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Is anyone watching?

Today the 2007 PGA Tour schedule officially kicks off with the start of the Mercedes in Hawaii. It is also the tour’s first year under a new television deal that will see most weekday rounds shown on the Golf Channel.

Now, with the exception of old repeats of Shell’s Wonderful World of Golf, and the Big Break when it was held at Carnoustie, I rarely watch the Golf Channel. That might sound strange to some, but watching infomercials of new clubs designed to cut down on my non-existant slice isn’t my idea of a good time.

The problem is worsened in Canada by the decision on the part of cable providers Rogers and Shaw to move the Golf Channel to part of their digital package — thus most Canadians don’t even get the channel (well covered by Bob Weeks here.) I’d love to see numbers on how many Canadians actually have access to it.

According to a column by the Orlando Sentinel’s Steve Elling, we’re not the only one tuning out, especially when compared to golf’s previous reach on ESPN.

The undisputed heavyweight king of cable sports, ESPN is carried in 92 million homes, while the Golf Channel logs in at 75 million. However, those numbers don’t represent much other than unfulfilled potential if nobody is watching.

According to Nielsen Media Research, the average number of people who watched the Golf Channel at any moment in a 24-hour broadcast day during the 2006 fall season was a minuscule 44,000 people or 1.1 million fewer people below ESPN’s average in the same time frame.

Noted gadfly — and former PGA Championship winner — Paul Azinger, had this to say:

“You go into any restaurant or bar in America and the TV is tuned to ESPN,” said Paul Azinger, a former ESPN analyst. “It would have been better to give it (broadcast rights) away and carried it on ESPN.”

Steve Flesch had a similar experience:

Veteran Steve Flesch said that during one stretch on the tour in 2006, he stayed six weeks in a row at hotels that didn’t carry the Golf Channel on its TV menu. Thus, players fear the tour is going to lose the general sports fan, viewers who instinctively flip to ESPN first to take the measure of the sporting landscape.

But don’t worry — “Johnny Joe Sidewalk” will find his way to the Golf Channel soon enough, even if it requires an expensive cable upgrade in large parts of Canada. That Kelly Tilghman — besides having the huskiest voice in sports — she has a way with words:

It might take some time to build numbers,” said Kelly Tilghman, who will assume the lead play-by-play role. “Johnny Joe Sidewalk may not tune in during Week 1 or Year 1. But if people are wondering, ‘Where is Tiger Woods playing today, where is Phil Mickelson, or Michelle Wie? The Golf Channel? Let me find that.’

Michelle Wie? How out of touch is Tilghman? Or maybe she’s saying no one will get to see Wie play without the Golf Channel, since the teenager won’t be seeing the weekend in a PGA Tour event any time soon.

Elling’s full story is here.

As Geoff Shackelford notes, here are the actual viewing numbers (the number of people tuned in at any one time) for a variety of sports channels. Pay attention to that Golf Channel spot — where it is actually lower than pro hockey in the U.S. I guess sports fans aren’t any more fond of infomercials than I am:

Network Sport Avg. viewers
ESPN Multiple 1,153,000

ESPN2 Multiple 324,000
NFL Network Pro football 119,000
Speed Channel Auto racing 117,000
Versus Pro hockey 75,000
ESPN Classic Sports history 66,000
ESPN News Sports news 62,000
Golf Channel Golf coverage 44,000

In Canada, CanWest Global — my overlords at the National Post — will have coverage rights for a handful of events for the weekend. But it appears if you are looking to watch the Mercedes tonight — you’ll either have the Golf Channel, or you won’t be watching golf.

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Robert Thompson

A bestselling author and award-winning columnist, Robert Thompson has been writing about business and sports, and particularly golf, for almost two decades. His reporting and commentary on golf has appeared in Golf Magazine, the Globe and Mail, T&L Golf and many other media outlets. Currently Robert is a columnist with Global Golf Post, golf analyst for Global News and Shaw Communications, and Senior Writer to ScoreGolf. The Going for the Green blog was launched in 2004.

23 CommentsLeave a comment

  • The choice to go with the golf channel is one thing – but the length of the contract is another. Why commit for so long -if they find they were wrong – they are really stuck.

    PGA has other problems that are quickly coming upon them – like losing tournamments – the other side of insisting their players are “independent contractors”.

  • You have to wonder about the direction of the PGA Tour under Tim Finchem right now. They have been a hugely successful operation over the past 10 years, how much of this is due to Tiger remains to be seen. Purses have gone sky high and you wonder how long corporate America will continue to support the Tour. The revamped schedule to accomodate The Fed Ex Cup looks like it may not acquire what they were looking for. The hype is there but will the public and the players buy in to it?

    This plus the fact that as you say Robert the television contract with the Golf Channel does seem like it will weaken the viewing power of the Tour instead of increasing it. One only has to go to a PGA Tour event to realize that the majority of people at these events are not serious golfers at all. I doubt many of them will pay to watch the Golf Channel.

    I hope theses decisions don’t hurt the popularity of a game that I love with a passion.

  • The other good content on the Golf Channel is more obscure tournaments – European tour events, the Curtis Cup from Bandon, the US Women’s Am, Australian tournaments, etc. The first time I saw Whistling Straits was the PGA club pro championship that was shown on TGC several years ago. And then there is Jake’s show that is pretty good!

    They just need to add a GCA show hosted by Ran where a bunch of folks sit around and talk about architecture – that will improve the ratings.

  • Why can’t you? Just shell out for TGC and a dig terminal – you can go to your Rogers store and have it working in 5 minutes.

  • Here in Halifax TGC is on regular cable and has been for some time. Not sure why that is, because Eastlink normally is pretty stingy with making channels like that available.

    So I’ve watched TGC for years. It is on a downward slide. Too many informercials, too many dumb reality shows (Big Break), too many repeats — last week they showed the Arnold Palmer Charity Classic from 1996 for the umpteenth time — questionable on-air talent (Megan West), losing the talented but tempermental Peter Kessler, who did some of their best stuff years ago, and too much emphasis on Michelle Wie and Tiger Woods.

    A 15 year contract seems ridiculous. It will be interesting to see the quality of their broadcast this week. I hope they are up to it. Otherwise, I hope the Tour has a good escape clause like they did when they foolishly signed the Champions Tour to CNBC a few years back.

  • More whining from a bunch of people who had a vested interest in the old way. I see that the Golf Channel is broadcasting 4.5 hours of coverage tonight. How many hours would ESPN have dedicated? Can ESPN honestly claim that their golf viewership matched their overall average? Wouldn’t you expect that TGC’s ratings for PGA tour coverage would be higher than their overall average which is watered down by the infomercials? Is TSN free? Does Bob Weeks have a vested interest in TSN? Is ESPN related to ABC, Azinger’s former employer?

  • Perspective is everything. For those that haven’t noticed, television has evolved over the last 20 years. Up until the 80s, there were no specialty channels. The 80s saw the birth of sports channels. In the early years of ESPN, nobody was watching as you indicate. Reporters were asking the same questions you are asking. Who is going to pay? Who is going to watch? Well we all paid and all watched ESPN and TSN. The last decade has brought even more specialization with the creation of the 500 channel universe. Now you have the Leafs Channel, the Golf Channel, the Soccer channel. These channels deliver a very focused, dedicated audience to advertisers. I think the PGA Tour is right on. They have seen the future and the future is specialty channels. It will help brand the Tour, and deliver the focused audience that advertisers. The big networks are a legacy to the 70s, just like the generic sports channels will be a relic of the 80s and 90s.

    Bob, don’t kid yourself. The PGA Tour is a sophisticated organization, and they know television, and television’s future. That is why they did what they did and signed a long year deal. They are not in this for the short term but for the long term, because they understand television, and its future, and their advertisers. There might be some short term ramifications but the benefits in the long run will be significant.

    Nobody was watching ESPN when it started. It was a joke. Nobody was watching the Golf Channel in its early years, but look how far they have come.

    Don’t take this the wrong way Bob. Journalists know how to write but they know very little of what it takes to run a multi million dollar business. The PGA Tour know their stuff. They know who they are and where to take their product.

  • Alfred….glad to see that some get it. I couldn’t be happier that TGC is in. No more Rod Black. Less late starts because some college basketball game ran overtime. Less abbreviated coverage because the network needs to cutaway to America’s funniest home videos. TGC caters to the core golf fan and we’ll be the better for it.

  • Alfred,
    The Golf Channel, er Golf Channel has been around for ten years, tough to make the comparisons to ESPN’s early days when the GC is not exactly an infant.

    Since you clearly understand multi-million dollar businesses, what advantage does a 15-year deal offer?

    Surely you would agree that with the advent of YouTube and the internet that TV is not what it was ten years ago. Does the GC have a savvy internet approach, is that what you mean by the “The PGA Tour is a sophisticated organization, and they know television, and television’s future”

    Since when has a focused audience been the cream of the crop for advertisers, versus raw numbers? Why does Porsche advertise during NFL games?

    Your post reminds me of the quote; “He uses statistics as a drunken man uses lamp-posts… for support rather
    than illumination.”

  • Alfie, my good butler: Who in the world is “Bob?”

    Sometimes I think you forget I covered, interviewed and generally paid close attention to million dollar businesses for many years.

    Yes, the PGA Tour is a sophisticated organization and a big one; is your point that sophisticated, large operations never make mistakes? The PGA Tour knows the future of television? That’s a bold statement — since I’m not sure even the television networks know the future of their medium.

    My point is wouldn’t a deal with TGC have been better structured over five year intervals with extensions that could be exercised. That way if the deal doesn’t work out for either side, one or the other would have a way out.

    Interestingly, of course, there’s been little truly worthwhile content on TGC in recent years — and perhaps the numbers will improve with weekday PGA Tour coverage. But will the numbers ever rival ESPN? Probably not.

  • Robert

    The Tour said this is a 15 year deal and it likely is. What they didn’t say is that it is highly likely that there is an exit strategy built into the contract, which allows the Tour to withdraw, should certain milestones not be reached. To think that an exit strategy isn’t built into the contract is naive, but yes, technically it is a 15 year contract.

    The PGA Tour, outside of the majors, rarely draws hugh audiences on either the networks or ESPN. What they do deliver is a very targeted audience, high income, white collar. In other words, just because ESPN has a larger reach, it doesn’t mean that the audience is watching golf. Therefore, by comparing ESPN ratings as a whole (Nascar, Football, etc) to TGC is silly. You need to compare the rating for golf on ESPN against the ratings for golf on TGC. Did you do that???? I bet you the Tour did.

    As you say, you may have covered golf, but unfortunately you have never run a business like the PGA Tour, so what we get from journalists is really superficial analysis. That is not to be critical. You need to fill a column every day, so your analysis is limited. The Tour didn’t go into this deal without some careful thought that likely was preceeded by months of homework. They didn’t spend 15 minutes writing a column on the subject with really no analysis.
    The Tour has grown exponentially over the last 30 years. They have done an excellent job building their brand, through television. They are not perfect; nobody is. They have determined that their future is in a specialty channel around which they can build their brand, not unlike the move that was made years ago to move from network to sports channels. There was a time when that move was also not well undersood, because network television delivers a bigger reach, but what ESPN does better is deliver a better branded product for the PGA Tour. That is the same bet they are making this time, and in my humble opinion, it is the right move.

  • I think the point here is by not being on ESPN, a sports station that carries a varied degree of sports, the PGA Tour had a chance to be exposed to a wider audience. This perhaps led to greater interest in the game which may have led to more people playing the game. By exposing the game to people who already play the game hopw does that lead to growth??

    I know its not the PGA Tour’s responsbility to grow the game but the less people that are exposed to it and the less people who play cannot be a healthy situation for the corporate dollar pouring into the Tour. I mean golf is not like NASCAR where people watch it waiting in anticipation for an accident to happen.

    saying the PGA Tour knows what they are doing is fine and dadny, and I hoestly hope thay have amde the right decision as far as television. But one wonders if the Tour is always making the right moves. I think one only has to look at The Fed Ex Cup set up and all the confusion with it to see that they maybe can make mistakes.

  • John….

    Sure, but if that is the argument, then they should be on network television, not a sports channel nor ESPN. The fact is that golf at the best of times, outside the majors, draws a really small audience. Look it up. The TGC will allow more golf to be shown on PGA terms, ie. branding, prime time, highlights, etc. Golf gets lost on network television, albeit less lost on ESPN. On TGC it is THE show. John, we are going to see more of this type in other sports, not less.

  • As a viewer, I couldn’t give a rat’s *** about the tour’s growth. What does it matter if Tiger makes $12m this year instead of $10m? Is growth necessarily a good thing? Look how much trouble the golf industry is in because of the Titleists and Callaways of the world that have driven up the cost of golf, in the name of “growth”.

    What I care about is the value of golf coverage that I’m receiving. TGC delivers a better value and is worth the extra $2/month, in my opinion.

  • “not a fan”: The manufacturers have not driven the cost of playing the game up. The consumer dictates to a certain degree the price of equipment. You can still buy a full set of clubs for $200. If you want to spend big bucks on clubs thats your choice, but not a necessity.

    My point and I think as well as Roberts is that the deal between the PGA Tour and the Golf Channel will limit the exposure of television for the Tour. I personally think this is not a good thing. Alfred on here states that he feels it is a good thing and thats fine. As someone who makes his living from this great game I want as many people exposed to it as possible. I do not think the Golf Channel can do this. Sure if you like golf then you will have the channel and be happy to pay for it. But if you aren’t turned on to the game will you bother?

    How many people signed up for Leaf TV to get the exclusive games that they had this year? Do you think the majority of Leaf fans will be happy when almost all Leaf games will only be available if you pay to watch them??(tthis is the game plan by the way) I don’t know……

  • John….Who is responsible for designing juiced balls and hot clubs, in the name of selling more product? Why do manufacturers do this? It’s to show growth in revenue which they can then report to the financial markets. No growth = flat to reduced stock value. What do these changes do as far as lengthening golf courses, slowing down pace of play and driving up land costs? Does this help your ability to make a living from the golf industry? Talk about killing the golden goose.

    Leafs TV/The Golf Channel are pay channels, same as TSN, ESPN, Rogers Sportsnet etc. The only difference is that you have the choice to individually subscribe to them, vs paying for them as part of a channel package. What’s better value, paying for the channel you want or buying a bundle and subsidizing a bunch of channels that you may have no interest in?

    While we’re on the hockey analogy, how do you think hockey fans in Winnipeg, Quebec City, Hamilton and Kitchener feel when the NHL snubs them in favor of taking the league to southern markets in the name of increased exposure? Do you think these fans really care if the NHL pot grows, putting more money in Alexei Yashin’s bank account if it means they have no NHL team? The PGA tour is taking care of the core golf fan, unlike the NHL.

  • You have your point of view on the television idea and I respect that. But wouldn’t the salary cap limit the money Yashin makes regardless of revenues? I just believe that limiting your exposure of the PGA Ttour COULD be a dangerous thing. And I hope this feeling I have is wrong. Exposure to golf can relate to new players playing the game. This is not the case for hockey, football, etc.

    Pace of play has nothing to do with length of course or difficulty. It has exerything to do with the tee time interval. This can not be disputed as it is a scientific fact. Tried and proven at many golf courses. If you want more information on this visit http://www.pacemanager.com.

    Golf courses driving up land costs? Please give me an example of this??

  • I have watched the first 3 rounds and outside of Kelly’s (good golf pedigree) trying to match Nick Faldo, the coverage has been good except for the ads (not quality and repetitious). I think the deal will greatly increase TGC subscriptions and golf coverage. Golfers watch TGC and TGC will put more golf on air than any other US network – and they are maintaining their coverage of the European Tour, which is #1 to me anyway. Here in the Bahamas we also get TSN and now TSN is carrying other things so I can switch back and forth from TGC to TSN (great Junior Hockey Championships).

  • I believe ultimately the exit strategy, if needed, becomes the Tour buying the Golf Channel and making it Tour TV a la the NFL network where they can still sell the rights to the major networks for big cash.

  • Chris…I can’t agree more. Successful professional sports leagues want to control the players (the PGA Tour does that because the Tour and the players are one and the same), control their franchises (and they do that reasonably well), control venues where events are played (ie. the introduction of the last decade of PGA Tour controlled golf courses), and of course control the media and presentation of their product (TGC). The Tour, the NFL, the NBA, etc all use the same template, some more successful and some less successful. Yes, TGC and the Tour will be one and the same more or less, at some point, perhaps not through equity participation by the Tour, but through content control and domination.

    The same strategy can’t be implemented as effectively when your sports property is forced to compete for time and attention with Football, Boxing, Nascar, etc, on ESPN. Yes there will be a loss of audience (for the short term anyway) but the Tour has no doubt weighed this against all the other benefits of being able to more effectively control content delivery (quality, and quantity). This deal was a no brainer for the Tour.

  • Unfortunately, I always associate TGC with second rate golf production. They are fine with Nationwide, some LPGA, and Senior Tours. But for the best tour in the world where the best players come to play, having TGC handle the broadcasting is like having Rogers Channel 10 people doing the Stanley Cup final.

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