Tyler Toney Dude Perfect Pat McAfee Big Cat Photos via Pat McAfee, Dude Perfect, Barstool Sports. Design via Liam McGuire, Comeback Media.

To start this decade, media companies from Snap to Epic Games to Facebook told us the future was in the metaverse. We were promised immersive, personalized experiences in our devices that brought us closer to each other and the world.

For sports fans, the dominoes were obvious. What if watching sports became living sports? Instead of just phantom cams or drone shots, try being projected next to Patrick Mahomes in real time as he tosses a touchdown to win the Super Bowl.

Not much of that came to fruition as quickly as promised. Despite Facebook’s rebrand to Meta, the company is already pivoting to the crowded AI field. Snap ditched its fancy glasses, as did Google. Film and television are having enough trouble with their business model that significant innovation on form and delivery likely remain far away.

But if you zoom in on digital sports content — the type of stuff connecting with young audiences who executives at ESPN and Fox need — innovation has arrived. The transformation from consumptive to experiential can be found on YouTube, TikTok and Snapchat. Digital creators have turned sports from something guys in suits (or even sweats) talk about in front of microphones to something that, like travel or lifestyle or fitness content, is merely a vehicle for connecting to spaces and personalities.

There is no better symbol of this evolution than the golf video.

Start with the podcasters. From Pardon My Take to The Pat McAfee Show to The Dan Le Batard Show with Stugotz, in recent years digital video hosts have taken to the beautiful expanse of the links to flash their personality and take viewers along for the ride.

There are a few keys to the sports media host golf video.

  1. Find a scenic course, preferably at some kind of charity or celebrity-sponsored tournament.
  2. Get paired with a famous athlete or sports figure.
  3. Borrow from Casey Neistat or the Green brothers and shoot that baby vlog-style.
  4. Profit.

Scroll through the most-watched videos from McAfee or LeBatard or the Barstool guys and you’ll see the recipe: McAfee and Jon Daly at Greenbrier (632,000 views), Ray Romano and Le Batard producer Chris Cote at Lake Tahoe (27,000 views, more than most podcast episodes).

But even these industry jesters are only barnacles on a bigger whale fished up by perhaps the biggest sports content kings of the digital age: Dude Perfect. Eight years ago, Dude Perfect launched the All Sports Golf Battle to kickstart their rapid ascent to Prime Video Sports and beyond.

The Dude Perfect guys used various sports equipment including a Nerf football, wiffle bat and ball, and more to ultimately get the ball in the hole along an actual golf range. The gag doubled as promotion with their Altered Course television series on Golf Channel.

Dude Perfect later expanded the All Sports Battle to other fields of play including a baseball diamond and bowling lanes. Their template was set.

Fast-forward to the 2020s as other hosts finally got hip to the content goldmine of golf, and Dude Perfect remained ahead of the game. Three months ago as part of its ongoing partnership with Dude Perfect, Golf Channel brought the guys together with star golfer Rory McIlroy for the All Sports Glass Break.

“Since Dude Perfect started 15 years ago, we started making trick shots on YouTube, and since then we have come out with all different types of content that people like watching for whatever reason,” founder Tyler Toney says in the video.

The humility is admirable, but for someone who cracked the code of modern sports content, it’s not needed. Dude Perfect got nearly 6 million views (nothing for them) on its own YouTube channel for a similar video with McIlroy centered on breaking silly world records on the links. The machine keeps churning.

And then there are the Dude Perfect imitators, from Bob Does Sports (656,000 subs) to Good Good (1.4 million subs) to gm_golf (1 million subs). Those channels you’ve probably never heard of (but which likely have more subscribers than your favorite sports show) posted videos featuring Bills quarterback Josh Allen, pro golfer Michael Block and Lakers guard Austin Reaves this year alone.

So did Dude Perfect just lap its competition in more traditional sports media? Yes and no.

Consider Pardon My Take, who have clearly caught on to a trend. Barstool’s biggest show recently recruited Brooks Koepka for a produced 3 on 1 scramble competition and were rewarded with more views (406,000) than any recent podcast episode.

This is where our trends intersect.

Gamified, celebrity-stocked content is hardly unique to Dude Perfect. While the brand’s energy, production value and creativity are impressive and foundational in the sports space, Dude Perfect is hardly unique.

Instead, you might easily recognize the format if your children watch MrBeast or stream Kai Cenat. Battles, challenges and competitions sell on YouTube. They are easily clippable to TikTok. And while Dude Perfect certainly are more veteran than even those modern creators, Dude Perfect, its imitators and today’s stuffy laggards from the traditional sports media world are simply mimicking what the market leaders online are cashing out on.

Sports are simply a content category on a dropdown menu, an identifier in the nodes of an AI dataset. Golf is one more click or filter from there. It hardly matters what is happening on-screen in terms of the stroke leaderboard or a hole’s par number.

Instead, golf content probably works because it features lush vistas, thorny obstacles (literally), a goofy form of transportation, and cool-looking gear. Sure, it helps that a Gen Xer might click because they’ve been working at the driving range, but that’s secondary. What sells in this form of sports content is the content, not the sports.

McIlroy hardly needs any name recognition here, though he clearly has it. To Dude Perfect viewers, he is simply “champion golfer” and “world-record holder.” Reaves may as well be “LeBron’s teammate” while Allen is effectively just another hulking QB.

We may not be all living through pixels yet, but experiential content is here. And sports are along for the ride. The race to produce a viral golf video is just today’s iteration of an undeniable trend.

When the platform and its algorithm define the format and style, innovation becomes how to retrofit existing work into it. The embrace of YouTube and TikTok was necessary for legacy sports media brands. Replicating what works was an easy entry point, and who doesn’t love to play 18 holes?

But the lessons here are bigger than golf or Dude Perfect.

To reach the young audiences who spend the most time on those platforms, sports content creation, like all content creation, must now be catered to experiences and personalities who draw those audiences in.

About Brendon Kleen

Brendon is a Media Commentary staff writer at Awful Announcing. He has also covered basketball and sports business at Front Office Sports, SB Nation, Uproxx and more.