Looking for more viewer enthusiasm, the tour moves its TV deal to CNBC.
By BOB HARIG
© St. Petersburg Times, published February 11, 2001
NAPLES, Fla. -- The Senior PGA Tour is all about comfort: cozy 78-player fields with no cut and a guaranteed paycheck, Cadillacs as courtesy cars, a seasonlong annuity program and some $59-million in official prize money. For the fortunate who are part of the 50-and-older golf tour, life is good.
And not much has changed over the years. The tour has done its best to keep the format the same while getting a jolt of adrenaline whenever new blood arrives in the form of some eager 50-year-old who gets to be a rookie again.
But the formula has flaws, and the Senior PGA Tour recognized them. Though they likely won't be apparent at this week's Verizon Classic (formerly GTE Classic) at the TPC of Tampa Bay -- where crowd support typically is among the best on the tour -- other events have suffered.
Whether it is TigerMania on the PGA Tour stealing fans or the aging of senior superstars Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, Lee Trevino and Gary Player, many observers agreed that the seniors needed more sizzle.
Changing cable broadcast partners might appear to be an odd way to accomplish the goal, but tour officials are confident their deal with CNBC will provide the necessary boost.
"This new arrangement and new group of announcers is going to give us a new enthusiasm on the senior tour," PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem said. "The regular air times will allow our audience to grow over the next two or three years. We realize it is going to take a little time to get our audience used to where to find the senior tour."
That seems to be the biggest risk. Sports junkies who have their cable remote plugged to ESPN and ESPN2, where the senior tour had been a staple since 1990, will no longer stumble onto it. Now they might even have to look in the TV listings to find out where their cable company put CNBC.
For those not accustomed to tracking their Microsoft and Disney stock on the CNBC scroll, the channel is the top one for business news and information. It reaches more than 160-million households worldwide, 79-million in the United States and Canada.
CNBC has delved into a limited amount of sports, telecasting some Olympic events last year, two PGA Tour events, and pregame and post-game shows during the baseball and basketball post-seasons because of its affiliation with NBC.
Why golf? The sport does not produce a ratings bonanza, for sure. Even the Masters, the most widely watched golf event of the year, does not get the numbers of, say, a regular-season NFL game. But the folks watching are very important.
"We're looking for a value demographic, not an age demographic," said Bill Bolster, CNBC's president. "Our advertisers are interested in disposable income, not how old the viewers are. For instance, Schwab doesn't ask you how old you are when you want to open an account. They ask you how much money you have. That's what our advertisers are interested in.
"You'll notice the advertising is targeted against value, not consumers. You don't see package goods in there, for the most part. What you see is high-end stuff because these people have money to spend. That's what made CNBC such a valuable asset inside the television world."
Bolster himself fits the mold of the person his network seeks to attract. A part-time Naples resident who is a member at swank Naples National Golf Club, he visited last year's ACE Group Classic at Pelican Marsh Golf Club, his first exposure to senior golf.
Four months later, CNBC secured the rights to the senior tour over ESPN.
"They were so compatible imagewise, brandwise," Bolster said. "It's exactly what I wanted. It's a very, very high-class brand. They would be the only brand sport on CNBC."
It wasn't as if CNBC stole the package from ESPN, however. The all-sports network loved its relationship with senior golf but cited declining ratings for being unable to accommodate the tour's wishes to do more events.
In the early 1990s, ESPN garnered a 1.3 rating for senior telecasts, which translated to about 777,000 households, ESPN spokesman Josh Krulewicz said. In 1998, the rating was .72, which declined to .58 in 1999 and .49 in 2000, or 382,000 households. ESPN, with its wide range of sports coverage, believed it could not offer more exposure because of those numbers.
And yet it seems natural that a network geared toward financial information would showcase some of the most successful businessmen in sports. Not only do the senior stars make plenty of money on the course, they are involved in myriad business transactions, from course design to endorsements.
"The correlation is there," said Tom Watson, winner of eight major championships and one of the senior tour's most recognized faces. "I certainly hope we remain as a golf entity. Obviously, out here on tour we make a lot of money. I think that's the main reason the tour went with CNBC, because there is a direct correlation there."
CNBC is doing 33 senior events this year, including the final round of today's ACE Group Classic and the Verizon Classic.
To avoid confusion, viewers will never have to wonder when the telecasts are. First-round coverage will air from 1-3 p.m. each Friday on Pax, with the Saturday-Sunday rounds from 6-8 p.m. on CNBC. That means many events will be on tape delay, something ESPN did frequently.
"It is not quite live, but it is certainly not delayed to the point where it is old news," Finchem said. "So I don't think that is going to affect our audience. The more important thing is that the senior tour starts virtually all weeks after the regular tour is over in the afternoon with consistent air times. Our television audience knows that we're going to be there and we're going to be there at six o'clock on Saturday night and Sunday night. We think that's important in terms of building our audience."
The show is produced by former Pinellas County resident Ken Murrah, who has attempted to do different things with the telecasts. There are new camera angles, cleaner graphics and additional microphones. Mark Rolfing is the lead announcer, and the lead analyst is Brian Barnes, a colorful Englishman who once defeated Nicklaus twice in one day during the Ryder Cup.
With such a heavy broadcast schedule, some of the TV talent will change throughout the year.
"I think it's yet to be seen if it's a good deal," said senior tour player Bob Murphy, who did analysis for ESPN and now works nine PGA Tour events a year for NBC. "I don't like the fact that we're going off a sports channel. But we're going to a place that is promoting us, and that's very important. That hasn't been happening on ESPN as it should have, so hopefully we're on to a better deal."
WHO: 78 Senior PGA Tour players, including defending champion Bruce Fleisher, Larry Nelson, Jack Nicklaus, Tom Watson, Lanny Wadkins, Hale Irwin, Raymond Floyd, Gary Player, Chi Chi Rodriguez and Lee Trevino.
WHAT: 54 holes, Friday through Sunday.
WHEN/WHERE: Monday through Sunday at TPC of Tampa Bay, Lutz.
PURSE: $1.4-million; $210,000 to the winner.
TV: 1-3 p.m. Friday, Pax; 6-8 p.m. Saturday-Sunday, CNBC (tape delay).
TICKETS: Admission is free Monday-Thursday. Tickets for tournament rounds are $20 in advance, $25 at the gate. A day book, which has six tickets, is $70 in advance, $80 at the gate. A championship package, which has Friday-Saturday-Sunday admission and one sponsor parking pass, is $60. For information, call (813) 265-4653.
PARKING: Available on Van Dyke Road east of Dale Mabry. Follow the signs from the Veterans Expressway or Dale Mabry. Cost is $5 per car. No public parking will be available on Lutz Lake Fern Road once the tournament begins.
SCHEDULE: Monday -- Open qualifying for the final four spots in the field is at Fox Hollow Golf Club, New Port Richey. The pro-am is an 11 a.m. shotgun at the TPC of Tampa Bay. Tuesday -- Junior Pro-Am is a 9 a.m. shotgun at Heritage Harbor, Lutz. The Senior PGA Tour Skills Challenge is at 2 p.m. at the TPC of Tampa Bay. Wednesday-Thursday -- The Championship Pro-Am has 8 a.m. and 1 p.m. shotgun starts. Thursday -- The Super Seniors Pro-Am is a 9 a.m. shotgun start at Fox Hollow. Friday-Sunday -- Tournament rounds begin at approximately 8 a.m.
-- Compiled by Bob Harig.
Field will expand after Monday qualification.
Tommy Aaron, Jim Albus, Isao Aoki, George Archer, Hugh Baiocchi, Miller Barber, John Bland, Jose Maria Canizares, Bob Charles, Charles Coody, Jim Dent, Terry Dill, Ed Dougherty, Dale Douglass, Allen Doyle, Bob Duval, Bob Eastwood, Dave Eichelberger, Vicente Fernandez, Bruce Fleisher, Ray Floyd, Al Geiberger, Gibby Gilbert, Bob Gilder, Stewart Ginn, David Graham, Hubert Green, Walter Hall, Mark Hayes, Harold Henning, Mike Hill, Bill Holstead, Joe Inman, Hale Irwin, Tom Jenkins, Gene Littler, David Lundstrom, John Mahaffey, Graham Marsh, Terry Mauney, Gary McCord, Mike McCullough, Jerry McGee, Orville Moody, Gil Morgan, Walter Morgan, Bob Murphy, Larry Nelson, Jack Nicklaus, Andy North, Christy O'Connor, Jesse Patino, Gary Player, Jimmy Powell, Dana Quigley, Sammy Rachels, Chi Chi Rodriguez, Tom Shaw, J.C. Snead, Dave Stockton, Bruce Summerhays, Doug Tewell, Leonard Thompson, Rocky Thompson, Jim Thorpe, Lee Trevino, Howard Twitty, Steven Veriato, Lanny Wadkins, Bobby Walzel, Tom Wargo, Tom Watson, DeWitt Weaver.