The PGA has signed its next round of PGA Championship media deals, and while they’ve re-upped with CBS on the broadcast side, their cable coverage will be shifting from Turner (TNT) to ESPN and ESPN+ beginning in 2020 and running through 2030. That’s a significant change, as Turner had carried cable coverage of the event on TBS and TNT since 1991.
And one of the more notable elements of this is how much of the coverage will be on ESPN+ and how much other content ESPN will be providing around this, as John Ourand writes at Sports Business Journal:
ESPN’s strategy has been to invest more heavily in championship events like the PGA, which was last carried on the net in ’90. “If they hand out a trophy at the end of it, we’re interested in carrying it,” Magnus said. But ESPN also is looking for content to convince people to subscribe to its ESPN+ streaming service. “We’re building a new business in ESPN+. It was ideal for us to have a golf major available for acquisition.”
Starting with the ’20 event at Harding Park in S.F., CBS and ESPN will have wall-to-wall coverage (more than 175 hours) during the tournament. CBS will carry weekend afternoon coverage, while ESPN and ESPN+ will carry the Thursday and Friday rounds exclusively. It also will carry weekend rounds before CBS goes on air. Interestingly, while CBS is on air on the weekend, ESPN+ will have live coverage from featured holes and featured groups. ESPN will have in-progress highlight rights and post-round highlight rights for ESPN+, ESPN.com and the ESPN App. ESPN+ also will carry practice rounds before the tournament, press conferences and driving range interviews. ESPN will produce “SportsCenter” from the event.
Other aspects of the deal: ESPN will carry the PGA Jr. League Championship starting in Oct. ’20. “That could become a different version of the Little League World Series,” Waugh said. Plus, the PGA of America retains the rights to PGA.com.
ESPN’s doing a whole lot here, including a road SportsCenter and the other shoulder programming, and they and CBS have also combined for a rights fee increase execs described as “healthy” elsewhere in Ourand’s article. And interestingly enough, the event’s move to May (from August) beginning next year was cited as a key reason for this deal by both CBS and ESPN executives; they like having it as the second major of the year (after April’s Masters, which is also split between CBS and ESPN), and that could possibly boost its profile a bit. But it’s perhaps particularly significant to see Magnus’ quote about “building a new business in ESPN+,” and that speaks to what ESPN’s programming acquisition philosophy may be moving forwards.
The focus for ESPN+ at the moment is attracting as many subscribers as possible and building up a direct-to-consumer pipeline to help offset losses in traditional cable and satellite subscriptions, and putting exclusive or early content there helps. But given the limited reach of ESPN+ at this point (compared to the traditional TV channels, at least), ESPN still needs to balance it with its linear channels.
That’s an approach we’ve seen on the documentary side (films like The Last Days Of Knight and Seau started on ESPN+, but the former aired on ESPN months later, and the latter may come there down the road as well) and on the rights side with things like Serie A (a game of the week on linear, the rest on ESPN+), but this is perhaps a larger test of the idea; there’s still going to be lots of PGA Championship coverage on ESPN’s linear channels, but putting some of it on ESPN+ could make that service pretty appealing for golf fans. And it’s perhaps especially interesting that ESPN+ will continue to have live coverage during CBS’ weekend broadcasts; if fans aren’t happy with the groups or holes CBS is covering, ESPN+ could be an alternative option.
So, are big live events going to be exclusive to ESPN+ any time soon? Probably not; the sheer numbers of linear TV subscribers (even with cord-cutting declines, those numbers are still big) make it more likely that ESPN’s going to put the truly big things there for the time being. And that’s important not just for them, but also for leagues; it’s doubtful the PGA would have taken a deal that saw early round coverage move completely to ESPN+, given the limited numbers of subscribers to that service and the outrage that would have caused from many viewers, but a deal that puts coverage on both ESPN and ESPN+ feels more workable.
But ESPN+ is becoming a more and more important part of ESPN’s rights deals, with exclusivity for smaller properties and with shared coverage with linear TV for bigger properties. And in some ways, this is reminiscent of what happened in the past with ESPN2, and later ESPNU and ESPNEWS: those channels started without a lot of big-ticket live events, but as they gained carriage and subscribers, they became a more and more acceptable place to put games. ESPN+ may eventually follow a similar trajectory. For the moment, it’s going to be part of the company’s rights deals, and a significant part, as this PGA Championship move shows.