Open Letter To Brian Roberts: For The Sake Of Our Sport, Please Sell Golf Channel
After a U.S. Amateur scheduling mess and a year of budget cuts, it's time for CEO Roberts to do what's right for the sport he loves.
Today’s Quad should have been focusing on Oakmont offering a sensational U.S. Amateur stage. I’d planned to analyze how the festivities added some wacky dimensions to the upcoming distance debate. But that’ll be a letter for tomorrow assuming my cable doesn’t mysteriously go out upon sending this missive.
However, we have an emergency golf-on-TV situation to address.
Sunday’s U.S. Amateur telecast was top notch thanks to finalists James Piot and Austin Greaser putting on a great show. Rolex’s role means limited interruptions. Thanks, you big, beautiful, expensive manjewelry-maker!
There was also some aggressive Brandt Packer-producing that sent Jim Gallagher Jr. ahead of the match to prep us for the next hole’s dangers. And boy does Oakmont have them. Furthermore, the visuals and tracer all helped tell the story. The intricacies of Oakmont were easy to see thanks to the coverage. Though we did miss some player sound because Justin Leonard seems to believe he’s doing radio play-by-play.
So the show was fine. This is about the television boondoggle that’s becoming the new normal under Comcast: NBC juggling golf audiences around to push the Peacock app. Throw in cuts and it’s all very bad for a sport so heavily relying on one corporation that increasingly seems bothered to spend and uphold its contractual obligations.
Since we’re all family here at The Quad, I’m sharing my open letter to the Chairman and CEO of NBC/Golf Channel’s parent company, Brian Roberts.
Mr. Brian Roberts
One Comcast Center 1701 JFK Boulevard
Philadelphia, PA 19103 USA
Dear Mr. Roberts,
From a golf fan to another—albeit one with way fewer club memberships—I write out of concern for the sport we both love.
Would you please consider selling Golf Channel? Please hear me out.
Your passion for golf is admirable. We’ve chatted and I know your golfing soul is in the right place and you take Masters committee assignments very seriously. But like any great CEO, you are even more devoted to the delivery of shareholder value. This latter trait, while part of the job, is destroying an important entity in the sport. An entity you helped grow since 2003 as full owner and one that your company is now making a hot mess of even as the sport enjoys a renaissance.
While we all acknowledge and thank your company for building the channel and preparing for the day blue chip advertisers flee, the channel is blatantly returning to its pre-Comcast roots as a scrappy newcomer. I can point to ads for Mike Stone albums and Sqairz as evidence.
Sure, no one has solved the whole cable-to-streaming transition thing and your company has a very defined strategy on that front: cable is dead, streaming is everything, so make your money on the internet packages. But golf is not ready to rely on streaming. It’s a background sport. Golf is rarely one you sit down to watch unless it’s really interesting, like Sunday’s U.S. Amateur final.
Streaming numbers in golf will be light for years to come. I’m sure you saw The Open’s Nielsen numbers: 4.9 million watched on NBC and another 161,000 streamed the final round. Nascent days.
As pretty much any golfer would tell you, the channel’s watchability and allure has cratered in short time. The Connecticut tax breaks were robust and I’m sure the hundreds of new hires you were required to take on will agree. But in a very short time it seems like Golf Channel is no longer adequately serving the sport, its remaining viewers, advertisers or your “partners” at the PGA Tour, USGA, R&A, LPGA Tour, Augusta National and European Tour.
While the last year-or-so has substantially decreased the worth of this once-valuable entity, there is still time to get out, cash-in, and do a good thing for golf. I’m confident several interested parties are willing to pay for the channel and its ancillary businesses. Even Golfpass. The money would help you pay down debt. Or maybe you’ll spend $500 million like you paid to get The Office back from Netflix. Only next time it’ll be for Ted Lasso reruns. That’s Apple TV+’s breakout hit show born out of an NBC soccer promo. A show NBC declined to pick up as a show. But hey, NBC does get a contractually-obligated mention every time the opening credits roll!
Tough love time: Comcast and the content business are not a fit. At all.
Your rivals over at AT&T figured this out the expensive way. Now they’re selling everything off before further damaging a once premium asset like HBO. You have the power to save Golf Channel in a similar way. Heck, you could be a first ballot World Golf Hall of Famer. First, the Drive, Chip and Putt and now, saving Golf Channel from Comcast! Cast the bronze now!
Coming off an Olympics presentation deemed “televisual vomit” by one critic after abandoning the immersive storytelling that NBC pioneered, Comcast has forced the same weird scheduling mindset and budget-forward approach to golf. The vision seems to go like this: show a lot of shots and commercials, spread the coverage out all over the place depending on what more important partner has something to air, hope people wager at PointsBet, and maybe some day 50 million people will pay you $20 a month for Peacock.
Or maybe you’re winding the channel down and handing it off to the PGA Tour? Which, technically, would be a less cruel act compared to this fall’s planned shuttering of NBC Sports Network.
Only you know the vision. Speaking of such things, did you see what FOX did last week with the Field Of Dreams game? Everything from the unbelievable production values down to small stuff like the graphics showed they really cared about baseball. It probably cost a bundle to pull off. It almost certainly won’t show a huge profit and was a huge risk given the possibility of bad weather and technical issues. But after rave reviews, you can sense a rekindling of passion for a sport usually trying its best to screw things up. The Field of Dreams game could end up rewarding Major League Baseball and FOX in the coming months. It sure feels like they pulled off something transformative for their sport. They cared.
Now, if present-day NBC had the Field of Dreams game, the announcers would have been in Stamford talking from a refurbished Guardians of the Galaxy set (synergy!). There would have been no drone near rural Iowa and certainly no blimp (insurance costs money!). Whatever it cost to get Kevin Costner there would have made the accountants cringe.
Just look at the major championship coverage NBC delivered this year. Cuts have turned the best golf production team into an average one. You were even forcing the USGA to tee off early to get to Olympic trials coverage. Boy what a ratings boost that was for Tokyo.
You get where I’m going. This whole inconvenient streaming strategy is getting old, particuarly when it plays out like Sunday at the U.S. Amateur or as it did at 2021’s NBC-produced majors. We get it, you want us to test out Peacock. But are you really all in on it or have the beancounters already got a sell-by date circled? When NBC took back the USGA contract from FOX, you renegotiated a few parts and pay well below market value. Murdoch and friends are paying the rest and writing off upwards of $700 million not to have the USGA deal.
So last week the U.S. Amateur came to your home state. And they were playing at storied Oakmont featuring the next stars of golf. Youth! Athletes! The coveted demo!
What did your company do?
During the week when most match play action was underway, you put an hour on Peacock and two hours on Golf Channel. We all get that you have obligations to the PGA Tour made long before taking back the USGA deal. And we get this is the big week of the $10 million Comcast Business Solutions chase wrapping up. So exciting that ZERO of the top ten showed up. Even more reason to use the U.S. Amateur to put lots of coverage on Peacock where the next generation will (supposedly) watch sports.
So even with expenses for the week already covered and low rights fees, viewers got the bare minimum. Since Comcast lost $914 million last year on Peacock and will surpass that in 2021, what’s another $50k in wages for some bonus Peacock coverage of the U.S. Amateur? A lot, apparently. But people noticed and they’re fed up.
Sunday’s finale rolled around and the morning session was not shown. Then the Golf Channel handoff to NBC was delayed by auto-racing. Eventually the move to the planned network window happened. The golf was compelling and at the 34th hole, we were abruptly told it’s a big night on NBC with America’s Got Talent, so we must move the golf again. This time to NBCSN. I repeat: the 34th hole of the U.S. Amateur final and a dandy of a match.
The match was running a bit long but who cares with so many lead changes, right? Local news and those pesky affiliates got their way, followed by Family Game Night and America’s Got Talent. Except on the west coast where LA got 30 minutes about a mop, another market saw Cindy Crawford beauty secrets for the eight millionth running, and Seattle had some surfing show.
You have the power to end this!
Look, we can take the hint Mr. Chairman. Most golfers no longer automatically turn the channel on to see what’s up. The channel is losing subscribers and reach. While we’re not privy to the long term vision, I could see a scenario where 2021 is a placeholder until you hand more control over to the PGA Tour in September. Maybe some time next year you let them call it the PGA Tour Network.
But even in this scenario, the PGA Tour should be worried about what’s inside the big, shiny box under the tree. Because right now it looks like they’lll be inheriting a big, beautifully-wrapped empty box.
Yet, I bring sensational news!
There will be multiple suitors for Golf Channel if you hang up a for-sale sign. Over at Discovery, David Zaslav loves golf, dreams big and signs big checks. When the Time Warner merger happens, Turner Sports will be under their umbrella and Golf Channel would make a great fit alongside their GolfTV offering. While I realize the Warner-Discovery deal is structured in a way that you might scoop it all up a year after the deal happens, we need you to save the Golf Channel from ruin. ASAP.
There is more good news. Since you’re already talking to Shari Redstone, you know her top sports lieutenant Sean McManus loves the sport, makes shrewd business decisions and has pushed through major upgrades to CBS golf in the last few years. Plus, go figure: CBS Sports Network already has more original golf programming than the Golf Channel. So CBS is a natural fit with their PGA Tour rightsholder status.
Disney should be interested, too. They could snatch up the channel for ESPN and ESPN+, which is injecting new life into the PGA Championship while picking up full PGA Tour Live rights this fall (RIP NBC Sports Gold). The Worldwide Leader has 13.8 million ESPN+ subscribers to feed and plenty of reasons to justify a bid. Golf Channel’s small monthly sub fee would barely make a dent in their multi-channel pitch to cable companies like yours.
There may be other possible buyers. You’d know better since Allen & Co. invites keep avoiding my inbox. But I bet you know some other vest-wearing tycoons who’d love to help rescue Golf Channel from your accountants.
My sense is that a lot of smart people believe golf is back for a long time. The awful pandemic made folks reevaluate their priorities. They’re appreciating the (safe) outdoors. They’ve decided to spend less time in traffic and more time on the links. The Golf Channel and its surrounding business interests should be enjoying residual success instead of losing share to upstart influencers on YouTube.
Embarrassing, right? But you, Mr. Roberts, can save the channel. By selling.
The power! The glory!
All for the great game you love.
Yours in the Royal and Ancient,