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Volume 21 No. 13
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NBC getting British Open a year early

NBC Sports Group will carry the British Open in 2016, a year earlier than planned.

Last week, NBC and Golf Channel finalized a deal with ESPN and the tournament’s operator, the R&A, to take over next year. NBC planned to tell its golf production team about the deal on Sunday, and an official announcement is planned this week.

The move comes a little more than a week after the BBC sold its own lame-duck year for next year’s British TV rights to Sky Sports. NBC executives pointed to that move as the opening ESPN and NBC needed to cut their own deal. In order to maintain consistency, the R&A would have been less likely to shift its U.S. rights a year early if the BBC, its main British rights holder, did not do it first, sources said.

ESPN has televised all four rounds of the British Open since 2008.
Photo by: GETTY IMAGES
“Until the BBC-Sky piece happened, this wasn’t an inevitability,” said Golf Channel President Mike McCarley. “Several things had to fall into place for this to become a reality. That was the key piece.”

NBC is paying ESPN an unknown fee for next year’s rights. Still, the decision to opt out of producing next year’s tournament is the latest in a series of cost-cutting moves coming out of Bristol. ESPN declined to bid for rights to NASCAR and the English Premier League. The company has parted ways with high-priced talent like Colin Cowherd, Keith Olbermann, Bill Simmons and Jason Whitlock. And sources expect a round of layoffs to come as early as next week.

“We have had a wonderful and rewarding relationship with Peter Dawson and the R&A and it has been our distinct honor to be their partner,” said John Wildhack, ESPN executive vice president of programming and production. “The Open is a unique treasure but given the impending change in rights ownership we were open to having them move forward with NBC. We wish them all the best in the future.”

While ESPN executives saw value in the ability to entertain clients during the British Open, it is hardly a big draw on television, pulling the smallest TV audience among golf’s majors. In the last five years, average viewership has cracked the 2 million mark only twice — the only two times in those five years that Tiger Woods finished in the top 10.

The early morning time slot fits better with NBC Sports Group’s programming schedule. NBC carries weekend morning European events like the Premier League and Formula One racing.

McCarley and NBC Sports Programming President Jon Miller led negotiations for NBC. Top programming executives John Wildhack and Burke Magnus led negotiations for ESPN.

“Everyone was skeptical that it could actually get done just because it was so complicated,” McCarley said. “You had so many parties involved. Everything had to happen in a logical, proper order.”

The move comes four months after NBC Sports Group signed a 10-year deal to carry the tournament for an average of $50 million a year — a deal that ended a 54-year relationship the British Open had with ABC and its sister network ESPN. ABC first carried the British Open in 1962; in 2008, all four rounds moved to ESPN.

Officials would not discuss specifics about how much NBC is paying ESPN for the rights to the 2016 event. ESPN’s deal that took effect in 2010 averaged $25 million per year. McCarley said NBC gave ESPN “industry considerations” but would not specify what they entailed.

Next year’s tournament is scheduled for July 14-17 at Royal Troon in Scotland.

It was important for NBC to pick up next year’s tournament to add to an already deep golf schedule for both Golf Channel and NBC. For 12 consecutive weeks next summer, the two will carry the British Open, British Senior Open and British Women’s Open; the return of golf to the Olympics for the first time in 112 years; the PGA Tour’s FedEx Cup Playoffs; and the Ryder Cup from Minnesota.

“Obviously, we were itching to get started [with the British Open],” McCarley said. “We want to put a significant promotional effort behind the Open. Waiting a year was not going to help us and was not going to help the event. We wanted to help start growing the event immediately if we could.”