Flawed poll results the new thing to move golf ratings?

By Arjun Sen, President and Founder, ZenMango

April 2015:  Just before the Master’s golf tournament, ESPN.com released a survey as PGA Tour Secret Survey Data.  Here is the headline:

When we twisted the arms of (golf) pros on the topic of whom they wouldn’t help in a fistfight, the reigning Masters champion stood out from the rest of his peers. By a lot.

Bubba Watson was declared the “winner” of the survey with 23% of the pros picking him.

Source:  http://espn.go.com/golf/masters15/story/_/id/12598860/pga-tour-secret-survey-data

The survey was quoted in media all over the world and most headlines were similar to a blog by Jay Coffin on Golfchannel.com: “Bubba on negative survey: ‘Need to improve as a man’.  Watson reacted to the survey and was quoted before the tournament to say:
“I take it as I need to improve as a man.”. “I need to get better. And I think over my career, since my rookie season to now, I’ve gotten better. But obviously there’s more room for me to improve as a man. “I’m glad that people call me out when they do; that’s the only way I can get better. If I don’t know about it, then I can’t improve.”

Wow, it seems to me that Bubba reacted to the survey with intent. But before he reacted, should he not have questioned the validity of the data?   Here are my takes on the survey:

  1. What is the meaning of the question? When golf professionals were answering the survey, what was the actual question they were thinking of?  Was it:
    • Select the person who would not be in a fist fight?
    • Select the person who (is strongest) and will not need help in a fist fight?
    • Who I do not like to help if he was in a fist fight?
  2. What was the context of the survey? Should the survey have clarified the following issues:
    • How likely are you to help anybody if he is in a fist fight?
    • Are you selecting from all golf players, all players who are playing in Masters or players who are in the news?
    • The results will be published to portray the “winner of the survey” in a negative light.

As you can see by now, this survey was flawed completely from the moment it was launched.  Now what could Bubba have done differently?  Here are some of the options I would have recommended:

  1. Realize that this feedback was flawed and did not deserve a serious response. He is the person who has the most success at Masters in recent times.  Maybe this was another way the rest of the golfers in the field were trying to bring him down.
  2. After that he could have used the survey to his advantage and spun it any way he wanted:
    • Positioned himself as a family person: “I guess I need to get extra hugs from my family to make up for the lack of love from the field”.
    • Showed attitude: “Did they only consider two time Masters winners when choosing a winner?” “It is not had as 3 out 4 players will come to my rescue.” “I guess, if I was to be in a fist fight, I have to pick on someone who I take on.” Or “At least I could get a list of the 23 players so I know who not to count on.”
    • Showed confidence by saying “I am glad most of my peers feel that I am the strongest among the group, as I am the least likely to need help in a fist fight. I guess I have to work harder in the gym to make sure I live up to their expectations.”

Understanding this is a flawed research, Bubba had every opportunity to define the survey instead of letting it define himself.

May 2015 Poll

In an anonymous poll conducted by Sports Illustrated, PGA Tour pros voted Rickie Fowler and Ian Poulter as the most overrated players in golf with both receiving 24 percent of the vote.

This time the survey was even more flawed as “overrated” must refer to some rating against which the two players are being compared to.  There is no rating of players other than their performance on the golf course.  This survey question was so baffling that I am not going to even try to guess what the question even meant.

As reported in an article by Jason Sobel, Senior Golf Writer:

(Rickie Fowler) he didn’t smash his phone against the nearest wall in reaction. Didn’t vow vengeance against his peers. Didn’t type a snarky response and press the send button.

“I laughed,” said Fowler, who shot an opening-round 69 at the Players Championship on Thursday. “I thought it was funny.”

This is exactly what one needs to do when a flawed survey is put out.

Now let us try to understand why the reputed golf publications are indulging in flawed research.  Is it an effort to create news when ratings are down?

PAULSEN wrote in a golf column on 05/08/2015:

Final ratings for the conclusion of the WGC Match Play were the second-lowest in the past 14 years.

The semifinals and finals of the WGC Match Play Championship earned a 1.5 final rating and 2.1 million viewers on NBC last Sunday, down 17% in ratings and 16% in viewership from last year opposite the Olympics on CBS (1.8, 2.5M) and down 17% and 19%, respectively, from 2013 on NBC (1.8, 2.6M).

Shouldn’t the players and the rest of the media completely ignore the survey as something ridiculous?  As I am writing this, Rickie finishes the last six holes six under to put himself at the top of the leaderboard.  I truly appreciate the television commentators now refer to the survey as the most “ridiculous” thing ever.

MY POV:  The learning from this goes way beyond the golf industry.  Brands in every industry must hold their own and not let other “polls” simply define them.  It is very important to understand the purpose of the poll, how it was gathered and what it said, before reacting to it.  I strongly urge brands to listen to consumer input, but reacting to flawed surveys is simply like chasing a mirage, which cannot do much good.  On a lighter note what is coming next from the golf media; “The player who made us look most silly?” Will wait and see.