On the white board hanging on the wall outside Golf Channel president Mike McCarley’s Orlando office is a ton of facts about the importance of a 21-week stretch in 2016. It’s a crucial time for the only television network dedicated to golf, from the Players in May through the Ryder Cup in October, bookending men’s and women’s NCAAs, the British Open, the Olympic Games and the FedEx Cup playoffs.
More than ever, television is how most fans experience tournament golf, and the new season—which began with the wraparound PGA Tour schedule this month—signals significant changes for Comcast-owned NBC/Golf Channel and CBS, the two dominant broadcast forces in the game.
First off, the game’s oldest tournament, the Open Championship, moves from ESPN to NBC/GC. Along with that, David Feherty ended 19 years at CBS, landing at NBC/GC, with Dottie Pepper hired to replace him. She’ll maintain her analyst role at ESPN, working 35 days for ESPN and 20 tournaments for CBS, mostly as a walking reporter. Meanwhile, Feherty and his acclaimed eponymous interview show will get enhanced exposure on NBC/GC.
Furthermore, Golf Channel will show the men’s and women’s NCAA Championships, from the same course, during the middle of the week on consecutive weeks in East Coast prime time—from Eugene, Ore. Also, golf returns to the Olympics for the first time in 112 years, and it will air on NBC/GC. Add it up and 2016 should be the most exciting year of golf on TV since, well, ever.
With NBC/GC locking up the Open Championship through 2029, there won’t be any TV contracts available until 2019, when the PGA Championship (broadcast by CBS and TBS) and the LPGA (which is on Golf Channel) become available. The PGA Tour contract with CBS, NBC and Golf Channel expires in 2021, when the bidding among several networks for that prime TV property is expected to be spirited.
When Fox Sports outbid NBC in 2013 for the U.S. Open, locking up coverage of USGA events through 2027, NBC/GC acted quickly and extended its deal to broadcast the Ryder Cup through 2030. The Masters has operated on 60 consecutive one-year contracts with CBS and, more recently, in a similar relationship with ESPN for the early rounds, and virtually all industry insiders see no chance of that changing any time soon.
With the major events squared away, the changes in coverage will be mostly technical.
“I think we are advancing the production incrementally,” says Sean McManus, president of CBS Sports. “I think the basic coverage will remain the same, but audio, video, graphics will continue to evolve. We brought HD to the Masters and were the first to use the high-speed camera. We have used drones and ProTracer as well as anyone has.”
It seems everyone is innovating.
Getting the British Open was a critical boost for NBC/GC—especially the Golf Channel. When it lost the USGA contract to Fox, NBC/GC didn’t have a men’s major championship, an awkward situation for Golf Channel.
“When I moved here from NBC that was always part of the plan [to be at the majors],” McCarley says. “We will pursue aggressively any golf that becomes available. We take big events and make them bigger. I would say it was an inevitability that we’d get a major. We’ve been in conversations with every governing body in the game.”
Getting the Open Championship also extends a move by NBC and NBCSN to provide live sports for viewers to watch in the morning, adding it to English Premier League soccer, Tour de France bicycle racing, Formula One auto racing and European Tour golf.
When NBC was willing to nearly double the $25 million a year ESPN paid for the Open, it had an immediate effect on ESPN’s golf coverage. With expensive deals with the NFL, NBA and other sports, and receiving pressure from parent company Disney to cut its budget (it announced layoffs of 4 percent of its workforce this week, about 300 people), ESPN dropped out of the bidding, and a few months later, opted out of the final year of its contract with the R&A, opening the door for NBC/GC to take over the British Open in 2016 instead of 2017, which made Pepper available.
“It’s going to be a fantastic year for sure,” McCarley says. “Week 20 through week 40 is going to be very intense—the Players, NCAA, the BMW European PGA, the KPMG Women’s PGA, the Open Championship, the Olympics. There is a stretch in there where we have 25 consecutive days of live golf. We think 2016 is not going to be good for golf, it’s going to great for golf.”
Of the 47 PGA Tour events in 2016, Golf Channel—with more than 2,000 hours of live golf and 4,600 total hours, including delayed tape and prime-time replay—will have tournament coverage from all majors but the Masters, where ESPN has the cable rights; the U.S. Open, where Fox Sports 1 is the cable partner; and the PGA Championship, which is on CBS/TBS.
Golf Channel has four-day coverage of 13 PGA Tour events—including the first 10 tournaments of the wraparound season—plus golf in the Olympics, which begins Aug. 11. NBC will have the weekend at 12 PGA Tour events, including the last three FedEx Cup playoff tournaments, plus the Players and Ryder Cup. CBS has the weekend at 21 tour events, and with the Masters (golf’s most-watched tournament) and the PGA Championship, is the only network with two majors. Fox Sports has the U.S. Open and other USGA events.
“I think we have a dominant position in the sport of golf,” McManus says. “Golf has always been part of the CBS Sports culture. I think having the first major of the year and the last major of the year puts us in a very prominent position that we are very enthusiastic about continuing. We get to open and close the major-championship season.”
The men’s and women’s NCAA moves Golf Channel toward one of its goals—live tournament coverage seven days a week. This year, it broadcast a Ladies European Tour event from Turkey that began on Sunday and ended on Wednesday.
With live sports being the hottest property in entertainment, golf’s governing bodies would be wise to abandon the traditional Thursday-through-Sunday start-finish model to get live coverage on Golf Channel. What if the Web.com Tour, for example, began on Monday and ended Thursday? Or if the LPGA ended on Monday? It’s a fascinating idea that could help the exposure of the game.
“We’ve talked to every tour around the world about non-traditional scheduling and the benefits of being the sole tournament on certain days,” McCarley says. “Those events will stand out more.”
In a world hungry for content, golf offers a lot—it’s global, transcends time zones and reaches worldwide markets. Also, its multi-day format and day-long competition fill hours of broadcast time. Add to that the exciting new faces and the game seems well-positioned.
“The new stars are resonating with the public and with the sponsors and advertisers, whether it’s Jordan Spieth, Rory McIlroy or Rickie Fowler,” McManus says. “This is a very exciting and very meaningful time in the game of golf. It would be nice if Tiger were in the mix, but all of the arrows are pointing in the right direction. It’s a good time to be in the business of golf.”