Q&A with Tim Finchem
Golfweek: Ten years as commissioner of the PGA Tour – does it seem like a decade has passed?
Tim Finchem: It goes by in a blink of an eye. We have had a good 10 years. We were sharing some things with the players at The Players Championship. It is interesting to look back. The fan base has gone from roughly 70 million to 100 million in the United States alone, and prize money. . . . In 1993, Nick Price led the Tour money list at a little over $1.4 million, and that’s about what first-place money was at The Players Championship this year. It puts things in perspective. Our television viewership is second only to the NFL in terms of total viewers.
So it’s been a good, solid growth pattern for us for 10 years. Even more than the growth, I think the fundamental image of the sport and the players has sort of solidified – to some degree, helped along maybe by the difficulties other sports have had – but certainly solidified as one of the most respected group of athletes, and that makes our job easy.
Golfweek: Looking back 10 years, the word ‘image’ has been your mantra. Has that become any tougher to maintain as the Tour has grown, as you’ve had more diverse types of people participating, and bigger numbers?
TF: Well, there have been a few challenges. I do think it’s fundamentally about the players. About five or six years ago, I was getting concerned because it seemed like the younger players were becoming more challenging. Then it kind of turned around. The last four years, the young guys coming up, the rookies, we’ve had a really good run. Guys like Zach Johnson, Ben Crane, Charlie Howell, they want to know what’s happened before them, they want to know how we got here, they want to know how to help. They get it. They understand the relationship between the image and the strength of the sport, the growth of the sport, and they understand the relationship between image and their own opportunity. You can see at the rookie meeting every year, a higher percentage of guys are nodding their heads and paying attention and getting it. That wasn’t the case six or seven years ago. . . . We’re fortunate. Our guys are educated, they’re smart, and if you present alternatives to them, they’ll opt for the right one. People say, ‘How come you don’t have any alcohol and drug problems?’ We’re not doing too much about that – we have the occasional situation – but the sport does that. The sport takes care of that for us. I think we’re in good shape on the image thing, and that’s so important.
Golfweek: When you first came in, what seemed to be the most daunting task ahead?
TF: My first goal, and probably my first goal all the way through, has been to make sure we had a constructive working relationship with the players and the staff. From Day 1, my focus was to try to manage the business, but to be able to be accessible and get out there and make sure that was happening. And that’s a challenge, because we have 600 or 700 players on three tours, and they’re all different. They all have their viewpoints. We spent a lot of time on that early. I was concerned about that, and I still am.
Golfweek: OK, you’re by yourself on the road, you go out to dinner, and when you enter the restaurant there’s Greg Norman. Do you guys sit down and have dinner?
TF: Sure. I went down (to South Florida) and spent some time with Greg a few weeks ago. I would hope we would, to take the opportunity to catch up on stuff. Greg does a lot of things that cross over into our business – golf courses, he’s got tournaments, he’s got an international perspective on tournament golf, we work with him on his tournament (Franklin Templeton Shootout) – we have a fair amount of interface that’s not very public.
Golfweek: Do you expect to see Greg much on the Champions Tour?
TF: I don’t know. What he’s said publicly of late is that he might play the major championships, the ‘four-rounders’ as he calls them. He still maintains very much an international schedule, business-wise, playing – he played in the Asian Open (this month), he plays in Australia, some in Europe – so my guess is I don’t see him focusing his efforts to say, ‘My goal is to compete at a very high level on the Champions Tour.’ But I imagine he’ll play some, and whatever he plays, it would be great. As we all know, he’s an incredibly popular guy, and whatever he does on the Champions Tour is a plus.
I just hope he plays some.
Golfweek: The players of Greg Norman’s generation have made so much money, do they really need to play – and will they have the desire to play – the Champions Tour?
TF: Well, we (the Champions Tour) will be 25 years old next year, and we’ve only missed Johnny Miller, who opted to maintain a pretty strong broadcast schedule. That’s it, really. Tom Weiskopf played for a while, and then he wanted to devote his time to (golf course) design. I don’t think it’s about money, I really don’t. You know, Arnold (Palmer) and Jack (Nicklaus) don’t need to play for money, but they like to compete and play. . . . I still think Greg will play some. He may surprise us. I hope he does. But I think it’s about competition. Most of the guys, if we have a Champions Tour that plays on good golf courses that are set up well, and it’s competitive, I think we’ll continue to attract players regardless of how much they’ve made on the PGA Tour. We’ll see.
Golfweek: Do you wish you could take a mulligan on how the Casey Martin situation was handled?
TF: No, I thought we did the right thing on Casey Martin. It was a hard thing, and I think it was generally misunderstood. The emotion of the feeling toward Casey, which was totally understandable, spilled over into somehow we were singling Casey out, being obstructionists to Casey, which we didn’t feel we were doing. In hindsight, the reason I wouldn’t do it over again, I think the best possible result occurred. Which was, Casey won the case – and I know it was difficult for him to go through all that – but he managed to win it in such a way because the way the Supreme Court wrote the opinion, there is a fairly minimal chance that the floodgates are opened. You read that Supreme Court opinion, and it really was a case of them wanting to have their cake and eat it, too. They wanted Casey to have his cart, but they were sensitive to the concerns we had about the sport at this level. Had we given Casey the cart at the outset, there was no way we could say no to the next guy. . . . The one thing I would say, and this is just second-guessing, as hard as we tried, we still could have done a better job to educate folks about what the debate was all about. We tried to do it, but we were trying to do that and 10 other things, and probably should have put more energy into that. We kept saying, ‘This isn’t about Casey, this is about this, this and this.’ But no, I wouldn’t ask for a mulligan on that one.
Golfweek: What were your emotions later on when Casey won the Nike Tour event in 1998?
TF: This sounds duplicitous and self-serving and inconsistent, but I was like everybody else. How could you not be for Casey? Here he is, with this terrible condition, he’s overcome it to play at this level, he’s succeeded, and now he’s told by the ‘governing body’ in this case, ‘No, you can’t do it,’ and he’s fighting the good fight. . . . Emotionally, I think we were all taken with it, and how he handled himself through the whole thing, too. As disappointed as he was on occasion, and as frustrated, and as distracted as he was trying to play the game with all this going on, he always handled himself terrifically, a first-class guy. It was a tough situation.
Golfweek: Last fall, when a national golf monthly released its annual power rankings, you were No. 2, between Tiger Woods and Hootie Johnson. Are you pretty comfortable with that position?
TF: Well, I don’t know what those things mean. Tiger Woods is powerful because he has the ability to captivate and get heard like nobody else. If I want to get heard, I have to work at it. I have to think about it, organize it, bring some resources to it, fashion a campaign. All Tiger has to do is step outside and talk. That’s real power. So I think his ranking is appropriate, and I don’t know about the rest of it.
Golfweek: Do you and Tiger talk much?
TF: Like any other player, whenever I see him at a tournament, we talk. We also sit down and talk through stuff. I do that with a number of players. I get his perspective. I think he has a good perspective. I think Tiger thinks about things. There’s no question in my mind that Tiger thinks about what is best for the game. I still get the question, ‘Do you worry about Tiger Woods running off and building his own tour?’ Tiger, I think he has a fairly strong feeling about the tradition of the game. It goes way beyond trying to compete for the long-term records of the game, although he clearly is focused on that. He has a real sensitivity to the Byron Nelsons and the Arnold Palmers, the people who went before him, and he has a good business sense, too. He understands the strength of the platform that the PGA Tour has developed, and he worries about how it can be better. I think he’s very well-intentioned, he’s very well-focused, and he’s probably underestimated in that regard, because he tends not to be very public about those things.
Golfweek: One of the things you’ll be known for in your tenure is the World Golf Hall of Fame and the complex in St. Augustine. But you go by there and you see retail space that is empty, and sometimes traffic isn’t so great. What’s your take on that? Is business as bad as it looks?
TF: It’s a work in progress. The only real specific disappointment I have is that it’s taken us a lot longer to get our IMAX golf film developed. The good news is that when we do get it done, it will be a lot better than what would have happened had we been quicker with it. I think that’s an important piece of the puzzle. I think the job that (chief operating officer) Jack Peter is doing down there in reorienting the Hall is solid work. The golf side of that situation down there is working quite well; I think the hotel is working much better than it did, the conference center is working much better; the retail has a ways to go, but it will get there eventually, and it’s changing and getting better. I just think we need to continue to use the Hall of Fame as a platform, together to be successful, the public sector has got to be part of the equation. The business community, it’s not golf-driven so much as community-driven (and) needs to be a possible part of the equation. You can get people in golf or golfers who are part of the business community, typically. The public sector and the non-golf business community are driven by the fact that the program can change kids’ lives and impact communities. That sort of rounds it out. And now you have a vehicle that can command fairly intensive support from across the board in the community, and if you have that, then you really have something. It was a natural evolution. . . . And you talk to these kids, and they will be advocates of the First Tee for the rest of their lives. They have that passion. . . . That will just mean it will perpetuate itself, which is really cool.
Golfweek: When you look at the First Tee, what the Tour does for charity each year, the increase in purses since you started as commissioner and other accomplishments, what gives you the most pride?
TF: It’s pretty simple. I’m proud of the fact we’ve worked hard and we’ve worked well with the players. The structure that we’re working off of was there before me. The structure is ingenious. We’ve moved it, we’ve grown it and we’ve kind of perfected it, and everything we’ve rolled out has been an extension of it. To be the only sport that is structured in such a way that if you spend a dollar with us, some portion of it is going to go to help the community. In today’s world – 10 years ago it was one thing – but in today’s world, it’s something very different, something much more impactful. For a corporation today to be aligned with something that does these things for a community means a lot more than it did in 1993, and it sets us apart. The players understand that and support that. The working relationship between the sponsors, the tournaments, the staff and the players has worked well. When you have that kind of working relationship, you can do just about anything you want to do. Same thing with golf organizations. If golf organizations come together and work on stuff, there is no telling what they can do. If there is one thing we’ve done and had some success with, it is effectuating those kind of working relationships – whether it’s the Federation of Tours, the World Golf Foundation or charitable organizations – and when you have that, you look for other opportunities to do stuff together. But it needs to be together. We’re just a piece of the puzzle, one piece of this fragmented sport. There are negatives from this sport being fragmented. Sometimes I’m jealous of the NBA and the NFL.
On the other hand, there can be some real advantages to it. If you can work together, you can keep the advantages and diminish the negatives.
Golfweek: You have a pretty good track record dealing with dissent. Six months into your tenure you had the World Golf Tour proposal. Then there were Ryder Cup compensation issues, the Tour Players Association and the Major Champions Tour. To what do you attribute your success in these situations?
TF: I don’t know if we should get much credit. I’ve been commissioner for 10 years, but I was deputy commissioner for five years before that. Over those 15 years, it’s always been about the players. In any of these things, they have to decide what they want to see done. The players by and large don’t need me to educate them. They just have good instincts. They react to things. And in most of those situations they see (what should be done).
The structure we have wasn’t my making. It was developed by Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer and others in 1968. It’s an ingenious system. It’s like the founding fathers; you don’t just mess around with it. It’s really worked.
Golfweek: Does it offend you when people say you “stole” Greg Norman’s idea for the World Golf Tour and developed the World Golf Championships?
TF: First of all, with Greg I think you have to divorce a business initiative from him. He has been enormously positive and impactful for the game. When I became commissioner, he and Fred Couples were the two dominant stars. So, from a business standpoint, the rules structure that we had in place at that time shouldn’t in any way take away from the impact he has had on the game. (Note: The upstart tour was thwarted in November 1994 when Finchem threatened to enforce the Tour’s television release and conflicting event regulations.) When we created the World Golf Championships, I recognized Greg. I said that there is some merit to having some competitions more international in flavor. So we took a step to add three tournaments that brought the International Federation (of PGA Tours) together. It actually was formed early in 1994. I think it’s worked reasonably well. I don’t think it’s a particularly unique situation, but it did allow us to get the best players in the world to play a couple of more times a year, and rounded out things with the Ryder Cup, Presidents Cup, Players Championships and the major championships. The combination over the last six or seven years has worked pretty well.
Golfweek: You have TV negotiations coming up in the not-too-distant future. Ratings basically have been flat this year. What is your game plan?
TF: First of all, flat in this environment is good. Network ratings (of all shows) on average over the last 10 years have gone down 47 percent. Every other major sport in the last five or six years, except for us and NASCAR, is down. Every one. It’s just a function of the dissolution of the audience and all the options they have. But we’re maintaining our audience, and that’s a good thing. But it’s a different ballgame every four years. We have a different landscape out there. Our objective would be to do what we’ve done in the past, which is basically to make sure that we continue with – or develop new – working partnerships. It’s not a situation where we’re taking a product and saying, ‘How much will you pay for it?’ It is very much a working partnership, a working relationship. How can we work together to take this product and promote it and make it work for you and make it work for us? We certainly have moved much more in that direction in the last four or five years than we ever did before. . . . Whether it’s this set of (television) partners or a restructured set of partners, we’ll be working to grow the reach and acceptance and enthusiasm about the sport. The dollars are kind of secondary to that.
Golfweek: Everyone anticipates that the negotiations will be intense. But you’re suggesting that you’ve been laying the groundwork for something less combative.
TF: I think they’ve all been tough negotiations.
If rights fees go up, the perception is that it was a lay-down for negotiations, it was easy. That’s not the case. The last two were very difficult negotiations. They were very complex, with a lot of moving parts. There’s a very different kind of focus from our title sponsor group about what’s going to happen, and they want to be more involved. There’s a lot more interaction in terms of what that telecast looks like, there’s much more interaction on the financial side. It’s going to be just as difficult this year, regardless of what the rights fee increases are or aren’t. It’s just the nature of the beast. Four years in the television business is a long time. Things change: the way television is produced; HDTV is coming on now and needs to be dealt with; the interface between the signal in television and broadband usage and distribution. There’s a myriad of things that weren’t even in the vocabulary two negotiations ago. It will be difficult, but I think that with the core position of the sport and the sponsorship base, we’ll be in the position to continue to grow our financial benefits to members. We’ll be able to grow our resources to expand the fan base, which are the two key things. And we’ll be able to have a package that perhaps enhances even where we are today, in terms of the presentation of television. If those three things occur, that would be terrific.
Golfweek: Do you see purses continuing to grow?
TF: Some. Probably not at the same rate as they have in the last five years (they’ve grown from $135 million in 1999 to more than $240 million). But some growth, yes. And I think we’ve obviously made some good strides there. We’re not where some of the team sports are on an average basis, but we’re a little different with our finances in the sense that we have direct (prize money) and indirect (endorsements). The direct has grown nicely; the indirect has really created a marketing platform for players to take advantage of. I think we’ve done a pretty good job of creating a platform that players can take much fuller advantage of today than they did 10 years ago. We feel like, one, we have a fiduciary responsibility to grow the financial benefits to players; and, two, we’re still way behind the team sports on an average basis; and, three, we think it’s more exciting for the fans when players are playing for more money – there’s more on the line; and, four, some purse growth, even a little purse growth, is important because it is in the minds of the fans to some extent indicia of your movement, that you’ve got some growth going on. And we keep a close eye on the charity dollars, which went up 14 percent last year, a very nice increase to $83 million. We think that also a lot of fans see that as another indication of movement. People like to be part of something that’s growing and vibrant. They feel less compelled to be part of something that’s stagnant or going the wrong way. So we always want to be moving in a positive direction. That doesn’t mean we have to have huge growth every year, but it needs to be positive.
Golfweek: TourCast and ShotLink. How many subscribers do you have, and is it generating revenue?
TF: Yes, it’s generating revenue, but I don’t have the number (of subscribers). It’s slowly but surely taking off. ShotLink, I was always in favor of the program, I saw some possibilities, but I’ve really gotten excited about what it can do. Some of the statistical ways now that you can start to compare play I think has the possibility to take on a life of its own in the sport. You start to measure players by it being all about getting the ball within 15 feet (of the cup). The guy who’s getting it within 15 feet is the guy (who contends). So there are lots of different ways to measure a player, and that’s pretty exciting. Another thing we’re finding is that it’s a great tool for setting up the golf course. It also helps us evaluate what’s happening with equipment as it relates to the golf course. It is a platform that we’re just in the infancy of taking advantage of, really, in its second year. I think five years from now, we’ll be doing a lot more sophisticated, exciting things. Some of it we’ll feed into television. You don’t want to overburden the viewer with a lot of stuff, but some good stuff popping in I think will be helpful.
Golfweek: Was choosing CNBC to air the Champions Tour (in 2001) a bogey?
TF: It doesn’t count, and I’ll tell you why. Because if I had to do it over again, I probably would. When the recession came and CNBC’s numbers went like this (gesturing down), it didn’t make any sense. But it would have made sense if they had maintained the audience they had when we did the deal. . . . The one that should never have happened was the scheduling of the Accenture Match Play the first week of the year in Australia. That one was just dumb. We should have known better. Right after Christmas, asking guys to leave during the holidays and go down there and possibly play one round. It just didn’t make sense. It was doomed from the start. I’d like to have a mulligan on that one.
Golfweek: You’re 57. How long do you plan to stay in this post?
TF: (NFL commissioner Paul) Tagliabue is 62. He just re-upped for five years. That would make him 67, so that means I should have 10, right? (He smiles.) I think it’s kind of where it’s always been. It’s really a function of the players being comfortable with where we’re going. I love the job. It’s a struggle travel-wise with my family, other than that I love it. If I’m healthy . . . the horizon changes every year, but there are certain things I can see in the next four or five years that I would really like to be around to accomplish, some specific things I would like to get in place. So my horizon right now, assuming the players stay comfortable – if they are – is kind of five years. That’s my plan. If I can get these certain things done in five years, then we’ll see.
Golfweek: What are those things?
TF: There’s a number of things with regard to taking our tournament quality up a couple of notches. There are certain things that relate to that question with golf courses and facilities, the structure of our tournaments, their revenue capabilities, their on-site fan enhancement capabilities, utilizing technology. There are some things in television. We’re very much in transition mode in television; I want to get us through some of that transition. HD is coming on. I’d say in five years all of our telecasts will be in HD. . . . I’ve got just as much energy and enthusiasm as I’ve ever had. So as long as that’s the case, and the players are comfortable, I’m ready to stay the course for awhile.