PGA Tour tries different strokes for TV gains


NEW YORK -- When the 2007 PGA Tour tees off today with its new TV rights package, it's going in with a new plan to drum up interest year-round with a page straight out of the NASCAR playbook.

The PGA is introducing the FedEx Cup, where players compete in a seasonlong points competition that runs 37 weeks, from the Mercedes-Benz Championship in Kapalua, Hawaii that begins today to the Tour Championship in Atlanta that concludes Sept. 16. Like NASCAR's Nextel Cup competition, the format is designed to hold fan interest -- and keep TV ratings strong -- in a build-up to the crowning of a champion.

Ratings for golf's four major tournaments and the other events that Tiger Woods plays have remained sturdy. But Woods plays a limited schedule (he appeared in just 15 PGA events in 2006, and he and his wife are expecting their first child this summer), and Tour officials felt they had to do something to attract what sources said was $3 billion over six years from CBS, NBC and the Golf Channel.

"These second-tier events have been watered down to the point where the sports fan needs to have a reason to watch, has to have a reason that all this leads to something in the end," said Jim Nantz, CBS' lead golf announcer who has spent 22 years broadcasting the PGA. "For me, I love all the events. But the reality is that the PGA Tour wasn't building up to anything. It didn't have the big bang."

"It's a really strong effort to put some definition on the season and build an ongoing story," said Sean McManus, president of CBS Sports and News. "It's creating a lot of buzz and excitement."

NBC Sports president Ken Schanzer said that the structure of the FedEx Cup ensures that virtually all the top players will compete in the concluding events, three of which will air in September on NBC. Schanzer said the Tour's most recent change regarding the Championship Series -- with cutdowns in the Boston tournament from 120 players to 70 and then in the Chicago event that slices the field to 30 players for the Tour title field in Atlanta -- increases the drama and pressure.

"We think it's going to be interesting, not only to the golf fan but also to the casual fan," Schanzer said.

"You're going to have the marquee players playing a lot in a condensed amount of time at the end of the season, when in the past a lot of them would have wound down," said Rob Correa, senior vp programming at CBS Sports.

Added Nantz: "I think it will work. I'm anxious to see how it will all interface with the PGA Tour. I think it will be an upgrade. The Tour needed to do something like this. It was a gutsy move, and they used the NASCAR template, which has been a raging success."

The new rights deal increased the commitment of CBS and NBC while ABC, which carried 16 PGA tournaments in 2005, now only carries the British Open as the network makes space for NASCAR.

CBS carries the most PGA Tour events, 19 as opposed to 16 last year, including most of the West Coast events like the Buick Invitational from Torrey Pines in San Diego and the Nissan Open from Riviera Country Club in Los Angeles. It also has the first stop, in New York, of the four-event Championship Series.

Watching all this from the CBS tower on the 18th hole will be Nick Faldo, the six-time majors champion. The Englishman, who brought a humorous touch to ABC broadcasts the past two seasons, will be paired with Nantz as the replacement for former lead analyst Lanny Wadkins.

Meanwhile, NBC doubles its PGA telecasts to 10. In addition to the Championship Series, its events include its traditional crown jewels, the U.S. Open and the Players Championship, as well as the World Golf Championship, the Presidents Cup and the so-called Southern Swing.

"We think it's the right fit for us," Schanzer said. "We had the opportunity to add attractive, particularly attractive events, and we leaped at the opportunity."

The Golf Channel, in its biggest year ever, will televise the first three PGA events of the season and six or seven end-of-the-season tournaments now known as the Fall Series.

As far as the broadcasts go, CBS and NBC promise further technical innovations for this season. They were busy scouting golf courses for the best angles, since they are increasing the number of tournaments and televising ones they haven't in years past or ever.