What’s In Golf’s Bag?

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The Golf Channel is commemorating its 10th anniversary with a new look, using fresh colors and graphics, testimonials from the likes of Tiger Woods and Donald Trump and newly themed programming nights.

President Dave Manougian said those won’t be the only changes ahead for the Comcast Corp.-owned service, which celebrated birthday No. 10 on Jan. 17.

He promised continued domestic and international expansion for Golf, which helped blaze a trail for other networks dedicated to single sports.

LOTS TO DO

Also on his list: More original programming, moves into other delivery forms and ancillary businesses and a drive to reacquire rights to the Professional Golfers’ Association Tour.

“During the first 10 years, the focus has been not to chase rainbows. We wanted to build the best network and brand we could. And I think we’ve come closing to doing that,” he said.

Adding 6 million customers in 2004, Golf — which largely completed its transition to a basic channel from a minipay service in 1997 — is now in 66 million U.S. homes.

With further rollouts from affiliates, Manougian, who became president in 2001, foresees Golf pushing into the mid 70-million range by year-end.

To reach full distribution, though, the network must clear its one distribution bunker: It has been unable to come to terms with Cablevision Systems Corp.

Internationally, Golf is now in approximately 20 million homes, including some 7 million in the United Kingdom, 4.8 million in Canada, 3.5 million in South Korea and 1.2 million in Japan.

Manougian expects a larger presence in those nations — he notes interest is keen in Korea, which has a number of strong female players—and is eyeing migration into China and a stronger position in continental Europe.

On the programming side, Golf, which appeals to a highly affluent audience with an average income of $75,000 per household, has scored well with its nightly Golf Central (think SportsCenter for whackers and hackers) franchise and a Monday-night instructional block, “Your Game Night.” Featuring shows like What’s In The Bag and Playing Lessons From The Pros, the Monday block drove ratings up 20% in 2004, according to network officials.

Since Jan. 18, Tuesday nights have become home to original series, including a makeover show in which amateurs get tips on how to improve their game and on-course look.

Key to the originals is the reality competition franchise The Big Break, whose winner gets a chance for exemptions to play in select events with the real hitters.

The series’ third iteration, Big Break III, Ladies Only, bows Feb. 8 and has drawn major sponsorship from Anheuser-Busch’s Michelob Ultra brand and the net’s first-ever national sweepstakes support from convenience store leader 7-Eleven, according to senior vice president of advertising sales Gene Pizzolato.

Manougian envisions various offshoots for Big Break down the road, involving celebrities, athletes from other sports and business leaders.

'TEN A YEAR’

Under Manougian, Golf has launched 32 new shows over the past three years. “Ten a year. We think that’s about right,” he said of the network’s development plans.

Another new club in Golf’s programming bag is “Top Shelf Wednesdays.” Here, the network is presenting “top 10s” pertinent to the subject at hand. “We’re talking about the top 10 shots from Ernie Els, or the 10 biggest finishes at the U.S. Open in the week before the tournament,” Manougian said.

Thursdays through Sundays are devoted to tournament play as Golf holds the rights to half of the Ladies Professional Golf Association events (ESPN has the balance); all of The Nationwide Tour (the qualifying circuit); 36 European events; the Canadian Tour and the Champions Tour (it has cable-exclusivity for the senior men).

Golf currently holds four-day rights to three PGA tour events. During the contract that expired with the 2002 season, Golf held some Thursday-Friday rights. Now, Manougian is eyeing a bigger presence on the big tour.

“It was great to have those 10 events but, for our viewer at home, it didn’t make sense before the last putt was holed,” he said. “I am not saying we need 30 events. I think possibly 10 full-round events and 10 Thursday-Friday events. We want to create a home for the viewer, marketability and drive viewership.”

MORE PGA CLOUT

With Golf’s customer base homing in on 70 million — versus the 40 million it had during the last go-round in July 2001 — Manougian believes his channel will be a player for PGA rights this time. Negotiations are expected to take place this summer, he said.

Elsewhere, he’s eyeing opportunities beyond the small-screen and a Web site. “We think we can supply wireless content that will be of interest to golf fans. We already have shows that look at golf resorts, so we’re investigating the travel arena,” Manougian said, noting that with shows like Academy Live and The Golf Channel Academy, Golf Channel Academies could open.

“We want to be part of everything that golfers experience with the game: from traveling, to being spectators and to improving their own games.”

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