TV deal signals crunch time for Canadian Open
This is my National Post golf column from today's paper. It only ran in the national edition.
TV deal signals crunch time for Canadian Open: Change of dates vital to regaining lost prestige
National Post Friday, July 22, 2005
Page: B12 Section: Sports Byline:
Robert Thompson Column: On Golf
Last week, as the Open Championship played out at the legendary Old Course in St. Andrews, another battle was brewing behind the scenes.
While Tiger Woods was waltzing with the Claret Jug, according to reports, PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem was furiously working the backrooms as part of preliminary negotiations for a new television deal.
Finchem is under a tremendous amount of pressure to come up with a deal that rivals the US$900-million arrangement he was able to lock up four years ago. A new deal is proving difficult to nail down, even with a resurgent Woods bringing casual sports fans back to the game.
The problem is those same fans aren't interested in watching any event that doesn't have Nike's favourite son, or maybe teen superstar Michelle Wie, in prominent view. That means events like this week's US Bank Championship in Milwaukee fly completely under the radar. Sponsors aren't happy and TV ratings for these events are poor. It's not exactly a situation conducive to selling a big TV deal.
The lack of superstars, who often play no more than 20 events a year, is a significant issue for a great majority of PGA Tour events. This week, for example, Kenny Perry is the only golfer of any note teeing it up. Phil Mickelson, Woods, Ernie Els and even Vijay Singh, who plays very often, have all skipped the tournament.
With this in mind, reports have said Finchem is considering slashing the number of events the tour plays and closing the year at the end of September.
Sources have apparently leaked word Finchem wants the rainy Players Championship moved to May and the Tour Championship to follow the Deutsche Bank Championship in early September.
Interestingly, there was no mention of the Canadian Open in reports, but speculation places the Deutsche Bank event in the spot currently held by Canada's top pro golf outing.
It has been 15 years since the Canadian Open had a strong date on the PGA Tour schedule. For some time the event was moved between May, June and July, allowing the Royal Canadian Golf Association to rotate the event around many of Canada's great courses depending on weather conditions. When the even was moved to a permanent September date in 1990, it also limited the ability of the RCGA to take the tournament outside of Toronto or Montreal, largely because of weather concerns.
So where does the Canadian Open fit in a reconfigured PGA Tour schedule? Given its poor fields in recent years, is it potentially a tournament that could be dropped?
RCGA tournament director Bill Paul said there is no way the Canadian Open will disappear from the PGA Tour's list of events. He's been told that much by Finchem.
"We are definitely in their plans," Paul said. "It is no surprise that Tim is looking at a whole series of scenarios for this. But it is all very preliminary."
It is no secret the RCGA has been lobbying to move the date of the Canadian Open in an attempt to regain lost prestige. Though it was never considered in the same realm as the majors, the Canadian Open did draw outstanding fields for most of its history. Then it was moved to September and found a near-permanent location at Toronto's Glen Abbey and those fields quietly disappeared.
Paul said Finchem is probably considering all options when it comes to securing a new TV deal.
"I'm sure he's just discussing this at a preliminary level with a number of networks. But TV is the tour's biggest source of income and I'm sure he's looking at a bunch of ways to improve the product."
Paul won't let on whether improving the product includes a new date for the Canadian Open that would enable it to move to Calgary, Winnipeg and the East Coast. Arranging the tour's schedule is a difficult, political matter and must be handled with some delicacy. But there is a good chance the Canadian Open could be better off as part of a new TV deal, Paul said.
"We need a couple of other dominos to fall before we'll know anything for certain," he said.
Let's hope the dominos tumble in the direction that allows the Canadian Open to regain some of its lost glory.