News & Opinion

Azinger hails Fox’s Open work as ‘amazing’

It’s part advice and part admonition.

Toni Azinger, the wife of TV analyst Paul Azinger, repeatedly reminds her husband of a single thought as he prepares for another high-profile week in the broadcast booth: “Remember, nobody is tuning in to hear you talk.”

Azinger, a well-regarded golf analyst at Fox Sports who is a former major champion and Ryder Cup captain, snickers every time he relates the anecdote, because he knows it’s an inarguable fact. 

“That’s awesome, and that’s what I want to remember,” he said, laughing. “You can watch every sport with the mute button on and still follow what’s going on. It’s like “Monday Night Football”: You’re not watching because of the announcer.”

A week after Fox completed it third turn as broadcaster of the oldest major championship in American golf, the U.S. Open, the background chatter finally has begun to subside. Many viewers loved Fox’s edgy graphics, technical toys and cutting-edge elements. Others nonetheless shredded the network on social media and in terse emails.

If there is sometimes too much blather in the booth, Azinger has learned how to handle the blowback from the public, too. He will climb back into the analyst seat this week for the network’s broadcast of the U.S. Senior Open.

“As far as Twitter and what people say, it’s really a weird world, bro,” said Azinger, taking a deep breath. “I think we all get wrapped up in it. If you go to ‘mentions’ on Twitter, it’s 99 percent negative. It’s unbelievable. 

“If you go to people who tweet you directly, it’s 95 percent positive. There are two types of thinkers out there, and everybody has a license to be outraged in the blink. It’s the ultimate perversion of free speech: the ability to say something behind someone’s back, with zero consequences, yet have everybody see it.

“There are just a bunch of snarky people out there. The ‘mentions’ part of Twitter, to me, is a societal issue more than anything. It’s always negative and should be almost completely disregarded. The best announcer you’ve ever heard – ever heard – if you go to ‘mentions’ you’ll see, ‘He makes my ears bleed.’ ” 

While the rationales and reasoning have some merit, the cold numbers are alarming. Three years into a 12-year contract with the host U.S. Golf Association, Fox incurred some of the worst ratings of the past three decades. USA Today reported that final-round viewership was the second-lowest at a U.S. Open since 1988.

While Fox is bringing novel ideas to the party, the toy box might work against the network in some fashion. The golf audience skews older and more conservative, and change can be off-putting for those used to decades of predictable coverage.

“I can say this: I don’t like change,” Azinger said. “And if the broadcast changes from what you are used to, that’s already hard on the viewer, guaranteed, 100 percent. I’ve always thought, ‘Who are these people?’ That’s what I would have been thinking, to start. I think that’s pretty hard for the viewer.”

The week certainly ended on a clunker for Fox. Host Joe Buck misidentified the girlfriend of winner Brooks Koepka, and the gaffe went viral. The information was handed to him by a Fox researcher.

“It’s kind of [indicative] of the world we live in,” Buck said last week on “The Dan Patrick Show.” “I’m personally doing 7½ hours of live TV a day, and there are going to be mistakes all over the place. That’s the nature of it.

“If you’re not making mistakes, you’re boring.”

One common viewer complaint: The broadcasts were too busy, with too many competing voices in a three-man booth, and electronic gadgets that became distracting to some. Fox broadcasts only one major men’s event each season, so information overload can be a pitfall, Azinger conceded.

“We’ve got eight or nine months of buildup to that event, and you want to dump everything you know in one tournament,” he said. “It’s hard for us to not want to talk. My thinking is, I want the picture to talk, and I want to inform.”

In the week since the Erin Hills event ended, Azinger said he spoke twice with Fox producer Mark Loomis, who gave the week and the on-air crew high marks.

“If people don’t like the content, then there’s nothing you can do about it,” Azinger said. “If you are complaining about the technology, you’ve got to slow down a little bit. The technology was brilliant. What those guys [at Fox] are able to do … all in all, it was amazing.”

The USGA, contractually tied to Fox for nine more years, was downright effusive with its post-event praise.

 

“The commitment of the entire Fox Sports team to tell our championship stories and advance the viewing experience shows in every broadcast,” said Sarah Hirshland, the USGA’s senior managing director of business affairs. “Pushing the boundaries of technology by using tools like Toptracer, drone footage and TrackMan has engaged newer and younger audiences, and their digital strategy has changed the way people think about watching golf.

“Our fans love the innovation, and that feedback continues to motivate them and us.”

Of course, that’s a broad generalization, sprinkled with a smattering of self-interest and opinion. Then again, so is the criticism from fans who ripped the Fox coverage elsewhere. In a weird irony, much of the negative feedback was generated by older, white fans – the same demographic that Fox Sports’ brethren at Fox News successfully cultivates.

“Social media, it’s not an accurate representation,” Azinger said. “Golf people, for the most part, were loving what they were seeing in this tournament, especially with what happened Saturday. 

“I definitely thought the week stood on its own as a U.S. Open.”

Steve Elling has covered golf for the Orlando Sentinel, CBSSports.com and numerous other global print and online outlets. Email: ellingink@gmail.com; Twitter: @EllingYelling