this day that remains one of our most successful pieces in terms of the way it took off.”
Soon after this came the Little Billy interviews. The idea was to get a child to interview famous people, the reasoning being that a child could ask questions that an adult could not. “We thought it was a pretty neat way of getting some funny and challenging content out there, all wrapped up in a cute little guy asking the questions,” Pearson said. The figures bear this out. Little Billy’s interview of McIlroy had a total of nearly 6 million views and a reach of more than 17 million on all platforms.
“We auditioned children to play the part of the child and got a very composed kid named Billy Jenkins, who was 8,” Greaves said. “We asked him if he had done any acting and he said he had done something in a film called The Crown. ‘What was that about Billy?’ we asked. ‘Something to do with the royal family,’ he replied. ‘It was OK.’ Later we discovered what The Crown was all about. I guess we got that one right.
“The aim was to come up with something that had plenty of traction and got plenty of good write-ups, golf write-ups,” Greaves continued. “We wanted people to think: ‘Gosh this is brave, daring content made in an effective way.’ It is fun to watch for those who don’t know about golf. We were trying to give people something different and new to entice people in who had no previous knowledge of golf.”
Aaron’s Best Day Ever was another successful video because it was such a feel-good story. Aaron’s father asked the European Tour whether there was some way in which the ninth birthday of his golf-mad son could be celebrated. The result was that on the appointed day a car driven by Andrew “Beef” Johnston arrived at Aaron’s house to pick him up and take him to Wentworth. Along the way Aaron was joined by Justin Rose and Henrik Stenson before being dropped off at Wentworth where he was met by Martin Kaymer, the fourth of his golfing heroes, and taken to the putting green.
That video ticked two boxes. It was enjoyable to watch for those who had little or no knowledge of golf. What mother or father would not want to give a child of theirs a present such as this one? It also provided an opportunity to showcase a sponsor’s product, in this case a BMW car. “The beauty … for BMW was that almost the entire story took place in one of our vehicles,” Jörn Plinke, head of BMW Golfsport marketing, said. “In that sense it was a BMW that made the journey possible, meaning the product was integrated in a completely authentic but powerful way. The video went viral instantly. The content was very authentic and all golf fans can relate to the emotions of Aaron but also seeing the pros in a different environment. The inclusion of a BMW product was ideal without it being too prominent since the star of this piece was still Aaron.”
It had 12.3 million views and a reach of 32.8 million on all platforms.
Pearson said the landscape of sports sponsorship has changed a lot in the past few years. “Previously it was all about signage on the course and hospitality at events and that was about it,” he said. “Those elements are still important and valuable, but nowadays there has been an explosion in how these companies want to be tied in with content elements. The wider impact of the content we have done is to elevate the ET brand and put the ET on the map and put the ET brand out there as a creative and innovative leader in terms of sports content. The result is a valuable tool when the ET is selling to commercial partners.”
Probably the most memorable video was the one compiled in the immediate aftermath of Europe’s victory in the 2018 Ryder Cup. The two central characters were Francesco Molinari and Tommy Fleetwood, who had won their four matches together. Though Fleetwood lost his singles, Molinari won his, thus achieving that rare prize of a full set of five points out of five.
The video, a bromance that became known as Moliwood, sprang largely from Gibbons’s inventive mind. Gibbons and Kennedy had noted on Friday afternoon that Molinari and Fleetwood had both their matches. “We should make a big deal of this bromance thing,” Gibbons said to Kennedy. “Then they won two out of two the next day so it was four out of four. At some point late on Sunday afternoon I remember thinking I am going to get them in bed for a picture. I remember thinking, ‘God, that would be funny,’ and thinking that we could probably pull this off.
— Ryder Cup Europe (@RyderCupEurope) October 1, 2018
“After Europe had won there was a party at the golf club and another party at the Trianon Palace (the European team hotel). From 8 or 9 until 10 it was players and families and I said to (Molinari and Fleetwood), ‘We should do a picture of you two in bed.’ And that started the video idea. They were sitting with their wives, laughing, and they thought it was funny. Hours later, by which time most of us were drunk, I am pretty sure it was Frankie who came to me and said: ‘Gibbo, we must do the video,’ and I thought ‘Oh God, aye.’ ”
Fleetwood was dragged off the dance floor. Molinari grabbed the trophy and the three of them made their way to Gibbons’ room in the eaves of the hotel. What happened then can only be imagined. Suffice to say that eventually the two players got into bed and Gibbons climbed onto it and stood looking down on them, filming them with his mobile phone. “One of them might have been almost between my legs,” Gibbons said. “When I realised I hadn’t got a proper script, I came up with a tiny script along the lines of, ‘Well, how was it for you?’ Frankie says, ‘Four out of five,’ and Tommy says, ‘I’ll give you five out of five.’ I think there were about 10 or 15 takes and a lot of laughs and then came the one when they absolutely nailed it. And that was it.
“Then we all went downstairs and I started to show it to a few people and they all realised what we had. I sent it to Will and Jamie and the edit guys got it ready. It was the perfect way to end the week. It was the storyline of Team Europe for the week. It was clearly a pisstake, and it was great for them.”
It attracted 5.3 million viewers and had a reach of nearly 10 million on all platforms
Pelley said it was seeing this video the morning after the Ryder Cup that marked a turning point for him, convincing him that the tour’s social media work was on the money and that the tour had the wherewithal to come up with creative ideas. “As soon as I saw it I had a smile on my face,” Pelley said. “That was the moment I knew we had the culture spot on, because we had the unwavering trust of those two players and then we had the ability to execute it.
“Our athletes are some of the most creative and entertaining in the world. They just needed to be sure that their reputations would be respected and they were going to be showcased in the greatest light. When you have that trust and once you start creating all the videos, all the players want to be a part of it.
“We have won a number of awards and a number of organisations have asked us to produce their social media for them,” Pelley continued. “We were thinking of creating a production house to do that because so many requests were coming in. We have had football clubs come to us asking us to produce branded content for them. I stopped that because I didn’t want it to be a focus. I wanted them to concentrate on producing the great content that they produce. I credit our social media (department) with having the philosophy of freedom of creativity, not being afraid to fail and developing trust with the players. I am incredibly proud of them.”
Top: Thomas Bjørn completes his 130-mile, four-day charity walk from the European Tour headquarters to the Celtic Manor. Photo: Warren Little, Getty Images
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