Imagine you are driving through the desert for a while. There you are, hurtling down the tarmac – the only car in the distance, surrounded by nothing but the desert landscape and the occasional tumbleweed. The last landmark was 25 miles back, and the next is an unknowable distance. Suddenly you look at the dashboard and realize that your fuel gauge is broken. In fact, it’s been stuck at “F” for so long that you’re not quite sure how much gas is actually in the tank. You’re pretty sure you have enough to get to the next station, however far away, but confident? Well I wouldn’t go Which far.
This, my friends, is the current situation facing LIV Golf Investments, the Saudi Arabia-backed golf investment firm headed by Greg Norman, which is rumored to be setting up a new global golf tour. The aim of the new venture is ostensibly to attract many of the best players in the world, using the investment group’s entrenched backers to support a league capable of rivaling the PGA Tour.
But that destination is still a long way off. It’s not even fair to call it a destination that far away. More of a target, if you will – one that will eventually need a cavalry of reinforcements before it can even smell reality. Among the greatest members of that cavalry: players, a support staff, millions of hungry fans and yes, a television deal.
Right now Norman is in what is certainly a very nice car, with a very broken fuel gauge, in the middle of a all great desert. His only hope, as things stand now, is that there’s a gas station somewhere along this winding road. He’s not convinced such a place exists, but he has a buddy in the passenger seat who knows the way, and he swears there will be one soon.
So Norman does the only rational thing he can do in the situation: he presses his foot on the accelerator, closes his eyes and takes a plunge.
Welcome to a new edition of the Hot Mic, the weekly media section of GOLF. In this week’s iteration, we’re changing the format a bit to reflect a busy week among golf’s movers and shakers, giving you a rundown of the biggest stories you need to know before hitting the action this weekend. First we look at big news from Norman’s upstart golf tour.
The new employees
It’s true, television rights deals are the lifeblood of professional sports. No, no marketing deals, ticket sales, sponsorships or superstars. Sure, those make life easier, but TV deals? Good luck surviving without them. The NFL’s annual contracts amount to a multiplier amountbillionsThe PGA Tour’s run into the hundreds of millions. TV deals are big business, and for a professional sports league hoping to survive into 2021, they represent a barrier to entry.
It goes without saying that the No. 1 priority for Norman and his friends at LIV Golf Investments is to find a television partner, and find one quickly. Norman knows this all too well. In the 1990s, when he was trying to start another breakaway series from the PGA Tour (dubbed the World Golf Tour), Norman used his connections with billionaire Fox mogul Rupert Murdoch to negotiate a television deal. When Murdoch and Fox canceled their contracts with the league over growing concerns about its viability, their decision was anything but a death knell. The competition ended shortly after, without ever hosting an event.
With all that in mind, Friday’s announcement from LIV Golf Investments that it has hired Sean Bratches as its new Chief Commercial Officer marked a key area of focus. Bratches hails from Liberty Media, a media conglomerate best known for owning majority stakes in SiriusXM, the Atlanta Braves and Formula 1. He spent three years there as general manager of commercial operations and helped develop the racing series into one of the fastest-growing professional sports leagues in the world (a sport whose American audiences will explode in 2021). Prior to joining Liberty, Bratches was EVP of Sales and Marketing at ESPN, serving on the network’s board of directors.
Bratches’ skills will likely lead him to several roles in his new job, but it goes without saying that one of the most important will be to help a potential new competition blaze a path to a television rights deal. He will join the company’s other new recruit, Ron Cross (formerly of Augusta National and the PGA Tour), to help establish credibility and legitimacy for a new competition that is still stuck in the desert.
While it’s easy to overlook the need for a media rights deal with Norman and Co. to understand, it is a little more difficult to find a possible match. CBS and NBC are already deeply entrenched in the PGA Tour, and any possible added agreement would be a bad thing, and likely seen as betrayal by the PGA Tour. Fox could go back to golf, but the network was so eager to ditch the sport that it seized the opportunity to sell the rest of its USGA rights to NBC halfway through its original deal. ESPN is another option, but is about to launch a lucrative streaming deal with the Tour. Among the potential candidates, Turner would be the best fit for the new league, especially given its success with The Match, but the network would have huge leverage in negotiations if it were the only show in town.
In short, there are no obvious answers for Norman, but as with all things it all depends on the product. A few big names and Norman was suddenly able to find his league not only viable, but profitable. A lack thereof, and he could find his car sputtering in the desert.
Phil is back!
A few weeks ago, this column Phil Mickelson mentioned the current or former player we most hope to ever see work on television. His intellect, intuition and humor make him easily fit into any position, as he proved during his dazzling hour on CBS’s at least a year-long PGA Championship.
In a few weeks, Mickelson will return to the stand, albeit in a different setting. According to a handful of reports (Golf Digest’s Dave Shedloski was first), Phil will join Charles Barkley on Turner’s broadcast of The Match V. The Match, scheduled for The Wynn Golf Club in Vegas, will pit Bryson DeChambeau against Brooks Koepka on Black Friday afternoon. Jeff Neubarth will once again lead production for Turner’s team.
With the addition of Phil, we’ll definitely be watching, though we sure hope the competitors offer a bit more content than July’s Match IV.
The PGA Tour’s Intriguing New Investment
Despite all the talk of Norman’s proposed competition, the PGA Tour has been quietly (and steadily) strengthening its own front. Justin Thomas spoke last week about increased Tour leadership transparency and Tuesday’s announcement doubled purses for strategic partner European Tour have certainly hammered home the point: The Tour isn’t going anywhere.
Yet the Tour is different Tuesday’s announcement — about his investment in Comcast/NBC Universal’s “SportsTech Accelerator” — was worth mentioning. The SportsTech accelerator is NBC’s own incubator, a concept borrowed from Silicon Valley in which investors provide funding and early support to startups in exchange for small ownership stakes.
NBC’s incubator specifically focuses on “innovative technologies that can help improve the sport and how fans enjoy it,” according to a release. For the Tour, a few companies currently in NBC’s portfolio that may be of interest:
– Eon Media, an AI-based company that can read every frame of a broadcast and communicate exactly the amount of screen time an input value (such as a logo or player) appears.
– GlobalM, whose technology promises to accelerate streaming speeds and quality.
– XIQ: a company that provides ‘golf car fleet technology’.
A natural counter-argument, of course, is that the easiest solution for the Tour to improve its fan experience is to, you know, actually improve the fan experience. Some ideas, should the Tour go that route? Change the current arcane rules around social media sharing, rethink the commercial structure and accessibility of the broadcast product, and duplicate brands like Skratch and the upcoming “Drive to Survive” spin-off, which help capture the sport’s most recognizable characters and moments. spreading.
What I’m looking at
My good friend Paddy Cotter spent the past two years making “16” – a documentary exploring the community that has formed in Penn State (and beyond) after the tragic death of star lacrosse goalkeeper Connor Darcey . The film is honest, raw and relentlessly inspiring; the kind of story that moves fans of any sport. If you have an hour it’s worth a stream.