Reading Brendan Porath’s ode to the 2022 U.S. Open from The Country Club sent me into a spiral of cognitive dissonance. He described the event with such reverence, holding it up as an example of the kind of thrilling, satisfying competition men’s professional golf can still deliver at its best in a fraught time for the game as a whole.
Unfortunately, I wasn’t on site this week in Brookline, which meant I (and everyone else watching the American broadcast) probably didn’t come away from the week with the same level of renewed hope. If anything, as I chased the tournament from basic cable channel to broadcast network to premium streaming platform, I came away from the experience feeling nothing much at all.
If you’ve ever taken an intro-to-creative-writing course of any kind, you’re likely familiar with both very bad poetry and the maxim to “show, don’t tell.” It’s the basic storytelling principle that showing your audience something without directly telling them is almost always a more effective approach. That’s what I kept coming back to as I thought about what bothered me so much about the weekend U.S. Open broadcast. Yes, there were too many ads, and yes, it was absurd to have to play Battleship with my various apps and channels to try and actually find the tournament. We’ll get to all of that and more, as well as how we ended up in such bad shape that the CEO of the USGA got on to Twitter to promise improvement.
I’m on it! We have the best sports production team in the world here with our partner NBC Sports (Olympics, Super Bowl, etc.) and if the amount of interruptions are problematic, we will work with our partner to do better!
— Michael Whan (@USGAMike) June 19, 2022
But I keep coming back to how, for four days, I watched a broadcast that spent a ton of time telling me I was seeing one of the most important events in the sport while presenting it as if it were anything but that.
The U.S. Open wasn’t supposed to be on NBC. A few years ago, Fox dumped their USGA rights to NBC to avoid the pandemic-delayed 2020 version causing a schedule crunch with Fox’s full slate of fall football.
Rather than a one-year handoff, though, Fox exited entirely, though they’re still reportedly paying a little more than half of the $93 million in annual money to the USGA through the end of the deal in 2026. NBC, meanwhile, essentially picked up a swath of big golf events at a discounted rate. This was a net loss for golf viewers. In spite of a very slow start (the folks at LIV clearly didn’t learn from Fox’s 2015 coverage that launching a golf operation with Greg Norman in a key role isn’t a recipe for success), Fox had proven themselves willing to take risks in ways CBS and NBC weren’t.
Things weren’t perfect; Fox tended to zoom in on a few groups of players, losing track of the wider field. But the wall-to-wall coverage with Joe Buck at the helm made the U.S. Open feel, well, like a big deal. It aired on two channels, FS1 and network FOX, with just one transition on Thursday and Friday, followed by a weekend of purely network coverage, no channel-chasing required. The influx of shot tracer across CBS and NBC telecasts can be directly traced (sorry) to Fox using it so frequently, to the point that it became expected, like the first-down line on NFL broadcasts. This makes all the sense in the world; Fox Sports had signed up to pay nearly $100 million per year to show USGA championships. That’s a huge investment, and they treated it accordingly.
In 2020, when it was announced that NBC would be taking over, it didn’t seem like the worst-case scenario. This was before CBS refreshed their approach under Sellers Shy, and before ESPN got back into the sport in earnest with their PGA Championship coverage and PGA Tour streaming deal. NBC had Golf Channel and a lot of PGA Tour events already on their schedule, plus the Open Championship. The USGA portfolio seemed a natural fit.
In practice, though, things just haven’t gone that well. Golf Channel itself is in a state of flux, with downsizing and a relocation from Florida to Connecticut for cost-cutting purposes. NBC—and/or their corporate overlords at Comcast—allowed the fairly successful NBC Sports Network to go dark ahead of their plan to push content onto Peacock, further limiting the linear distribution options for various events. The seams started to show last summer, when the women’s U.S. Open went to a playoff, only to be dumped to Golf Channel in favor of gymnastics.
The men’s edition last year was also panned. I reviewed the 2021 broadcast for Awful Announcing, and if anything, it got worse this year. (Though they did finally add the constant leaderboard! Small progress!) Criticism for the 2022 version broke contain, with even more mainstream observers pointing out the ridiculousness of a broadcast that spent long stretches focusing on anything but the golf actually happening. The Big Lead’s Kyle Koster summed up the mood:
The jump-cuts to a Playing Through or a pre-recorded package are dizzying. Almost cutting people off mid-sentence. I promise I would not be complaining about it if it weren't taking me completely out of the experience.
— Kyle Koster (@KyleKoster) June 18, 2022
Sunday wasn’t much better, even if the commercial load at least felt lighter. In the most on-the-nose example of telling instead of showing, Dan Hicks had to acknowledge that Scottie Scheffler made a long putt for birdie and the outright lead after the leaderboard graphic revealed it had happened but before the broadcast bothered to show it.
Later, after a Matt Fitzpatrick bogey on the eleventh hole gave Will Zalatoris a two-shot lead, there was a chance to follow the new leader to the next tee box, perhaps to set up some of the action on the next hole, show shots from others in contention, or even just let the moment breathe. Cameras were in position, following tight on Zalatoris as he made his way off the green. Instead, the broadcast went to a Wells Fargo ad with jarring speed.
Those were illustrative incidents, not isolated ones. Too few players saw airtime and too many key shots were missed. It just ended up being a grind to follow.
Too often the networks covering golf make excuses, citing contracts or cost constraints or production difficulties. But broadcast golf should actually have an advantage over the in-person product. It’s the one sport where a great presentation has the ability to show all of the action in a way that someone attending in person couldn’t possibly see. Obviously some of the feel and character are going to be lost in translation; even a perfect broadcast probably would have left me feeling slightly less ebullient than Brendan about the week. Not everything that happens is going to be shown. We trust networks to tell the story, and golf provides an excellent canvas.
A few fixes would be simple, starting with a reduced ad load. At the very least, there’s no reason at all to show USGA ads at the U.S. Open. The very best advertisement for the USGA is getting as much of their marquee event on the air as possible. Other sports go much longer stretches without ads, and finding creative ways to get commercial-free coverage for as long as possible should be a priority. There’s already a final hour of Rolex-sponsored commercial-free play. That the broadcast treats this as a selling point for viewers shows NBC knows it’s a positive, though it also makes the rest of the ad-laden telecast feel even more insulting. Finding ways to expand the hour to a few hours during the final round would be such a win. I don’t care if a Rolex logo flashes on the screen every two minutes, it beats cutting away.
The channel-hopping also needs to stop. NBC has a lot riding on Peacock, but the USGA shouldn’t care about that. For some exclusive bonus coverage early in the day? Sure. That should be it, though, in terms of exclusivity. Linear distribution is still the widest avenue, and it’s also the easiest to find and watch. And shunting the Open around various platforms cheapens the entire experience. Catching Law & Order: SVU moments while waiting for or right after coverage brought to mind the days of Charmed preempting Turner’s PGA coverage. Fox parked the U.S. Open on the big network all weekend for a reason. NBC should do its best to follow that path.
NBC has a lot in place already that should allow them to do things well. The visuals were good to great when they were actually on the screen; their camera and production crews do excellent work. The decision-makers should listen to their own promotional copy and trust the event to carry the day. Last week, it felt like they 1) didn’t understand what made it compelling and 2) weren’t able to actually convey the excitement to viewers because of various production and distribution decisions. The latter is fixable. The former is inexcusable.