The Masters, the most-watched golf tournament on television, will shift its Thursday-Friday coverage to ESPN from the USA Network beginning next year, multiple sources tell Golf World. The move is not totally unexpected since USA dropped its PGA Tour coverage this year when the tour signed a 15-year deal with Golf Channel giving it exclusive rights to early round broadcasts. The move to ESPN also dampens speculation that NBC--parent of USA Network--would try to lure weekend coverage of the Masters away from CBS, which has covered the event since 1956 under a succession of one-year contracts.
No one at any of the principles involved--Augusta National Golf Club, CBS, NBC, USA Network or ESPN--would comment on the matter. The acquisition of the Masters gives ESPN a piece of the three most valuable properties in golf: The Masters, the U.S. Open and the Ryder Cup. According to one source, "ESPN threw massive amounts of money at them" to get the Masters. In addition to the financial gain, the Masters will get the enormously strong promotional platform of ESPN, which has TV, radio, print and online under one roof. The official announcement could come as early as Wednesday.
The move also makes sense for USA Network, which at one time had Thursday-Friday coverage of the PGA Tour but is now out of golf, except for the Masters. In 2007, USA Network was live from 4-7 p.m. on Thursday and Friday, with replays from 8-11 both days. CBS did the live weekend coverage from 3:30-7 on Saturday and 2:30-7 on Sunday. One source said the prime-time replays on USA Network hurt its evening ratings and that while the Masters is a prestigious event, it was not worth the price tag needed to secure it.
The Masters is the highest-rated golf telecast every year, and the 14.1 rating pulled in by the final round of Tiger Woods' first Masters victory in 1997 is the best number earned by a golf tournament in the cable TV era.
Next, we'll find out who ESPN will use on the broadcast--Mike Tirico is a likely anchor--and whether it will include a prime-time replay. The 2008 Masters will be played April 9-13.