by Jeff Skinner
When the USGA announced that it had signed a new television deal with Fox Sports it shocked the golf world. Not only was it surprising that the USGA was jettisoning its partner of 20 years, the timing of the news, on the eve of the PGA Championship, stunned both fans and insiders alike.
It’s an absolute must read that will shock and awe even the most cynical of golf fans. This piece is worthy of a Golf Writers of America Award and I’d love for Sirak to write a book on this one.
It appears that the USGA had started to reshape itself in recent years with leadership more concerned with brokering business deals than in preserving the game. For years the USGA used the catch phrase “For the Good of the Game” as its motto. After reading Sirak’s article I think a more fitting line would be “For the Almighty Dollar.”
The top dogs at The USGA are portrayed as egotistical, backstabbing, manipulating money grabbers who care little about the good of game and more about the politics of it.
A relative newcomer to the game, (USGA President) Nager, 54, took up golf in his 30s and wasn’t active in the USGA until becoming general counsel in 2006. He merely smiles and offers a shrug when asked if it’s true he scored a rare 100 on the Rules of Golf test. Behind the smile is the heart of a lawyer, a litigator and a negotiator. He is also a man hellbent on reinventing the USGA to make it what he sees as more relevant. NBC/Golf Channel executives who met with him that day at Seminole heard evidence of that.
“I told them that if you went back to the ’70s and looked at TV ratings and other indicia of what makes a championship great, the U.S. Open was considered the premier major championship in golf,” Nager says. “And that if we looked at indicia today, the Masters is considered the No. 1 major in golf. I said I wanted to work with a media partner that had a proposal to elevate the U.S. Open and the other USGA championships and the USGA as a governance organization.” (The weekend rating of the 1973 U.S. Open beat the Masters, 9.0 to 8.4. The next year, the Masters edged ahead and began widening the gap after that.)
As far as the negations were going, NBC and the folks at The Golf Channel were excited about the fact their presentation had gone so well and partied with the USGA afterwards. That night, retired Deutsche Bank CEO Seth Waugh hosted a party at his home in the Hamptons. Stacy Lewis, the top-ranked American player, was staying there while she played in the Open, and the original plan was for a dinner of about eight people. Eventually more than 40 people milled about, cocktails in hands and smiles on their faces, according to one in attendance. NBC people were there, Golf Channel people were there and USGA people were there. It was, by all accounts, a love fest, both contingents seemingly thrilled with how the day had gone.
But the USGA had ties to a media company that favored a new and different deal with a new and different network. And NBC never really had a chance. On Friday, Aug. 2, with NBC/GC’s exclusive negotiating period officially over, FOX and the USGA negotiated. That night, NBC said to the USGA: “If we put $80 million in front of you, are we done?” On Saturday morning, there was another conversation between the USGA and NBC, and at 4 p.m., the network was told to be in the Proskauer office at 1 p.m. Sunday.
That’s when something ominous happened. Proskauer, known for its tough negotiating, agreed to everything NBC requested. “That’s not good,” one puzzled exec said to another. “That’s not like them to agree so easily. Something is up.”
“With the benefit of hindsight, we’re not sure the process was handled in the way that it was presented to us,” says NBC spokesman Greg Hughes.
NBC was never given a chance to top the FOX offer, something Nager defends.
“I told John Skipper at ESPN, I told Brian Roberts and Mark Lazarus at NBC/Comcast, and we told Randy Freer at FOX they had a 5 p.m. Monday deadline for making their last, best and final offer,” Nager says. “I had given my word that I wouldn’t [divulge bids]. They needed to value these things according to what they thought was the appropriate thing to do and be comfortable with their bid.”
Still, an NBC official says Davis, the USGA executive director, went silent when informed that NBC didn’t get a “last at-bat.”
Then came the ill timed announcement that the USGA had gone for the mega-millions with an entity that had never showed one golf shot. At the same time they took a shot at their old partners NBC and The Golf Channel. But Fox felt good enough about NBC producer, Tommy Roy to try and steal him to lead their golf coverage. The timing created a bit of a stir, coming on the eve of the PGA Championship, a CBS event and a tournament run by the PGA of America, with whom the USGA had just tangled over the anchored-putting ban. Also, the day after the announcement, on Aug. 8, a self-published memoir by Keith Hirshland was released.
“The timing of our announcement was consistent with good organizational practice, a commitment to transparency, and involved a national governance organization and several large media companies whose stocks are traded publicly and applicable to disclosure laws and requirements,” Goode says.
Nager was attending a PGA of America dinner in Rochester, N.Y., with many other golf dignitaries, when the news release hit. “Several people came over to congratulate me,” Nager says. “One said it was the biggest thing to happen to golf since Tiger won the 1997 Masters.”
The sentence in the USGA release that annoyed NBC and ESPN was this one: “The game is evolving and requires bold and unique approaches on many levels, and FOX shares our vision to seek fresh thinking and innovative ideas to deliver championship golf.” Mike McQuade, who produces golf for ESPN, and NBC’s Roy privately bristled at what they perceived as a knock on their ingenuity.
“We were disappointed that the USGA chose to disparage our production and the production of every media company [CBS, ESPN, Turner, Golf Channel, NBC] that covers golf instead of just being candid in choosing money over mission,” says NBC’s Lazarus.
Barely more than two hours after that press release about bold new directions went out, a former NBC executive now at FOX, David Neal, called Roy to talk about jumping to FOX. A close friend says Roy viewed the wording of the press release as “reprehensible” and told Neal thanks, but no thanks.
Sirak details so much more in his article and you get a true felling of how the back room negotiating had come to pass. For anyone with morals it’s enough to make you shudder.
The USGA does not come off like an organization that is working to protect the game but rather a bunch of power hungry, self promoting, politicians concerned with things other than the game of golf.
Sirak does a masterful job of shining a light on how the new breed that has taken over the USGA and how they and Fox schemed and conspired to shut out NBC from the U.S. Open.