How NBC unwittingly made a compelling case for Ryder Cup player pay

patrick cantlay joe lacava celebrate ryder cup.

NBC's Ryder Cup ad-palooza resulted in an argument for player pay equally as compelling as Patrick Cantlay's hat.

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The loudest argument for Ryder Cup player pay may have come from Patrick Cantlay, but the best one?

That belonged to Paul Azinger.

“I’ve said this many times, it’s in your blood and it’s in your head,” Azinger said to a national television audience of a few million people on Saturday afternoon in Rome, resurfacing the biggest story of the week yet again. “There’s all these clickbait crummy stories online that they’re not bonded, they’re not true.”

For those who didn’t follow closely, a refresher: Patrick Cantlay chose not to wear a hat during last week’s festivities in Rome. On Saturday, a report surfaced alleging a “fracture” in the U.S. team room driven in part by Cantlay’s headwear decision, which the report alleged was actually a protest against the long-standing tradition of players competing in the Cup for free. (Cantlay later refuted the report, stating the decision to go hatless was because the team-issued hats didn’t fit his head.)

It’s still not clear how much of the report is true, or if Cantlay had actually attempted a protest by refusing to wear a hat, but it didn’t matter. The allegations ripped like wildfire through the Cup, igniting Cantlay’s wardrobe decision into a greater conversation about the state of player compensation in professional golf. All the while, Azinger’s attempts at discrediting the story proved like lighter fluid — expanding the scope and ultimately, the meaning of the Cantlay story beyond even what Patrick himself intended. Suddenly, every camera on property was trained on Cantlay’s forehead, every voice offering whispers about the horrible, questionable, maybe-actually-not-that-crazy suggestion that players should be paid for their time in the Cup.

As the weekend wore on, NBC’s broadcast attempted to make sense of the allegations surrounding Cantlay. Azinger continued to deride them as “clickbait garbage,” while Cara Banks and Todd Lewis chimed in with reporting surrounding the altercation between Cantlay’s caddie Joe LaCava and Rory McIlroy. Interestingly, though, the broadcast seemed to be missing one key character in the larger conversation: itself.

You see, the crux of the allegations against Cantlay centered around his lack of respect for the sanctity of the Ryder Cup — a long-held belief that the Cup, like the Olympics, lives in its own place above the rest of the sports calendar. Unlike every other tournament on the golf calendar, players have long competed in the Cup for free, a tradition said to honor the tournament’s long-standing history of sportsmanship and integrity. Rather than pay players, the PGA of America and DP World Tour, both non-profits that stage the tournament, take the money from the Cup and funnel it toward programs that benefit their respective memberships and the sport. The end result is a sort of virtuous cycle in which the event honors the sport and its traditions by helping to further fund the sport and its traditions.

But the suggestion that the Ryder Cup is in some way holier than its other golf counterparts requires all of its stakeholders to behave that way, not just the players. And in the case of NBC, well, that wasn’t the case.

Last weekend, as with many other weekends during the golf calendar, NBC frustrated golf fans by showing an onslaught of advertisements during its Ryder Cup coverage, a barrage of commercials so bad some fans were left confused about the events of the tournament. By one account, fans had been shown nearly as many golf shots from a frequently recurring commercial as they had from one of the matches on the course.

The reason for this appeared to be NBC’s desire to turn the Ryder Cup into another golf moneymaker, an effort that required a not-insignificant amount of sponsorship money to execute. In order to make money, NBC had to sell ads, and in order to make a lot of money, well, NBC had to do what it did during the Ryder Cup broadcast.

Fan treatment aside, there’s nothing inherently wrong with this behavior. The Ryder Cup is one of the biggest moneymakers in the sport, and sports TV rights are a highly lucrative business. Why else would NBC pay the PGA of America and DP World Tour for the right to broadcast the Cup if not to turn a profit?

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It’s just that this, it turns out, is the precise argument in favor of player payment. There’s nothing wrong with making money, particularly not when the service you’re offering is worth a lot of it. By all accounts, what players are offering the Ryder Cup is worth a lot of money — maybe more than $100 million every two years, by a few estimates. If NBC is selling an ungodly number of advertisements, and the PGA of America and DP World Tour are raking in a ton in rights fees and ticket sales, why is it the players’ job to fall on the financial sword?

Because of the sanctity of the Cup? If protecting the sanctity of the Ryder Cup is the primary focus, then the governing bodies and the networks should act with similar morality — perhaps by providing a commercial-free, commercial-limited, or not commercial-overloaded telecast. If it’s not, then the players should be collecting a damn paycheck for their efforts.

The truth is that the Ryder Cup can’t possibly be both of these things — morally guided and overtly capitalistic — particularly not in the era of player empowerment. There are too many savvy players like Cantlay for the Cup to get away with being blithely inconsistent in its treatment of stakeholders and the NBC product is far too lacking for the Cup to get away with claiming it currently is consistent.

Ultimately, the simplest solution to this problem probably involves giving up the charade and paying the players — a shift that would likely see the cost of NBC’s Ryder Cup rights jump. But I’m not sure that’s the only solution, particularly not if the Ryder Cup still aspires to these sanctimonious beliefs. I was struck by what Stefan Schauffele, Xander’s father, told a group of reporters including myself on Sunday morning about the PGA of America.

“Alternatively, they can donate all proceeds after opening the books to a charity of our joint choice, and then we will happily play for free,” Stefan said. “Please print that.”

Perhaps there’s nothing interesting to see after opening up the books, or perhaps the Ryder Cup isn’t worth as much as the public thinks it is — that’s fine. But as Azinger carried on about the Cantlay story on Saturday and Sunday, fanning the flames, he reinforced the irony of the year in golf television.

Of all the advertising NBC sold around this year’s Ryder Cup, the most effective campaign was against itself.

James Colgan

Golf.com Editor

James Colgan is a news and features editor at GOLF, writing stories for the website and magazine. He manages the Hot Mic, GOLF’s media vertical, and utilizes his on-camera experience across the brand’s platforms. Prior to joining GOLF, James graduated from Syracuse University, during which time he was a caddie scholarship recipient (and astute looper) on Long Island, where he is from. He can be reached at james.colgan@golf.com.