SBJ/June 3-9, 2013/Media

ESPN, NBC on the clock for golf rights

Incumbents’ window to negotiate with USGA opens

The U.S. Golf Association started its exclusive negotiating window with incumbents ESPN and NBC Sports Group over the weekend, a year and a half before its current deal ends.

NBC holds the broadcast rights to USGA’s biggest prize, the U.S. Open. NBC also televises the U.S. Women’s Open and the U.S. Senior Open. ESPN is the cable partner for the first two rounds of the men’s Open.

NBC and Golf Channel also share the broadcast of the U.S. Amateur, while Golf Channel carries the U.S. Women’s Amateur.

The New Jersey-based USGA packages its major golf tournaments in separate deals with NBC, ESPN and Golf Channel, all of which expire in 2014.

The combined annual revenue from all three of these deals is $35 million to $38 million a year, according to industry insiders. When Golf Channel did its deal, it was not part of the NBC Sports Group, as it is now, so it’s likely the NBC and Golf Channel rights will be rolled into a single agreement, if they come to terms.

It’s not certain when the exclusive window ends, but sources say they do not expect a deal to be signed within the exclusive window, which started June 1. NBC has broadcast the U.S. Open since 1995, meaning the 2014 broadcast will mark the 20th edition of the U.S. Open that the network has televised.

NBC Sports Group operates Golf Channel and NBC Sports Network, and is looking to produce content for all the USGA golf events under the NBC umbrella.

By the same token, ESPN has been interested in buying rights to championship sports. Last month, it picked up rights to the U.S. Open Tennis Championships, ending the U.S. Tennis Association’s longtime relationship with CBS. In the past few years, ESPN has cut deals to carry the entire British Open and Wimbledon.

Fox Sports has expressed interest in the event, as well, sources said. Fox has not carried golf in the past, but the network is launching two all-sports channels this year, FS1 and FS2, and has been acquiring as much live sports programming as possible to fill their program schedules.

The USGA has set a precedent in signing media rights deals early. In early 2005, it signed nine-year deals with ESPN and NBC a full two years before its media rights deal was due to expire.

The USGA hired Wasserman Media Group last fall to be its consultant for broadcast and digital rights. Malcolm Turner, president of Wasserman Golf, and media consultant Dean Jordan and Katie Boes are working with the USGA. Sarah Hirshland, the USGA’s senior managing director of business affairs, is on point in these negotiations for golf’s governing body.

Last year’s prime-time finish for the U.S. Open produced the most-watched weekend since Tiger Woods outlasted Rocco Mediate in 2008. The 2012 Open generated a 6.0 final-round rating and a 5.0 rating in the third round. The final-round rating marked a 33 percent jump from 2011, giving the USGA a wave of momentum heading into the next round of negotiations. The third-round rating was the highest since 2002.

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