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When Kelly Tilghman came to the Golf Channel 15 years ago, she worked in the video library for a startup that was in barely 100,000 homes.Nearly two years earlier, Golf Channel’s owner, Comcast, acquired NBC, a move that gave Golf Channel access to the resources and reach of a broadcast network. During the subsequent time, Golf Channel’s ratings have soared to all-time highs, thanks in large part to the cross-promotion it has enjoyed as part of NBC Sports Group.
As she sat in the makeup chair two weeks ago, preparing to lead Golf Channel’s 60-plus hours of coverage from the Ryder Cup, she marveled at how her network, which is now in 84 million homes, used to be characterized as the “Little Engine That Could,” the nice, little niche channel that covered one sport with meager resources.
“We’re no longer niche,” said Tilghman, from the TV compound at Medinah. “We’re a network.”
The channel is on pace to register its most watched year in history, besting a record that was set last year. It just completed its best third quarter in history, posting viewership figures that are up 20 percent over last year. It averaged 1.25 million viewers Sept. 21 for the second round of the Tour Championship in Atlanta. On Sept. 30, its Sunday morning “Live from the Ryder Cup” coverage averaged 442,000 viewers.
The channel set viewership records for seven of the first nine months this year.
Golf Channel unquestionably has become a shining example of how the Comcast-NBC merger can benefit a single channel.
“Nationally, Golf Channel has benefited the most and benefited the quickest from plugging into the power of NBC,” said NBC Sports Group’s Group President Jon Litner, who oversees Golf Channel and Comcast’s regional sports networks. “To create a golf vertical business, irrespective of platform, and do it as quickly as we’ve done it, has been a great success story.”
Tilghman’s “Little Engine That Could” theme was repeated by several Golf Channel executives during the Ryder Cup, from the channel’s president, Mike McCarley, to executive producer Molly Solomon.
From its launch in January 1995, the channel was niche by design. It had original series, like “Big Break” and “The Haney Project,” that drew steady albeit not overwhelming audiences. A 15-year deal with the PGA Tour struck in 2007 gave the channel rights to first- and second-round coverage of events.
But ever since Golf Channel became part of NBC Sports Group, it has clearly transcended other NBC and Comcast sports properties. Its September prime-time average of 150,000 viewers is nearly 60 percent higher than its sister network, NBC Sports Network, which averaged 94,000 viewers. The network touts itself as the fastest-growing cable channel in the country, and its ad sales revenue has increased significantly, the network said.
“We’ve gone from the ‘Little Engine That Could’ to a runaway freight train,” Tilghman said. “You can sense the change. With all of the promotion we receive now [from NBC], it feels different.”
Golf Channel President Mike McCarley helped make sure the Orlando-based network wasn’t isolated from NBC.
Photo by:TOMAS OVALLE / NBC
McCarley had been a member of Ebersol’s inner circle, with strong ties at 30 Rock. With the job based in Orlando, Ebersol believed he needed someone with deep NBC roots to make sure the network was not isolated. McCarley fit that bill.
Three weeks after McCarley was named Golf Channel’s president, golf telecasts on NBC carried the Golf Channel logo alongside the peacock. On the outside, the move to add Golf Channel’s logo to NBC’s telecasts seemed simple enough. NBC’s golf telecasts were branded as Golf Channel on NBC, much like sports programs on ABC already had been branded as ESPN on ABC. But the move showed a working relationship between the cable and broadcast channels well before any other NBC or Comcast property were able to work together.
The idea to create one golf business at NBC Sports Group is something that executives had been planning for months.
“We were talking about how from day one we were going to combine the brands of Golf Channel and the peacock and how one would drive to the other and how we should create one identity among all the other golf properties we’ve had,” said Seth Winter, NBC’s executive vice president of sales and marketing. “This was something that was planned well in advance and executed flawlessly.”
But Winter said advertisers’ interests extend beyond Woods, causing NBC to start to look at bringing in nontraditional advertisers.
Ad sales are pacing with the channel’s ratings gains. In the third quarter this year, Golf Channel averaged a record-high 141,000 homes in prime time. The number is especially impressive considering that the channel carries few live events in prime time.
Golf Channel’s ratings are helped by NBC promotion, executives say. But Golf Channel also made subtle changes to its schedule that have worked. On executive producer Tommy Roy’s suggestion, Golf Channel cut commercial breaks to less than 2 1/2 minutes, which is the amount of time between golf
From top, Kelly Tilghman (left) on set; Golf Channel Drive street renaming; network co-founders Joe Gibbs and Arnold Palmer
Photos:COURTESY OF GOLF CHANNEL (3)
McCarley also made sure that the best-performing shows were scheduled in the best time slots. “I joke now that a revolutionary programming strategy that was put into place was to replace low-rated programming with high-rated programming that was of higher quality and a better fit for the brand,” he said. “There were shows that were pretty easy to target.”
Added Solomon: “We saw the results very quickly on the air and in our ratings. It’s almost like a different segment of the golf-viewing population and sports fans found Golf Channel again. … We’re pushing the golf consumer back and forth between the platforms. That’s profitable for both NBC and Golf Channel. We’re keeping the viewer in the family.”
McCarley points to the BMW Championship to show how far Golf Channel has come.
In September 2011, the tournament moved Saturday’s tee times up to accommodate the start time of a Notre Dame-Michigan State football game that NBC was carrying that afternoon. The move led golfer Luke Donald to tweet, “Thanks Notre Dame for my 7.35am tee time. I knew there was a reason why I didn’t like you!”
Month Total day Prime time February 2011 119,000 150,000 March 2011 105,000 144,000 April 2011 102,000 145,000 May 2011 85,000 119,000 June 2011 85,000 157,000 July 2011 71,000 121,000 August 2011 112,000 154,000 September 2011 77,000 102,000 October 2011 69,000 106,000 November 2011 126,000 333,000 December 2011 68,000 113,000 January 2012 87,000 169,000 February 2012 142,000 181,000 March 2012 134,000 164,000 April 2012 116,000 173,000 May 2012 113,000 152,000 June 2012 118,000 160,000 July 2012 97,000 152,000 August 2012 88,000 114,000 September 2012 121,000 150,000
* Total day is 6 a.m. to 6 a.m.; prime time is 8-11 p.m. Source: SBJ research based on Nielsen data
Last month, the third round of the BMW Championship, again, was going to conflict with a Notre Dame game on NBC, this one against Purdue. NBC and the tour agreed that NBC would cover the early part of the third round, with Golf Channel covering the latter part. NBC averaged a 1.6 rating from 12 to 3:30 p.m. ET. Golf Channel pulled a respectable 1.3 rating from 3:30 to 7 p.m. Not surprisingly, it was Golf Channel’s highest-rated show of the week.
“It’s little things like that that you’re able to do that we weren’t able to do previously before bringing the two groups together,” McCarley said.
In fact, those little things weren’t even contemplated in the years when Golf Channel resembled the “Little Engine That Could.” McCarley recalled having lunch with one of Golf Channel’s founders, Joe Gibbs, at the Masters just two months after he took the job. Gibbs regaled McCarley with tales of the channel’s early days, when he and Arnold Palmer, one of his partners, worried about not being able to make payroll.
“They had a vision and a dream, and they created a business plan,” McCarley said. “But the business plan only got them so far. Their dream and the vision they created together never contemplated what happened after NBC Universal came together. … I am a firm believer that the best is yet to come. I think we’re scratching the surface.”
The most interesting part of these deals is to see what NBC gets. The network has been active in every negotiation over the past couple of years and is looking to land at least one big fish to bring more viewers and advertisers to NBC Sports Network.
It also will be interesting to see whether any new networks swoop in to try to pick up sports rights. Everyone is waiting to see if Al Jazeera’s BeIN Sport will bid high enough to get EPL rights.
I asked four of the country’s top sports media consultants to handicap how they see these negotiations playing out. Most thought Fox would be more aggressive as it looks to rebrand its motorsports channel Speed into an all-sports channel. Most didn’t consider NBC to be a front-runner for any of the available packages.
Lee Berke, president and CEO of LHB Sports, Entertainment & Media: “ESPN [will win because of] the advantages of incumbency plus the desire to retain an important part of the network’s heritage.”
Len DeLuca, founder of Len DeLuca & Associates: “While NBCU should be favored, a split deal like the Pac-12 or new Atlantic 10 deal is possible, with ESPN and Fox the likely partners.”
Ed Desser, president of Desser Sports Media, “CBS [will win] due to history, Fox and ESPN deals with other conferences, and a desire to use CBS Sports Network on a package that isn’t what it used to be.”
Joel Lulla, professor at the University of Texas: “The Big East will be shared between Fox and ESPN. Notre Dame leaving the Big East could dampen NBC’s appetite to pay a premium for the product.”
Berke: “Fox has the networks in place to fully commercialize all EPL matches.”
DeLuca: “Fox has momentum in fútbol acquisitions. NBC Sports Network and ESPN will try to break that. Too close to call.”
Desser: “Al Jazeera. They have huge resources and a motivation a la BeIN to capture must-have programming. The financial pressures of EPL may lead them to take the money rather than go a traditional route, especially with the recent decisions on exclusivity in Europe.”
Lulla: “EPL will go to Fox. Soccer is a programming cornerstone of Fox’s cable and international properties.”
Berke: “ESPN and Fox [will share it]. Maximizing both revenues and exposure, BCS rotates the playoffs and the championship between college football’s two biggest media partners and helps establish what will become the Super Bowl of college football.”
DeLuca: “Exclusivity will be prohibitive, so look for an ESPN and Fox split. But don’t discount Turner Sports’ appetite for championships (see NCAA basketball).”
Desser: “ESPN [will win] due to deepest pockets, number of platforms and greatest strategic benefit from existing college football and bowl games packages.”
Lulla: “BCS will stay with ESPN. ESPN has already proven its willingness to pay a premium for the Rose and Champions bowls, in large part to obtain rights to the semifinals hosted at those sites. I believe ESPN will likely pay whatever is necessary for the Orange Bowl, the other semifinal sites as well as the national championship game.”
Berke: “Fox/Turner/ESPN [will split the rights]. All three incumbents are motivated to retain perennial ratings performers with the auto industry on the rebound.”
DeLuca: “NASCAR is a 10-month franchise. The new sports nets should be inspired. Fox Sports Group and NBCU should split the whole season, forcing ESPN and Turner out or to a digital-only status.”
Desser: “Fox due to incumbency and new needs for their national sports cable net. Turner probably loses it. Maybe that’s what NBC takes.”
Lulla: “NASCAR will remain with the incumbents Fox, Turner and ESPN. Those three media companies would like to re-up with NASCAR, whereas I don’t believe NBC will bid aggressively for NASCAR due to its ratings trajectory.”
John Ourand can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @Ourand_SBJ.