Q&A: Jody Vogelaar | CMO, NBC Sports Next

The chief marketing officer discusses how GolfNow's summer-long advertising campaign, which features a spokes-gopher as the central figure, came to be and how it has performed

Jody Vogelaar
Jody Vogelaar

In mid-June, GolfNow launched a "Get Your Golf On" advertising campaign that was intended to capitalize on golf's current participation boom by broadening awareness about the sport and the GolfNow brand. The campaign also introduced a unique ambassador, a gopher puppet created by Stoopid Buddy Stoodios that has appeared in a series of commercials shown on various platforms throughout the summer.

Jody Vogelaar, chief marketing officer for NBC Sports Next, discusses with The First Call how the campaign came to be, how it has performed and a couple of other initiatives — a GolfPass campaign and launch of the GolfNow Compete app.

THE FIRST CALL: The GolfNow “Get Your Golf On” campaign was launched in conjunction with the U.S. Open in June. There is a golf-playing, fun-loving gopher as the lead character. Start with how this campaign came about and what was the intent?
JODY VOGELAAR: We recognized that golf was enjoying a period of popularity and growth, as were our GolfNow products and services. We were sending more golfers to our course partners than ever before, so we wanted to find a way to lean into the moment. Our intent was to bring new attention and audiences to the sport, as well as the GolfNow brand. First, we had to ensure the sport felt approachable and welcoming and that was key to developing the character or “spokes-gopher” and placing him at the heart of our campaign. We believed that by embracing a more inclusive approach, we could grow and change the profile of who a golfer could or should be. Once we start encouraging a wider range of people to play, we hope to create a bigger potential audience for our products and golf course operators. Whether golfers are just starting out or on the course every week, we want to show how our products help them overcome any barriers to entry and give them a better experience. Developing the character was a little out of our comfort zone at first and it required a lot of leaps of faith along the way, but we are happy about how it all came together, and we’re seeing immediate positive results for us and our course partners.

TFC: The campaign's summer goal was to reach 50% of U.S. households via golf tournaments televised by NBC Sports, Golf Channel and other linear and OTT platforms. As the summer winds down, do you have a good feel for how the campaign has gone? What have been the key metrics?
JV: We’ve had incredible on-air exposure across key golf tournaments across NBC, USA Network and, of course, Golf Channel. But golf fans are also sports fans and watch more than just golf on TV, so our commercials also have been seen during other televised events, like Premier League, USFL, World Track and Field Championships, NASCAR, IMSA, and Motocross. We’ve also seen our campaign run on ESPN, TBS, TNT, FX, NFL Network, MLB Network, Paramount, AMC, Comedy Central and FS1 — further expanding our reach to additional audiences.

We’ve already started to see the impact of the massive reach of this campaign, with nearly 300 million impressions across both linear and digital. And we’ve been pacing positively year over year since launch for both new customers, as well as reactivating legacy customers.

TFC: What has been the biggest takeaway — or perhaps even a surprise — as you have seen the campaign unfold this summer?
JV: The positive ways our GolfNow Gopher has been received since introducing him to the world has exceeded our expectations. You really can’t see the character and not smile or laugh. We all loved him from the start, of course, but when our customers started posting fun comments on social media and reaching out with positive comments — even asking where they could buy a Gopher plush toy or a bucket hat — it was validating and has energized our whole team.


TFC: What was the thinking behind an animated gopher, which conjures up thoughts of the gopher in "Caddyshack," as being the campaign’s lead?
JV: We looked at a range of spokespeople from celebrities to influencers to animation and, finally, we reluctantly entertained the idea of puppetry. We knew we wanted the character to feel like an extension of the course — somebody who, literally, lives on the course and has seen it all. We looked at so many different characters and shapes and sizes, but a gopher just felt right in terms of delivering the right balance of humor and relatability and feeling very organic to the game of golf. And we couldn’t resist the auditory similarity between the words golfer and gopher, and eventually our spokes-gopher — or spokes-golpher — was born.

TFC: Do you see this as a potentially ongoing character that can be expanded on or brought back at a later date?
JV: Absolutely. That was our primary objective when we started conceiving this campaign: to create a timeless character with appeal to golfers of all ages that could live through both digital and linear channels. There are more adventures for our gopher yet to come and we’ll find out more about where he lives, memories he’s made and even a little bit about his competitive side. On the business side, we have a character with flexibility for years to come — one that could make public appearances at tournaments and other events, continue to have social appeal, and potentially translate to merchandising opportunities.  

TFC: GolfNow, which for those who don’t know is the leading tee-time reservation app in the U.S., has been part of NBC Sports since the Comcast-NBCUniversal merger in 2009. Talk about how the company continues to evolve the app and keep it at the forefront of the tee-time reservation field. 
JV: We’re part of NBC Sports Next, the technology unit of NBC Sports, and we always have our eye on innovation and what’s next. At GolfNow, our goal is to help more golf courses connect with their customers and more golfers with their passion. As an industry leader, we are proud of our contribution to the overall health and growth of the sport. We partner with more than 11,000 golf courses in 41 countries and reach millions of golf consumers each day.

On the golf course side, we offer software products to both public and private courses to help them run their businesses, and our consumer brands offer golfers the largest marketplace in the world to book a tee time online or through our apps. We’re fortunate to have a team of forward-thinking developers who continue to design technologies and digital experiences that are dynamic and meet the ever-changing needs of both golf courses and golfers. For example, our cloud-based, GolfNow365 Pro golf course management software leads the industry, and our SmartPlay technology provides golfers with a variety of easy-to-use features right on the GolfNow app that lets them do things like check in and pay, order pro-shop merchandise and food and beverage, and more during a round of golf.

Additionally, we’re really excited about GolfNow Compete, our all-in-one app that offers tools to help golfers play, navigate the course, keep stats and scores, but also unique features and games not available in any other app, which promote the social aspect of golf and keeps every golfer better engaged with the group. So, we’re not just thinking about what golfers wants today, but we also consider their aspirations for golf and what our brand should look like 5 to 10 years down the road.

TFC: How has GolfNow been able to capitalize on the post-COVID-19 golf boon?
JV: First, we are very proud of the way our technology and the teams of people behind it helped golf courses handle the challenges of the pandemic. Golf course operations across the U.S. were stifled when states mandated lockdowns in early 2020 — many unable to re-open due to their inability to meet safety standards. If not for the pre-paid functionality offered by our GolfNow365 Pro management platform — the ability to offer contactless online booking and pre-paid tee times to avoid person-to-person transactions – many courses would have never been able to survive the shutdown and would have been forced to go out of business.

We’ve enjoyed golf’s recent boom like the rest of the golf industry, setting all-time records of golf rounds booked, seeing a steady increase of diverse golfers use our platforms and welcoming back golfers who left the game for one reason or another. We also have discovered how golfers have embraced technology and are changing their habits. Millions of rounds that would have been booked through the phone or by walking up have been booked online — more than 40 percent since 2019 — and the number of people who prefer to use their phones to book a round of golf continues to increase every year. Our number-one goal is to present the game of golf and our products in a way that feels approachable, but also to leverage our technology know-how to make it easy to find a great tee time and get out and play.

TFC: Do you believe this high interest in the game, especially among newcomers, will continue? How long do you envision the trend lasting and what indicators do you base your belief on? 
JV: During this span of golf growth, GolfNow also has grown — we sent more golfers to our course partners than ever before. While everyone enjoyed the boom, they also were asking if golf could maintain the increase — which it has. We work with more than 11,000 golf courses around the world, and that provides us with rich information and other comprehensive insights about golf participation, which has reached all-time highs and across varying demographics. More people than ever before are being exposed to golf, latent demand is strong, and rounds have held their own. We think the future looks bright.

TFC: It’s been a somewhat busy summer as new campaigns have also launched on GolfPass and GolfNow Compete. Take a moment to talk about the intent of those campaigns and how they have been progressing.
JV: We launched the new GolfPass campaign earlier this summer, which brings to life the world’s most remarkable golf club with its suite of benefits that connects golfers to every aspect of the game. Stepping through a magical blue door, the spot takes a potential new member on a journey that brings each of the GolfPass benefits to life through attention-grabbing scenarios. Members get it all with benefits that include tee-time savings across more than 11,000 courses worldwide, access to the best golf tournament coverage on Peacock, world-class video instruction and original content, and more.

More than 300,000 golfers are now using the GolfNow Compete app, so we’re pleased with the progress it’s making. We launched the new Compete campaign during the [British] Open, which spotlights the app’s key features that turn every round of golf into a fun competition against your friends, like custom and traditional games, the ability to make friendly wagers, and live scoring that allows golfers to simply enter their scores and watch the leaderboard update with every round. The timing of the launch resulted in record app downloads, including the highest download day of the year, highest number of games created in the app, and the highest number of virtual wagers so far in 2023. Since the campaign launched, we’ve seen a 64 percent increase in app downloads versus the previous period and 54 percent increase in app downloads year to date versus 2022.

TFC: Is there anything special with these platforms that will be tied into the upcoming Ryder Cup and Solheim Cup? 
JV: Debuting during Ryder Cup week, our spokes-Golpher will be featured in our fourth commercial spot in GolfNow’s “Get Your Golf On” campaign. Titled "Dress Code," the commercial will be seen during NBC’s coverage, but viewers also can expect to see the spot across multiple networks in select markets throughout the month.