A major broadcasting departure – US PGA golf goes online
New player Eleven Sports make the year’s fourth Major available free of charge
His chance to become the youngest may have gone, but Jordan Spieth can still mark the 100th US PGA Championship in style by completing the career grand slam at Bellerive. Photograph: Richard Sellers/PA Wire
Get used to it, for live streaming of big sporting events – on tablets, iPads, smart phones etc – is the future. In fact, it’s here and now in some cases. And a case in point is how viewers on this side of the pond can watch the 100th US PGA Championship. A year after the debacle that was the BBC’s screening of the event, when the terrestrial broadcaster came in late after Sky Sports lost the rights, a more seismic shift will this year showcase the ongoing evolution of live sport away from the television.
Let’s get one thing out of the way straight away. Yes, you can watch the US PGA – all four rounds – live. But not on Sky Sports (which has the rights to the other three Majors, and indeed has won awards for its coverage of the British Open); nor on the BBC, which, with limited budgets has moved away from golf, although the Beeb came on board very late on last year to supposedly rescue coverage of the PGA from Quail Hollow only to make a mess of it. More of that later.
So, yes, the PGA championship will be available . . . but not on traditional television viewing channels: for viewers to see coverage from Bellerive Country Club in St Louis, Missouri, where Jordan Spieth will be seeking to achieve the career Grand Slam amid other storylines, the only show in town is to watch on the Eleven Sports App or on their website or their Facebook page. Yes, that’s the new reality. No more hassle-free pointing of the remote control at the gogglebox.
The good news? It’s free. At least the PGA will be.
The British-based company – owned by Leeds United owner Andrea Radrizzani – has already outmanoeuvred Sky Sports and BT Sports to win the rights to show the upcoming La Liga and Serie A this season and is coinciding its launch in Ireland on Thursday next with the first round of the PGA, using the golf tournament as the marketing launch-pad (the first two rounds will be shown free on its Facebook page, all four can be viewed free on a seven-day trial basis on the App) in these parts.
It is a dramatic sea-change for golf viewers, but the PGA of America, who run the championship, have been considering alternative methods for quite some time: a 10-year agreement with Sky Sports for exclusive rights in the UK and Ireland finished last year and wasn’t renewed, which seemed to catch the satellite giant by surprise, and the last-minute experiment to go with the BBC back-fired when viewers could only access the first two rounds via the red button.
The BBC’s coming in as a white knight, as some sort of saviour, was a strange move given how the broadcaster had cut back its golf coverage as part of a cost-saving move and had also ended its 60-year long association with the R&A to cover the Open championship.
The BBC was already also committed to extensive coverage of the world athletics championship (with the subsequent clash in schedules). It was almost as if the carrot that was waved in front of them proved irresistible but that there was actually no stomach for the offering when it was presented on a plate. The one-year deal turned out to be just that, a one-year stop-gap deal.
Unlike the late, late springing of the BBC a year ago, this move to a multi-platform media has been in the making for some time. Founded in 2015, Eleven Sports – who have developed markets in the USA, the Far East and parts of Europe including Portugal, Poland and Italy - are believed to have outbid Twitter for the championship rights, exactly the type of multi-platform which the PGA of American were looking for.
Although the championship will be screened live on TNT and CBS on terrestrial television in the United States, those wanting to watch in Ireland and the UK can only do so via Eleven Sports platforms.
It is a move which, apparently, has “excited” the PGA of America with Jeff Price, their chief commercial officer, claiming it would “deliver major championship golf to diverse audiences through multiple, leading-edge digital platforms that are uniquely designed to connect to both the modern day and the next generation of fans.”
That line about the “next generation of fans” provides a strong hint in the PGA of America’s thinking. A recent statistics survey on television viewership in the USA for golf showed that 63 per cent of viewers belonged to the over-55 age category while the next biggest category was a 24 percent viewership in the 35 to 54 age group. The big question is whether the younger market – more au fait with smart phones – will actually want to watch?
Or perhaps the role of those younger people will be to download the App for the old fogies?
With a new approach – “broad distribution, multi-platform is the key objective for us,” admitted Price – the PGA of America’s strategy is a pioneering one, but also one which could yet be followed by the biggest player in golf: The PGA Tour. Sky Sports has live rights to the PGA Tour at the moment, an agreement which runs up to 2022.
However, in a $2 billion deal, the PGA Tour recently secured an agreement with Discovery Inc (owners of Eurosport) for the sale of non-US television and digital rights. This 12-year groundbreaking global deal starts in 2019 and runs until 2030 and could well threaten current broadcasting rights partnerships, including the one with Sky whose deal is up for renegotiation in four years.
Again, going with the App development model, Discovery – it would seem – are set to launch a version of Netflix for golf. The deal with Discovery saw the PGA Tour sell some 2,000 hours of content per year (covering the PGA Tour itself with its showcase tournaments including The Players and the FedEx Cup playoffs along with the secondary Web.com Tour and its affiliate development tours in China, Canada and South America).
So the PGA of America is the trailblazer in a way for moving to multi-platform viewing. It is a move, though, that, from the outside looking in, comes with an element of risk mainly because those who watch golf on television after in the over 35s bracket and mainly in the over 55s. It is a generation that is far more comfortable sitting on the sofa with the remote control in hand.
And if you decide to watch on the App or on Facebook, you’ll discover a face of old. Dominyk Holyer was the man up front when Sky Sports and later Setanta had the rights to the PGA Tour. Now, he is the man who Eleven Sports have brought in to present their step into the golf world. An old face in a brave new world of live streaming.