WarnerMedia Keeps Swinging at Celebrity Golf in Hopes of Building a Franchise Without a League

FILE - In this June 24, 2019, file photo, Charles Barkley arrives at the NBA Awards o at the Barker Hangar in Santa Monica, Calif. The former Auburn University star and NBA Hall of Famer says he's donating $1 million to Miles College, a historically black institution in Fairfield, Alabama. (Photo by Richard Shotwell/Invision/AP, File)
Richard Shotwell/Invision

Golf’s next big TV event will only feature one professional golfer on the green.

On the day after Thanksgiving, WarnerMedia’s TNT will feature the latest iteration of “The Match,” a celebrity-golf showdown that pits big-name athletes and sports figures against each other in a telecast that nods to charity and owes as much to spectacle as it does to competition. Phil Mickelson, a regular of the series, will team up with Charles Barkley to take on Stephen Curry and Peyton Manning — all in a broadcast that weaves advertisers deeply into the proceedings.

“What we are thinking of is a pop culture event that makes golf much more fast paced and is looking to younger viewers,” says Will Funk, executive vice president of sports partnerships and branded content at Turner Sports, the WarnerMedia sports division, in an interview. “This is a world-class golf competition meets ‘Dancing With The Stars.'”

WarnerMedia’s sports unit isn’t the industry’s biggest; no one will confuse the many hours of the TNT schedule devoted to NBA games for ESPN. And parent company AT&T, grappling with millions in debt, does not seem poised to open its wallet to procure a new flight of broadcast rights so it can show more games from one of the nation’s big sports leagues. What executives can do, however, is build something of their own.

“We control the intellectual property,” says Funk, which means there’s no phalanx of sports-league officials to confer with when it comes time to put a Ford vehicle on the green at a strategic moment in the game, or have the participants hold forth on a Capital One-sponsored “Cart Cam” — with Eli Manning featured as an “in-cart correspondent” — that can be streamed on the company’s Bleacher Report. “There’s an interesting opportunity to license the event marks to partners and integrate them into the fabric of the program,” says Funk.

Turner Sports has stayed in the professional-sports business by tapping a competitive and entrepreneurial bent that puts it in deep partnership with many of the entities with which it does business. Turner Sports operates the NBA’s cable network, for example, as well as digital assets for the NBA. The unit’s desire to do more came to light last decade when it struck a deal to telecast the NCAA’s “March Madness” men’s basketball championships with CBS after rights fees for the property became too onerous for that media outlet to handle. More recently, Turner has renewed its deal with Major League Baseball that gives it better games, at a cost estimated to be around $535 million per year. It also made plans to create new programming around baseball coverage, and struck a broad talent deal with Shaquille O’Neal.

Part of the appeal of “The Match” for sponsors is that there are only a handful of them — and many of them appear to be returning. “We don’t want to create clutter,” says Funk, noting that some of the top sponsorship slots represent “multi-million dollar commitments” while declining to offer more specifics. “There is a smaller number of strategic partnerships that add value to the telecast in many ways. I don’t see us going brand-crazy. We feel less is more.” Many of the sponsors have a right of first refusal to appear as Turner devises similar events in the series, says the executive.

That means Capital One will once again enjoy the role of title sponsor, while Progressive Insurance, Anheuser-Busch InBev’s Michelob Ultra and Ford Motor Co. — a new participant — will serve as presenting sponsors. Cisco and DraftKings will be featured in the event itself, with  AT&T, Callaway Golf, E-Z-GO, Stephen Curry’s OXIGEN Water, Taco Bell and Wheels Up signing on as associate sponsors of the event. Viewers will see Ford’s new Mach-E electric Mustang SUV on the driving range, and the vehicle will take players to the course. A Michelob beer cart will be visible at a certain point in the broadcast and the beverage will be spotlighted in a “branded” video segment. Players will have open mics during parts of the show, and products from Apple — which is providing technology for the event — will show up on screen. Autotrader sponsors a pre-game show at 2 p.m., hosted by Cari Champion with Eli Manning.

Turner’s league broadcasts have helped it with filling the “Match” sponsor pool. Both Capital One and Michelob are long-time advertising partners with Turner Sports, says Funk.

Are there more editions of “The Match” being scheduled for 2021? Funk declines to say. “The future is hard to predict, or to look at more than a few months out, but we certainly hope the world gets behind it and we can do more long-range, long-term planning.”