By Dave Shedloski
Almost to a man, members of the Senior PGA Tour recite the party line: The tour is not in serious trouble, and plummeting television ratings do not indicate the 50-and-over circuit has lost its luster.
Nevertheless, Senior Tour members engaged commissioner Tim Finchem in an intense meeting July 10 at the Ford Senior Players Championship to voice concerns over the tour’s direction and to seek ways to boost its profile, which seems to be waning in lockstep with the aging of its legendary figures.
“I think Tim has seen the reality that some attention needs to be placed on the Senior Tour,” said Hale Irwin, one of the most outspoken players. “The problems that we have been talking about for a couple of years are suddenly right there in front of us.”
Apparently, Finchem, who has seen television audiences decrease in one year by more than 50 percent, shares that view.
According to several players in attendance at the meeting – which lasted more than two hours – the commissioner announced he will double the Senior Tour budget for marketing and promotions for the next nine months to $5 million. He also planned to announce, as early as the week of July 16, the hiring of a marketing and public relations expert for the seniors.
“To me, one of the most important things is we’re going to have a marketing executive for our tour,” said Dave Stockton, a member of the Senior Tour policy board.
In a wide-ranging discussion between Finchem and the players, two issues dominated: the more difficult course setups instituted this year by the tour and its CNBC television deal.
The Senior Tour is in the first year of a four-year deal with CNBC after a 16-year run on ESPN. Households viewing the telecasts, which are tape-delayed, average about 180,000 vs. an average of 382,000 last year on ESPN. Earlier in the year, the tour dismissed concerns about falling ratings, suggesting the size of the audience wasn’t as important as the demographics of CNBC’s financial news audience – and that in all likelihood, the audience eventually would move to CNBC. But that hasn’t happened.
Some sports marketing experts said it was premature to write off the Senior PGA Tour simply because its TV ratings were slipping. But over the long term, they did say it was critical for the senior circuit to ensure marquee players compete rather than opt for careers, say, in television, as was the case with Johnny Miller.
“The best laid marketing plans won’t do much good if the product isn’t exciting,” said William Chipps, senior editor of IEG Sponsorship Report, a trade publication based in Chicago. “If the personalities aren’t there, the corporations won’t follow.”
Solving the television ratings problem is more difficult because fewer people go to a news channel for sports than to a sports channel, said Rick Burton, director of the Warsaw Sports Markeitng Center in the University of Oregon’s College of Business.
“I don’t think that CNBC makes it easier for them unless CNBC is going to do some aggressive marketing,” said Burton. “I think they’ve put themselves in a situation where they’re likely to get less visibility.”
Some think there’s another fix to the ratings problem.
“I think it’s fairly obvious that our problem is tape,” said Gary McCord, who juggles his playing career with his broadcasting duties on CBS. “I think we have to go live to have a shot.”
McCord points to live, final-round coverage of the BellSouth Senior Classic earlier this year that appeared on CNBC in a late finish April 1. The event drew a 2.1 rating.
“That shows you the viewers are there,” he said.
Stockton said the Tour might consider experimenting with a few live weekend rounds later in the year to gauge whether that move alone improves viewership.
The players are divided on course setup, but Finchem said he is going to stick with the more difficult formula to retain the interest of players like Irwin, Tom Watson and Jack Nicklaus – the tour’s marquee names, the ones who drive ticket sales and television ratings.
“It’s hard to get guys on the same page as far as course setup,” Stockton said. “You’re looking for a way to address the needs of everyone and everyone has an opinion.”
“The courses should be harder,” Irwin said. “Players can play at that level. The ones who can’t, well, that’s their problem.”
Other topics included carts (some players want them banned entirely for the sake of the tour’s image) and the possibility of lowering the age limit to 45, a consideration that proved to have little support.