There were many doubters. A 24-hour service devoted to one sport? Golf?
But Joe Gibbs (not the former Washington Redskins coach) and golfing great Arnold Palmer had vision, passion and perseverance that overcame naysayers, funding and carriage concerns.
“Twenty years ago I was working at Turner Sports and heard that Joe Gibbs and Arnold Palmer were working on the Golf Channel,” NBC Sports chairman Mark Lazarus recalled. “I scoffed at the idea, I thought it had no chance. I’m very happy to say I was proven wrong.
“Golf Channel is one of the key pillars of the NBC Sports portfolio, along with the Olympics, Sunday Night Football, the [English] Premier League, the National Hockey League, the Triple Crown and now NASCAR.”
Gibbs, whose career included executive stints at Crowley Cellular Telecommunications and at Birmingham, Ala-headquartered Masada Corp. (which he said built and operated cable systems in many states under a variety of names), began his friendship with Palmer in 1990 when “The King” stayed at Gibbs’s Shoal Creek home during the PGA Championship event.
The pair — Gibbs with his business and cable background and Palmer with his ties to the sports business community and golf industry — declared their intentions to tee off the Golf Channel at the Bob Hope Chrysler Classic in February of 1993.
They began raising capital through a cadre of investors, including six of the nation’s top cable operators.
“Investing in Golf Channel was a big step for Comcast. We were an original investor and my dad and I firmly believed in what Arnold Palmer and Joe Gibbs started,” Comcast chairman and CEO Brian Roberts said. “I’m thankful to my friend Tim Neher, who was vice chairman of Continental Cablevision at the time, for encouraging us to join him. It was our first entrance into sports programming and 20 years later, it has proved to be a great decision.”
With 180 employees in Orlando, Fla., Golf Channel, sporting the first full digital production facility in the United States, teed off as a pay service via four affiliate deals reaching 10,000 subscribers on Jan. 17, 1995.
During its first year, the network televised 23 domestic tournaments and 41 European and Australian events. The first televised tourney was the Dubai Desert Classic in 1995. GolfChannel.com launched on April Fool’s Day 1996, a year that saw the network’s initial international launch (in Japan) and the milestone of 10 million subscribers as a traditional cable network.
Today, the network, of which Comcast secured equity control in 2000 and outright ownership via a swap for its position in Speed Channel with Fox in 2003, still operates out from the same building. But the operation has grown to 160,000 square feet, the facility it is in delivers high-definition images and Golf employs 700 workers around the globe.
Mike McCarley, who became the network’s fourth president in February 2011, said programming is available in more than 120 million homes in 83 countries and in 12 languages through cable, satellite and wireless companies.
Golf Channel offers more tournament coverage than all other networks combined.
“The foundation is built on live events,” McCarley said. “But news and instructional programming are also key components. Golf Channel is committed to producing more high-quality original shows.”
McCarley said the network has augmented its audience ties with such lifestyle businesses as GolfAdvisor.com, a review website by golfers for golfers that launched earlier this year; Golf Now, a tee-time booking venture, and the instructional Golf Channel Academy, GolfLive Extra streaming and Golf Channel apps (see sidebar).
Still, live coverage remains the primary connectivity for fans and players alike.
All told, Golf Channel, through longterm deals with the PGA, LPGA, European, Asian, Web.com and Champions tours, and other properties, presents more than 4,200 hours of tournaments annually — more than all other networks combined.
Led by Golf Central and Morning Drive, the network offers 2,400 new hours, plus instructional fare. And originals. Big Break, a competition show in which participants strive to gain entry to PGA and LPGA tour events, is about to premiere its 23rd season, while links funnyman David Feherty delights audiences with his interview show, Feherty. Documentary fare like Arnie, the three-part special about the legendary Palmer on and off the course, debuted after the 2014 Masters, is also resonating with viewers.
Under a 15-year deal signed in 2007, Golf Channel is the exclusive cable partner of the PGA Tour, which in 2014, counting live telecasts, replays and ancillary programming, accounted for nearly one-third of Golf Channel’s overall schedule and more than half of the network’s total audience.
This current season, Golf Channel has full four-round coverage of a dozen PGA Tour tournaments and early-round coverage of 30 events, plus The Presidents Cup.
“Golf Channel has been an incredible asset to our sport and certainly, the PGA Tour, since its launch in 1995,” PGA Tour commissioner Tim Fenchem said. “It has grown to be a key touchstone of the sporting landscape and we are proud to be an integral part of that success.”
CBS Sports president Sean McManus said the broadcaster is on course with Golf Channel throughout the season, as the cable channel airs the Thursday and Friday action and weekend lead-in to CBS’s network coverage.
“We share production and broadcast facilities and, in some cases, talent. We are truly one team of professionals and it really works in a very seamless operation,” McManus said. “As an independent, Golf Channel could never really reach its full potential. Working so closely and seamlessly with NBC has really helped lift ratings and awareness of the sport.”
That was especially evident during the days leading up to Super Bowl XLIX in Glendale, Ariz., for which NBC scored a U.S. record 114.4 million viewers. NBCUniversal fare, including Today, The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, Meet the Press, Access Hollywood, Morning Joe, NHL Live, Premier League Live, Pro Football Talk and NBC Sports Digital all set up shop in the Phoenix area ahead of the NFL title game.
With the PGA Tour in town Jan. 29-Feb. 1, Golf Channel aired 11 live hours of the Waste Management Phoenix Open from the Stadium Course at TPC Scottsdale. Golf Central for the first time originated from the famous par-3 16th hole — “The Coliseum” — which was surrounded by 25,000 rowdy fans.
Feherty filmed a pair of installments of his show from Phoenix’s Orpheum Theater.
“The rebrand of ‘Golf Channel on NBC’ has become universally accepted,” McCarley noted.
During 2014, NBC Sports Group reached an unmatched 79 million viewers via “Golf Channel on NBC” broadcasts and Golf Channel.
Since becoming part of the NBC Sports Group via the Comcast merger in 2011, Golf Channel has recorded its best four years with the Nielsens, upping its ratings 57% and total-day audience 40% over that span.
Measured against a baseline level from 2010, Golf Channel saw its tournament coverage ratings grow 22% and its audience expand 16% through 2014. News program Golf Central scored 83% and 76% growth, while Morning Drive, which expanded to a seven-day schedule last year, leaped 229% and 227%, respectively. Instructional fare jumped 50% in the ratings and 37% in audience over the four-year span, as other original programming increased 17% and 9%.
RATINGS ON THE RISE
“We matched 2013 on a ratings basis, even though the sport’s biggest star, Tiger Woods, was sidelined for the bulk of the year,” McCarley pointed out. He said the ratings gains on the network and with the combined reach on NBC have enabled “us to develop new relationships with clients.”
Golf Channel’s advertising lineup includes equipment and endemic advertisers, as well as luxury goods and autos such as Rolex and Mercedes- Benz, plus financial companies and telecommunications firms, reflecting its active and upscale audience.
Last year, Golf Channel stood as the most-affluent ad-supported network for median household income and percentage of $100,000-plus household income audience delivery, as 38% earned $75,000 or more, ranking ahead of Fox Business Network. In primetime, Golf was first for median household income and percentage of $100,000 household income delivery — with 44% earning $81,600 or more — topping sister service NBC Sports Network.
The network received the most Emmy nominations in its history in 2014. McCarley said Golf will invest in more high-quality originals that will keep its well-to-do viewers returning.
McCarley also said golf’s return to the Olympics at the 2016 Rio de Janiero Games figured to open up new programming opportunities, while enhancing the sport’s popularity.
“I don’t have a crystal ball, but leading up to the Olympics in Rio, there is going to be continued growth for golf globally,” he said.
Roberts is also keeping his eyes on the game, which he plays quite well, and the Games: “We are so proud of how the Channel has grown and evolved. With golf returning to the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio, I think the best is yet to come for the sport and the channel.”
Golf Channel Links With Audience on Screens, Greens
While networks aspire to have programming that connects with viewers’ genre affinities, Golf Channel’s ties extend beyond TV, tablet, phone and computer screens to courses around the world.
“It’s not like the traditional relationship a network has with viewers,” Golf Channel president Mike McCarley said. “We have so many more touch points. Golf Channel has a very strong, entwined relationship with the most loyal viewers in television.”
GolfNow Solutions is assisting some 8,100 golf courses in running their business through a custom software suite guiding online booking engines, tee-sheet management, point-of-sale accounting and comprehensive golf course marketing and operations applications.
Bowing last year, GolfAdvisor.com is now home to more than 325,000 reviews by golfers, providing real player insights about 9,000 courses in 29 countries around the globe.
GolfNow, the world’s leading online tee time platform, aided golfers in booking more than 13.4 million rounds in 2014 at some 6,000 courses worldwide.
The premium version of the GolfNow mobile app, which launched last October, features on-course GPS range-finding, in-round scoring and performance tracking.
This spring, Golf Channel Academy will hang its shingle at more than 30 premier golf locations across North America, enlisting top teachers to offer hands-on instruction.