Clear Defendable Territory
History vs. heritage for sports brands

"There’s a crucial difference between history and heritage. Focusing solely on history means always looking back, which limits your ability to look forward. However, embracing heritage and tradition allows you to understand your values and use them to shape the future."

With the start of the summer sports season, we were excited to sit down with Nick Hand, Director of Marketing at Ryder Cup. For anyone curious to understand what it takes to move a heritage brand forward or be a sports marketer, look no further.  

The Ryder Cup has become one of the world’s greatest sporting events. Every two years, 24 of the best players from Europe and the United States go head-to-head in match play competition. Drama, tension, incredible golf, camaraderie and sportsmanship are served in equal measure, captivating an audience of millions around the world. It’s an event that transcends sport, yet remains true to the spirit of its founder, Samuel Ryder.

We’ve been working with Nick and his team to understand the equity within the brand – identifying brand strength, future areas of opportunity and the potential to grow the global fanbase of golf and the Ryder Cup. 

 

- This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity –

TC: Can you tell us a little bit about your ambition for the Ryder Cup brand? What are the biggest marketing opportunities?

Nick: From a marketing perspective, it’s really important for us to build engagement and keep the conversation going with our fans throughout the Ryder Cup cycle, with the event not being annually we don’t want to view those ‘off’ years as downtime. We’re looking at several opportunities to help us do that including working with other sports and entertainment brands, gamification and fan-centric experiences. We’re also looking at how we continue to connect with people. The Ryder Cup is not just for what can be perceived as a ‘stereotypical’ golf fan, it does skew younger and to a broader sports audience therefore we need to be in the places these fans are. By giving them the right content and opportunities to engage with us. It's about the off-course engagement with fans and on-going communication, not just switching it on a week before the Ryder Cup and expecting people to take notice.

 

TC: In the competitive world of sports branding, what do you think a brand needs to focus on, to stand out? Why is carving out a Clear Defendable Territory so crucial for a sports brand?

Nick: We see a big crossover between sports and entertainment and fans can’t be neatly put into a specific sport or golf bucket. So, with that comes a massive competition for time. On one hand it’s a great opportunity to get exposure to a much wider audience. At the same time, you need to fight for that five minutes of time when attention spans are getting shorter and shorter.

The Ryder Cup is only ‘on’ for a week every two years. We do have other moments beyond the tournament days to connect with fans, but it’s not constantly top of mind. For that one week, we want to ensure the Ryder Cup is the focal point within the sporting world. And while we’re fortunate to have an incredible event, having a clear view of our difference and purpose is really important vs. the annual, weekly professional tours of the DP World Tour and PGA Tour. That makes it even more important for us to be clear about who we are so we can tell a consistent and compelling story to fans with our content outside of the event week. 

Having that clear sense of purpose of who we are fundamentally drives how we do things: from creating clear strategies and the values we share with Partners, through to our fan experiences and how we talk to audiences throughout the whole Ryder Cup event cycle.

 

TC: If you look at some of the most iconic sports brands, like Wimbledon or Lord’s, one of the things that makes them special is their rich history and heritage. In your view, how should heritage sports brands connect with today’s audiences who haven’t grown up with that connection to the history?

Nick: There’s a really important distinction between history and heritage. If you focus solely on history, there’s a danger you're always looking back and it never really gives you the opportunity to look forward. Whereas if you're looking at heritage and tradition, it provides that platform to respect what got you to where you are and how that forms part of your values to take forward. For example, Wimbledon could quite easily lean into its history and heritage, and be old-fashioned in its’ approach to their brand. But instead, they understand the role it has in making the event what it is and brings this to life through such things as the style surrounding the event, building on the incredible event it is and giving them a new way to engage with and grow audiences. 

For Ryder Cup, it’s coming up to 100 years in 2027 and that’s exactly the question we’re asking. We’re taking a moment to reflect on what got Ryder Cup to where it is today and how that works as the platform for the way we push it going forward. Heritage is very much going to be a part of this, but it’s how we use this as a springboard to tell a compelling story of who we are and why we are such an incredible event. You have to respect the heritage, it’s got us to this point, but it’s our job to keep building this in a way that reflects the changing world we now live in. 

 

TC: And finally, based on your vast experience, what's your top tip to aspiring sports marketers for breaking into the industry and making a real impact in sports branding?

Nick: In my experience aspiring sports marketers who love a particular sport will come with a set notion of what that sport is all about. People should balance their passion with really trying to understand the fans and the sport, not making assumptions based on their personal views and importantly, not being afraid to try new things. 

Never assume that you have to have a love of a sport to be successful in it, it can often be a misconception that you have to have an in-depth passion to get anywhere. It can help, but for me passion, knowledge and understanding of marketing will always be the key factor in recruitment. 

There are plenty of ways to get involved in golf and while it helps, even if you don’t have the connected degree, just put yourself out there - having conversations, building networks and relationships is important. It can be daunting, but really useful for learning and finding the right information. 

When you do get that opportunity, for me, there is no need to overcomplicate things because often the simplest approaches work the best. It’s important not to confuse passion with knowledge, so keep it simple and always be hungry to find out more.

 

It’s clear, sports branding is deeply rooted in emotional engagement. Fans don’t just support a team, they form a bond that often lasts a lifetime - fostering a sense of unity, pride, and belonging. Many sports brands are steeped in history and tradition, and that legacy is a crucial part of the brand’s identity. But greatness for brands doesn’t come from looking backwards. It comes from propelling your brand forward, by harnessing the power of everything that you’ve achieved before.