What do you get when you combine professional product designers, engineers, a bowling ball designer, a professional poker player, a rocket scientist (literally), a Beaver and a Wildcat, all on a quest for a quarter of a million dollars?

Why, Season 2 of Wilson Staff’s Driver vs. Driver, of course, which debuts tomorrow night on the Golf Channel.

No matter what you thought of Season 1 and its progeny, the Triton, and no matter what you expect from Season 2, it’s important to get one thing on the table right now:

Whatever Driver vs. Driver is about, it’s not about the driver. Well, not completely.

Not About The Driver?

How, you may ask, can a show called Driver vs. Driver not be about the driver? Well, okay, it is about the driver, and Wilson says Season 2 will be heavily focused on driver performance, testing and competition. Driver vs. Driver will definitely give you your driver’s worth. The winning club will hit stores immediately after the series finale airs November 13th, and no doubt Wilson hopes to sell a bunch. But while you will see a lot more actual golf and prototype testing compared to Season 1, let’s be real: this program is not about Wilson going mano-a-mano with TaylorMade, Callaway, PING, Cobra or Titleist for the driver slot in your bag.

“The goal of the show never was to target TaylorMade or Callaway and beat them in SKU sales,” Wilson Golf President Tim Clarke told MyGolfSpy last week. “The goal of the show was to take a brand that was at one time viewed as not being in the premium golf space and improve that.”

First and foremost, Driver vs. Driver is seven weeks worth of high profile branding, aimed at getting people talking about, looking at and considering Wilson Golf irons, wedges, balls, putters and, yes, drivers.

According to Clarke, more than 3.2 million unique viewers watched at least part of Season 1, so from that perspective, he considers the program a success.

“We did sell a lot of drivers,” says Clarke. “But when we did our consumer market research when we finished the show, the position of people interested in buying Wilson Staff products rose substantially. The survey results post-show were substantially improved. That’s why you do things again.”

The Plight of the Challenger

Clarke has been at the helm at Wilson since 2006. At that time, the once-proud market leader was drowning in a sea of red ink. The former forged iron dominator held a less than 1% market share in irons and wasn’t doing much better anywhere else. While you can’t call today’s Wilson a juggernaut, you can’t call it a joke, either. Over the last 12 years, Wilson has slowly – but steadily – worked its way back to be at least in the conversation in every category except metalwoods, specifically drivers.

“Our golf ball share with DUO is four times bigger than it was,” says Clarke. “Our iron share has more than tripled since I first got this job. But the one category we’ve only seen small growth has been drivers.”

So yeah, Driver vs. Driver is about the driver, but it’s also about boosting the Wilson Staff brand, especially with that under-40 golfer who has no recollection of Wilson’s glory days.

“The real play here is not about beating Callaway or TaylorMade,” says Clarke. “It’s about looking at the changing dynamics of the consumer and consumer buying behaviors, and how do we participate in that and make our brand younger, cooler and funner?”

It should come as no surprise that Wilson felt Season 1 was a success – after all, they’re doing it again with another $250,000.00 first prize (Season 1’s prize was $500,000.00). From a golf standpoint, the show had its critics, and the USGA kerfuffle at the end is something Wilson certainly doesn’t want to repeat.

The Triton Face Plant

“If everyone were to just clear the clutter of Triton, the reality is Triton was probably the most innovative and most adjustable driver ever introduced,” says Clarke. “You had more adjustments on that driver, from perimeter weighting to sole plates, things that had never been done.”

Sure, Triton was innovative, perhaps a tad too innovative for the USGA’s liking. After the fanfare of Season 1’s finale, the USGA ruled the Triton to be non-conforming. One issue cited was a violation of the plain in shape rule, a ticky-tack foul solved by shaving a few millimeters off the back end of the sole plates. The other issue was a higher than allowable face CT when the moveable weights were aligned in a specific – and very obscure – configuration. That one was on Wilson.

For his part, Clarke owns the mistakes.

“When you’re doing a show like this, your first worry – and the thing that would kill a show like this – is a leak,” says Clarke. “As you’re going through a project like this, with this much money invested, you get a little concerned about that. We were not proactive with the USGA the first time around.”

The Triton fixes were relatively easy, but even months into the golf season, people were still calling Triton “non-conforming.” What had been one of the most innovative product launches in memory turned into a punchline.

“This time around, the USGA has been fantastic to deal with,” says Clarke. “I’m 100% confident that, as with every other golf product we’ve launched since 1914 – except for the Triton – we will be in compliance.”

Clarke says Wilson worked hand-in-glove with the USGA as Season 2 progressed. Every time there was a cut down in contestants and tweaks to a design, they would bring the product to the USGA for approval. “They’ve seen everything from the Frankenstein development to actual finalized product. We have one final submission that still has to take place as soon as the heads get in. It’s reality TV, so things move fast. You’re tweaking this; you’re moving a decal, you’re changing a color. Until you have that actual final cosmetic, you’re not able to get final final approval.”

More Changes

A major gripe many had with Season One was there was a lot of fluff, but not a lot of actual golf and actual hitting of golf clubs. That’s will change starting tomorrow night.

“We needed more time of the golf course,” says Clarke. “We needed more time with people hitting products. Those are the biggest changes you’ll see this year. There’s a lot more competition, and you’ll see our Wilson Advisory Staff Tour Players on three episodes actually hitting things.”

Clarke admits the focus on Season 1 was squarely on innovation, but looks, sound, and feel will be equally important this go-round.

“We have two judges (Rick Shiels and Jeremy Roenick) sitting in those chairs who are very, very touchy about the shape and look from the top of the club. And we’ve spent a lot more time with our acoustics design team to make sure it’s more in the 3500 to 4000 frequency zone.”

Triton’s sound took on an exaggerated life of its own in the online communities. It was loud, to be sure, but would sound differently depending on which soleplate you used. Don’t doubt for a second Wilson didn’t hear the cyber caterwauling.

“I’ll tell you what, if you can tell me how to design sound, I’ll hire you tomorrow,” Clarke says. “I’ve gotten to the point where I think sound is a range, and we’ve worked diligently since Triton to define what range we want to play in to give ourselves a sound DNA, which we really didn’t focus on in the past. We’ve now incorporated sound into the design piece, and you’ll see that in all of the designs in the show.”

Wilson Staffers Ricky Barnes, Brendan Steele, Kevin Streelman and Troy Merritt (who won on tour with Wilson’s D300 driver), will all appear on multiple episodes, and Clarke says the sound of one particular prototype became kind of a running gag.

“We had one driver we were dialing the sound in from week 3 to week 7, and I’ll never forget Steeley on the range saying ‘If I keep hitting it like this I’ll get over the sound!’ What does distance sound like? It’s pretty arbitrary.”

The show starts with 14 finalists, but seven will be weeded out in Episode One. As the show progresses, the cast will be whittled down to six, then four and then, ultimately, to the two final drivers.

“There are a lot of brilliant ideas out there,” says Clarke. “You’ll see, specifically when you get to the final six, there are some unbelievable concepts. While we were working on them, at any given point in time four different drivers were in the lead. They may have had some issues with different features that we worked quickly to fix, but it wasn’t a case of a clear-cut winner.”

It’s Not About The Driver

Several years ago Clarke told me Wilson would never to be a PING, Callaway, Titleist or any of the other golf giants for one simple reason: those are all golf-specific companies, and Wilson itself is a sporting goods company. Wilson makes balls and sticks, clubs and racquets to hit balls with, so any major branding initiative is expected to benefit anything with the Wilson name on it, from basketballs, footballs and jock straps to baseball gloves, tennis racquets and, of course, golf equipment. And branding, at its core, is an inexact science.

So while yes, in the short term Driver vs. Driver is all about the driver, in the long term it’s not about the driver at all. It’s brand building pure and simple. Did Season 1 work? From a golf sales and market share standpoint, the answer will be found in years rather than months. There’s usually very little movement among the sub-5% market share holders – they’re all striving to take just a little slice out of the backsides of those they’re chasing. But one thing you can say about Wilson Staff – the brand is most definitely a part of the premium golf equipment discussion.

You couldn’t say that five years ago.

And I’m not sure how this all fits in, but research often uncovers interesting factoids that bear watching. Earlier this month Amer Sports – the Finnish conglomerate that owns Wilson (and others) – received what it calls an “indication of interest” from a Chinese consortium to acquire the entire share capital of Amer for cash.

Amer maintains no negotiations are currently taking place, and an indication of interest isn’t the same as a cash on the barrelhead offer, but certain inferences can be made, specifically that the Chinese group has both the cash and the interest to do this deal. Further, Amer owns companies that manufacture sports gear, apparel, and accessories, and has, in its last several annual reports, identified footwear and apparel as major growth opportunities. The lead dog in the Chinese consortium is Anta Sports, a manufacturer of athletic apparel and footwear with aggressive plans for growth.

What might such a development mean for Wilson Sporting Goods and, in particular, Wilson Golf? That’s anyone’s guess, but it does give branding a new urgency.