One of the most curious moments in a golf telecast this year was also one of the most telling. During last month's American Express Championship in San Francisco, PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem visited the ABC booth during Saturday's round and, after expressing his everything-is-beautiful view of the Tour, offered a personal message, telling those beside him how much he has enjoyed working with ABC, then adding, "I hope we have many more years together." It almost sounded as if he were begging. ¬∂ The Tour's four-year, $850 million contract, signed in 2001 with the three over-the-air and three cable networks, expires after the 2006 season. The nets, who claim to have lost millions on that deal, are determined to drive a harder bargain during the next round of negotiations, which are to begin this month. The hot rumor circulating at the AmEx was that ABC would not participate in the negotiations and planned to get out of golf entirely--except for the British Open, for which ABC owns the rights through 2009. Hence the role reversal of the Tour commissioner sucking up to TV types instead of the other way around. "It was a little out of character," admits ABC analyst Paul Azinger.
The Finchem exchange is symbolic of how the tables have turned in pro golf. The Tour enjoyed a decade of unprecedented increases in prize money (from $61 million in 1995 to $252 million this year) largely due to the star power of Tiger Woods. But lately the game has hit the wall. Television viewership still spikes markedly when Woods plays, but over the last few years the Sunday audience for Tiger events has decreased by an average of 33%, according to Nielsen Media Research (box, right). Tiger's diminished drawing power is only part of the problem. The Tour also suffers from overexposure, competition from other sports, purses so bloated that they have created a disincentive for top players and a drawn-out season that lacks a definitive and compelling conclusion. "We have no [fan] interest, basically, after the PGA Championship," says Woods.
The Tour is well aware of these shortcomings. Last week at the Tour Championship--days before journeyman Bart Bryant shot a 17-under 263 to finish six shots ahead of Woods in a pleasant but hardly riveting competition at storied East Lake Golf Club in Atlanta--Finchem revealed the first steps of a plan to address the Tour's TV issues.
The Tour decided to tackle the problem of the ho-hum end of the season by creating the FedEx Cup, a self-contained, four-tournament points race that will conclude with the Tour Championship. That tournament, which currently ends the season, will be moved up from around Halloween to mid-to-late September. "We're the only major sport that doesn't have a playoff system," Finchem said in announcing the Cup.
Here's how it will work: Players will accumulate points based on their performances during the regular season. The top 144 point-getters will be eligible to tee it up in three tournaments to be played after the PGA Championship. The 30 players who earn the most points in those events--a minichampionship chase styled on NASCAR's Nextel Cup--will qualify for the Tour Championship. A bonus pool will reward the top finishers in the FedEx Cup, with the winner earning as much as $10 million. Many of the details have yet to be worked out, and Finchem wouldn't disclose the three tournaments that will lead up to the Tour Championship, but they are widely believed to be the Deutsche Bank Classic (in Boston), the Barclays Classic (New York) and the Cialis Western Open (Chicago). One or more of those tournaments could rotate to different cities. The Western Open, for example, could be played at Bellerive Country Club in St. Louis or at Hazeltine National Golf Club in Minneapolis. Insiders say longtime Tour stop Westchester Country Club may bow out as the site of the Barclays Classic, with Donald Trump's sprawling Trump National Bedminster in New Jersey among the replacement candidates.
Although Finchem calls the FedEx Cup a season-ending playoff, in reality it will simply wrap up the big-boy portion of the Tour schedule, thus voiding the Tour's annual network ratings-sapping showdown with college and professional football. A handful of smaller Tour events, featuring lower-level players trying to make the Tour's 125-player all-exempt list, will soldier on in their usual fall slots but will be shown only on cable TV.
The '07 Tour schedule will also look slightly different in the spring and summer. The Players Championship, the closest thing to a major championship owned by the Tour, is expected to move from March, when it has been beset by bad weather and the NCAA basketball tournament, to May. And two of the four World Golf Championships will change locations. The Accenture Match Play Championship is likely to leave La Costa in San Diego and relocate to Tucson. American Express is said to be reviewing its sponsorship of the AmEx Championship, but even if it renews, it will need a new date because the FedEx Cup will hog September. One possibility is to snatch the Players' old March dates and settle in Tampa, which now hosts the Chrysler Championship, a snoozy fall event.
As new looks go, this makeover is a modest start. "The Tour was in a must-do-something situation," says Azinger. "It couldn't afford to try to sell the same product to the TV networks. It copied NASCAR and came up with a concept that gives TV an opportunity to get excited about our package again. I think the players will like it. The big question is whether it's enough to get TV to buy back in, at close to what it paid [four] years ago." (In 1997, riding Woods's burgeoning appeal, the Tour signed four-year TV contracts covering the 1999-2002 seasons worth a total of $650 million--a 50% increase over its previous deals. In '01 the Tour signed for $850 million for 2003-06, another 40% increase.)
Azinger's big question won't be answered until early next year when the ink dries on the new contracts. Two things are clear, though: The Tour is trying to adapt to a changing marketplace, and this plan will leave distinct winners and losers. Here's who is likely to benefit from the new schedule:
He complained that the Tour season is too long. Bingo! It won't be anymore, although he will have to slog through six tournaments in seven weeks at the end of the season if he is interested in the FedEx Cup lucre.
This assumes that his repackaging tactic works and the Tour gets anywhere near the kind of TV money he negotiated four years ago.
•The Golf Channel
The cable entity could land the leftover fall events, thereby boosting its credibility with one element it has always lacked: PGA Tour coverage.
•Lower-ranked Tour members
These grinders routinely complain about being shut out of the big-money events, but the FedEx Cup will have a real Jason Gore Factor, allowing a player 144th on the points list and in danger of losing his Tour card to end up financially secure for life if he gets hot and wins the FedEx Cup series.
•The Deutsche Bank, Barclays Classic and Western Open
These three Tour events get upgraded to first-class status because of the FedEx Cup.
Here's who's likely to take a hit:
He'll be the goat if TV doesn't bite, fees plummet, purses fall and marginalized autumn events begin to fall off the schedule.
•Fall Tour stops in places like Greensboro, N.C.; Jackson, Miss.; Las Vegas; and Orlando
They'll remain after the introduction of the FedEx Cup, but can they survive second-tier status? Some players think those events have been given a reprieve merely for show because Finchem doesn't want to cancel them at this time. "Those tournaments may be around for a year or two," says one Tour veteran, "but they're really being sent off to die." The Tour will slap a snappy label on them--Quest for a Card?--and try to create interest in the race for the last few spots on the 125 all-exempt list, but the harsh reality is that those fields will be filled with the Tag Ridingses, Tjaart van der Walts and Roger Tambellinis of the Tour and won't resonate with viewers. A saving grace for the fall tournaments: Their economics may work better by being on cable, which costs sponsors about $750,000 in rights fees, instead of on one of the networks, which affix a hefty $4 million--plus price tag.
•The Golf Channel
Other sports own their own TV networks. Finchem says the Tour, which already has a production division, might go that route too. The first bit of programming would be the fall tournaments.
•The Tour members who rank 145th and lower
On the outside looking in, they will face a four-week break until the Tour resumes after the FedEx Cup.
•The European tour
Already less attractive and lucrative than the PGA Tour, this circuit could be without its top players for seven weeks, starting with the World Golf Championship event at Firestone in early August. During Ryder Cup years Europeans trying to qualify for the team will face a dilemma, as will those Euro tournaments with conflicting dates--top events such as the International Open, the European Masters, the German Masters and the World Match Play.
Fat and happy, the PGA Tour is the victim of its own unparalleled success. Now its future, along with its direction, is on the line. Not to mention the commissioner's relationship with his best buddies at ABC.
The Envelope, Please ...
2005 PGA Tour Awards page G13
A Golfer, Heart And Soul page G28
Conventional wisdom holds that having Tiger Woods in the field automatically means a bigger TV audience, and that remained true in 2005. But Woods's ability to spur viewership clearly has diminished--which may be a symptom or a cause (or both) of the Tour's overall ratings decline. Below are the average audience numbers (in millions) for every Sunday network telecast of PGA Tour events with and without Woods during Tiger's first full year (1997), the year he completed the Tiger Slam (2001) and this season.
Tiger Events 5.3
No Tiger 4.0
Overall Avg. 4.6
Tiger Events 6.3
No Tiger 3.4
Overall Avg. 4.5
Tiger Events 4.2
No Tiger 2.9
Overall Avg. 3.5
Source: Nielsen Media Research
Bryant's 17-under 263 was the lowest score in Tour Championship history.
Woods finished six shots behind Bryant but won his sixth money title, second only to Jack Nicklaus's eight.
For pros like Retief Goosen, who tied for fourth, the Tour Championship had become a meaningless money grab.
Beginning in '07 the Tour Championship will come to East Lake more than a month earlier than in the past.