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Volume 21 No. 34
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Tour talks to nets as opt-out date nears

Top PGA Tour officials have met with each of the big four broadcast networks over the past few weeks, as the group considers opting out of its current broadcast rights deals.

CBS and NBC hold rights for 31 golf events through 2021, but the PGA Tour can opt out of the deal after the 2018 season. Golf Channel holds the tour’s cable rights through 2021, with no early opt-out provision.

PGA Tour viewership is up slightly on NBC this year, but down 19 percent on CBS.
Photo by: GETTY IMAGES
PGA Tour Commissioner Tim Finchem; his likely successor, Chief Operating Officer and Deputy Commissioner Jay Monahan; and top tour media executives have led the meetings, which have focused on reasons why golf is a valuable TV property. The group highlighted its audience demos, which are more affluent than other sports. It also pitched the popularity and promise of young stars such as Jordan Spieth, Jason Day and Rickie Fowler, who last year led a 5 percent viewership bump on NBC and a 29 percent increase on CBS.

This year, PGA Tour viewership is down on CBS and up slightly on NBC, according to the networks. In 17 events this year, CBS saw its viewership drop 19 percent, from 2.7 million to 2.2 million This average excludes majors and rainout coverage of the Zurich Classic and Greenbrier Classic. The PGA Tour’s 13 NBC events through the BMW Championship are up 2 percent, excluding majors, the Olympics and The Players Championship.

PGA Tour executives declined to comment on the talks, but several sources describe the meetings as informational — money was not discussed and deal negotiations did not start. But the meetings attracted the interest of the top executives in the networks’ sports departments.

ESPN President John Skipper and executive vice presidents Russell Wolff, John Kosner and Burke Magnus, meeting to discuss weekend tournament rights for ABC, hosted PGA Tour officials in Bristol, Conn. Fox Sports President Eric Shanks, NBC Sports Group Chairman Mark Lazarus and CBS Sports Chairman Sean McManus led meetings at their respective network offices.

The tour signed its CBS and NBC deals in 2011, not long after the tail end of Tiger Woods’ peak that produced record-high TV ratings for all tour network partners. Woods then had a resurgence, winning three PGA Tour events in 2012 and five in 2013, when he was named PGA Tour player of the year. He has not won a tour event since.

The Golf Channel cable deal was signed in 2007.

At least initially, the PGA Tour found a tighter market for broadcast rights than in previous years. Cable channels such as ESPN and Turner Sports cannot bid on these packages, as the rights are only for broadcast. Given NFL and affiliate commitments, ABC and Fox do not have a lot of windows on weekends to support a big new rights deal. And CBS and NBC may be content to sit tight and see the current deal through 2021.

The tour wants to grow its broadcast rights fees, but its real opportunity comes in 2021 when its cable rights deal with Golf Channel ends. Broadcast sources said they are hesitant to pay for a short, three-year deal, after which the PGA Tour would go back to the market with both the broadcast and cable packages.

The PGA Tour has looked into the idea of starting its own channel while also recently experimenting with digital streams, producing live coverage on Twitter and Facebook. The tour live-streamed Thursday and Friday morning coverage of its subscription-based PGA Tour Live over-the-top offering on both social media channels during this year’s first two FedEx Cup events, The Barclays and the Deutsche Bank Championship. Tour executives won’t discuss traffic generated from the social media channel but have said they are considering more live-streaming deals for next year.