Shackelford: PGA Tour’s TV negotiations have left many in the dark


Thanksgiving came and went with no announcement. The PGA Tour and LPGA Tour’s television future is still only full of possibilities with no concrete answers.

The future of how golf will be broadcast could land moments after this story is published. Or not.

The Tour’s current contracts with CBS, NBC and Golf Channel run through 2021. An international broadcasting arrangement with Discovery network is locked in much longer. What’s the fuss all about with plenty of time to sort this out?

Millions of dollars are at stake. Hundreds of jobs may be affected. The sports media world is eyeing the Tour’s decision. And some of the planet’s most powerful moguls are weighing whether to overpay as they unbundle cable into streaming networks that they will eventually rebundle all over again.

The hopeless effort to guess the outcome started in earnest this summer, with Tour executives hoping to have their next media rights deal locked up in time to enjoy Black Friday. Initial pitches were in early October, and the PGA Tour’s man in charge of the project, Rick Anderson, briefly surfaced to share insights with Sports Business Daily, but otherwise the leaks have been minimal and the speculation has reached levels of absurdity. (I have heard, at one time or another in the last month that every major network was out and also all-in, sometimes with the news arriving the same hour.)

Now, with the Hero World Challenge and Presidents Cup upon us, any announcement of the decision will impact those events given the intrigue surrounding who televises golf and what they will spend for the privilege.

The PGA Tour opened up its bidding early to avoid next year’s NFL rights talks and to buy necessary time should it decide to start a new network. While the timing is less than ideal, the alternatives never were better given how much the NFL is expected to syphon from networks and streaming services.

The only real indication of where the race stood came when CBS did not pick up options on Gary McCord and Peter Kostis, a sign of the network’s eagerness to freshen up its broadcasts in the face of tour apathy toward its week-to-week broadcast presentation. The signing of Davis Love, a longtime Policy Board member with inside knowledge of the Tour’s vision, changed that narrative briefly before a surprising new Champions League rights deal and signs of post-merger Viacom money made clear CBS will be back.

Other reports have suggested AT&T is still proposing to turn its TruTV channel into a new PGA Tour Channel, while incumbents NBC/Golf Channel and former partner ESPN are big parts of the equation. (Full disclosure: I’m a contributor to Golf Channel.)

One fairly consistent rumor: ESPN+ will be the home of significant amounts of streaming coverage.

A few insiders insist Amazon still may have a say in matters, while Fox Sports did not seriously bid. All are grumbling about what you’d expect: outrageous financial demands and contract terms without the streaming wars having even begun in earnest. And there is AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson’s inside access as a longtime PGA Tour Policy Board member that has everyone wondering what that could mean (though Stephenson has much bigger issues on his desk, including a pesky activist investor and billions in merger-related debt).

The main intrigue at this point surrounds the remaining media companies and how far they are willing to go for a sport featuring a wealthy, but ancient demographic by sports standards. Golf fans are highly unlikely to stream in large numbers outside of big weeks or when Tiger Woods is not in the television window. Which is why one sponsor rep called me last week asking if his tournament was going to get what might be seen as an unfavorable broadcast arrangement that could reduce the delivery of eyeballs. Another rep for a massive sponsor said his company was totally in the dark as well, leaving him perplexed given how much his company values its current broadcast setup. Both people spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.

If sponsors — the lifeblood of the PGA Tour — are in the dark, then you know it’s been a relatively small group in on the discussions.

Soon we’ll know which moguls wrote the biggest checks and who most sees professional golf as a viable media business. For those sponsors in the dark, we’ll find out just how much the new deal valued their desire to reach certain audiences. And fans will soon find out what it will cost to watch their favorite PGA Tour events and stars over the next decade. Small stuff in the grand scheme, but do not tell that to the small world awaiting the Tour’s decision.

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