For all of the talk about how technology is changing golf, the seismic shift isn’t limited to equipment advances with drivers and irons.
The transition this year of PGA Tour Live to ESPN+ is a potentially massive moment for the tour and for viewers who now have access to more than four times the streaming coverage they did a year ago.
Don’t want to wait until television coverage begins on Golf Channel, CBS or NBC?
Four different streaming feeds are now available during tournament play at ESPN’s premium site, bringing the day-long tournament experience to whatever device a consumer might prefer. The cost is $6.99 per month or $69.99 per year and provides 4,300 hours of competition beyond the 650 hours on traditional television.
“The amount of competition that’s actually happening on the field of play relative to the amount of competition that’s made available to fans historically is very small. Our opportunity here is to expand that coverage,” said John Lasker, ESPN’s vice president for digital media programming.
“When you’re waking up on Thursday morning, we’re going to be waking up with you. If the tee time is at 7 a.m., we’re going to be on at 7 a.m. whipping around to the different parts of the course where players are, effectively expanding backward what the television coverage would be.”
Let’s take a moment to explain how PGA Tour Live has grown into something ESPN felt strongly enough about to invest a reported $75 million annually to bring to its 17 million ESPN+ subscribers.
Understanding the vast majority of shots hit in a tournament were not available to viewers, the tour launched PGA Tour Live in 2015, doing its own production work. The tour had already begun setting featured groups for the Thursday and Friday afternoon television windows, and this was a way to show those groups in the morning as well.
Last year, PGA Tour Live had 1,000 hours of action. Now it has more than four times that much live golf.
For a time, Amazon served as a retailer, and later PGA Tour Live was part of NBC Sports Gold. When new media rights deals were negotiated to go into effect this year, several entities including WarnerMedia, Discovery, Amazon and Google/YouTube reportedly showed some interest in acquiring the PGA Tour’s digital rights.
“The strategy we’ve deployed here is we try to verticalize the category so it’s not just about a single game or a single event. We’re trying to offer an immersive, robust experience over the course of a season or a year.” – John Lasker
The chance to work with ESPN (it’s a nine-year deal) swayed the tour, offering an enormous built-in audience that will have the option of looking in on the tour even if they aren’t core fans.
ESPN+ has already expanded viewership through rights deals with the NHL, UFC and international soccer. Now it’s golf’s turn.
“The strategy we’ve deployed here is we try to verticalize the category so it’s not just about a single game or a single event,” Lasker said. “We’re trying to offer an immersive, robust experience over the course of a season or a year.”
After a soft launch with the two Hawaii events in January, the new PGA Tour Live went full bore with the American Express, one of 28 events that will have four days of coverage.
There are four feeds offered:
- The main feed will feature action from around the course;
- The marquee group feed will show every shot from a star-driven group;
- The featured group feed will bounce between two other groups;
- The featured hole feed will focus on a combination of key holes at each event.
“(ESPN) wanted to blow it out in terms of content. We go from one live feed to featuring two groups to four live feeds,” said Rick Anderson, chief media officer for the PGA Tour.
“When you think about where those feeds could go over time, they could change based on what our data tells us that fans like on ESPN+. That’s the beauty of a digital platform. We have the information about what they will watch and what they won’t.”
Golf coverage isn’t going away on traditional television. It’s still going to be on during the afternoon like it has been for years, but it’s gone from being limited to virtually unlimited.
Streaming, a foreign concept to many just a few years ago, has become part of the culture, even for sometimes slow-to-change golf fans.
“Three years ago, it was a fearful event to imagine the game they wanted to watch was on a streaming service,” Lasker said. “People are now less fearful, which has increased the adoption. It has become a lot easier to use.
“In sports, if your team is on, you want to watch them.”
The same goes for watching golf. It’s an enormous undertaking, but it also offers a window into what is possible with the continuing innovation in technology.
While ESPN will act as the delivery service, the PGA Tour is handling the production of the content. Since its inception, PGA Tour Live has been done remotely, the producer and others at a broadcast center in St. Augustine, Florida.
Previously, there were eight cameras on site and approximately 80 people working on the PGA Tour Live production. The new PGA Tour Live has approximately 200 employees, with 120 or so on site at each event. It also uses 12 handheld cameras and five tower-mounted cameras. The director will still call the shots from St. Augustine, whether the tour is in California or South Carolina.
More coverage means more people telling the various stories. Among the announcers will be John Swantek, Jonathan Coachman, Lisa Cornwell, Christina Kim, Karen Stupples, Mark Immelman and Stuart Appleby.
“The tour has always suggested this is the breeding ground for talent,” said PGA Tour vice president and executive producer Greg Hopfe. “Mark Immelman started with us, and now he’s on CBS.
“What we’re finding since the announcement is a lot of players are coming to us who are struggling with status. Matt Every. D.A. Points. Will MacKenzie. These are three guys who immediately called us and we will work into the rotation. It’s a great place for players to transition out of their status.”
This is just the beginning, or perhaps more accurately, a new beginning.
“We anticipate some transformative changes to what PGA Tour Live is and what it’s going to be,” ESPN’s Lasker said. “We’re going to get feedback from fans. We’re going to be watching it ourselves. Hopefully, PGA Tour Live is even bigger and better and a lot different two or three years from now than it is coming out of the gate here.”
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