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Plotting Golf's TV Course

When the Professional Golfers' Association and Senior Professional Golfers' Association tours tee off next year, there will be some new lies for the two circuits' roster of cable networks.

Looking to draft on the success of Tiger Woods — arguably the biggest star in all of sports — and the increased interest he brings to bear on affluent Nielsen Media Research homes, USA Network and ESPN were among six networks that agreed to pay $850 million over four years to the rights to the PGA Tour.

"Amidst the clutter of sports ratings that have declined, golf ratings are improving. The demographics are a big plus, and the Tiger factor is very significant," said Paul Kagan Associates sports analyst John Mansell.

As part of an agreement signed in July 2001, USA will take a much harder swing at the sport, slating upward of 30 events during 2003. In fact, the network — a longtime carrier of golf events — made a play at becoming the PGA's exclusive cable home during negotiations last year.

For its part, ESPN will scale back its coverage under the new pact. Nonetheless, the total sports network has gained some additional high-profile tourneys.

And last month, Turner Network Television added a second major to its bag, outbidding ESPN for the British Open.

Meanwhile, The Golf Channel — which lost out on the bidding for continued PGA tour coverage last year — has picked up the rights to a number of Senior PGA events from CNBC and Pax TV, to go along with its host of other live events.

Wanted: Title sponsors

But even though the 2003 golf season is less than two months away, final network lineups have yet to crystalize. That's because the PGA Tour and Senior PGA Tour, which will be called the Champions Tour in 2003, are still scrambling to find title sponsors for a number of events.

Due to lingering concerns about the economy, companies are finding it tough to justify spending millions of dollars to affix their names to events — and to support the attendant media, in terms of commercial units, in those tournaments and others.

And golf's annual upfront advertising marketplace — which faced tough sledding in 2002 — is currently unfolding. Sellers hope this slice of the ad market is poised to catch up with the recovery in other sectors.

"There was a long run of a great economy before [the PGA deal was signed]," said Mansell. "There's a cyclical aspect to sports-rights deals. Often networks make their money on the outer years of long-term deals."

In the short term, the PGA and Senior PGA Tours had more pressing concerns. At press time, it appeared as if the respective organizations — which were trying to finalize pacts — remained nine and 10 title sponsors short, respectively, for the 2003 season.

Executives with both Golf and USA said they expect final tournament rosters to be finalized by mid-November. Representatives for both the PGA and Senior PGA tours did not respond to repeated interview requests.

USA's involvement may be the biggest change in the new pact, but that network has made its share of links headlines of late, for other reasons. USA has been thrust into the spotlight that surrounds an effort to press Augusta National Golf Club — home to The Masters — to admit its first female member.

The Masters is golf's first major tournament and an event that USA has covered exclusively on cable since 1982. Despite the heat — and an advertiser boycott — USA executives plan to present The Masters again in 2003, even though it will run without commercials.

All told, USA's 2003 lineup will comprise 31 events, up from just 14 this year. Taking advantage of on-site production from broadcast networks CBS (its Masters partner), NBC and ABC, USA will supply afternoon coverage of Thursday and Friday action during 29 events.

Although its tournament coverage extends throughout the year, senior vice president of sports Gordon Beck said USA has a lot of first-half action.

"We've got the West Coast swing with action from Pebble Beach, Phoenix and Los Angeles," he said. "Next, we're off to Florida where we'll show the Bay Hill Invitational [and] The Doral [Open] before moving into Georgia with the Bell South Classic, leading into The Masters."

USA's lineup also includes such notables as The Byron Nelson Championship, The Western Open and the Buick Classic from Harrison, N.Y., Beck added.

The network's 2003 package will also include a pair of four-day tournaments, which had not been announced at press time. USA's PGA Tour pact calls for the channel to run as many as a quartet of four-day events, a total Beck believes the network will telecast in future years.

USA's "network-in-a-network approach" extends beyond tournament coverage, as the general-entertainment channel and the PGA look to co-branding initiatives. USA will air a one-hour show on Sunday mornings at 11 a.m. throughout the year, bringing viewers up to speed on the tournament action that has unfolded from Thursday through Saturday.

"We'll have live cut-ins at the event, to check out the weather and the leader board," said Beck. "We'll set you up for the final round."

But the program will also incorporate lifestyle elements. Player profiles will extend beyond such luminaries as Woods and Phil Mickelson, and other segments will look at equipment and golf resorts.

"There will be lots of off-course stuff to help deliver on our promise to help bring the tour and its players' personalities to the screen," he said.

USA: We'll entertain

To that end, USA is also planning a number of entertainment specials, the first of which could bow in first-quarter 2003. Taking its cue from the origins of the Bing Crosby Pebble Beach Pro-Am tournament, the show could be built a clambake at the famed course and mix golfers with actors and musical performances.

USA and the PGA are also working on primetime interstitial segments, including updates, as well as tournament tune-in promos or player-hosted, golf-themed movies.

USA and PGA officials are slated to meet about creative and media executions for a co-branding initiative that would break before year-end, according to Beck.

All of these efforts are aimed at driving USA's weekday ratings, which Beck said typically fall "slightly over, or slightly under a 1.0 rating."

"I don't know what the effect will be in the short term, but in the mid-term we think the continuity of scheduling and the promotion will deliver viewers to USA, even when Tiger is not playing."

ESPN's negotiating strategy with the PGA Tour last year centered on acquiring the rights to the "right tournaments."

ESPN, which already aired coverage of the Ladies' Professional Golf Association tour and the U.S. Open, had "a clear-cut mission, to acquire quality events, not quantity," said ESPN executive vice president of programming and production Mark Shapiro.

Under the new contract, ESPN will show 14 events, down from 18 this year. ESPN will supply four-day coverage of six events: The Mercedes Championship and Sony Open, and a quartet of "Fall Finish" tourneys next September.

However, its boldest strokes were securing the Memorial Tournament (May 29 to May 30) and The Players Championship, which Shapiro labeled "a big score" for ESPN.

"Bookending The Players Championship [March 27 to March 28] — the de facto fifth major, near the start of the year — with the tour [PGA] Championship [Nov. 6, 7 and 9] at the conclusion, will make ESPN the pre-eminent cable destination for golf," said Shapiro.

Turner's premium play

Shapiro, citing ESPN's slate of PGA tournaments, rising rights fees and sister network's ABC continued coverage of the the British Open, downplayed the loss of the sport's third major to TNT.

Not surprisingly, TNT had a different read on the tournament, and the greens fee the network paid — an estimated $30 million over seven years, a John Daly-length drive from the $1.6 million ESPN had been paying each year.

Turner Sports president Mark Lazarus said that the addition of the British Open to a roster comprising the PGA Championship, the Grand Slam of Golf (matching the winners of the sport's majors) and The President's Cup (the biennial competition akin to the Ryder Cup, pitting a U.S. team against the best from around the globe outside of Europe) solidifies the network's premium position in the golf world with "a number of concentrated, quality events from July through November."

As part of its deal with the Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews, Turner also gained coverage to British Open women's and senior events, as well as interactive rights to the Open, which could manifest itself in the way of a video-on-demand offering.

Although The Golf Channel lost out on weekday afternoon coverage of 14 events (shared with Fox Sports Net) during last year's negotiations, the Comcast-owned network, now in 51 million homes, is keeping its grip on the men's tour with Inside the PGA Tour.

The organization's weekly highlights show, which previously ran on ESPN, has been airing Tuesday nights at 10 p.m. on Golf since the summer. It will also become the exclusive U.S. carrier of the Nationwide Tour, the PGA's qualifying circuit.

Golf president David Manougian said that while the shared weekday-afternoon window format under the current contract (1999-2002) worked well as the network was evolving, "we're not into that kind of arrangement now," he said. "The PGA is great product that we would love to have down the road, but we're about building franchises."

Along those lines, Golf will televise 110 tournaments next year, two per weekend from the LPGA, Nationwide, European, South African, Australasia and Canadian tours, as well as the Senior PGA circuit.

"That's more than all the other networks combined," said Manougian.

The exact number of Senior PGA tournaments was unclear at press time. The contract calls for Golf to present full-round (three-day) coverage of between 10 to 15 events and step in for Pax as the Friday-afternoon carrier for the balance of the circuit.

"We'll know in the next 30 days. I think the Senior Tour will hold about 30 tournaments in total in 2003," said Manougian. "We're also scheduled to talk to the [Senior PGA tour] about locking in events for 2004-05. We're interested in a long-term relationship."

Some question why. The buzz brought by Lee Trevino, Jack Nicklaus and Chi-Chi Rodriguez has long since faded, and Woods's shadow looms over the entire sport.

Manougian disagreed. The circuit "has staying power and great potential," he said.

"There are a lot of top-flight players, Curtis Strange, Peter Jacobsen and Greg Norman, who will be eligible over the next few years [players must be 50 or older to compete]," the Golf executive added.

In recent years, the Senior PGA has "not reached expectations because it has not been fully marketed," according to Manougian.

In addition to tournament coverage that will have "an inside-the-ropes feel," Golf plans "a concerted effort 52 weeks per year to expose viewers to a lot of different side of these great players," he said. Those efforts will come in the way of interview shows, the inclusion of players on the net's instructional show, Academy Live, and added exposure on its Golf Central
news programming.

CNBC mulls Senior future

CNBC, which took over as the primary outlet for the Senior PGA Tour in 2001, will have a reduced presence in 2003, in the wake of The Golf Channel's pact.

Bob Myers, general manager of CNBC Ventures, said CNBC has worked with the tour to revise the TV format, supplanting the former taped approach with a slate of more than 80 percent live coverage this year — a tack it plans to continue in 2003, he said.

Myers said CNBC has also placed viewers closer to the action with on-course player interviews, with conversations sometime initiated from email questions.

CNBC telecasts have also provided immediate instruction with on-air hosts asking a player, who has completed his round, to demonstrate how another player still on the course just executed "that bunker shot with a down hill lie and little green to work with," said Myers.

Despite these improvements, ratings have been spotty. "Some tournaments have been, some have been down," he said, without specifying a 2002 average. Myers said viewers, despite a fair amount of promotion on the channel, are not inclined to look for sports on a business network. Moreover, the sport doesn't have a major draw like Woods.

When asked if CNBC wants to side with the Senior Tour beyond 2003, Myers was noncommittal: "The tour's in transition. We love the property, but there are challenges.

"The network lineup is changing next year with The Golf Channel in and Pax out. We're going to take a wait-and-see approach."