News & Opinion

Changes at Golf Channel could get a fuzzy reception

Golf Channel studio signage
Golf Channel’s studio in Orlando, Fla.

The move from Florida to Connecticut will trim 400-plus jobs, but viewers likely won’t notice much difference in the TV product. The website’s demise is certain to leave a big void in golf coverage

From its humble 1995 origins to emergence as the game’s most omnipresent media enterprise, Golf Channel has been rather busy in its first 25 years of existence. Having initially acquired cable-TV rights to the PGA Tour for the 2007 season, the fledgling operation now offers more live tournament coverage than all other U.S. networks combined. Nobody could have seen that happening a quarter-century ago.

Another huge boost to the Orlando-based outfit occurred when Comcast, Golf Channel’s parent company, purchased majority ownership of NBC Universal in early 2011. As the marketing folks since have made abundantly clear, the Peacock and its little brother soon were attached at the hip, ostensibly for branding purposes, resulting in a product far more polished than during Golf Channel’s formative years.

On-air personnel have become largely interchangeable, particularly in regard to those aforementioned tournament telecasts, which is one of the few things that won’t be different within the company by year’s end. February’s announcement that Golf Channel would transfer its headquarters to Stamford, Conn., home of the NBC Sports Group, hardly was a surprise to industry insiders. Consolidation, they call it. A five-syllable synonym for people losing their jobs.

It happens all the time in corporate America – the idea that you don’t need two separate offices of support (1,100 miles apart) to handle the everyday functions that help keep a business somewhere between surviving and thriving – but we’re still talking about unemployed human beings here. Published reports vary as to the number of casualties in this instance. An educated, perhaps conservative estimate would suggest that at least half of the 800 Orlando-based workforce won’t be relocating north.

The layoffs were made public in June, to be conducted in a two-stage process, and that process is still shaking itself out. The coronavirus hasn’t made things any easier. Nor has a class-action lawsuit involving 11 Golf Channel employees and defense company Lockheed Martin, which owns a plant near the GC complex and is accused in a class-action lawsuit of instigating an “environmental nightmare” with its alleged mismanagement of hazardous toxins.

If progress comes in numerous forms and at a widely fluctuating cost, the road from central Florida to southern Connecticut requires more than a few tanks of gas and a reliable GPS to navigate. “The Golf Channel got too big,” says a knowledgeable observer. “And when the people in charge tried to make it [even] bigger, it became very hard to sustain.”

At least one industry insider will tell you that the company began reaching beyond its core audience at a time when its TV rights would come at a substantially higher price, which apparently was the case when the PGA Tour completed negotiations with all of its suitors this spring. ESPN was awarded the digital/streaming rights through 2030, a coveted property, given that so many viewers have taken to watching pro golf on something other than a television.

Golf Channel ended up paying more for something it already had – something that could be worth less in nine years than it is now. Without live golf as the nucleus of its programming, however, the network’s value would be greatly diminished. It had little choice but to meet the Tour’s financial demands.

Not that serious golf fans are all that concerned with such matters. The most noticeable change in Golf Channel’s identity is likely to come from the dissolution of its website, GolfChannel.com, which will be integrated into NBCSports.com by the end of 2020 and become accessible only by the scroll-down menu so prevalent on other general-sports sites.

How big is the loss? We’ll have to see for ourselves. In terms of comprehensive golf coverage from horn to hoof, no journalistically based Internet domain can match GolfChannel.com’s consistency, timeliness and nose for news. The website has played a huge role in the network’s reputation for one-stop shopping. There might be a half-dozen or so other websites with similarly strong credentials, but none of them had a television network behind it, leaving us to wonder whether the NBCSports version will pack as much punch and volume as the original.

There are many angles from which to assess Golf Channel’s ongoing transition, few of which are likely to have any measurable effect on the primary product. It is the oldest of the “single-sport” networks, and one would have little trouble classifying it as superior to those featuring Major League Baseball, the NBA or NFL. Not just because it airs the most live competition, but also for the instructional and destination-related shows that cater so popularly to the game’s recreational sector.

Brandel Chamblee has asserted himself as the best studio analyst on any single-sport channel; highly opinionated and prepared to a degree unmatched in his profession. The NBC factor has only made a good thing better overall, and there’s no reason to believe that won’t continue once the new shop opens for business 40 minutes north of New York City.

That said, there is something invariably sad to the notion that 400 or so hard-working Floridians will lose their jobs in the name of corporate growth, at a company that has only gotten bigger and stronger over its 25 years.  

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