2004: PGA Tour, ABC at odds over finish

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By Gene Yasuda

If you thought golf fans were the only ones irate that ABC didn’t provide ample coverage of the Buick Classic’s playoff finale, think again.

PGA Tour officials were upset, too – especially because they thought they had a plan in place to show the overtime.

At 7 p.m. EST June 13, with Sergio Garcia, Rory Sabbatini and Padraig Harrington dueling on the second playoff hole, ABC switched nearly 80 percent of the nation’s viewers to “America’s Funniest Home Videos.” The network had stayed with the tournament even though it had stretched 30 minutes beyond its allotted time and then cut away in accordance with ABC’s TV contract with the Tour.

But that’s when coverage plans apparently went awry.

As they do every week, Tour and network executives met before the start of the weekend rounds to

prepare contingencies for potentially disruptive scenarios such as playoffs, rain delays and snail-like play.

According to Bob Combs, the Tour’s senior vice president of public relations and communications, both sides agreed that if a playoff arose, the Buick Classic would switch at 7 p.m. to ABC’s sister network, ESPN, which was scheduled to air “Baseball Tonight.” Significant tournament play was to be broadcast within the baseball programming.

“The plan as we understood it was, that ESPN would show the finish of play in significant measure, that is, that they would show the golf shots as they occurred, and if the players were walking to their ball or whatever. . .

they would go back, perhaps, to ‘Baseball Tonight,’” Combs said. “And obviously what occurred was, really, the reverse.

“It was significant baseball highlights with very periodic updates on the progress of the golf tournament. Any disappointment we have is in the execution of the plan that both parties agreed to.”

ABC officials, however, had an all together different view of the situation.

“If that’s what the PGA (Tour) thought was going to happen, I think there was a (misunderstanding),” said Mark Mandel, vice president of media relations for ABC Sports. “It was quite clear, based on that meeting at the end of last week, that ESPN could not take the golf in that way. We told them that ESPN would show updates, but could not give any live coverage.

“We were very precise in what we told them was going to happen, and no one should have been surprised.”

Asked if ABC would have handled the coverage differently if Tiger Woods had been in the playoff, or if the tournament was a more prestigious event, Mandel said: “We certainly had a judgment call, and we knew it was going to be tough call. We were going to disappoint some of our viewers whether they were golf viewers or viewers of the regularly scheduled show. I hate to speculate as to what might have happened if Tiger or anyone else was playing.”

Most West Coast ABC affiliates broadcast the entire tournament, but some switched to their local news

programs at approximately 4:30 p.m. PST – just minutes before Garcia clinched victory on the third playoff hole. Mandel said affiliates have such autonomy, and some opted to deliver their regularly scheduled hour of news before the start of the NBA Finals preview show, which was set to air at 5:30 p.m. PST.

Following ABC’s decision to jettison the Buick playoff, some television critics, including USA Today’s Rudy Martzke, questioned ABC’s commitment to golf. Mandel said such an assessment was unfair.

“What happened was such a rare circumstance, you can’t take a conclusion away from it,” he said. “In order to best serve all of ABC’s viewers, not just its sports viewers, this was the best decision for ABC on that particular day. Golf is still absolutely a priority for us, and we can’t emphasize how sorry we are to anyone who was inconvenienced or frustrated by this decision.”

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