The Tim Finchem Replacement Derby – Play On

There are two popular parlor games played in Ponte Vedra Beach these days. The first is called “When Will Tim Finchem Step Aside?” and the second is “Who Will Replace Tim Finchem?” These games are typically played with greater vigor during The Players Championship week, when players, agents, sponsors and the media descend upon this seaside home to PGA Tour headquarters.
Finchem is 63 now and has been commissioner since June 1994. There is little question he has been a 24/7 leader, and that in itself will take a toll. Throw in a deep recession and top it off with the Tiger Woods saga, and it’s not hard to imagine the picture of a man who wants to play golf rather than run it.
Presumably, there is an internal succession plan in place (see Finchem Q&A starting on page 5). Conventional wisdom around Tour circles has communications chief Ty Votaw in a bake-off with championship management and TPC honcho David Pillsbury. Votaw, former LPGA commish, is a thoughtful lawyer who skillfully guided golf’s Olympic bid (alongside The R&A’s Peter Dawson); Pillsbury, a former course operator and Nike Golf veteran, is a gregarious executive who is well liked by colleagues. Most agree both candidates need more exposure to other parts of the Tour, especially player relations.
Particularly among players, there is a sense that an outsider is needed after 35 years of Deane Beman and Finchem. Finchem was Beman’s handpicked successor, and many view him as simply an extension of the Beman way, which not everyone was fond of. And while Finchem has presided over immense wealth creation for the players, he has never completely won them over. Some are rankled by his compensation, some by the perception that he plays favorites, and some by the way the Tour treats the players (“like zoo animals,” said one player during Players week). The latter sentiment is the most widespread. Those who subscribe to this school of thought believe Finchem and his staff often forget who works for whom.
Succession is one of two off-the-course storylines to watch in the next two years. The other is the negotiations for network broadcast rights beginning in 2013. These talks promise to be different than any before, and quite probably more difficult than ever. Why? A senior Tour executive told me that the core business of the PGA Tour is to generate television ratings. It is also true that it’s the Tour’s job to deliver guaranteed revenue, via title sponsorships for tournaments. The six-year term we are currently in has been rocky on both fronts. Ratings have been soft to disastrous, depending on which time period you want to analyze (i.e. with or without Tiger) and who you listen to (TV people vs. Tour people). And revenue suffered due to the global economic downturn and the collapse of key sponsorship categories like auto and financial services.
To be sure, no one anticipated the full effect of that downturn and the impact it had on the Tour and the networks. Tough talk from uninformed career politicians demonized golf and exacerbated an already difficult situation. It also didn’t help that Tiger took the back half of 2008 off to heal his knee, and then disappeared for part of 2010 to heal his life. As a result, the networks will be hard pressed to realize a reasonable rate of return on their investment this time around.
Key TV partner CBS must have sent a spring chill through Ponte Vedra Beach a few weeks ago when it almost punted on continuing to broadcast March Madness. It’s one of the most compelling sports events, and CBS was looking at annual losses of $200 million and apparently was willing to walk. The New York Times reported CBS offered to sell its rights to ESPN just to bail out. In the end, CBS partnered with Turner Sports for the next several years and kept the NCAA tourney on its airwaves, albeit on a shared basis.
What if CBS were to think about golf as it did the NCAA basketball championship? Partnering with Turner is not an option, as Golf Channel has locked up the cable rights into the next decade. Golf Channel would make a perfect Turner-like partner for CBS, if it weren’t for one small issue: Comcast, Golf Channel’s corporate parent, is expected to own NBC by year’s end.
An NBC/Golf Channel combination could own pro golf. The cost-sharing and cross-promotion possibilities are endless and potentially very attractive to the Tour. But without CBS (and assuming neither ABC/ESPN nor Fox show real interest), the Tour becomes terribly dependent on one large customer – Comcast. A single bidder does not create a competitive marketplace and thus rights fees will likely decline under such a scenario, and therefore tournament purses as well.
Finchem has steadfastly resisted sponsor rollbacks or purse declines on his watch, a posture not everyone thought was appropriate for the environment of the past 24 months. So he will stay through 2012, get the TV deal done while somehow proclaiming victory, and provide Votaw and Pillsbury more seasoning and exposure to other parts of the PGA Tour empire. The parlor games will continue through 2012. Play on.


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