As Golf Channel celebrates 25th anniversary, moves beyond traditional TV come into focus
Rory McIlroy traveled to Golf Channel’s Orlando headquarters Dec. 13 for two days of meetings that had nothing to do with television as the golfer conducted some interviews and cut promos for the network.
As co-founder of GolfPass, which NBC Sports Group launched last February, McIlroy was more interested in Golf Channel’s subscription businesses — everything from setting up tee times to booking travel.
As Golf Channel celebrates its 25th anniversary this week, McIlroy’s visit offered a window to how network executives view their overall business. No longer is Golf Channel simply a television network.
“It’s a technology company more than anything,” said Mike McCarley, president of golf for NBC Sports Group.
McCarley sees McIIroy taking a similar ambassador role with the Golf Channel’s digital businesses as Arnold Palmer did with the channel. “Rory looks at the next 25 years as, ‘What is Golf Channel 2.0?’ He talks about the digitization of golf,” McCarley said.
The channel’s last 25 years were dominated by the transition from analog to digital, McCarley said. “But the next 25 years is going to be how the overall game — not just the media and technology part — gets advanced by digital media and technology.”
Golf Channel has embraced golf businesses that have little, if anything, to do with television. It manages Golf Business Solutions, which has relationships with around 10,000 golf courses in 40 countries and provides the technical platforms that run and operate golf courses — everything from booking tee times to monitoring employee time cards.
“Because of the way technology and media have evolved in the last 25 years, and really the last 10 years has been the most significant of it, there’s ways that people engage with golf that they’ve never contemplated before,” McCarley said. “Golf Channel launched as the first single-sport television network. It’s grown to be so much more than that. More people work other businesses than traditional television than those who work on television.”
When McCarley started nine years ago, Golf Channel had 330 employees. Today, it has close to 1,200. Golf Channel has jobs today that didn’t exist a few years ago.
“We like to talk about being at the intersection of golf and technology,” McCarley said. “Anyone who’s been in this business for the last five years completely changed and transformed the way they operate a business. They had to.”
McCarley said Golf Channel adopted the strategy to embrace digital businesses early on.
“Those are the types of things that you’re hearing and reading about every day,” he said. “You can’t just hear about it and read about it. You have to be doing it. It’s better to be leading the way than being led.”
McCarley described the Golf Channel culture as more entrepreneurial, which helps employees embrace change more than others.
“We’re working at a startup that happens to be backed by one of the most powerful media companies in the world, in Comcast,” McCarley said. “There’s a risk-taking and entrepreneurial spirit that has led to a lot of these ancillary digital businesses.”
Even as Golf Channel pursues digital businesses, the television network continues to grow. During its first week in 1995, the channel had 15.5 hours of live programming. Next week, it will have 102.5 hours of live programming — 61% of the network’s schedule.
“We put a real emphasis on creating an influential voice in the game,” McCarley said, citing news coverage and on-air commentators. “It takes time to build credibility. We’ve got a platform that starts with news and a slate of live tournaments that are surrounded by news. But it also has instruction, high-quality storytelling and high-end documentaries.”