News & Opinion

Extra Masters TV time still falls short

It ain’t Confucius. It’s not even a smirk-generating limerick, a memorable rock ’n’ roll lyric or a funny fortune-cookie quip.

But it surely applies, given the content-choking parameters Augusta National has imposed upon viewers around the world over the years.

Decades ago, somebody whose name has been lost in the mists of time offered a pithy observation about making the best of a dire situation, something along the lines of, “give a saltine cracker to a starving man and he’ll call it the greatest grub he’s ever eaten.”

That said, the decision by ESPN to broaden its SportsCenter offerings from Augusta National over the first two rounds, before the live Masters broadcast started in the late afternoon, represented a viewing smorgasbord. In the absence of full-blown, live network golf, any morsel would suffice.

Thankfully, ESPN has some of the best hired guns in the business, and was able to fill the increasingly inexplicable morning and midday Masters voids with features, live look-in shots, replays and plenty of on-the-fly analysis from Andy North and Curtis Strange, who won two U.S. Opens apiece.

You’ve watched the U.S. Open, right? By comparison to the pittance of live action trickling out of Augusta over the years, the Open is a 24-hour live peep show. Same for the British Open, which is televised from dawn to dusk in some global locales.  

In an era when millions of fans are away from their homes and watching streaming sports coverage on phones, tablets and laptops, the Masters remains an anachronism solely by design. Given the club’s announcement on Wednesday that a new women’s amateur will be sponsored and hosted by Augusta National next year, first-year chairman Fred Ridley wasn’t asked about his views regarding the crimped TV broadcast window, which started at 3 p.m. ET in the first two rounds.

A reprieve of sorts arrived this week, when ESPN elected to beef up its presence in Augusta by hosting five hours of a golf-centric “SportsCenter at the Masters,” televised from sets erected on the tournament grounds. A company spokesman said ESPN previously owned the rights to broadcast shots and replays before the formal 3 p.m. show began, but this spring decided to seriously ramp up the content.

Thank goodness.

The early viewing options elsewhere, via the Masters website and a couple of other portals, were available for those with broadband access – if they sought narrow-band looks at the field, that is. Two featured groups were tracked in the morning and afternoon waves, as well as coverage of specific holes. That said, those trying to access streaming coverage of featured groups from overseas found that it was limited to domestic viewers.

ESPN filled much of the void, which included tracking the early stumbles of first-round leader Jordan Spieth, who was 3 over for his first two holes, as well as a smattering of the other top guns who teed off early. It wasn’t truly a golf-only broadcast. The show also included repeated “SportsCenter” segments emanating from ESPN headquarters in Connecticut regarding breaking news in the NBA, UFC or wherever. Unlike the weekend broadcast on CBS, the commercial load was plentiful.

But yes, it absolutely beat a heaping helping of nothing.

We know what you’re thinking. Will the green jackets ever greenlight an expanded TV window? Billy Payne, who retired as club chairman last year, repeatedly was asked – if not implored – to re-examine the club’s Jurassic-era policy.

“We've been talking about that; earliest thing I read about that was 55 years ago,” Payne said three years ago, generating laughs. “We've taken small, baby steps.”

Expectations of viewers have taken large, adult leaps.

Sorry, club members, but the majority of golf fans still get most of their content delivered via live network TV. Adding a few more featured groups to the online feeds earlier in the day is no way to catch up to the rest of the major championships. On Friday, the play of fan favorites Rory McIlroy and Spieth was not included in the featured groups, creating a void that ESPN did not completely fill.

It’s time to take ESPN and CBS off the leash, as well as the multitude of networks with broadcast rights overseas.

The customer demand, especially at the moment, is inarguable. With Tiger Woods back between the ropes for the first time in three years, the Masters generated a ratings spike. The overnight rating for ESPN’s live broadcast from 3 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. ET on Thursday was a 2.2, the best since Woods last played in 2015 and a 40-percent jump from last spring. It’s a certainty that adding live hours earlier in the day would be well received … to the point that workforce productivity in offices across America doubtlessly would crater.

Meanwhile, the grousing grows. Among those slinging shade at the Augusta leadership on social media regarding the truncated broadcast window was a longtime PGA Tour player, an editor at Golf Digest and too many grumpy civilians to count.

Maybe under Ridley, a former USGA president and U.S. Amateur champion, the death grip on TV times will be relaxed. Then again, based on how well the club reacted when critics ripped them over their racist and sexist membership policies, it could be a long forever before Augusta capitulates.

Open the broadcast window. We want a bigger whiff of the azaleas, too.

Steve Elling has first reported from the Masters in 2001, and has covered golf for the Orlando Sentinel, CBSSports.com and numerous other global print and online outlets. Email: ellingink@gmail.com; Twitter: @EllingYelling