UNIVERSITY PLACE, Wash.—This year’s U.S. Open marks a number of firsts. The Pacific Northwest finally hosts the national championship of American golf. And the host site, Chambers Bay, marks the first time since 1970 that a relatively unknown and untested course steps to the front of the line in testing the world’s premier players.
But the more lasting “first” is the new television broadcast partner. Since 1995, the United States Golf Association (USGA)—the sponsoring organization for the Men’s Open—has contracted with the National Broadcasting Company (NBC). That relationship ended—somewhat abruptly—in 2014. Fox Sports secured a 12-year deal, starting with this year’s U.S. Open and running through 2026. The $1.1 billion deal comes to $93 million a year—far surpassing even double the amount that NBC had hoped would keep the U.S. Open on its radar screen as a live sporting event.
But landing the exclusive telecast of USGA events—a major coup for Fox—is yesterday’s news. The real story is yet to come when coverage commences with this week’s championships. Here are five concerns Fox needs to handle in order to show savvy golf viewers the network is no less the equal of NBC.
1. Can producer Mark Loomis keep all the players operating under one roof?
Fox is most fortunate to have talented and highly experienced Mark Loomis at the top of the production. Loomis has significant golf experience in having worked at ABC during its golf coverage along with stints in sports production experiences with the National Football League (NFL) and Major League Baseball (MLB).
Loomis is a quality golfer—a 2 handicap—with membership at prestigious Winged Foot in the New York City suburbs. Can Loomis bring together a very diverse, unseasoned group of announcers to provide the compelling storylines that keep the focus on the golf action taking place at Chambers Bay?
The central role for any producer is having broadcasters and field people take his vision and bring it to life. That is clearly the high hurdle. Fox has made its mark in other sports, but golf is a far different arena; and how it balances respect for the game’s traditions, while at the same time pushing through innovative practices, will be interesting to see.
2. Is Joe Buck capable in doing golf broadcasts?
Joe Buck is well-known to sports fans, but his main claim to fame comes from being Fox’s chief announcer for NFL and MLB games. Golf is a far different sport. Buck is a golfer so he should do well with the lexicon, but it’s the fine art in being able to provide overviews and story lines that mesh with the sport. In prior years, when the Men’s Open was telecast by different networks, the likes of the late Jim McKay with ABC and even Dan Hicks at NBC did solid efforts all the way around.
If Buck needs any inspiration on what NOT to do, simply check out any tape in which ESPN’s Chris Berman is featured. Berman erroneously believed that the shouting and rhyme-mania he uses to excess for NFL games would work just as well in golf. It didn’t. For a more positive dynamic, check out past tapes from broadcast icons McKay and Pat Summerall—both experienced hands at other sports, who were most adept in broadcasting golf. Both of those icons understood that the story is the main emphasis—not the storyteller.
3. Can Greg Norman equal or surpass Johnny Miller?
The former world No. 1 player occupies the most visible position—lead analyst. Norman will need to demonstrate he has the requisite skills to handle the sheer array of situations arising that call upon him to opine. In addition, “The Shark” will need to show he is equal to the level that previous U.S. Open analyst Johnny Miller showed during his long tenure with NBC.
Blending candor and smarts is not an easy combination. Norman has also been removed from the day-to-day dynamics of professional golf, and having thorough knowledge will be an element he will need to demonstrate. Knowing what to say and, more importantly, when to say it will be a baptism of fire.
The ledge Norman is stepping out onto is indeed a challenging one to negotiate. There’s little question the Aussie has a clear standing as a two-time major winner and winner of professional golf events globally. Norman can also likely relate to the pressures the competitors are under, having experienced thrilling wins but also agonizing defeats—some of which happened in the very championship he will now serve as lead analyst.
The stakes for Norman and Fox are indeed joined at the hip.
4. Will there be a bombardment of commercial and Fox promotions?
Fox didn’t pay the USGA $1.1 billion without a clear plan to get back that money in selling valuable airtime for advertisers. Clearly, Fox will not replicate what CBS and Augusta National do with each year’s Masters in which advertising is kept to a maximum of four minutes per hour.
The issue for Fox is showing that golf is the priority—not just a mechanism to promote an incessant barrage of other programming and to have annoying interruptions of key play moments during the championship. Balancing the art of the event and the commerce of the contract will be an item that bears immense interest.
5. What telecast innovations will go beyond what’s been done recently?
Fox has stated that various technical enhancements will be on full display during the event at Chambers Bay. Microphones will be positioned so viewers can hear the conversations between players and caddies. Making the game more real will be an important dimension because golf, unlike other sports, provides a plodding story line. Updated graphics presenting key information will also be included.
It’s hard to imagine Fox doing more than what was done by NBC, but Loomis has shown a desire in past situations tied to golf where he is not afraid to push the envelope and initiate different approaches. Nonetheless, if this year’s U.S. Open is contested in a meaningful way by a number of the top echelon players, the job for Fox will be a far simpler one.
On the other hand, having an event in which a player is ahead by a number of shots—as Martin Kaymer was last year at Pinehurst—or an event in which the quality of the play is lacking, then Fox will be tested to keep viewers watching.
M. James Ward, a member of Golf Writer’s Association of America (GWAA) and past member of Met Golf Writer’s Association (MGWA), has reported on golf’s grandest events since 1980 in a variety of forums.