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Volume 21 No. 2
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Fox contract ‘a game-changer’ for USGA

Par might be a good score in the U.S. Open, but the game’s governing body, the U.S. Golf Association, has made it clear that it’s not satisfied with par from a business perspective.

Mike Davis, the USGA’s executive director, has been charged with oversight of the association since 2011 and a new direction has been evident, especially in the last year. The USGA’s controversial new 12-year broadcast agreement with Fox for $93 million a year, almost triple the old deal with NBC and ESPN, led critics in the golf space to wonder if the USGA’s new course had created a rift in the association. Golf Digest called it the “Corporate Guys vs. the Golf Guys.”

Davis, a 25-year veteran of the USGA, said the association needs both — strong golf leadership complemented by a seasoned business side. He talked about the changing dynamics within the USGA, among other topics, during a 45-minute conversation with SportsBusiness Journal’s Michael Smith.

Davis has seen great change at the USGA in his 25 years there.
On the USGA’s new relationship with Fox, which begins in 2015:

DAVIS: For the game of golf to get the “other big network” engaged in the game is a positive. One of our biggest priorities in 2014 is to integrate Fox. Golf is a unique sport to broadcast. You’ve got 18 arenas out there and the announcers have to be very golf savvy. If you don’t know the nuances, the audience will know it. Fox has hired their executive producer, Mark Loomis, and soon they’ll have a lead host and lead analyst. … What’s neat about this is they can focus on our events. It’s not 30 weeks a year where they’re doing golf and the U.S. Open sneaks up on them. They plan on taking their announcers to the site months in advance to learn the golf course, and I’ll be there with them to take them through what we’re trying to do. …
While there may be a new group, in some ways they’ll be more knowledgeable than what we’ve seen in the past.

Do you buy that there’s a tension between the USGA’s golf side and business side?

DAVIS: You’ve got to have both. The people who argue that, well, they don’t understand that we have to continue to grow. When I started at the USGA 25 years ago, we were a golf association and there really wasn’t a corporate way of doing things. Back then, we didn’t have a legal department or a marketing department. There was a skeleton communications department. It was all about golf. We’ve moved to a time where we now have these corporate functions that really do support the golf part. I would argue that golf vs. corporate, well, it needs to be both. … We’ve really focused the last two years on making the USGA more efficient and more business savvy. We have to evolve because now we’re running a $200 million organization.

How will the USGA spend all of this new revenue?

DAVIS: We’ve got a five-year strategic plan. When you think about what the USGA does, it’s national championships and international competitions, it’s governance, jointly, with the R&A, and it’s service to golf, like junior golf and turf grass research and state and regional golf associations. So many people have missed that this Fox deal will not only provide our championships with more broadcast hours and focus, it’s also a game-changer for the USGA financially. We’re not going to shy away from that. People are missing the point that these moneys are going to go back into the game. We’re going to do things that we’ve never been able to do before. As a nonprofit, we’re focused on how best to serve the game and the focus on those three areas. … We’re at a crossroads now with the game of golf, so now that we know our financial future a little better, we can spend money to help the game.

On the men’s and women’s U.S. Open double this year at Pinehurst:

DAVIS: It’s fair to say there’s not a lot of clarity in the golf world as to why we’re doing this. I think a lot of people feel that we’re just saving some money on the operations. While that may be true for NBC or ESPN because they don’t have to pick up and move, really, it’s not a big money saver for the USGA. In fact, it’s not a money saver for us. The whole intent is to take the world’s best women and the world’s best men and compare the two sexes. When you think about it, that’s not really been done before. … The closest we’ve been able to do that was 2007 and 2010 at Oakmont. Three years after the men, the women came in and the whole goal was to set it up like the men, except distances. The whole intent is to showcase the men and the women on a golf course that will be set up relatively the same.

Will we ever see another men’s and women’s double at the same venue?

DAVIS: We will probably wait and see, and assess everything. We want to know what interest it creates from a broadcast standpoint. Will it create story lines that we wouldn’t otherwise get? Also, there are challenges. If you get bad weather week one, what does that do to week two? You’ve got two straight weeks with volunteers, with vendors, with people in the North Carolina area. You also have to realize that you couldn’t do this with most of the venues where we go. You’re not going to Oakmont or Merion or Olympic and say, “We need your place for two weeks.” A resort like Pinehurst, it’s easier to justify because ultimately they’re a business and they look at it that way. It’s promotional for them. It’s different if you’re a private club.