A Golf-on-TV History Lesson
By Torleif Sorenson on 8/16/13

One week has passed since the ground-shaking announcement of the United States Golf Association's new television deal with Fox Sports. Reaction has been mixed in some quarters. Golf Digest writer Geoff Shackelford is so angry with the USGA that he has used two graphics (above) in his some of his posts.

But nobody has recalled that in 1994, NBC was in a similar position that Fox is in now. At that time, Dick Ebersol was president of NBC Sports, which televised some golf, but their coverage was admittedly weak. In fact, they had athletes from other sports working their golf coverage, including baseball's Tom Seaver and former NFLer Bob Trumpy.

In his outstanding 2003 book Open, author John Feinstein tells the story of how Dick Ebersol put together a strong producer (Tommy Roy) with an incisive analyst (Johnny Miller) and strengthened their television crew. Ebersol then carefully managed NBC's bid for television rights to the USGA. Feinstein even tells of NBC's group presentation to the USGA on May 26, 1994, that included an emotional Johnny Miller talking about what the U.S. Open had meant to him personally.

When the USGA's David Fay, Sandy Tatum, and Mark Carlson opened the bids and unsigned contracts, long-time partner ABC had offered a bit less than $9 million / year for four years, with no changes in content — they had pushed their U.S. Amateur coverage over to ESPN. But NBC offered $13 million for three years, with two additional years as USGA options. Feinstein quoted David Fay:
"It was an absolute no-brainer at that point. If we had not accepted the NBC big, we would have failed to meet our fiduciary responsibility to the organization."
Predictably, the people at ABC were angry and upset, just as the people at NBC are understandably disappointed over their impending loss of the USGA television package.

Over the last two decades, the landscape of sports television has changed pretty dramatically:
  • Not only do we now have the Golf Channel, but we also have consolidation in the cable landscape, with NBC/Universal having purchased and taken over Golf Channel, then purchased, taken over, and re-branded OLN/Versus as NBC Sports Network.

  • Fox Sports became a National Football League television partner beginning in 1994, then won over Major League Baseball. Over the years, a number of local and regional sports channels have come under the Fox Sports Network umbrella.

  • CBS has their "CBS Sports Network" on cable, but to this point, they have basically used it only for the utterly useless "Masters On The Range" telecasts and, this past week, a repeat of the PGA Championship trophy ceremony and wrap-up. (This writer suspects that the viewership of CBS Sports Network languishes somewhere around Oprah Winfrey Network, World Fishing Network, and MSNBC.)

  • Most strangely, the PGA of America still has early-round coverage of the PGA Championship on, of all cable channels, TNT. (To be fair, the NFL once had some of their games on TNT, but later saw the error of their ways.)

  • ESPN has weekday television coverage of the Masters and the U.S. Open. However, their coverage of golf on SportsCenter barely outweighs their coverage of hockey — which is to say that it is virtually non-existent. Even with the emergence of ESPN2, ESPNews, ESPN3 online, and other co-branded cable and internet properties, ESPN is geared primarily toward football and basketball fans with short attention spans.

  • In 2004, the National Hockey League got wise and ditched ESPN and ABC to go with what has become NBC Sports Network. Not only are the on-screen results improved, but their studio hosts also stay "on-topic" during intermissions, rather than showing us slam-dunks and touchdown celebrations. The result has been dramatically better ratings for the NHL not only on NBCSN, but also on the NBC Television Network.

    Why the USGA and Augusta National have not followed suit is a mystery; perhaps they are still dazzled by the ESPN brand.

The men and women at NBC Sports have done an excellent job improving the content and quality of golf on television. Their shared resources and cross-marketing with Golf Channel are a very obvious asset. Had NBC had an even stronger bid package for the USGA, we wouldn't be talking about Fox Sports.

USGA President Glen Nager's comment that the they are seeking the "non-sophisticated golf fan" has made devoted golf enthusiasts afraid that U.S. Open coverage will be diluted by things like American Idol concerts or, worse yet, country music concerts appealing to the NASCAR crowd.

But I seriously doubt that Nager and everyone else at the USGA will allow U.S. Open and U.S. Amateur telecasts to get "dumbed down" to the point of resembling the NFL's "Kick-Off Weekend" TV concerts, which have nothing to do with American football. Golfers and golf enthusiasts tend to be better educated and more discerning, so the brash noise and ADHD-style ridiculousness are not likely to happen.

What we probably should expect to happen is for Fox to invent and implement new techniques and ideas, coupled with better technology. CBS Sports used their "ball-tracer" graphic on some live tee-shots, as well as real-time distance measurements during the PGA Championship this past week. Those improvements in the viewing experience were pioneered by Fox, who invented what became known as the "Fox Box" on-screen, providing the score and running time.

Some have called the USGA "staid" in their staging of the U.S. Open, but compared to CBS telecasts of the Masters Tournament, the USGA events could hardly be called staid. Setting aside the extra noise and the stupid cartoon-robot characters on NFL telecasts, Fox Sports have pioneered many features that are not only taken for granted these days, but have even spread to high school sports telecasts on local cable access outlets.

Will Fox make some mistakes out of the gate with their golf coverage? Undoubtedly. But you should not expect them to sink to the level of NBC's cringe-inducing XFL telecasts in 2001. Instead...
  • Expect better use of airborne blimp cameras showing the current position of notable groups on the course.

  • Expect more human-operated and additional remote-controlled cameras in previously-unused locations.

  • Expect continued (but judicious) use of ball-tracer functionality on cameras positioned behind the tee-boxes.

  • Expect better on-screen graphics with relevant statistics, including real-time speed- and distance-tracking.

  • Expect some new voices and faces on camera and on the microphones, too — and not just a Shark in the main analyst chair.

Most importantly, expect the USGA and Fox Sports president Eric Shanks to take the best of what Tommy Roy and NBC Sports have done — and improve upon it, not "dumb it down."

This column was written by Torleif Sorenson. The opinions expressed here are 100% his and do not necessarily reflect those of oobgolf in anyway. Enjoy! I'm sure he's ready for your feedback.

Have an idea for a guest column? Send it here!

[ comments ]
Wes11point5 says:
So I guess we can look forward to cameo appearances from Fox TV show stars in the gallery at the US Open just like at the World Series. Oh look there's Calista Flockhart wearing a Rickie Fowler puma hat with a flat brim.
joe jones says:
Geoff Shackelford is always pissed off about something or someone. He rates very low on my totem pole of commentators. . I would like to take a wait and see attitude about how Fox will present their golf programing. More importantly who they will use on camera. . They will have a hard time following some of the greats that all of the other networks have used. You can only take technology so far.
[ post comment ]
    Cigar Lounge
Most Popular: