If you’re happy this week’s U.S. Open television coverage is back on NBC, one of the people you should thank is Jon Miller. He’s not a familiar name outside the business but he is perhaps the person most instrumental in returning USGA events to NBC.
Miller, 64, is an NBC Sports Group executive who has been with the network in various roles since 1988. He previously served as the network’s president of programming and is credited for creating the NHL Winter Classic.
The minutiae inside televised golf is much like inside baseball, and the public just wants the pictures and voices. But in Miller’s case, what he helped accomplish was an important rescue mission and, without knowing it, millions of viewers are glad.
NBC had been the USGA’s broadcast partner since 1995 – Miller was key in that deal, too – but Fox reportedly came to the table with an offer of $100 million per year for 12 years, starting in 2015, to televise all the USGA national championships. NBC was unceremoniously ejected.
Fox’s reputation for coverage of the NFL and Major League Baseball was solid, so it wasn’t out of the question that it could cover golf, too. Even though Fox made such a huge financial commitment, the network was taking on golf on a part-time basis.
And it showed in its first U.S. Open at Chambers Bay in 2015. Joe Buck was paired with Greg Norman and the coverage was roundly criticized, from the personnel to the cameras to the graphics to the interviews. Things never got appreciably better as time went on, always substandard when compared with golf coverage on other networks. Nor was it equal to Fox’s other sports coverage.
At the same time Fox was bleeding red ink on the USGA contract to the extent that whatever reason they had for getting involved in golf, it no longer seemed worth it. In addition, many of the Fox and USGA executives involved in striking the deal were no longer with either organization. As a result, insiders said Fox viewed the USGA as more of an anchor than favorable to the network’s bottom line.
When the pandemic started wreaking havoc on live sporting events, all the networks were scrambling. The USGA started talking about moving the U.S. Open from June to December and finally decided on September. Fox had a big problem. The network was looking squarely at significant conflicts with coverage of NFL, MLB and NCAA football.
NBC had its issues as well, specifically with the Open Championship potentially moving to September. That issue was eliminated when the R&A decided to cancel the 2020 Open at Royal St. George’s.
All the jostling for position for live sports came in the March-to-May window and as the dust cleared, opportunities were available. In May, Miller and Pete Bevacqua, Chairman of NBC Sports Group, discussed with Fox executives the possibility a one-off NBC broadcast of the September U.S. Open at Winged Foot.
It quickly became clear to NBC that a such a proposal made little sense to the Peacock network. The prize was re-acquiring the USGA partnership, and NBC approached Fox with that deal in mind.
Fox warmed to the idea right away. It wanted out of the USGA financial albatross. And golf makes perfect sense for NBC, which also owns Golf Channel.
“Pete (Bevacqua), Laz (Mark Lazarus, Chairman, NBCUniversal Television) and Brian Roberts (Comcast Chairman and CEO) were very supportive of having the conversation provided they could do a deal that made sense,” Miller said while discussing the new USGA deal. “We had to make an intelligent business deal. We were never going to be led out the door to do a deal that didn’t make sense and certainly not during a pandemic.
“There are certain properties in sports that rise above: the Olympics, the Super Bowl, the Kentucky Derby, the U.S. Open, the Ryder Cup,” Miller said. “There are certain events that are out there that are really special, and the U.S. Open is one of them.”
While both Fox and NBC agreed on the move, they needed the USGA’s blessing as well. The financial terms of the Fox deal were unsustainable for NBC and the dollar figures had to be renegotiated, which included digital rights.
“To Mike Davis’s credit he was very receptive and open to the idea.” Miller said.
So, when you hear the voices of NBC covering the national championship this week, remember the name of Jon Miller. His is a voice you won’t hear, but when it came to bringing back the U.S. Open, he was heard loud and clear.