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Monday, May 27, 2024

NBC Turns to ‘Odd/Even’ Dual Announcer Pairings for U.S. Open

  • A pair of broadcast teams, Dan Hicks–Brandel Chamblee and Mike Tirico–Brad Faxon, will alternate holes on golf’s biggest stage.
  • NBC dumped Paul Azinger as No. 1 analyst in November, and ever since has held the equivalent of rolling TV auditions.
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Finding a successor to Johnny Miller has been no easy task for NBC Sports. After five disappointing years with Paul Azinger in the lead analyst chair, the network tells Front Office Sports that it’s taking a very different approach.

Rather than employing the traditional lead announcer–lead analyst setup that golf TV has used for decades, NBC will deploy not one, but two, lead announce teams for its coverage of the 124th U.S. Open from Pinehurst from June 13 to 16, according to Sam Flood, executive producer and president of production.

The dual teams of play-by-play announcer Dan Hicks and analyst Brandel Chamblee and announcer Mike Tirico and analyst Brad Faxon will lead coverage across NBC, Peacock, and the USA Network. They will headline NBC’s team of nearly 20 commentators, including analyst Gary Koch and on-course reporters Jim “Bones” Mackay and Roger Maltbie. 

The team-focused approach grew out of NBC’s new “odd/even” system of hole assignments for TV commentators this year, Flood tells Front Office Sports.

“We kind of recreated how our golf coverage works. It used to be you’d have one play-by-play person—and then three hole announcers. We created a new system where the even holes are handled by Dan Hicks and an analyst. And the odd holes are handled by Mike Tirico and an analyst. So we call it odd/even,” Flood says. “This allows play-by-play guys to do the ‘what is happening?’ and it allows the analysts to do their job—which is the ‘why and how?’ So this is the new structure we started this year. We’ve been really excited about the progress with it.”

To keep the commentator teams fresh, NBC will also employ the odd/even format for early-round and morning coverage, pairing announcer Terry Gannon with analyst Notah Begay III, and announcer Steve Sands with Koch. Rather than making Tirico host, NBC wants him to do what he likes best, which is play-by-play.

On the 18th hole, Hicks and Chamblee will have the call since it’s an even hole. But if superstar Rory McIlroy is involved, NBC will also have Faxon jump in since he coaches McIlroy and other leading pros on their putting.

“If there’s a big moment coming, Brandel can turn to Brad and say, ‘What do you expect out of Rory here?’ or ‘What has Rory learned about this 18th green?’” says Flood. “And there will be a second level of insight, with the two analysts having a conversation together. Some of this we’ve done in other sports, like NASCAR or back when we had the NHL. That way our analysts were able to look at the sports differently, and engage a little bit differently. So analyst-to-analyst conversations are something we encourage.”

Are the dual announce teams worth trying on the biggest stage in golf? Yes, in my book. Azinger wasn’t working out. This will be an opportunity for Chamblee and Faxon to seize the No. 1 analyst job. Over the decades, PGA Tour TV partners like NBC and CBS always hired major tournament winners as their No. 1 analysts. Think NBC’s Miller, who captured the 1973 U.S. Open and ’76 Open Championship. Or Trevor Immelman and Sir Nick Faldo, both former Masters champions, at CBS. Chamblee, who joined Golf Channel as a studio analyst in 2004, picked up only one Tour victory in his 15-year career. Faxon, who rejoined NBC in ’23, won eight times. But neither analyst won one of golf’s four majors championships.

Still, Flood likes his commentator team heading into our country’s national golf championship at Pinehurst. Chamblee is “outspoken and very thoughtful” in the Miller mold: “He’s not afraid to have an opinion and make a strong statement—and that’s what you want in an analyst.” Faxon led the Tour in putting average three times. He knows pressure, posting four top-10 finishes in the majors and playing on the 1995 and ’97 Ryder Cup teams. 

NBC dumped Azinger as its No. 1 analyst back in November. Since then, the network has held the equivalent of rolling TV auditions, with Chamblee, Faxon, and English pro Luke Donald all getting their turn in the big chair.

When NBC heads to Royal Troon in Scotland to cover the 152nd Open Championship from July 18 to 21, Flood will continue his “odd/even” pairings. On even holes, Hicks will team with Donald, the former world No. 1, who served as lead analyst for NBC’s coverage of the PGA Tour Cognizant Classic in The Palm Beaches and the Arnold Palmer Invitational earlier this year. On odd holes, Tirico will work with Faxon.

The United States Golf Association has signed off on NBC’s coverage plan, according to Flood. The network has been holding biweekly meetings with the USGA since January to prepare for next month’s U.S. Open at Pinehurst, the fourth to be held at architect Donald Ross’s famed No. 2 course. Overall, NBC will offer more than 200 hours of coverage across linear, digital, and streaming platforms. 

In an unusual move, NBC swooped in to pick up USGA media rights in 2020 after Fox Sports asked out halfway through a 12-year, $1.1 billion deal. Those rights expire after ’26.

Flood confirmed to me that NBC wants to renew: “Love it. Love big events. NBC makes big events bigger. This is one of the great events in golf.”

With Hicks’s contract expiring at the end of 2024, I also asked Flood about his future. Flood wouldn’t comment on Hicks’s contract except to say: “Dan is going to be part of the NBC family for a long, long time.”

The incisive, blunt-talking Miller retired in 2018 after 29 years as NBC’s No. 1 analyst. It’s difficult for networks to replace one of the greats, like Miller or the late John Madden. But NBC still has legendary golf producer Tommy Roy to guide its next generation of commentators, notes Flood. As he tells FOS: “Johnny will go down as the greatest of all time in that golf space. You can never replace a legend. You just need to make the telecast better—and figure out a new way to get the audience the best possible telecast.”

In good news for NBC’s potential U.S. Open TV ratings, three-time champion Tiger Woods has accepted a special exemption to tee it up at Pinehurst.

“The story of the U.S. Open could not be written without Tiger Woods,” said USGA chief championships officer John Bodenhamer in a statement. “From his 15-stroke victory at Pebble Beach in 2000, to his inspiring win on a broken leg at Torrey Pines in 2008, this championship is simply better when Tiger is in the field.”

Michael McCarthy’s “Tuned In” column is at your fingertips every week with the latest insights and ongoings around sports media. If he hears it, you will, too.

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