The demand for facial masks has finally slowed to a crawl, but there is no covering up COVID-19’s massive footprint on modern history. Its effects are everywhere, some of them easy to spot, others hard to define, and while the pandemic’s impact on the competitive element of sports appears to have come and gone, the way those athletic contests are presented to the public remains a fluid situation.
When longtime ESPN anchor Chris Fowler announced on Twitter earlier this week that he’d be overseeing the network’s coverage of the Australian Open from its Connecticut headquarters instead of the tournament site in Melbourne, it was hardly as if a breach of journalistic integrity had just transpired. Fowler handled the same tennis major from home in 2021 and 2022, when COVID still factored into decisions on how to staff such events.
CBS televised the 2020 PGA Championship from San Francisco via “one of the largest and most complex remote productions to date for the PGA Tour,” according to SVGeurope.org, a website dedicated to such matters. Again, the structure of that broadcast was COVID-related, which makes word that NBC is considering remote telecasts of Tour events in 2023 somewhat newsworthy.
A network spokesman told Sports Illustrated that “there will likely be a few events this year produced [in Stamford, Conn., home of NBC Sports]. All talent will be on-site, that does not change.” If that indeed is the current reality, and there’s no reason to believe it isn’t, will it still be the case in two or three years? The business of television is an exercise of constant motion, and with rights fees soaring to unfathomable levels in a highly competitive industry, it’s understandable that TV executives would look for ways to cut costs and squeeze premium value from their investment.
With that in mind, would it make any difference if Dan Hicks and Paul Azinger were calling golf from a studio instead of a tower behind the 18th green? One can make a case for either side of the issue. Both men handle their duties exceptionally well, but there is no substitute for being there—interacting with players and immersing themselves in the true environment, which can certainly lead to observations and viewer-friendly information that can’t be gleaned from a monitor.
Without question, the U.S. Open and British Open stand as two of NBC’s most prized possessions on the sports landscape. Not even close to as lucrative as its most profitable franchise—its Sunday night NFL telecast is watched by far more people than any other television program all year—the year’s final two majors are a source of pride for a network fittingly emblemized by a peacock. That doesn’t mean either is a guarantee to generate a bountiful revenue stream.
The British Open is the more obvious financial risk, and that makes it the most likely tournament to undergo cost cutbacks (and a reduction of workforce) in the future. The five- to eight-hour time difference has a substantial effect on audience size, which is often the smallest of the four majors. Its ratings clearly suffer from a lack of viewership on the West Coast; the 2021 daily average of 2.1 million couldn’t even match the Tiger and Charlie Show held right before Christmas that same year.
What’s more, the clash for the Claret Jug has proven far more dependent on the presence of Charlie’s dad than does its three prestigious siblings. You could send the Three Stooges out to play Augusta National and five million people would tune in. The PGA Championship has benefitted from its 2018 move to May, while the U.S. Open, forever a plodder, is on for so long during those four days in June that people start to watch by accident.
Woods’ appearance last summer at St. Andrews produced a huge increase in American eyeballs, and those numbers remained strong after he missed the cut. Sunday’s final round was seen by 4.725 million, a 12% rise from 2021. Its four-day audience average ranked as the second best since 2015, surpassed only by the 2018 edition, when Tiger held sole possession of the lead with nine holes to play. The bad news for NBC? Tiger’s just about done. His absence will amount to a loss of millions of viewers on both networks over the course of a season—a large slice of the mainstream pie that led to undeniably hearty demographics and commensurate boosts in ad revenue.
Not that anybody really cares how much money golf’s two main carriers make or don’t make. It’s all about the quality of the product, and if there’s one thing people who watch the PGA Tour on a regular basis have come to expect, it’s an abundance of quality on their weekend telecasts. Anyone who makes a habit of watching the early-round streaming on ESPN will testify under oath that the presentation has a long, long way to go. It’s not like Hicks and Azinger would struggle to deliver if they were asked to cover events from a thousand miles away, but it wouldn’t be the same, either.
That’s another thing golf fans aren’t crazy about. Change.