The Masters Breaks Tradition by Switching TV Networks
by Max - 10/12/2007
After years of trying to break through into the most hallowed golf tournament, the Worldwide Leader in Sports has finally gotten its foot into the door. It was announced this week that ESPN will air early round coverage of the 2008 Masters, held each April in Augusta, Georgia. Veteran golf announcer Mike Tirico will serve as host for ESPN, but the time coverage on Thursday and Friday will not change. Only three hours of late golf will be shown for the first two rounds from 4 p.m. through 7 p.m. EST. The traditional replay of the day's coverage will start at 8 p.m. EST each night.
This is a major pick-up for ESPN and it's not hard to tell that there is new leadership at Augusta National. Billy Payne become chairman of the Club in 2006, taking over for the embattled Hootie Johnson, who received much criticism during his eight years as chairman. Most of that pressure came from Martha Burke, who criticized the club for not having any women members.
Payne seems determined to bring Augusta National up to the 21st Century standard and realizes that ESPN and their worldwide reach can help him achieve this feet. The Masters television package has been a long staple of CBS and USA Network (owned by NBC Universal). CBS has televised the event since 1956 when it used six cameras to show the final four holes of the event. The coverage of the event eventually moved to four days when USA Network started showing first- and second-round coverage in 1982. USA had the rights for the Masters for 25 years and this will be the first year that they will not be showing the event. CBS has maintained their weekend coverage and this will be their 52nd consecutive year working with Augusta.
Augusta National has always tried to limit the amount of TV coverage each day of the event. Many believe this is done to maximize their TV ratings. They have routinely shown just three hours of the first two rounds and only the final nine holes on the weekend. But they have gradually bowed to public pressure and started showing complete 18-hole coverage of the leaders on Sunday. Viewers would be displeased when someone led after Saturday and when TV coverage resumed on Sunday, that individual would be out of the lead and the viewers would not get to see the collapse.
Despite the 50+-year relationship with CBS, The Masters has always negotiated on successive one-year contracts. This allowed ESPN to jump on and thus end the relationship with USA Network. How was ESPN able to do this? My guess is money, as ESPN routinely outbids other networks in order to maintain their recognition as the Worldwide Leader in Sports. One now has to wonder if ABC, NBC, or Fox will make a pitch for weekend coverage. Chairman Payne seems to have established a new tradition and his forefathers have to be cringing at the sight. CBS must be disappointed in the news, because they have always gone to great lengths to satisfy the Augusta brass, agreeing to some most unusual requests such as:
1) Prohibitions on promotions for other network programs. Thus we all enjoy not having to see previews about "Survivor". The exception is for "60 Minutes," which follows final-round coverage.
2) Prohibitions on sponsored graphics, blimps, on-course announcers, or the regular CBS sports graphics template. The Masters uses their own traditional graphics.
3) Referring to the gallery as "patrons" rather than spectators or fans and calling the rough the "second cut."
4) Long-time CBS announcer Gary McCord is not allowed on the premises since 1995 when he remarked that the greens were so fast that they seemed to have been "bikini-waxed."
5) Minimal commercial interruption (four minutes per hour) and all commercials are negotiated directly with Augusta National.
It will be interesting to see if any of these new rules apply to ESPN's first- and second-round coverage. Will Chris Berman be allowed on the golf course? Will the bottom line be able to keep us informed about the other events of the day? Will the CBS announcers be able to cover the first two days, similar to what they did on USA Network? My guess to most of these questions in "no," because if the Masters makes special arrangements with ESPN, you can be sure CBS would be up in arms.
I feel switching networks is a start of things to come under the new Augusta regime. Like in most business, money talks and half of the traditional Augusta members are up in age and Augusta expects to see a new membership base with different beliefs and opinions. Will tickets be opened up to the general public? Will the Masters start selling merchandise through its Web site? Will viewers be able to watch six to eight hours a day of TV coverage, similar to other major golf events? I would bet to see these things come to fruition with the near future. Since Augusta still negotiates on one-year contracts, it will be interesting to see how they rate ESPN's performance this season and if they will be welcomed back for 2009.