PGA Championship revels in new relevance and commercial uplift following move to May

BETHPAGE, NEW YORK - MAY 14: The flag on the 18th green blows in the breeze as seen during a practice round prior to the 2019 PGA Championship at the Bethpage Black course on May 14, 2019 in Bethpage, New York. (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

  • New media-rights deal with CBS and ESPN ‘rose 10-15 per cent in value’ after switch 
  • Woods’ victory at Augusta led to immediate spike in ticket sales at this year’s event
  • Golf major opened up to US courses denied the event due to blistering August heat  

Moving the PGA Championship from its August date has been a commercial success for the PGA of America before a club has even been swung in the new May slot.

This year’s tournament – which begins tomorrow (Thursday) at Bethpage Black in Long Island, New York – represents the first time since 1972 that the event, known for many years as ‘Glory’s Last Shot’, will not be the fourth and final major of the season. Instead, it is being played early in the year, between the Masters and US Open.

The move has already paid off in ways greater than the PGA of America could have anticipated.

Last October, the organisation announced an 11-year deal with CBS and ESPN for media rights to the PGA Championship, beginning in 2020. CBS, which has covered the event since 1991, will continue to air the final two rounds, while ESPN and ESPN+ will replace Turner Sports as broadcaster of the first two rounds.

The deal, notably, means CBS and ESPN will now be the broadcast partners of the first two major tournaments in the calendar and the continuity is expected to help both the networks and the tournaments. Financial terms of the deal have not been revealed but Seth Waugh, the PGA of America chief executive, has told SportBusiness that the calendar switch has led to a commercial “uptick”.

“It definitely made it more appealing to our partners that it was a May date. We have the same broadcast partners as the Masters and that was not lost on them at all. Next year…there will be a lot of lead-in which makes a lot of sense,” said Waugh.

“It’s a little hard to separate the fact that live sports is now the only waterfront property given how people are consuming television and it’s the only thing that is live and it, from an advertising perspective, is a different animal. But if I had to put a number on it, I would have to believe it was a 10-15-per-cent lift because of May from what it [the broadcast deal] might have been in August. But there’s no question there has been an uplift in there.”

Sean McManus, chairman of CBS Sports, told Golf Digest: “[The move to May] makes it an even more attractive property for us. I think the viewership will be up in May, the sales marketplace is better in May, and to have the first two major championships was really important.”

BETHPAGE, NEW YORK – MAY 14: Tiger Woods of the United States speaks to the media during a press conference prior to the 2019 PGA Championship at the Bethpage Black course on May 14, 2019 in Bethpage, New York. (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

Tiger roar

Then what Waugh thought was a smart decision – to place the PGA Championship directly after the Masters – became a “brilliant” move, as he describes it, following Tiger Woods’ epic victory at Augusta in April.

The excitement and publicity generated by Woods’ triumph – his first victory at a golf major since 2008 – has directly benefitted the PGA Championship in many ways. There was an immediate spike in ticket sales and requests after the Masters, while media interest has been far higher than usual, as the sports industry waits to see if Woods can continue his career resurgence.

“We were in good shape going into the Masters but there is no question that the interest immediately blew up,” he says. “The corporate side was well-baked ahead of time but we did [see] a spike there.

“There was also a spike in ticket sales and ticket requests the day after the Masters. The amount of press interest, interview requests and general buzz about it…we couldn’t ask for a better month of foreplay, if you will, into it. It’s been huge. We know the fan interest on-site and on television will be at fever pitch.”

CBS sports commentator Jim Nantz told reporters last week: “This is unquestionably one of the great cases of serendipity when it comes to scheduling that I’ve ever seen in the sports broadcasting world. The PGA Championship definitely hit the lottery with the move in 2019.”

BETHPAGE, NEW YORK – MAY 13: Signage is displayed during a practice round prior to the 2019 PGA Championship at the Bethpage Black course on May 13, 2019 in Bethpage, New York. (Photo by Warren Little/Getty Images)

Golf’s Olympic return played role in shift

The PGA Championship has long been in need of a lift. Since being established in 1916, the tournament has been widely considered the least prestigious major, lacking the history of the Open (which was established in 1860), the tradition of the Masters and the difficulty of the US Open.

In 2012, Sports Illustrated asked 50 golf professionals, in an anonymous survey, which major would they most like to win: the winner was the Masters (50 per cent) followed by the Open (25 per cent) and the US Open (23 per cent). Just two per cent said the PGA Championship.

It did not help that the tournament failed to have a fixed place on the calendar, bouncing around nine different months of the schedule in its history. As recently as 2016, the PGA Championship was moved to July to accommodate golf’s return to the Summer Olympics. This was a situation expected to reoccur every four years and played a significant role in the move.

“Is it a better fit in terms of having the majors before the Olympics? Absolutely,” says Waugh, who succeeded Pete Bevacqua as the PGA of America’s chief executive in September 2018. “There are fewer moving parts, you don’t have to get the venues to change and have fans rethink things. It wasn’t the biggest driving force but it was certainly part of the conversation and kind of the cherry on top that it all makes sense.”

The mid-August date also clashed with the prelude to the American football season, which captures much of the media’s attention in the US, and was a time when many Americans go on holiday. It was therefore announced in 2017 that the PGA Championship would move to May from 2019, as part of a wider shake-up of the PGA Tour season, which will now conclude at the end of August rather than stretch into September.

Moving the tournament had to be done in full co-operation with the PGA Tour as it meant some events on its schedule had to change slots as well to make it work, including moving the Players Championship – considered the unofficial fifth major – from May to March.

Now, rather than a two-month gap between the Masters in April and the US Open in June, there will be four consecutive months of major championship golf from April to July, with the Players Championship as the prelude in March.

“At its core, we as a golf industry think this is a much better cadence for the whole season and for the flow of bigger events. It’s a five-course meal, beginning with the Players Championship in March, then going to Augusta and then us [before the US Open and Open].

“Now you have this five-month, one-a-month outlay, and the season ends at a more logical time before the [American] football season really begins and interest wanes in every other sport a little bit. We also think that it’s better for us in the sense that we really like being in the middle of the five-month cadence rather than being at the end of that.”

ST LOUIS, MISSOURI – AUGUST 12: Brooks Koepka of the United States celebrates with the Wanamaker Trophy on the 18th green after winning the 2018 PGA Championship with a score of -16 at Bellerive Country Club on August 12, 2018 in St Louis, Missouri. (Photo by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images)

Hosting reversal

The calendar switch also changes the pool of courses suitable to host the PGA Championship. Courses in the US south-east and south-west that were ruled out as too hot for players and spectators in August are now in contention, and the inverse is true for some northerly courses.

“The May weather will, we think, be better in more of the country but it will sadly take out some of the country as well, the more Northerly venues, and that’s too bad but it’s all a trade-off,” Waugh says.

“We will be in the North East this spring and we know the course conditions are going to be fine because they already are, and we hope the weather is as well. The days are longer in May than August, so we have more daylight to play as well. But It’s not a problem finding interested parties.”

Hosts for the PGA Championship through to 2034 have mostly been confirmed. Outstanding years are 2025, 2026, 2030, 2032 and 2033.

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