2005: A season of change

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By Jeff Rude and Rex Hoggard

GA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem is taking to the road the last month of the season to spread the word. His mission: To conduct weekly Tuesday meetings with his players and explain what the schedule might look like starting in 2007.

Though the Tour is considering other schedule models, its calendar for 2007-10 by most accounts likely will undergo major alterations, including the debut of a seasonlong points competition that would culminate in mid-September with the Tour Championship. Among other key changes Tour insiders anticipate are a move of the Players Championship from late March to the second week of May.

Following a less-is-more philosophy, the Tour is striving, essentially, to shorten its main season and create playoff-like buzz with another addition, a so-called Fall Chase. The proposed four-week finale is designed to spark fan interest during the home stretch to the Tour Championship.

Just as important, this abbreviated schedule enables the Tour to simultaneously placate its marquee players and its rank and file. It gives stars such as Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson – who have clamored for more time off – a longer offseason, and provides others vital opportunities to secure playing privileges in a series of events unofficially dubbed as the Quest for a Card. It is conceivable some post-Tour Championship events would be held overseas, allowing the Tour to stretch its brand globally and help bolster international golf in general.

The ramifications of the schedule changes don’t end there.

Some events will be nixed and others moved to new dates, causing anxiety for many tournament directors who are awaiting their fate. The alterations also will result in severed ties with some existing sponsors, but on the upside, should yield new, lucrative marketing platforms. Likewise, TV partners are bound to change with The Golf Channel, and possibly OLN, greatly enhancing their programming.

It’s the creation of the Fall Chase that appears to be the centerpiece of the redesigned schedule.

Finchem told tournament directors last spring that he covets a playoff-like system so popular in other sports. The model he envisions calls for a four-week splash at the end of the season that would create a bang after the mid-August PGA Championship.

That scenario would include three highly lucrative events in major cities, starting two weeks after the PGA and leading into the Tour Championship, which has been held in November with little buzz, its atmosphere resembling a high-priced exhibition. The intent of such a format would be to limit the overlap with football season and create added value for the networks and advertisers.

“The selling point is that the Tour can go to the networks and say we’re creating a season-ending event that will bring ratings,” one Tour insider said.

Two tournament directors said they understand the Barclays Classic near New York City and the Deutsche Bank Championship near Boston are likely to be full-field Fall Chase events with purses around $8 million to $9 million. The Cialis Western Open, historically held in early July, is said to be a third candidate, though apparently Cialis would withdraw its sponsorship if the Chicago event were to rescheduled.

“Those three events are going to be big,” one longtime tournament director said. “It’s like the First Tee (program). Finchem is going to make sure they’re successful. It’s his legacy.

“It’s brilliant on Finchem’s part. He’s bringing value added to networks. Rather than put out the same old schedule, this breathes life into the post-PGA schedule.”

If a WGC event precedes the PGA Championship, some top players might play six out of seven weeks through the Tour Championship. The final push would be similar to NASCAR’s late-season Nextel Cup.

“Golf has a problem because there is not a defined season. Why bash your head against football?” said Bill Paul, the tournament director for the Bell Canadian Open.

Finchem wisely has talked with his leading players – Woods and Mickelson among them – in an effort to get them on board. One Tour source said they have signed on, which makes sense because Woods and Mickelson earlier this year called for a shorter season. Recently, Finchem also met privately with Vijay Singh.

Under the proposed setup, this trio could take three months off (October-December) without fear of being criticized. The condensed schedule, too, would enable top players to compete against each other more often.

“Hockey said, ‘We’ve got to come up with a way that this will work.’ Every sport’s done it. NASCAR did it,” said Davis Love III, one of four player directors on the Policy Board, which will have a say in the schedule’s final approval. “How are we going to grow to the next level? How do we get TV excited about this? That’s what we’re doing.”

Most insiders concede the new schedule likely will eliminate a few events, but agree that number wouldn’t exceed more than two to three historically-weaker tournaments.

The reduction would occur by trimming opposite-field tournaments that play second fiddle to premier events such as majors or the World Golf Championships. The most likely casualties: B.C. Open, Reno-Tahoe Open and Chrysler Classic of Tucson.

Tucson, rather than host a lesser tournament opposite the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship, supposedly is in line to host the WGC event, which apparently will be relocated from its current site in La Costa, Calif. An exception to the same-week rule would be a tournament such as the U.S. Bank Championship in Milwaukee, which likely would be played opposite the British Open in mid-July.

The preservation of most tournaments is good news to many rank-and-file players who already have been fretting about shrinking playing opportunities. Because of an increase in medical exemptions this year (13) and the addition of European Ryder Cup players to the all-exempt list, many Q-School and Nationwide Tour grads will play fewer than 25 events this year, compared with about 30 starts in 2004 for players in similar categories.

“We know the stars drive the Tour, I’ll be the first to say that, but you have to make it fair enough for everyone,” said Jeff Brehaut, a Q-School graduate and a member of the Tour’s 16-member Player Advisory Council. “I definitely have concerns. But I’d say I’m cautiously optimistic (that the new schedule won’t dramatically impact playing opportunities).”

There likely will be a handful of events after the Tour Championship that would pay official money and provide playing opportunities for Tour members. This five-to-six event series, the so-called Quest for a Card, would give players a chance to keep their Tour status by finishing inside the top 125 in earnings. The series could feature one or two events outside the United States, probably including an event in Asia.

Segmenting the schedule to create mini-series such as the Quest for a Card and a Fall Chase should win the support of sponsors as well, according to sports marketing experts.

“The NHL has taught us that the players need to understand that this is about extending the revenue opportunities to keep the dollars flowing,” said Paul Swangard, managing director of the University of Oregon’s Warsaw Sports Marketing Center. “If you want to make millions, (you) have to do some things that are creative. It’s about as saturated a marketplace for sports today than we’ve ever seen before.”

By better packaging its events, the Tour has an opportunity to sell unprecedented umbrella sponsorships. Two Tour sources say FedEx is interested in title rights to the Fall Chase, which is estimated to cost as high as $40 million annually. The Tour also is attempting to fetch as much as $12 million for sponsorship of a Fall Chase event – dramatically more than the fee for a regular-season event now.

A FedEx spokesman declined to comment about the company’s golf sponsorships, but added it is “always in discussions with all our sports marketing assets to enhance them.”

The Quest for a Card also should attract sponsors, especially if that series were to include international events.

Entry into global markets such as Asia represent “win-win” scenarios for the Tour and its multinational corporate partners. The Tour need only to look at the NFL’s recent Oct. 2 experiment in Mexico, where it transformed a lackluster game between the San Francisco 49ers and the Arizona Cardinals into an international spectacle. The NFL’s first regular-season game staged outside the United States attracted 103,467 fans.

In theory, the Tour could host a tournament in some Asian markets – sans superstars – and still produce a hit with that region’s golf-starved fans.

“What the NFL taught us . . . is that I can take an absolutely meaningless game between two teams that no one cares about, take them to Mexico, and turn it into an international marketing platform,” Swangard said.

It is essential for the Tour to secure commitments from all of its sponsors before it can enter final negotiations for a TV rights contract for 2007-10. The reason? Nearly 50 percent of sponsors’ fees are earmarked for TV commercial buys, greatly reducing the risk of excess advertising inventory for media partners.

According to Tour officials, that means the Tour likely will not be ready to present TV partners its new schedule, along with sponsor backing, until mid-November. Then, an intense, three-week negotiating period is expected to follow, resulting in an allocation of Tour events to various network and cable outlets.

“We need specifics in order to negotiate, and the PGA Tour has yet to give us those specifics,” says John Wildhack, senior vice president for programming, acquisitions and strategy for ABC Sports and ESPN.

ABC broadcasts a number of post-PGA Championship events, but may very well drop the sport altogether if it can’t break even on the next deal. According to industry sources, ABC is anticipating losing $15 million on its PGA Tour events this year and reportedly won’t endure another financial hit.

If ABC does indeed walk away from the negotiating table, it appears NBC Sports would become the prime candidate to snap up new offerings such as the Fall Chase.

NBC is heavily involved with NASCAR in the fall, but it could lose within the next several months its TV rights for the racing circuit to an aggressive bid from ABC and ESPN.

NBC also will soon begin carrying NFL football again, but only on Sunday nights, at 8 p.m., giving it plenty of time to televise golf. (Commitments to cover the U.S. Tennis Open and the NFL prohibit CBS from expanding its golf menu after mid-August, sources say.)

While the specific roles of the major networks remain uncertain, The Golf Channel seems it will be an understudy no more. Events following the Tour Championship, most notably the Quest for a Card series, are destined for the all-golf cable network, according to a TV executive close to the Tour’s negotiations.

“I am sure Tim (Finchem) doubts that events after the Tour Championship will be on anything but cable,” he said. But he also envisions a scenario in which The Golf Channel shares that part of the season with its sister network, OLN. Media conglomerate Comcast owns both and has plans to build OLN – which recently became home to the National Hockey League – into an all-sports channel to rival ESPN.

– Mike Mazur, Alex Miceli and John Steinbreder contributed

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