Golf on TV: Should low ratings for Masters, U.S. Open prove worrisome?

While most components of the golf world have enjoyed a renaissance through the pandemic — tee sheets are booked, club manufacturers can’t keep shelves stocked, coaches are in high demand — there is one bit of mildly disturbing news when it comes to the TV ratings for 2020’s three majors.

The PGA Championship in August saw fairly flat overall numbers and both the U.S. Open and Masters saw dramatic drops in 2020 when it came to TV ratings.

Fluke? Coincidence? Or a worrisome trend?

It’s tough to say for certain, but here are a number of factors that might have contributed to the ratings flop:

U.S. Open

Bryson DeChambeau celebrates with the championship trophy after winning the 120th U.S. Open Championship on Sept. 19, 2020 at Winged Foot Golf Club in Mamaroneck, New York. Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

The jumbled schedule didn’t help

The schedule we’ve all come to know and expect is the schedule for a reason. April is the perfect time to kick off the golf season and the Masters sees little competition in its familiar time slot. The U.S. Open has similarly enjoyed success due to its traditional Father’s Day placement and a fairly free spot on the sports calendar.

Moving into new timeslots, most of which already have established events, means a glut of sports on TV that can simply be too much for the average person to consume. Most fans are not exclusively golf fans and the pileup of events has made it too much to get through.

“Everyone is excited in the spring, like, ‘Oh we’ll have this incredible fall with so much sports to watch,’” Austin Karp, the managing editor/digital at Sports Business Journal who closely tracks ratings and the sports television industry, told USA Today columnist Dan Wolken. “But the problem is there is that tonnage. That’s why we spread this out over the course of the year. People are inundated with, ‘OK, I have football, do I really need to watch the NBA Finals? My mind is trained to watch that in June.’”

Football is still king

When it was announced that times for the Masters would be moved up to ensure there was little or no overlap with major college football games and the late NFL matchups, some golf purists were miffed.

The numbers proved CBS and the Masters made the right decision, however, as the Notre Dame-Boston College football game drew a comparable Saturday rating (3.00) to CBS’ third-round coverage of the Masters (3.05). The LSU vs. Alabama game that was originally scheduled for later that day (it was postponed due to COVID) likely would have drawn a much larger number.

On Sunday, the final round of the Masters averaged a 3.4 rating and 5.59 million viewers on CBS, making it the lowest-rated Sunday round from Augusta since 1957. Meanwhile, the early NFL games on Fox combined for a 10.27 share, even though the schedule included a number of below-.500 teams in games between the Eagles-Giants and Washington-Lions.

Simply put, while golf is shining on many stages, it’s not yet ready to compete with football, which has become the de facto national pastime.

PGA Championship

Collin Morikawa watches after teeing off on the 16th hole during the final round of the 2020 PGA Championship golf tournament at TPC Harding Park. Photo: Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports.

More platforms, more splintering

Although CBS’ numbers for the PGA Championship were down, ESPN’s early coverage of the event saw a 35 percent increase in viewership and the largest average on cable since 2010.

And while network numbers for the Masters were down significantly, the streaming app from Augusta National Golf Club allowed fans more thorough coverage — and more opportunities to check in on the leaderboard — than ever before. Additional coverage options are better for diehard fans, but they also allow casual fans to pop in and out, and that can impact the traditional network broadcast.

And this only becomes a larger issue moving forward.

A new deal will that will start in 2022 will put PGA Tour Live – the subscription video service launched in 2015 – on ESPN+, which has a current reach of 7.6 million subscribers, with projections reaching 12 million by 2022.

PGA Tour LIVE on ESPN+ will air more than 4,000 hours of live streaming coverage annually. It also will feature on-demand replays of PGA Tour events, original golf programming and edited speed round recaps.

Per the arrangement, ESPN+ subscribers will not see an increase in cost with golf’s addition. Current PGA Tour Live subscribers will need to move to ESPN+, where they also will be able to call up 12,000 other live sporting events.

“When we enter into this new deal with ESPN+, there is this element of being inside that sports ecosystem and the reach of that that is going to be as strong a direct-to-consumer model as you are going to find,” PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan said. “For (Disney) to get behind the PGA Tour and our athletes and tournaments going forward is huge. We are going to diversify our audience, reach a younger segment of viewers, and add 52 million uniques to the promotion of our tournaments and our Tour.”

While this is great news for those who have nothing to do all day and a serious PGA Tour watching habit, average fans will likely have to pick their spots, ducking in and out to see players they prefer or tournaments they associate with.

New sports are invading

While movement in the schedule introduced obvious obstacles in college and pro football, other sports are starting to permeate the TV sports landscape.

For example, the English Premier League has seen huge gains as soccer gains traction with young viewers.

The season-opening match between Leeds and Liverpool in September averaged 1.26 million viewers on NBC, the biggest for an opening weekend in history. Granted, Liverpool is a solid draw, one of the few clubs that always pulls a big number, but as more fans turn their attention to soccer, fewer recreational minutes are left over for golf and other sports. Later that day, for example, the Safeway Open managed a .24 rating on Golf Channel.

MMA, esports and other options continue to nibble away at a portion of the rating pie.

Tiger Woods celebrates after making a putt on the 18th green to win The 2019 Masters golf tournament at Augusta National Golf Club. Photo by Michael Madrid-USA TODAY Sports.

Tough to match? (Not really)

In some cases, it seemed inevitable the numbers would need to dip. In the case of the Masters, which was going up against one of the all-time great stories in Tiger Woods’ resurrection, any circumstance would have made this tough to match up with. Right?

Although Dustin Johnson is a big name, he certainly doesn’t stir the interest of Woods, especially considering the improbability of Tiger’s victory. The 2020 Masters saw a drop of 51 percent in ratings and 48 percent in viewership from Woods’ victory.

But for those making this argument — that numbers were down largely because of Tiger’s historic run the year prior — realize that compared to 2018, ratings were still markedly down.

And now the good news …

Before we wade too deep into a puddle of doom and gloom, realize that PGA Tour ratings have largely been a pandemic success story. For example, the WGC-FedEx St. Jude Invitational in Memphis beat every NBA game it went up against in ratings, aside from a Lakers-Clippers extravaganza. Many small events have seen huge year-over-year ratings increases, and with an even more comprehensive coverage plan coming in the near future, golf appears to be on solid TV footing for the foreseeable future.

If there are a few things to take away from the numbers, it’s this:

• The year 2020 has been an anomaly.

• Golf’s future TV success hinges on nurturing the familiar schedule spots it has long dominated and filling in small holes as they become available and manageable.

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