What are the issues that we’ll discuss in televised golf in 2018? I put that question to five executives from around the industry, who shared their predictions on what we’ll see over the next 12 months. Here are their thoughts, along with some observations from me.
There will be bigger industry issues bubbling behind the scenes. The PGA Tour will weigh its strategy with TV negotiations approaching. And Brian Carroll, the LPGA’s senior vice president of television and new media, notes that he and his counterparts at the PGA Tour will plan for schedule changes in 2019 (PGA Championship, The Players, The Evian Championship) and 2020 (The Olympics).
For viewers, however, Woods and Miller will be at the forefront. One production executive, who requested anonymity, predicted Woods will win this year, and “that Sunday TV rating will be three times the rating from the prior year.” The exec was granted anonymity because he was not authorized to comment publicly.
It never pays to underestimate the “Tiger effect.” In the past, my rule of thumb was that Woods’ presence on the first page of the leaderboard doubled the Sunday audience. But as we saw during the Hero World Challenge – final-round viewership rose 20 percent over 2016, when Woods launched his previous comeback – there’s such a hunger to watch Woods that his impact on viewership is only growing.
As for Miller, the story figures to play out over the summer and fall. The expectation is he will retire. The bigger question is: Who will replace him? One industry consultant, who requested anonymity because they were not authorized to comment publicly, said, “I think NBC will really feel the need to hit a home run, and that won’t be easy.” This person suggested NBC might try for a bold stroke, much as CBS did last year when it hired Tony Romo to be its lead NFL analyst.
“I would think NBC will feel some pressure to do something similar,” this person said.
If we’re talking big and bold, the two obvious names are Woods and Phil Mickelson, though one assumes they still see themselves playing full schedules in 2019.
• “Viewership metrics in the coming year will show that fans are responding positively to alternative formats versus standard 72-hole stroke play,” predicts Molly Solomon, Golf Channel’s EVP, content and executive producer.
She points to the increased interest in the Zurich Classic after it introduced a team format last year, and the European Tour’s experiment with GolfSixes. That has her (and me) intrigued to see the Shot Clock Masters in June in Austria.
“People are loath to try something new if they don’t know it’s going to be successful,” she said. “We’re always encouraging innovation, because I think you see how America is starting to digest golf by going to places like Topgolf. They’re taking in golf in different ways, so if the professional tours can start to reflect that, I think you open it up for different people to watch, to play in different ways. I think it’s really important.”
• With or without Tiger Woods, the PGA Tour dominates every conversation. But there’s a lot to like about what’s happening on the LPGA. That was reflected in the fact that Golf Channel reported the LPGA last year averaged 221,000 viewers per telecast, up 24 percent over 2016. Carroll predicts at least 5 percent growth in 2018, citing the appeal of the Tour’s young stars and the potential to draft off increased interest in the game caused by Woods’ return.
Solomon’s prediction for the LPGA – actually it’s more of a wish – is that Lexi Thompson will win her second major, “and poetically, it’s going to happen at the ANA.”
No question, that would be a big story given last year’s rules kerfuffle. You know what might be an even bigger story? Michelle Wie winning her second major (and perhaps a couple more regular events). She’s been lapped by some of her peers, but I’m convinced she’s still the one LPGA player who can capture the attention of casual American fans.
Want a tournament to keep an eye on? Carroll points to October’s UL International Crown in South Korea – a team competition that likely will be shown in prime time.
“It’s a perfect time zone,” Carroll said. “So we’re hoping from a global standpoint that the UL International Crown makes a big splash.”
• Finally, here are a couple of predictions I think we’d all welcome if they pan out. Mark Loomis, coordinating producer for Fox Sports’ USGA coverage, anticipates “the continued incorporation of creative advertising solutions used in other sports into live golf telecasts, allowing fewer and shorter interruptions.”
We’ve seen this with Golf Channel’s “Playing Through,” where coverage continues during commercial breaks. We see it on NASCAR coverage, and this past fall we saw five-second spots promoting various products between plays during college football games.
The production executive cited above predicts a “huge growth in tracing and animation of ball flight.” I hope he’s right, given that I’ve been clamoring for that in this space on an almost weekly basis. Gwk