TV Networks Bet on Golf to Lure Sports Audiences Back to the Screen

Rory McIlroy
Denis Poroy/AP/REX/Shutterstock

An intense desire for live sports has some TV executives taking a new swing at golf.

NBC Sports is hoping viewership of its Sunday broadcast of a charity match between Rory McIlroy and Dustin Johnson and Rickie Fowler and Matthew Wolff is indicative of interest in a range of golf games set to be played in June and over the summer – some of the first live sports telecasts to surface since the pandemic scuttled most outdoor events.

“Golf is the first thing we are able to get back on the air,” says Dan Lovinger, executive vice president of advertising sales for NBC Sports Group, in an interview. “I think we are in a very good position to get those advertisers that have been on the sidelines for far too long to get back into the game.”

Viewership for the Sunday broadcast, broadcast across NBC, NBCSN, and Golf Channel, among other outlets, captured an average of 2.35 million viewers across all platforms, a figure that is about the same as viewership for network coverage of the PGA Tour in the second quarter of 2019. Still, it is approximately 16% higher than the audience for the final of the Dell Match Play last year.

Others are placing emphasis on golf, too. WarnerMedia has sold all its commercial inventory for its May 24 broadcast of a celebrity golf match between Tiger Woods, Tom Brady, Phil Mickelson and Peyton Manning. And CBS is seeing high interest for PGA Tour events it plans to air in June, with appropriate social-distancing requirements. “For us, the PGA starts on June 11 in Texas. We’re seeing very strong demand for that,” said ViacomCBS CEO Bob Bakish during a recent call with investors.

Golf has long been important to various networks, which fill hours of their weekend schedules televising the Masters and sundry PGA Tour stops. That relationship was spotlighted in early March, when ESPN, CBS and NBC agreed to a new nine-year pact with PGA Tour that could come to at least $680 million.

Whether the current demand reflects a new desire for golf – or for Nascar, another sport that started up last weekend with a race that took place in South Carolina without fans – remains to be seen. The rush of advertisers and audiences to those sports early to return to the field “may or may not be proof that this pent-up demand is for a made-for-TV golf tournament or for a series of Nascar races with no fans,” says David Carter, an associate professor of sports business at the University of Southern California Marshall School of Business.

Golf does have some advantages, however. Social-distancing is easier to achieve than in team sports like football or hockey. And the sport boasts a range of endemic sponsors who sell golfing supplies and equipment to aficonados, as well as PGA Tour partners that include Coca-Cola, John Deere and Rolex.

Golf “probably has a little bit more of a b-to-b focus than, say, an NFL, but it’s a very loyal base of supporters,” says Lovinger.

NBC Sports has data to clock consumer interest in the sport for sponsors. The NBCUniversal unit owns GolfNow, a service that helps book tee times, and since April 21, it has  clocked an increase of 41% the in total number of online rounds of golf sold year over year for 19 of the last 23 days. In May, the service measured a 60% increase in golf rounds sold over the year-earlier time period.

There are other signals. Lovinger says Golf Channel has only a few ad spots left to sell in its May 24 telecast of “Tiger Slam,” an hour-long documentary about Tiger Woods that is sponsored by CDW and U.S. Bank.

The game has one distinct advantage over bigger sports, says USC’s Carter: anyone can get on the green and try to play. Not everyone can play football, baseball, basketball or hockey. “You have a lot of people who want to get back out” after the pandemic, he says. “For them, golf is a way of life.”