I have never seen anything less essential than The Netflix Cup. This is neither indictment nor endorsement, but it’s important to set expectations up front. I am writing this paragraph before the event ends; if you’re reading this sentence, it means that the event ended while I was writing and the result didn’t matter at all. Were I to place a bet, it would be that you’ll have read that sentence, because I have no idea who’s winning, what they are playing for, or why.
Again, this is fine, in a vacuum. The inessential is often paradoxically essential; professional sports in general feel pretty pointless if you think too hard about the entire concept, but I’m really glad they exist for a variety of reasons. Is it a good sign that Netflix staging a live golf competition featuring stars from both the PGA Tour and the world of Formula 1 spurred an internal debate on the nature of essential vs. inessential more than it did an interest in who actually won? Maybe, actually, because at no point was this ever intended to approach anything like meaningful competition. The surest way to not have a good time watching would have been to show up expecting something even approaching an edition of The Match in terms of competitive stakes or integrity. I did not have those expectations. Did I have a good time watching?
Well, that’s complicated, but asking it gets to the heart of the very first note I jotted down, about ninety seconds into the event: who is this for? Having watched more than two hours now, I’m still not really sure I have an answer for it, but I can rule myself out. It’s surprising, maybe, considering I love Formula 1, pay attention to the PGA Tour, love Netflix’s Drive to Survive docuseries, and enjoyed parts of their Full Swing series as well. I really like Carlos Sainz, Lando Norris, Pierre Gasly, Alex Albon, Max Homa, Tony Finau, and Rickie Fowler as a collection of Guys I’d Love To Hang Out With. And Justin Thomas was there, doing Justin Thomas things. All of these elements were thrown together in Las Vegas for a modified scramble with plenty of Netflix promotional tie-ins, influencers galore both before and during the broadcast, and the looming, surreal Vegas Sphere somehow visible from just about every hole. In that sense Vegas was the perfect setting for The Netflix Cup.
Let’s start there.
Remember how much fun the Peyton Manning/Phil Mickelson/Tom Brady/Tiger Woods edition of The Match was back in 2020? It featured top athletes from other sports interacting with golf stars, famous athletes playing very bad golf (Tom, also Phil), one non-golfer in Peyton keeping up with (or outplaying, according to Andy Johnson) Phil Mickelson, and a few moments of genuine insight that comes from having such close-up, hours-long access to top talents like this presented by a loose, conversational broadcast crew.
The Netflix Cup did all of this, at points. Kay Adams and Joel Dahmen made for a laid-back broadcast pairing, even if poor Kay was tasked with driving a show featuring everything from moderating a discussion with Mark Wahlberg and McLaren Racing chief Zak Brown to navigating plenty of technical issues and a wildly unclear competitive format. Dahmen’s affability translated to both the viewer and to the PGA Tour pros he bantered with throughout.
Also, Marshawn Lynch was there! If Marshawn doesn’t have national treasure status already he’s well on his way, and whoever came up with the idea of having him narrate hole flyovers deserves to retire early and comfortably. I laughed way harder than I expected to laugh during this whole event when Marshawn described a par 5 as “515 yards. That’s a lotta yards!” Dahmen suggested that Lynch voice hole flyovers every week on Tour, and I can’t disagree.
The first hole was entertaining, played for speed instead of for score; seeing Max Homa hurl himself into a moving golf cart piloted by Alex Albon (destroying a camera in the process) was unexpected, and very welcome. Honestly, more holes should have included novelties like that. A later hole served as a native ad for Netflix’s upcoming Squid Game reality competition show, but it forced players to time their tee shots while a giant animatronic doll was looking the other direction. Albon comparing the doll to his girlfriend, LPGA player Muni He, also made me laugh, but mostly for how it came after Homa said the thing was insanely creepy. Netflix kind of did Albon dirty there, bringing that clip back after the fact AND highlighting it on social channels.
— Netflix (@netflix) November 15, 2023
Justin Thomas slicing his first tee ball right at the Sphere was also excellent, especially when the Sphere seemed to react quizzically in real-time.
This is a pretty good summation of JT's year. pic.twitter.com/9u9ab5bQMF
— Kyle Porter (@KylePorterCBS) November 14, 2023
Carlos Sainz followed that up by striping a better drive. Few things are more amusing than watching amateurs outplay pros, even for just one shot. There’s something inherently wonderful about golf that way. I pondered that a lot while watching, how the feeling of hitting a damn good golf shot being accessible to a wide variety of ages and physical abilities makes golf special. Justin Thomas probably couldn’t even start Sainz’s Ferrari, much less pilot it out of the pits, but Sainz can absolutely hit a great golf shot.
Of course, the very next shots highlighted that the pros are really, really good. Seeing Justin Thomas and Rickie Fowler play alongside Sainz and Norris (both avid amateurs) was a stark reminder of just how damn good top-level pros are at this sport. The Netflix Cup was maybe the least competitive environment in which I’ve ever seen real players perform, and watching the actual golfers take dead aim at targets all night without any tournament pressure or stakes was a clinic. Remove situational pressure and they’re really just not going to miss very often. The entire thing made me wonder if Paul Azinger’s hyperfixation on pressure being the difference at all times might be more on-point than I ever realized.
We even got a few organic bits of cross-sport interaction. Listening in as Sainz asked JT about lifting his left heel up for more power on a tee shot was a legitimately enjoyable thirty seconds. On the surface, F1 drivers and PGA Tour stars don’t have a ton of overlap in terms of their respective disciplines, but paying attention to every detail and finding ways to maximize speed while maintaining control are certainly two commonalities.
The whole thing only took about two hours, too, once tee shots were actually hit on the first hole.
Listen, something failing to please me doesn’t inherently mean that it failed. For example: I’d never experienced Bert Kreischer before this, and now that I’ve been subjected to his attempts at on-course comic/reporter duty, I’m pining for the halcyon days of Rob Riggle. But again, it’s Las Vegas. There’s something for everyone, which means there’s also going to be a lot of stuff for no one.
Let’s instead focus on the elements that should have worked for me and for a wider audience. For one thing, much was made about this being Netflix’s first live sports broadcast. Netflix has for years been rumored to be considering a jump to the world of live sports. The Netflix Cup, combining two of their top sports properties, was a bit of a test case for how that might go. They need more practice. The whole thing was disorganized and riddled with technical issues; at one point Kay Adams was talking to Pierre Gasly while the audio was filled with reverb, like Gasly was a sports radio caller who forgot to turn his stereo volume down when he finally got on the air.
The audio issues were a huge deal throughout. It’s easy to overlook a lot, but when so many people are talking at once from multiple different locations, it becomes impossible to follow anything. It made the worst versions of The Match look like a Masters broadcast. Netflix almost certainly threw a shitload of money at this, and for this result. Not great!
For an event billed as a crossover between two different sporting worlds, this was heavily golf-focused. Obviously that’s naturally going to happen when the actual competition is golf-based, but I’d have loved it if the final hole had pivoted to a five lap go-kart race or something. You have four Formula 1 drivers there! Mix things up a bit! I can’t imagine being an F1 fan who doesn’t know or care about golf that much (there are legions of them, just check romance TikTok) finding anything to like. The drivers were almost an afterthought, with Dahmen understandably throwing it more to his buddies out there and the pros doing almost all of the competitive heavy lifting. But it felt like a missed opportunity to lean into both worlds.
And, then, the downtime. This whole thing was a fantastic example of why sometimes live isn’t better. Taped, staged properly, and without the stress of live broadcasting, there are probably 45 very watchable minutes that could be chiseled out of what we got instead. The Wonderful World of Golf may have had it right the whole time for exhibitions like these; package it into a compelling event, especially when the result doesn’t really matter. No one watched to see who won. People did watch to be entertained, in some form or fashion. Lean into that with a quality editor. Sainz and Thomas sat on the sidelines for an hour or so after winning their match.
Finally, fire all the influencers into the Sphere.
What was absurd
The first hole featured a scrum at the cup:
Already been a big normal sport night. pic.twitter.com/oxQQdEd905
— Kyle Porter (@KylePorterCBS) November 14, 2023
Then, out of nowhere, PGA Tour official Ken Tackett popped up to try to adjudicate who had won the golf cart race hole, with an explanation just as unsatisfying as it often is on Tour.
The Sphere was arguably the star of the broadcast. I’m not sure anything as tangibly and immensely real has ever seemed more simultaneously fake. It’s surreal.
If this was all James Dolan had ever done, he’d be an icon. Unfortunately he decided to run a basketball team and play music, too.
Marshawn Lynch saying he’d love to drive an F1 car but would be too big to fit into it got me as well. I’m actually annoyed the broadcast wasn’t more “PGA Tour players and F1 drivers interact with Marshawn Lynch” because that was a winning approach.
Homa and Albon attempting to distract Tony Finau by bobbing back and forth in their cart to throw shadows across his stance during the night portion of the event was adorable.
Justin Thomas and Carlos Sainz won. JT stuck an impressive shot in a closest-to-the-pin playoff hole contest after the teams rolled giant dice down a hill to see who played first. I wrote earlier that it wouldn’t matter who won, and in a sense, it didn’t. No one cares. But I also can’t imagine a more perfect ending to The Netflix Cup. Was it good? No, I can’t say that it was good. I wouldn’t recommend watching it, if you didn’t. But there were some good things in there for me, and presumably for just about anyone who bothered to check it out.
A perfect match for the setting, then. No city in the United States, perhaps the world, encapsulates the idea of “something for everyone” like Las Vegas. If you want to experience anything, Vegas will have a version of it. But the tradeoff to ensuring there’s something for everyone is the guarantee that there will never be everything for someone. I can’t imagine walking away from that broadcast feeling like you want to watch it again, or something else like it. It’s ephemeral, inoffensive nonsense, the kind of thing that lives on in the bowels of the Netflix data lake until the heat death of the universe.
It was an event and broadcast that I was not expecting to love and actively hated in parts. Yet it still offered a few moments that made me laugh, for real. I expect if you watched it you had a similar experience. It’s hard to call that a failure, especially as having at least something for everyone is all The Netflix Cup was trying to do to begin with.
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