The PGA Tour's new broadcast deal is great for networks, sponsors; what about fans?

Yahoo Sports
Golf's going to be on your TV for a long time. (Photo by Hector Vivas/Getty Images)
Golf's going to be on your TV for a long time. (Photo by Hector Vivas/Getty Images)

The PGA Tour has inked a sprawling new rights deal that will cement golf’s broadcast future for the next decade. Everyone’s going to benefit, but who’s going to benefit the most? And with all due respect to important folks like sponsors, rights holders and the Tour itself … how’s this going to impact fans? Let’s dig in. 

Details of the new deal 

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First, the basics. The new deal kicks in starting in 2022, and includes a reaffirmation of existing agreements with CBS and NBC, along with a new agreement with ESPN. The new deal lines up with an agreement signed in 2018 for international digital rights to the Tour through 2030. (Note: the PGA Tour does not control the broadcast agreements for the majors. The Masters, U.S. Open et. al. will proceed at their own pace.) 

Right, but what does that all mean? For the regular season, CBS and NBC will control the events, with CBS averaging 19 tournaments and NBC eight over the course of the year. The two networks will trade off broadcast rights for the FedEx playoffs and Tour Championship, with NBC broadcasting five playoffs and CBS four over the life of the deal. Golf Channel will continue as the cable broadcaster of the early portions of tournaments. 

The most significant new addition is the ESPN component — specifically, the fact that the Tour’s “PGA Tour Live” streaming service will move over to ESPN+, ESPN’s own subscription streaming service. Per the Tour, ESPN+ will air 4,000 hours of golf annually, plus original programming and “speed rounds,” quick views of tournament days.

Who benefits from the new deal? 

The chief beneficiary of the new arrangement is, of course, the PGA Tour. The Tour didn’t disclose the financial terms of the new deal, but Sports Business Journal in December reported that the deal would leap from the current $400 million a year to $700 million. 

Also benefitting: the LPGA, which will see the benefit of increased exposure all across the Tour’s various platforms. At least 10 tournaments will be broadcast on NBC and CBS, up from the current four to six. 

Moving one level outward, the deal gives the broadcast partners a consistent source of content with a contingent of marketable stars who will likely be around for the entire length of the deal. Justin Thomas, Brooks Koepka, Rory McIlroy — they’re all likely to be playing in 2030 as well as 2020. Tiger Woods will be gone from the Tour long before then … but the fact that the partners were willing to make this investment shows their belief in the value of broadcast rights and the long-term stability of the game. 

One level outward from that, this deal is a huge shot in the arm for all other sports leagues looking to secure broadcast deals in the near future. The NFL’s current agreements are slated to expire in 2022, the NBA’s in 2025, the NHL’s in 2021, and NASCAR’s in 2024. Given that the Tour’s ratings have been largely flat over the last few years, and the marketable star most responsible for ratings bumps will be leaving the stage soon, the fact that the Tour snared such an upgrade is impressive — and bodes well for all of those leagues in their future negotiations. 

The reason broadcast rights are skyrocketing is that sports remains the one unbingeable, un-time-shiftable broadcast property. Nobody’s tuning in to watch the Arnold Palmer Invitational eight weeks after it happens, and nobody can binge all four days of the Tour Championship on Thursday. Sports unfurls at its own pace, and that gives more time for broadcasters to recoup their investment. Which brings us to …

How will the new deal affect fans?

The PGA Tour’s average viewership is the oldest in sports, over 70 by some measures. It’s a statement of fact, not opinion, to say that the vast majority of older TV viewers resist change and choice … which could be a bit of a problem here, because choice is what this new agreement is all about. Unless you’re a casual golf fan, it’s going to be almost mandatory to get ESPN+ to get access to all the golf news/updates/extra shots you want. That’s not a problem for younger or more tech-savvy golf fans — and, hell, by the end of this decade we’ll all be snared by a dozen streaming services anyway — but it will present an added challenge for viewers set in their ways.

On the other hand, if you like the way things are right now on the broadcast agreements, well … get used to more of the same. (You can see now why CBS jettisoned Gary McCord and Peter Kostis, trying to get “younger” for this impending new agreement.) If you’re not a fan of broadcast network coverage — and CBS in particular has drawn heat for its coverage of late — well, you’re not going to have a whole lot of options. 

You know the old line about how, if you’re not paying for a product, you’re the product? That applies here. These rights holders are going to need to pay for these deals somehow, and that means you can almost surely count on more versions of the shot-commercial-shot-commercial-awkward interview with sponsor CEO-commercial routine we’ve seen so much in the past. Nothing infuriates golf fans faster and deeper than ceaseless commercials; how the rights holders address that while still paying the bills will be one of the more fascinating elements of this arrangement.

One of the major questions surrounding any broadcast deal is how much editorial independence the rights holders will have in criticizing the producer. The Tour, like most major public entities, is always looking to protect its image and lock down or lock out any negative press. One major element of this new broadcast deal is the Tour’s production of the tournaments ... meaning the Tour can control the narrative coming out of every tournament day.

That, in turn, leads to a range of questions: How much freedom will a network’s commentators have to, say, criticize a Tour player suspected of cheating? How much opportunity will fans have to go back and review a golfer’s past shots, and how much critique of a golfer’s performance will remain available in public archives? Suppose there’s a rules controversy, or a dispute between players, or heckling? Will those make the broadcast?

These aren’t small questions; a broadcast right without editorial independence is nothing more than an infomercial. While the Tour, its players and its sponsors would be just fine with that, viewers would know they were getting a sanitized, watered-down version of the game. 

Bottom line, the new deal works out very well for the Tour and its partners. Fans get the benefit of knowing their sport will be close at hand for the next decade … but beyond that, it’ll be a wait-and-see.

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