ESPN Hooks Rights to Golf’s Masters Tournament

After running for 25 years on USA Network, early coverage of pro golf’s Masters Tournament is moving to ESPN in 2008.

While tournament organizers at Augusta National Country Club in Georgia will restrict ESPN to just three hours a day of live coverage, with a limited commercial inventory, it’s nonetheless a big score for the all-sports network to land the prestigious tournament.

But it’s not clear how long the Masters will run on ESPN. The network only detailed its rights to televise the 2008 tournament. Spokesman Nate Smelts wouldn’t say if the agreement with Augusta is for one year or a multi-year contract.

Traditionally, Augusta has only struck one-year TV rights deals.

The Masters was one of the first major programming acquisitions for USA Network founder Kay Koplovitz. The network had run early round coverage from Augusta since 1981.

USA officials didn’t immediately return a phone call Thursday.

ESPN said that it will run live coverage of the first and second rounds from Augusta from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m., and repeat each day’s telecast from 8 p.m. to 11 p.m. ESPN will cover the first two rounds of the tournament, April 10-11, while CBS will shoot the final two rounds, April 12-13.

ESPN said it will also run a Spanish-language telecast of the first two rounds of the tournament on ESPN Deportes. ESPN has televised the Masters on its international networks since 1993.

While Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Vijay Singh and other pros are on the course for up to 10 hours combined each day, Augusta will limit ESPN to just three hours a day of coverage.

Some other tournaments, such as the British Open, allow TV networks to deliver more than eight hours of live coverage each day.

ESPN’s Smeltz said Augusta will also limit the number of commercials that ESPN is permitted to run during the tournament, but he wouldn’t specify how many minutes of advertising per hour ESPN will run.

Announcer Mike Tirico will host ESPN’s telecasts, the network said. It also plans to run a preview show on Wednesday, April 11.

 “For sports fans, the Masters represents a hallowed rite of spring with its rich tradition and indelible imagery,” ESPN president George Bodenheimer said in Wednesday’s announcement. “We are honored by the opportunity to work with the Tournament to help it achieve its goal of growing the game of golf around the world.”