PGA Tour rides ratings rebound into TV talks

PGA Tour rides ratings rebound into TV talks

By Michael Smith, Staff Writer


With TV viewership on the rise, gripping story lines and a nearly sold-out year for title sponsorships, the PGA Tour could not be more pleased as it enters negotiations for a new media deal.

Those talks are expected to kick off in the next month and when they do, the tour knows it will accentuate each of those points with its broadcast partners, CBS and NBC. And by waiting a few more weeks, the tour hopes to have one more factor working in its favor: Tiger Woods back on top.

Rickie Fowler, and his recognizable orange Sunday garb, is part of the PGA Tour’s “New Breed.”

That hasn’t been the case so far. Woods withdrew on the first day of last week’s Players Championship, citing injuries, and before that had played in four tour events in 2011, finishing 10th, 24th, 33rd and 44th — hardly the kind of performance that drives ratings.

But TV numbers are up anyway, even without Woods’ considerable influence. Average weekend ratings on CBS and NBC have jumped 29 percent, and average viewership is up 26 percent against the same events in 2010. Only one of the tour’s first 13 events on NBC or CBS — the Transitions Championship on March 19-20 on NBC, during the first weekend of the NCAA tournament — dropped from last year’s viewership levels.

The TV numbers come as a relief at PGA Tour headquarters in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., where the golf industry descended last week for the Players Championship. The audience numbers so far this season put the tour back on par with 2009, after a 2010 in which ratings suffered a staggering drop, largely credited to Woods’ first winless season as a pro.

“I wouldn’t say we’re surprised” with the ratings rebound, said Rick Anderson, the PGA Tour’s executive vice president and chief legal counsel, who has worked on the tour’s TV contracts since the mid-1990s. “When you look across our ratings history, there’s always been a stable rating that golf delivers. There’s no question that Tiger spikes ratings and attendance, but Tiger has always played only a certain number of events and the other events have continued to flourish. That’s because there has been that solid golf audience week in and week out.”

PGA Tour TV ratings
CBS 1.3 1.8 39%
NBC 1.5 1.7 13%
Combined 1.4 1.8 29%

PGA Tour
CBS 1.898M 2.686M 42%
NBC 2.175M 2.448M 13%
Combined 2.040M 2.568M 26%

Note: Through May 1, a cumulative audience of 112.9 million people have tuned in to PGA Tour telecasts in 2011, up 2% over 2010.
* Does not include the 2010 Waste Management Phoenix Open because it aired entirely on Golf Channel.
Source: The Nielsen Co.

By the end of last season, just six months ago, golf’s stakeholders wondered whether the tour might take a step back in its rights fees from CBS and NBC. They are in the fifth year of a six-year deal that pays $2.95 billion combined, or an annual average of $491.7 million. Golf Channel has the exclusive cable rights for the tour as part of a 15-year deal that runs through 2021. ESPN’s golf deals with the Masters, British Open and U.S. Open are separate from the PGA Tour’s contracts, as is Turner’s deal with the PGA Championship.

The concerns that gripped the golf industry over ratings and rights fees eased this year as the ratings recovered and other properties negotiated significant increases in their media contracts. The tour also has been emboldened by its brand campaign, which pitted the up-and-comers against the established stars.

Last December, instead of seeing CBS and NBC in New York for its customary season-ending review, the tour invited the networks to its Ponte Vedra offices for separate meetings.

They talked about promoting the tour’s 2011 season with a more pointed message: They called it “New Breed vs. The Establishment,” and a variety of 30-second spots ran in the early-season golf broadcasts as well as other sports programming, such as college basketball.

“I think what we’ve seen is more coordination and maybe more consistency across what all of us are doing with the theme,” Anderson said of the tour’s network partners. “There’s more coordination, in terms of messaging. We weren’t necessarily thinking that we needed to make drastic changes, but we definitely talked about what more we could do to position the sport a certain way and promote the sport.”

Creating a brand campaign, of course, doesn’t assure that those story lines will play out on the golf course, but so far they have.

Bubba Watson has won twice and developed into an unplugged voice unafraid of rattling cages. Rickie Fowler, while not winning, has consistently contended, enough so that pundits are now growing weary of his all-orange Sunday garb. Other young players like Nick Watney, Johnny Vegas and Gary Woodland have not only won but also, perhaps more importantly, emerged as interesting characters with varied backgrounds.

The tour also got more creative with its Thursday and Friday pairings, matching up the best players to create more interest. It also used the “New Breed vs. The Establishment” theme in its pairings.

Average ratings on the two networks have responded (see chart). CBS is averaging a 1.8 rating through seven tournaments, up from a 1.3 last year, while NBC is averaging a 1.7 through six events, up from a 1.5.

Viewers also are watching an average of 51 minutes, an increase from 40 minutes last year.

“Honestly, you can have meetings around the clock and come up with the best plans in the world, but it’s ultimately up to the players and who’s in contention,” said Rob Correa, executive vice president of programming at CBS Sports, who questioned whether the tour is moving into an era of new stars to take the place of Woods, Phil Mickelson and Ernie Els.

“What’s encouraging about the ratings is that we’ve done that without Tiger, basically,” Correa said. “Are we seeing the transition into the post-Tiger, post-Mickelson, post-Ernie period? I don’t know. But if it is a changing of the guard, it’s certainly encouraging.”

How that plays in the tour’s next TV deal remains to be seen. Tour executives would not comment on how the strong start to the season might affect negotiations or what their expectations are. Earlier this year, tour officials conceded that they’d wait as long as they could this year in order for Woods to find his form before initiating talks.

The tour and its network partners do not have exclusive negotiating windows and those discussions could begin at the behest of either side.

Despite the tour’s strong performance so far this year, some of the market dynamics that have driven rights fees sky high for some properties might not be at work for golf. In the most recent cases of the NHL and the Pac-10, both of which recently closed deals with huge increases, competition among the bidders forced the prices higher.

Industry insiders don’t see a broadcast competitor emerging to fight the incumbents, CBS and NBC, for the tour’s rights. ABC and Fox are considered unlikely to make a play for the package.

Perhaps the competition could come from within. With Comcast/NBC owning Golf Channel, industry sources say NBC could make a play for more tour events. Under the current arrangement, CBS takes 20 events and NBC has 10 tournaments, among the PGA Tour events on broadcast networks.