The 146th Open, held this year at Royal Birkdale, saw crowds of 235,000 fans through the gates, making it the third best attended in the history of the Championship and the largest ever Championship held in England.

We are delighted to have worked with The R&A to help achieve strong advanced sales with this year’s Championship become the fastest-selling in history. Following the Open Championship at Royal Birkdale, Neil Armit, chief commercial officer of the Royal & Ancient, spoke to SportsPro about the record-breaking attendance and how data-driven customer insight played its part.

To read the interview click here or see an abridged version below.

SportsPro: This was your first Open with the R&A. How do you reflect on it, and what have you done differently in your short time with the organisation?

Neil Armit: I’ve been in this role for just over ten months – I joined in September of last year under a newly created chief commercial officer role, with Martin Slumbers on board as the chief executive for the R&A, setting a new strategic course for the business. Ultimately, we wanted to build on the organisation’s heavy investment into the Open in recent years, so we’re very much focused on ensuring that it’s a world class experience not only for the players but also for our commercial partners and the fans as well.

There’s been quite a significant investment into the Open brand, and a rebranding exercise that has taken place so the feeling was that it was a strong, premium event, but that there were opportunities to be able to generate more commercial success and revenue. Ultimately why that’s important is to enable the R&A to invest back into the sport.

Attendance figures for this year’s Open were very strong. Were you expecting such high figures or did it exceed your expectations?

We were very pleased with the success. Attendance was always going to be a significant focus in developing the commercial model. The feeling was that attendance really is a catalyst for growth in other areas, be it retail and merchandise, be it catering, hospitality, etc.

The attendance itself over the course of the week was 235,000. That’s the third largest Open in history, behind two that were held at St Andrews – one in 2000 which attracted 239,000, and then one in 2015 with 238,000. It was also the largest ever in England. So obviously we’re very pleased with that.

The focus for us certainly is in trying to attract more families and a younger generation to the Open as well. We had over 30,000 under-25s who came over the course of the week, which was again very pleasing. Our hospitality sold out and we also launched our free membership programme called The One Club, which was all about building stronger engagement, having a better dialogue with our fans. We had 70,000 members sign up for that.

Can you pinpoint any particular actions you’ve taken in your ten months in the role so far which led to the improved attendance this year?

There’s a number of things. We set about trying to understand where we thought there would be growth potential; I think we understood that we had probably under-invested in our sales and marketing capabilities as well, so the feeling was to better penetrate the existing golf audience through better communications, more content marketing-based initiatives.

We started our sales cycle far earlier, so we went on sale in September of last year. We created two distinct sales windows where there were incentivisations in terms of pricing for purchasing early, and then we activated around those windows. It was about creating a clearer set of products both in terms of ticketing and hospitality, and clearly being able to articulate the benefits of buying into a weekly ticket, or that you could buy and then under-16s would go free. Our communication was perhaps not what it could be.

It’s also been about investment into our own internal capability. That’s been through a growth of our marketing team, so we’ve invested into personnel, and we’ve done quite a bit of work with [digital sports agency] Two Circles, who have helped to support what we’re doing in terms of data, better understanding our customer, better understanding how we communicate with them so that ultimately we’re putting out the right message at the right time to the right person.

Fundamentally as a business, it’s been about becoming more insight-led. We did quite a bit of market research, looked at market sizing, we understood the golf audience in the region and essentially tried to move the business from being instinct to insight-led, using data, using market evidence to assist with how we were targeting the local population.

You’ve had a particularly successful year with the under-25s age group. Was that a target area for growth and how did you go about formulating a strategy for attracting more young fans?

It’s been about trying to use different channels far more effectively. We’ve used social media across Snapchat, Instagram and Facebook Live, so not only a diversification in terms of the channels that we use but also a real focus in terms of understanding in terms of content, tone, the degree that we interact with the audience to tell the right story. That can mean using some of the players that have some more relevancies with the younger generation and using that as part of our communication as well.

What Two Circles helped us to look at was just in thinking a bit more broadly about how we may have been slightly guilty of defining our fans a bit too narrowly in the past, they helped us to see our audience in multiple different types, recognise the different kinds of fans we have and engaging with the knowledge that, for instance, where there’s a parent there’s a child, so fundamentally trying to use different channels to communicate with our audience on a more targeted level.

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