Letter From Saugerties: USGA-Fox Sports Deal

Frank Hannigan is the former executive director of the United States Golf Association and as he has many times in the past, shares his thoughts on issues in the game. Today he writes about the USGA's 12-year television contract with Fox Sports:

At the end of its last fiscal year, November 30, 2012,  the USGA had investments with a street value of $270 million.  Given the behavior of the financial markets this year that number is likely to be nearer $300 million when November 30 happens again.

The USGA switch of its TV package from NBC and ESPN to Fox starting in 2015 was money driven. A lot of money. Fox will pay almost $100 million a year for 12 years. On the other hand an ESPN executive has leaked that they bid $65 million per year.  The third bid by NBC may have been even higher, as high as $80 million.
The other factor in deciding who the broadcaster will be if you own a premier sports event is the quality of the production.   Between 1965, when I was a veritable child, and 1988, I had a voice in deciding that the US Open would be on ABC. There was never a time when we could not have gone over to NBC or CBS for the same or more money, but our subjective opinion was that ABC, when it came to golf, was the best of the three.  ABC Sports was headed by the legendary Roone Arledge who revolutionized the televising of sport.  Arledge hired a bevy of talented, if manic, people who constantly figured out better ways of showing golf on television, e.g., the hand held camera on the ground sending RF signals up a silly little blimp. 
The actual money negotiating was done for the USGA by the brilliant Sandy Tatum who thus had the awful task of convincing Arledge we might jump to NBC or CBS.
The USGA switched to NBC in 1995 because the money was $3 million better but never would have jumped if the quality of NBC's golf had not improved dramatically.  That's because NBC Sports chief Dick Ebersol discovered one Tommy Roy as a golf producer. He proved to be terrific as had been Terry Jastrow, who was the producer of the Open for ABC.  Both were obsessed with the Open. Moreover, the great Jim McKay was on the verge of retirement and the USGA did not have a warm relationship with Arledge's successor.
Fox has no golf producer.  In fact, absent some unforeseen happening the 2015 US Open will be the first golf telecast ever done by Fox.  Producing golf on television is a truly demanding job.  A football field is only the size of a couple of putting greens.  NBC gave Roy a huge budget so he could have 50 cameras at US Opens.
Fox may be foolish enough to give the job to one of its existing producers, someone who has done a Super Bowl or a World Series. When it comes to golf, he will not have a clue. Indeed, Glenn Nager, president of the USGA has been quoted as saying one of the things he likes about Fox is that they don't have any executives who know anything about golf.
The same may apply to him. Glenn Nager seems more of a Jack Abramoff guy than a golf guy.  Nager is a big-time Washington lawyer who asked Abramoff to help get Nager appointed to the federal circuit court in Washington.  In fairness to Nager, this was before Abramoff the lobbyist went to jail for doing bad things. But if you want some droll reading just hit their last names on Google for a long exchange of emails.
As for announcers, Greg Norman has already said he's been offered the Johnny Miller job. I imagine Joe Buck,  Fox's number one announcer for other sports, will be the host. Fox, of course is owned by Rupert Murdoch, the octogenarian publisher and broadcaster whose properties include Fox News. Thus, the next Judy Rankin could be Sarah Palin
or Michelle Bachmann.
As for money, the USGA doesn't need any more.  Given its mission and its tax-free status, the USGA is loaded and gets more so every year.  Except for one year since its first year of operation in 1895, the USGA has earned more money than it spent.  It is virtually impossible to run the USGA and lose money. In my years as executive director it was nicely profitable every year, and I did not go to Harvard Business School.
Doing a 12-year deal is a bad idea. There are bound to be conflicts.  When they happen, say after year four, the USGA will have no leverage.  Fox can say "talk to us in 8 more years."   Why do you think Augusta National does one-year deals with CBS?  It's so the club can control the production which yields  the most popular of golf shows.  When Gary McCord made a couple of remarks deemed tasteless by the club he was banished. Normally, I don't like that sort of thing but we are not dealing with journalism here. There is no journalism in golf television. The PGA Tour regularly calls its broadcasters "our partners."
The USGA will do absolutely nothing useful with an additional $20 million a year.  Some of them have expressed fear about having to pay huge damages after an imaginary lawsuit in which equipment manufacturers sue them. The USGA could write a check for $150 million without batting an eye even though they have tilted to the lavish side when it comes to expenses --like renting a private jet to take executive committee members to the US Open where they get in the way of the staff.      
There is, it seems to me, a real problem with the USGA's archaic system of granting all power to a volunteer 15-member executive committee, one of whom asked a staff member at a US Amateur Championship not long ago what the difference is between stroke play and match play. The president is named chief executive officer, an absurdity in that he's already got a full time job.  
The internal operation, with a hands-on president, can be a mess. The announcement of the Fox deal made no mention of NBC or ESPN,  both of whom treated the USGA royally.  It caused Mike Davis, the USGA executive director (who does know something about golf) to apologize to NBC and ESPN.
I am not alone in my opinion as to the decline of the USGA. The late Bill Campbell severed his relationship with the USGA, an entity that had been like his religion. In a letter to me Bill wrote "The USGA should not be run like a corporation."
My suspicion is that over the years Fox will learn bit by bit, how to do golf. For the opening year, however, a proper analogy might be an expansion team in a  team sport. I have in mind the New York Mets who in their opening season of 1962   won 40 games and lost 120.  

Frank Hannigan
Saugerties, New York