Golf’s TV Deal Rises Despite Tiger’s Fall

(published September 5, 2011)

It’s been a big week in the world of professional golf.


You may not have noticed there was a world of professional golf this week.  After all, the NFL season is just days away, so it’s prime time for fantasy drafts.  College football opened with two traditional matchups: Boise State v. Georgia and LSU v. Nike.  The U.S. Open reached its middle weekend, with 22-year-old Donald Young at last showing why he was once considered the next Great American Hope.

The Yankees and Red Sox were busy taking more than eleven and a half hours to play a three-game series that may or may not affect their playoff seeding, while the Giants and Diamondbacks squared off in a duel to see who will be the most anonymous team in the postseason.  (Name three guys in the Diamondbacks lineup besides Justin Upton.  I’ll wait.)

Meanwhile, golf’s FedEx Cup “playoffs” moved into the second of four tournaments, the Deutsche Bank Classic in Norton, Massachusetts.  The FedEx Cup is truly a tradition like no other, in that it’s not a tradition at all, having debuted in 2007.   That was two years B.H. – Before Hydrant, when Tiger Woods ran his car into one and exposed a rare cache of yellow kryptonite.

The primary goal of the FedEx Cup is to get the top golfers to play more often than they used to after the PGA Championship is concluded in August.  It seemed a more important goal when the top golfers were Tiger and Phil rather than Bubba and Dustin.  (That’s Watson and Johnson – even the names are less interesting.)

A FedEx Cup Champion will be crowned in three weeks, after the field is reduced from 125 to 100 to 70 to 30.  All the events are 72 holes of stroke play, and look pretty much like every other tournament.  Prestige doesn’t come overnight, no matter how hefty the paycheck is.  Maybe especially then.

The more significant story of the week in golf was the announcement by commissioner Tim Finchem on Thursday that the PGA Tour and its television “partners” had come to an agreement for broadcast rights through 2021, an unprecedented nine-year extension.

CBS and NBC were delighted to continue providing background noise for middle-aged nappers on the weekends, and The Golf Channel is already locked in for coverage of the first two rounds.  Tournament prize money is guaranteed to go up each year of the contract.

The deal was a surprise to those who expected the recent ineffectiveness of Tiger Woods to herald a quieter and less lucrative time for the Tour.  If Tiger’s rise created the boom, shouldn’t his waning bring on a bust?

Such thinking treats the economics of golf on television as no different from how it is in other major sports.  Golf’s model is less like a series scrambling for ratings, and more like a high-class verdant infomercial.

Adam Schupak’s excellent and exhaustively researched book about the reign and methods of the PGA Tour’s former commissioner, Deane Beman: Golf’s Driving Force, shows how Beman’s foresight made the PGA Tour impervious to the caprices of the television audience.

Tour events have title sponsors, major corporations that provide the prize money and much of the underpinnings of the telecast cost by buying a sizeable percentage of the commercial inventory.  Ticket sales and the proceeds from pro-am slots prior to the tournament pay local costs (the work force is mostly volunteer) and make up the much-vaunted charitable contributions for which the Tour takes so much credit.

Schupak describes a sports business forum in the 1970s attended by the commissioners of baseball, football, basketball, hockey, and golf.  Before the formal beginning, NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle asked Beman, “What are you doing here?”  Beman shot back, “Because the PGA Tour is worth more than all of you guys.”  Rozelle asked what he meant by that, and Beman replied, “Well, the PGA Tour has 47 franchises – we call them tournaments – and we own them all.  You don’t own any of your franchises.”

A golf telecast is not an autonomous sports event for which the network pays a fee for the privilege of showing what happens.  The arrangement is much more of a partnership, with the Tour bringing in sponsors who ensure that the network makes money.  In the new contract, the “underpinning” promised to the networks, from title sponsors and other of the Tour’s “partners,” was increased significantly.

This has been the model since the late 1980s, proposed by Beman as far back as 1979.  The networks get worry-free programming with a guarantee of black ink on the bottom line.  The corporations get certain exposure in an increasingly fragmented advertising marketplace; the Tour has long since overcome anyone’s resistance to calling a tournament by its branded name.  The Tour makes money, the players make money, and it truly doesn’t matter if the tournament of the week is trounced in the ratings by football games or reruns of Dr. Phil.

So if you’re having trouble staying interested in professional golf now that Tiger is no longer a constant on the leaderboard, the Tour and the networks say that’s okay; they’ll be there every week anyway, and you can check in again whenever you’re ready.  So enjoy your fantasy football draft, have fun with the wild-card race – and did we mention that Tiger will be at the Open from October 6-9?   Don’t worry.  They’ll remind you.







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