One of the most curious moments in a golf telecast this year was also one of the most telling. During last month's American Express Championship in San Francisco, PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem visited the ABC booth during Saturday's round and, after expressing his everything-is-beautiful view of the Tour, offered a personal message, telling those beside him how much he has enjoyed working with ABC, then adding, "I hope we have many more years together." It almost sounded as if he were begging. � The Tour's four-year, $850 million contract, signed in 2001 with the three over-the-air and three cable networks, expires after the 2006 season. The nets, who claim to have lost millions on that deal, are determined to drive a harder bargain during the next round of negotiations, which are to begin this month. The hot rumor circulating at the AmEx was that ABC would not participate in the negotiations and planned to get out of golf entirely--except for the British Open, for which ABC owns the rights through 2009. Hence the role reversal of the Tour commissioner sucking up to TV types instead of the other way around. "It was a little out of character," admits ABC analyst Paul Azinger.
The Finchem exchange is symbolic of how the tables have turned in pro golf. The Tour enjoyed a decade of unprecedented increases in prize money (from $61 million in 1995 to $252 million this year) largely due to the star power of Tiger Woods. But lately the game has hit the wall. Television viewership still spikes markedly when Woods plays, but over the last few years the Sunday audience for Tiger events has decreased by an average of 33%, according to Nielsen Media Research (box, right). Tiger's diminished drawing power is only part of the problem. The Tour also suffers from overexposure, competition from other sports, purses so bloated that they have created a disincentive for top players and a drawn-out season that lacks a definitive and compelling conclusion. "We have no [fan] interest, basically, after the PGA Championship," says Woods.
The Tour is well aware of these shortcomings. Last week at the Tour Championship--days before journeyman Bart Bryant shot a 17-under 263 to finish six shots ahead of Woods in a pleasant but hardly riveting competition at storied East Lake Golf Club in Atlanta--Finchem revealed the first steps of a plan to address the Tour's TV issues.
The Tour decided to tackle the problem of the ho-hum end of the season by creating the FedEx Cup, a self-contained, four-tournament points race that will conclude with the Tour Championship. That tournament, which currently ends the season, will be moved up from around Halloween to mid-to-late September. "We're the only major sport that doesn't have a playoff system," Finchem said in announcing the Cup.
Here's how it will work: Players will accumulate points based on their performances during the regular season. The top 144 point-getters will be eligible to tee it up in three tournaments to be played after the PGA Championship. The 30 players who earn the most points in those events--a minichampionship chase styled on NASCAR's Nextel Cup--will qualify for the Tour Championship. A bonus pool will reward the top finishers in the FedEx Cup, with the winner earning as much as $10 million. Many of the details have yet to be worked out, and Finchem wouldn't disclose the three tournaments that will lead up to the Tour Championship, but they are widely believed to be the Deutsche Bank Classic (in Boston), the Barclays Classic ( New York) and the Cialis Western Open ( Chicago). One or more of those tournaments could rotate to different cities. The Western Open, for example, could be played at Bellerive Country Club in St. Louis or at Hazeltine National Golf Club in Minneapolis. Insiders say longtime Tour stop Westchester Country Club may bow out as the site of the Barclays Classic, with Donald Trump's sprawling Trump National Bedminster in New Jersey among the replacement candidates.
Although Finchem calls the FedEx Cup a season-ending playoff, in reality it will simply wrap up the big-boy portion of the Tour schedule, thus voiding the Tour's annual network ratings-sapping showdown with college and professional football. A handful of smaller Tour events, featuring lower-level players trying to make the Tour's 125-player all-exempt list, will soldier on in their usual fall slots but will be shown only on cable TV.
The '07 Tour schedule will also look slightly different in the spring and summer. The Players Championship, the closest thing to a major championship owned by the Tour, is expected to move from March, when it has been beset by bad weather and the NCAA basketball tournament, to May. And two of the four World Golf Championships will change locations. The Accenture Match Play Championship is likely to leave La Costa in San Diego and relocate to Tucson. American Express is said to be reviewing its sponsorship of the AmEx Championship, but even if it renews, it will need a new date because the FedEx Cup will hog September. One possibility is to snatch the Players' old March dates and settle in Tampa, which now hosts the Chrysler Championship, a snoozy fall event.
As new looks go, this makeover is a modest start. "The Tour was in a must-do-something situation," says Azinger. "It couldn't afford to try to sell the same product to the TV networks. It copied NASCAR and came up with a concept that gives TV an opportunity to get excited about our package again. I think the players will like it. The big question is whether it's enough to get TV to buy back in, at close to what it paid [four] years ago." (In 1997, riding Woods's burgeoning appeal, the Tour signed four-year TV contracts covering the 1999-2002 seasons worth a total of $650 million--a 50% increase over its previous deals. In '01 the Tour signed for $850 million for 2003-06, another 40% increase.)
Azinger's big question won't be answered until early next year when the ink dries on the new contracts. Two things are clear, though: The Tour is trying to adapt to a changing marketplace, and this plan will leave distinct winners and losers. Here's who is likely to benefit from the new schedule:
He complained that the Tour season is too long. Bingo! It won't be anymore, although he will have to slog through six tournaments in seven weeks at the end of the season if he is interested in the FedEx Cup lucre.