Demand for face masks is finally slowing, but that doesn’t obscure COVID-19’s massive footprint in modern history. Its effects are all over the place, some of them easy to spot, others harder to define, and while the impact of the pandemic on the competitive element of sports seems to come and go, the way those sports are presented to the public remains fluid.
longtime ESPN anchor Chris Fowler announced on Twitter earlier this week That he will oversee the network’s coverage of the Australian Open from its Connecticut headquarters rather than the match scene in Melbourne hardly seems like a recent breach of journalistic integrity. Fowler handles the same tennis major at home in 2021 and 2022, when COVID is still a factor in how such events are staffed.
According to SVGeurope.org, a website dedicated to such matters, CBS televised the 2020 PGA Championship from San Francisco in “one of the largest and most complex PGA Tour remote productions to date.” Likewise, the structure of the broadcast was COVID-related, making it somewhat newsworthy that NBC is considering telecasting the Tour in 2023.
A spokesperson for the network told Sports Illustrated “Some events may occur this year [in Stamford, Conn., home of NBC Sports]. All talent will be on site and that won’t change. ’ If this is indeed the current reality, and there’s no reason to believe it’s not, will it still be the case in two or three years? At the estimated level, it is understandable that TV executives will find ways to cut costs and squeeze a premium from the investment.
With that in mind, would it have made a difference if Dan Hicks and Paul Azinger had called golf from the studio instead of the tower behind the 18th green? One can make a case for either side of the issue. Both perform their duties exceptionally well, but there’s no substitute for being on-site – interacting with players and immersing themselves in real-world environments certainly results in observations and audience-friendly information that can’t be gleaned from monitors.
Without a doubt, the U.S. Open and British Open are two of NBC’s most valuable events in sports. Not even as lucrative as its most lucrative franchise — its Sunday night NFL telecast has far more viewers than any other telecast throughout the year — and the final two major games of the year are A source of pride for a network whose symbol is the peacock. That doesn’t mean that both are guaranteed to generate a lucrative income stream.
The British Open is the more obvious financial risk, making it the event most likely to cut costs (and staff) going forward. The five- to eight-hour time difference has a big impact on audience numbers, which are often the smallest of the four majors. Its ratings are clearly suffering from low ratings on the West Coast; its 2.1 million daily average in 2021 can’t even match the Tiger and Charlie show that same year just before Christmas.
What’s more, it turns out that the Claret Jug conflict is more dependent on the presence of Charlie’s father than Charlie’s three famous siblings. You could send three Stooges to the Augusta National and 5 million people would tune in. The PGA Championship benefited from being moved to May from 2018, while the US Open was perpetually a tedious tournament, played so long over four days in June that people started watching by accident.
Woods’ appearance at St. Andrews last summer garnered a huge boost to the American’s eyeball count, and those numbers are still going strong after his elimination. The final round on Sunday had 4.725 million viewers, a 12% increase over 2021. Its four-day average attendance ranks as the second-highest since 2015, behind only the 2018 edition, when Tiger dominated with nine holes to play. Bad news for NBC? Tiger is almost done. His absence will result in the loss of millions of viewers for both networks in one season — a large slice of the mainstream pie leading to an undeniably hearty demographic and corresponding growth in ad revenue.
Not that anyone really cares how much money golf’s two major operators make or don’t make. It’s all about product quality, and if there’s one thing people who watch the PGA Tour on a regular basis look forward to, it’s the rich quality of their weekend telecasts. Anyone who’s used to watching the early rounds live on ESPN will testify under oath that the speech is a long, long way off. If Hicks and Azinger were asked to cover events a thousand miles away, they wouldn’t have a hard time doing it, but it wouldn’t be the same either.
Here’s another thing golf fans aren’t crazy about. Change.