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Tuesday, May 21, 2024

The Masters’ Broadcasters Take What They Can Get

  • The Masters tee off Thursday, kick-starting golf’s major championship season.
  • CBS and ESPN get the honor of showcasing Augusta National to the public.
Adam Cairns-USA TODAY Sports

The Masters tees off Thursday (weather permitting), commencing golf’s first major championship of the year, and the tournament many consider to be the most fun to watch. Limited commercials, blooming azaleas, robust streaming options, and the soothing voice of Jim Nantz. What’s not to love? 

Yes, the Masters on TV (and online, as well as on the app) is awesome. In fact, it’s so good that Augusta National doesn’t even have to offer the same wall-to-wall coverage during its early rounds that other golf majors do for viewers to be impressed. ESPN would no doubt love to show off a main broadcast feed from the first tee shot onward at Augusta, like it’s done at the PGA Championship on ESPN+, and like NBC Sports has done for the U.S. Open and Open Championship.

But during the first two rounds, ESPN’s coverage begins at 3 p.m. ET, after up to seven hours of featured holes, featured groups, and customized groups will have been available to stream via ESPN+, Paramount+, and the Masters app. Every shot is indeed available, just not in the same fashion as other majors.

This is not a complaint about the broadcast approach (which some fans might even prefer), but more an observation of the unique way Augusta National operates, which is nothing new. It wasn’t until 2002 that CBS was allowed to show all 18 holes of the final round. As recently as ’19, the Masters app and website were the only platforms to watch early-round action in the morning and early afternoon.

And for the record, ESPN is not complaining, either. “We respect the Masters and its traditions—it’s what makes it so unique,” a company spokesperson tells Front Office Sports. Scott Van Pelt, the network’s longtime golf host, is literally just happy to be there. “We’re not kidding when we say we’ll come on TV at whatever time the club would like us to come on,” he says.

One Step at a Time

Once the weekend hits, CBS gets free reign for its broadcast. But Sean McManus, the chairman of CBS Sports who this month is stepping down after nearly three decades at the helm, says he never could have anticipated how in-depth his network’s Masters efforts would be one day. “We could have kept our coverage in 1997 the same for the next 27 years and people would have thought it was still the best golf tournament coverage in this country,” he says. In addition to more coverage hours, CBS has also added elements to its broadcast that Augusta was once opposed to such as walking reporters and drone cameras.

That special relationship has existed since 1956, and it is unlike any other in sports media. “I was basically responsible for negotiating one-year agreements with Augusta, which was the tradition that I inherited and the one that I passed along,” former CBS Sports president Neal Pilson, who left the network two years before McManus took over, tells FOS.

Augusta National has so much control of the broadcast thanks to the unwavering backing of its global sponsors—currently AT&T, IBM, and Mercedes—the only brands that get commercial time during the Masters. “They have a long-standing, treasured relationship with the sponsors,” Pilson explains. “In many cases, the CEO of the sponsoring company just happens to be a member of the club.”

New-Age Traditions

But even for those exclusive companies, Augusta’s boundaries aren’t pushed willy-nilly. “They’re probably one of the more progressive partners in terms of experimentation,” says Noah Syken, the vice president of sports and entertainment at IBM. “But they’re probably also one of the more conservative partners in terms of rolling things out to production.” 

IBM, the longest-tenured sponsor, helps power the always-popular Masters app, a key part of the tournament’s streaming offerings. This week, upgrades include hole insights for golf addicts delivering data like how likely a player is to hit the green and adding a Spanish option to the app’s voice-over function that narrates golf shots using artificial intelligence.

Some of that needed six or seven years of testing before being rolled out, due to Augusta’s methodical approach. But IBM, like Augusta’s broadcast partners, isn’t complaining—it is the Masters, after all. Ahead of the tournament, Augusta National chairman Fred Ridley summed up the philosophy perfectly: “We certainly want to progress, we want to try new things, we want to continue our mission to reach out and to grow the game,” he said. “But at the same time, I think we have to be cognizant of the fact that part of the magic of this place is those traditions and the mystique.”

Now, for the best golfers in the world, it’s time to hit the links. And for everyone not lucky enough to score a Masters ticket, it’s time to turn on those screens.

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