Not everything about the return to golf has been perfect. A handful of positive COVID tests have jumbled fields, many charities have lost out due to the lack of on-site fans, and the loss of revenue from ticket sales puts a crimp in the pocketbooks of both the PGA Tour and local host sites.
But golf on TV? It’s thriving in the age of coronavirus.
Between a compacted schedule, a sports-hungry audience, and the knowledge that golf is already played in a largely quiet setting, audiences are tuning in en masse for golf broadcasts, ever since the first post-break event took place in Fort Worth, Texas.
And just because other sports have now restarted, the momentum has hardly slowed.
ESPN, which is taking its whack at the TV golf piñata with this week’s PGA Championship, reported that ratings from the first day of the tournament were the best in five years.
According to a release from the company, Thursday’s opening round averaged 1.246 million viewers, the best since 2015 and the second-best opening round in the last 10 years.
A number of factors are contributing. With a prime-time slot on the East coast, Thursday’s telecast was destined to be a success, but the improvement in numbers — the broadcast peaked 1.509 million viewers between 7:15-7:30 p.m. ET with viewership was up 24 percent from last year’s first-round telecast on TNT and up 31 percent among adults ages 18-49 — is reason for TV execs and Tour officials to rejoice.
ESPN has just started a new 11-year deal to televise the PGA Championship, and this year’s telecast marked the first time it had aired the event in 30 years. Top local markets for the telecast with metered market ratings were Tampa/St. Petersburg (1.8), West Palm Beach (1.7), San Francisco (1.4), Charlotte (1.4), Jacksonville (1.3), San Diego (1.3), and Kansas City (1.3)
CBS, which will have two prime-time weekend slots for the championship this weekend, has already seen big spikes in viewership.
The numbers have been up across the board for CBS, including an 11 percent spike over last year’s rating at the 3M Open in Minneapolis, which didn’t boast a big-name field.
The final round of the WGC-FedEx St. Jude Invitational in Memphis saw an even bigger jump, with viewership up almost 40 percent from last year. The only Tour event with a bigger audience thus far was for the Jack Nicklaus-hosted Memorial.
What’s interesting, of course, is that the golf media landscape changed back in June when the USGA announced that media rights for its championships moved from Fox Sports to NBCUniversal. The move ended a 12-year deal with Fox Sports worth about $1 billion.
The deal was effective instantly, meaning NBCUniversal will not only broadcast the U.S. Open at Winged Foot Sept. 17-20, but also the two U.S. Amateur championships before it, including this week’s Women’s Amateur at Woodmont Country Club in Rockville, Maryland.
After the COVID-19 pandemic forced the USGA to move the dates of the U.S. Open from June to September, Fox Sports struggled to find the broadcast hours needed for the championship, USGA officials noted, given their additional commitments to the NFL, MLB and college football. Talks that began looking into how Fox Sports and NBC/Golf Channel might work together this year ultimately ended in NBC taking over entirely.
In March, the Tour announced an agreement beginning in 2022 includes existing partners ViacomCBS and the Comcast/NBC Sports Group and a new relationship with Disney and ESPN+. The deals unite with the Tour’s $2 billion deal with Discovery signed in 2018 for the organization’s digital rights outside of the U.S. through 2030.
That means if numbers continue to surge, CBS, ESPN and NBC will all reap rewards while Fox could have missed its window.
Viewership is also strong on Golf Channel for the LPGA. Thursday’s opening round at the Marathon LPGA Classic was the most-watched LPGA Round 1 telecast – regular-season events and majors included – in more than two years. The telecast averaged 200,000 viewers per minute. And that’s during the week of a men’s major.