ESPN plans 72 hours of Open coverage

ESPN's Mike Tirico and Paul Azinger

ESPN's Mike Tirico and Paul Azinger

Editor's note: ESPN announced on Monday that its Open Championship coverage will now start at 4:30 a.m. EDT to allow viewers to watch each shot from Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson.

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I would argue that the biggest improvement to televised golf in recent years came in 2010, when ESPN began providing full, four-round coverage of the Open Championship. ESPN’s Open coverage hasn’t been perfect – I’ve certainly found reason to fault the announcers, production and pacing over the past two years – but it has been a major upgrade over the Opens that, until 2009, we watched on TBS and ABC.

When the ESPN brass gets excited about an event – and in golf, you have to be talking about a major championship before you get their interest – they flood the zone in ways that competing networks simply can’t. That includes multiple delivery platforms – TV, Internet, mobile, radio, print – bolstered by a promotional machine that, frankly, is often annoying, but undeniably effective.

An ESPN crew of about 250 people will deliver at least 35 hours of live television coverage from Royal Lytham & St. Annes next week. ESPN, which can never be accused of underselling a big event, plans 72 hours of total airtime, which includes afternoon and evening replays.

From my vantage point, the biggest difference since ESPN began producing all four rounds of the Open is that it has taken greater control of the production rather than relying chiefly on the BBC feed. (I know this was a source of frustration among some on the ABC crew when it aired the Open.) At Lytham this week, roughly 90 cameras will blanket the course, and about 40 of those will belong to ESPN. Mike McQuade, ESPN’s vice president of production, said he will use the BBC pictures “as a resource” to supplement ESPN’s coverage.

Graphically, ESPN will have at least one new toy at its disposal: “Virtual Aerial,” which will show an aerial view of wind direction on one part of the course as opposed to another. (Perhaps ESPN can pipe that data directly to Tiger Woods so he won’t have to spend two minutes assessing the wind before each shot.) ESPN also will attempt, as it did last year, to follow the action from a camera mounted on a plane circling the course.

“The one thing we'd like to get more out of is our plane video to track more shots,” McQuade said in an interview with Golfweek. “That's a matter of how much wind there is, how clear the skies are. But we think that at this place, that could be a pretty cool addition.”

During breaks in the action, ESPN has prepared features on David Duval, who won at Lytham in 2001, and the late Seve Ballesteros. McQuade said other features will be prepared on site in response to the action. Those likely will be handled by either Rick Reilly, Tom Rinaldi and Gene Wojciechowski.

Anchors Mike Tirico, Scott Van Pelt, Terry Gannon and analyst Paul Azinger figure to have the most prominent announcing roles. That’s a pretty strong group – certainly as good or better than their counterparts at competing networks. It’s a shame that group gets so few opportunities to cover big tournaments. But as ESPN’s steady takeover of the sports world continues, it’s likely they’ll get more chances in future years.

Based on the past two years, my concern is that some of the other analysts – specifically, Curtis Strange, Tom Weiskopf and Andy North – inevitably will get overexposed during the telecasts, which include 10-hour days on both Thursday and Friday. They have their moments, but each tends to get bogged down in platitudes.

I’ve also been critical of the frequent use of highlights packages at the Open. McQuade makes a fair point: “Contrary to popular belief, people are not up at 5 o'clock in the morning and watching until 2 in the afternoon. Our ratings show that.” Mind you, I’m not anti-highlights; but I suspect we wouldn’t see the same highlights repeated hourly if they weren’t part of sponsored segments.

In preparation for the Open, McQuade and some colleagues spent four days visiting Lytham in October, and four more days there in May. They met with the R&A and BBC, walked the course several times, and studied where tee shots will end up to get the correct camera placements. Despite the preparation, this is one of McQuade’s concerns heading into the Open.

“Our job is to show off the tightness of the golf course, the amount of bunkering and the shot-making that is required,” he said. “The concern that we have as we prepare is that there are a couple of drivable holes. If you go back to 2001, guys were able to drive 13 and 16 depending on the day and the wind direction. That's always a concern for us as far as making sure the cameras are in the right places.”

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