February 16, 2009

Golf's Television Home

Golf Channel improves its programming

Image waking up on a Sunday morning, pouring a cup of coffee and flipping the TV to Golf Channel to watch the European Tour. Then, after the final putt drops in some exotic locale, think of what it would be like to enjoy lunch with the LPGA. And perhaps about the time the PGA Tour comes on the air in mid-afternoon, when the women have finished, it will be time to pop open a cold one while watching that tour. That golf junkie's dream became a possibility Feb. 11 when Golf Channel and the LPGA announced a 10-year deal that truly makes the station "Golf's Home."

After years of incessant infomercials only an accountant looking to pay the bills could love, Golf Channel has transitioned to a product more dominated by live (or replayed) tournament golf. The channel, which is available in more than 120 million homes worldwide, will become the exclusive cable channel for all the major professional tours beginning in 2010. In addition to the PGA, LPGA, European, Nationwide, Champions and Canadian tours, GC has the rights to the Presidents and Solheim Cups.

The most significant part of that transition, of course, began in 2007, the first year of GC's 15-year deal as the cable home of the PGA Tour. Not surprisingly, that's about the time Golf Channel began to improve. That May, Page Thompson (pictured), a former senior VP for Comcast (GC's parent company), was brought in to serve as president at Golf Channel. Thompson has since made a series of talent changes—both in front of and behind the cameras—that have upgraded the entire feel of the operation and its product.

"Our goal is to get better every day in how we produce tournaments, to constantly upgrade the quality of events," Thompson said before the final round at the SBS Open. "This deal we signed with the LPGA is a recognition of the depth of quality on that tour, whether it be Paula Creamer or Michelle Wie or any other of the great talent out there."

Golf Channel is clearly thinking long term in its partnerships. "The shortest deal we have is for six years," says Thompson. And, he says, the influx of events has meant a nearly 10-percent reduction in the hours of infomercials on the air—and that's before the LPGA comes on board. (In the interest of full disclosure, I should point out that one of GC's new partnerships is with Golf World's parent company, Golf Digest Publications.)

Yet to be worked out is how much of its LPGA coverage will be live and how much will be tape-delayed. Now that Golf Channel is a partner with both the PGA Tour and the LPGA, the cable channel could be involved in conversations about scheduling events on the tours so they complement each other as much as possible—especially since the PGA Tour also has to accommodate telecasts of the Nationwide and Champions tours.

What is clear is that Golf Channel wants to be taken seriously as a major sports network. And the only way to do that is to bid with its biggest rivals for high-profile events. So far it has done that successfully (its gain of the PGA Tour rights was essentially ABC/ESPN's loss). It almost begs the question: How much longer will it be until Golf Channel has four-round coverage of a men's major?