2006: The little commissioner who could

Sure, the PGA Tour has been known to spin more than at least three of the Four Tops. We received a couple of dizzying spinmeister blasts last week when the Tour announced its new network TV package and the 2007 schedule. If the Tour were a weatherman, there would be no cloudy days, not even partly, not even in Seattle.

That said, if you cut through the happy transcripts, gushy news releases and spun numbers, you can deduce that commissioner Tim Finchem did as well as could be expected for his membership, especially considering that ABC and ESPN bowed out of the bidding.

Finchem said that, comparing pomegranates to pomegranates, the Tour received a “modest increase” in TV rights fees over the $850 million for the 2003-06 deal (during which the networks overpaid and ABC and USA Network took multimillion-dollar losses). What’s more, the commissioner

said his players’ retirement funds and purses from 2007-12 will receive a $600 million boost compared with the last six years, charity could receive another $1 billion in the next eight to nine years and the Tour’s purse subsidy to tournaments won’t be reduced from the current 62 percent.

If all that’s true, then no famous dead magician ever did better with smoke and mirrors. Finchem got his players raises while negotiating in a difficult market with fresh blood on the ground – one network executive estimated USA’s loss at $25 million and a tournament director said ABC sometimes

lost $1 million per week in the last deal.

“This is good for everybody, especially the players,” Sean McManus, president of CBS News and Sports, said after his company and NBC signed six-year contracts to televise weekend Tour rounds.

The increase of Tour purses will flatten. The key word in that sentence is increase. Players will get raises. That’s Finchem’s main job. And we’re talking millions. Not bad for guys who have never worked a day in their lives.

The new plan brings added value not only to players but also to the fans, networks and advertisers. Spectators likely will see top pros play slightly more often in a shortened base season. What’s more, they will get a Players Championship in May instead of March that, like the Masters, will have few commercial interruptions.

Finchem was able to do this well financially, of course, because he and his visionaries were able to present a new Tour schedule model for 2007 and beyond. It involves a seasonlong FedEx Cup points competition that ends in mid-September following a four-week, mega-money Championship Series on the heels of the PGA Championship. The same old, tired schedule wouldn’t have brought as many commas and zeroes.

So mark it down as one of Finchem’s most brilliant strokes in his nearly 12 years in office. Right up there with these others:

-In 1994, when the Federal Trade Commission was investigating the Tour, former Washington insider Finchem rallied politicos behind a new international team competition in the D.C. area called the Presidents Cup. The event not only gave then-kingpins Greg Norman and Nick Price an opportunity to play in a Ryder Cup-type deal, it may have saved the Tour major headaches. Coincidence or not, the FTC went away.

-In the late 1990s, Finchem found a way to incorporate Norman’s idea of matching top international players together more often. Where Norman’s proposed World Tour might have caused chaos to the Tour structure, the World Golf Championships that Finchem spearheaded have not.

-He earmarked the WGC-NEC Invitational at Firestone only for members of the Ryder Cup and Presidents Cup teams initially. Putting up a $5 million purse (which has grown to $7.5 million) was an indirect way to compensate players who were competing for their countries pro bono. The clever move came as some prominent players were moaning about not being paid for Cup events.

Finchem’s latest brainstorm adds buzz to a schedule that has been a snore after the PGA in mid-August. The heart of golf is its major championships. But now, like other sports, golf has something of a playoff, one that would conflict with football for only a couple of weeks. The Tour Championship no longer will have the feel of an anticlimatic, cash-grab November exhibition.

The run-up to the Tour Championship in Atlanta will feature tournaments in New York, Boston and sometimes Chicago, supposedly with purses of about $8 million to $9 million.

The only downside there is that plans call for the Chicago event to rotate away from Cog Hill every other year to Bellerive in St. Louis (2008), Crooked Stick in Indianapolis (2010) and Hazeltine in Minneapolis (2012). Taking a Tour event out of Chicago, perhaps America’s best golf city, is irresponsible and unconscionable. Finchem should be ashamed.

That aside, the FedEx Cup season should enable top players to play against each other on a more regular basis. A shorter season means the likes of Tiger Woods, Vijay Singh and Phil Mickelson could go head-to-head more often, which golf needs.

Let’s never forget, golf runs from top to bottom. Golf is no different than any other sport. The public wants to watch stars. People want to see Ernie Els, not Cuz (Neal Lancaster) or Cuzzy (Fulton Allem), unless we’re talking storytelling at the 19th hole.

What’s more, golf will become like other sports in another way. It will go away for a while at the elite level and give people a chance to miss it.

As in the supermarket produce section, fresh beats stale. And in the case of Finchem and his players, fresh led to more cabbage.

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