PGA Tour Live Delivers A Streaming Breakthrough For Golf
The new home on ESPN+ delivers stunning pictures, better options and a clear path for golf's streaming future. Plus, a word on Kapalua's record scoring.
Golf viewers have lacked good reasons to cut the cord. The combination of clunky interfaces, unreliable apps and a lack of progress on the picture quality front created widespread ambivalence toward digital streams. At least, the ones offered in weeks not called A Tradition Unlike Any Other.
For golf’s older audience there remains huge appeal in the simple act of pressing a channel number and finding the golf they want to watch. But the importance of function or quality has never stopped the march to new distribution mediums. Just look at buying music where sound quality had declined. Yet improved access to more songs wherever you want them is a huge upgrade while an old school vinyl revival pleases audiophiles.
Streaming golf on a big screen traditionally looks fine but at best, the same as cable. Only with with glitches and other interface headaches. But after watching ESPN+’s PGA Tour Live coverage from Kapalua now available to American audiences, this was the first time big screen viewing was consistently more impressive looking and sounding than linear TV. While it helped to have the coverage sunny Maui in the dead of winter, I saw a noticeable increase in vividness and clarity with ESPN+, only to see a slight decline when the Live broadcasts stepped aside for Golf Channel’s coverage on my cable system.
While not true 4K that so many televisions can handle and do on Netflix, this was the closest I’ve seen to realistic golf course colors and none of the motion smoothing that can be irritating for sports viewing. Combine the images with ESPN+’s interface offering dreamy multicast options, and the future of everyday golf viewing has arrived.
Frankly it’s a bit odd that golf is playing catching up since the Masters was one of the first sports to push the streaming envelope. But those offerings were largely demanded by viewers at the office watching on desktops or, in recent years as technology improved, on mobile devices. Augusta National has continued to be the first to offer small but important upgrades that we’ve also seen incorporated into ESPN+’s PGA Championship coverage. Viewers got a taste of what might make golfers cut the cord with picture-in-picture on their phones and multiple feeds. But a majority of golf tournaments have had to be found through NBC’s clunky apps. Just going more than a half hour without them crashing constitutes a victory.
The PGA Tour Live bar was also set low by minimalist production values. Ground view cameras, mediocre sound, soft pictures and few modern gizmos made it hard to justify the $65 a year. Which was the primary motivation for the Tour to take over a production in its new 9-year deal starting this year. They now have a general feed that can be supplemented by the networks, but this means PGA Tour Live now has cameras positioned on towers, more tracer, more on course audio and other traditional elements viewers demand.
When the last deal was up for bidding, the negotiations reportedly came down to Discovery’s GolfTV and ESPN+. The Tour shrewdly chose to partner with Disney, giving them deals with three major media companies. They also would get ESPN’s overall interest in golf on Sportscenter and less reported: their technology. The move already looks brilliant.
Disney+ is up to 179 million combined subscribers, of which 17.1 million subscribe directly to ESPN+. It’s unknown how many viewers subscribe to the bundle of ESPN+/Hulu/Disney+ for a very reasonable $13.99 a month. I’m on that plan and in Mandalorspeak, This is the way.
No matter which package is chosen, PGA Tour Live coverage is included in whichever Disney option viewers choose. Also included in the subscription is plenty of non-CBS coverage during the Masters and PGA Championship.
Now, there are plenty of reasons to be concerned about the content side of the PGA Tour-produced coverage. State TV interference is bound to happen. This week offered early signs of trouble. On Thursday, someone was very aggressively muting out players muttering to themselves. A couple of times it was justified, including when Justin Thomas reeled off some salty language at the same place as last year’s expensive f-bomb. GolfTV viewers were allowed to hear it. But the bleeping out got so ridiculous it had many of us thinking our speakers weren’t working. That the censoring also will have gamblers wondering what they are not seeing and how long ago it happened.
There was also the usual excess of FedEx and Tour promos, and those extended FedExCup standings looks no one needs in January. Or ever.
But it’s the big picture story that’s more exciting for golf viewers. Yes, there were inevitable first week hiccups, glitches and moments of announcers talking over the improved audio captures. Though in Sunday’s case with Phil Mickelson talking “equity,” maybe that was best.
And there was a totally bizarre method of computing how elevation change affected shots we’ll have to keep an eye on. For giggles.
Finally, and cover your eyes kids, but ESPN is allowed to sell ad blocks during the PGA Tour Live coverage. Besides the same ads played relentlessly and seemingly placed by computer based on some clumsy transitions, one appeared to be a leaked Robert Pattinson sex tape. What would Walt say?
The Hawaii swing provides a “soft launch” for Live that hits full stride at the American Express in less than two weeks. Four feeds will be in action and for the year Live will deliver 4,300 hours of live golf. All but the on-course announcers are working just down 95 from the Global Home, so they know Cult Ponte Vedra is watching. As safe and bland as the commentary is bound to be, the jaw-dropping, realistic images will turn heads. It was the first time I’ve gone from streaming to a lesser viewing experience where cable’s pictures and sound declined in quality.
Part of this is on the backend thanks to Disney’s spending. It started with their investment in BAM Tech. The Disney team is taking the tournament site transmissions at facilities in Bristol, Connecticut and Woodlands, Texas where they’ve invested heavily in two highly sophisticated video production and playout facilities. Those deliver real-time pictures to Disney Streaming’s fiber network and then on to subscribers. The investment shows.
The vast cable versus streaming differences pose a good problem for the Tour to have but one they better discuss with the NBC executives working down the Global Home hall: in year one of the new 9-year deal it already feels like the cable portion of the contract is outdated. As more viewers cut the cord and subscribe to ESPN+, they will be enjoying the coverage only to switch to slim Golf Channel offerings nothing like ESPN+’s multi-channel viewing options and picture. (Golf Channel streams on the NBC Sports or Peacock apps, or for some cordcutters, the YouTubeTV option.)
Meanwhile, ESPN can offer a sports viewer special perks when airing something like Saturday’s NFL games. The viewing freedom to select what you want to watch via their Multicast option allowed me to more easily toggle between broadcasts of superior picture quality. Or, I could simply watch them all at once thanks to the two, three and four channel options.
What a contrast compared to the dreaded Peacock shuffle golf fans have been subjected to between NBC, Golf Channel and the ‘cock. Let’s hope there are big upgrades by early summer for American viewers watching the U.S. Open and The Open.
The superiority of ESPN’s product offering will fuel more competition globally to push the viewing envelope and cause smart people to come up with more innovative viewing. I don’t have high hopes for the Tour offering feeds with fun, opinionated Peyton and Eli-style secondary conversations or instruction-infused looks at the player. Both would show fewer shots. And the more shots shown, the more gamblers might wager. Or so the logic apparently goes.
This, even though it’s with highly specialized feeds like Featured Groups or Holes where you see more shots and get invested in the overall experience. (TVG has been doing incredible work on this front with its horse racing viewing and betting app.)
You know what else won’t make people bet? When the Presidents Cup’s International captain calls in to discuss the tournament leader he’s hopes will be on his team nine months from now. Yes, that happened this weekend during NBC’s Sunday window when, mercifully, most Americans were watching the NFL’s final regular season games.
Content fears aside, the move to ESPN+ and its almost-4K picture may not be as significant as the leap from standard to high-defintion. But plenty of overdue function and the promise of progress may be enough to convince golf viewers to finally cut the cord.
Pros Overcome Loss Of Green Reading Books And 46-Inch Drivers
The Sentry Tournament of Champions marked the beginning of meaningful bifurcation as I noted in last week’s edition of The Quad. Besides no longer watching a player study a cheat sheet to putt, the loss of green reading books and longer driver shafts did not hurt scoring.
Cameron Smith edged Jon Rahm by one and Matt Jones by two. The three were a combined 99-under-par. (Final round highlights here.) Each man surpassed the previous PGA Tour record for most strokes under par in a 72-hole event.
Sure, the wind was down. They played preferred for two rounds. The course was rain-softened. But it’s still worth noting that as the sport is headed for a discussion about skill-restoring rules modifications, three players in a season-opening event just broke an 19-year-old scoring record. So much for needing those crutches felled by Model Local Rules.