Why the PGA Tour’s ESPN+ deal could prove a key weapon against LIV
Through one year at least, the PGA Tour and ESPN+ have proven a very good match.
According to data released by the two parties, the streaming network and Tour have both seen strong gains through the first season of their 9-year, $685 million agreement. Growth was seen most prominently in viewership, where PGA Tour live coverage on ESPN+ was streamed by more fans than any other live content on the platform from January through August of this past year. The Tour’s first year on ESPN’s paid-subscription platform also coincided with a 42 percent increase in ESPN+ subscribership, and a 14 percent jump in overall Tour digital platform growth.
The data surely rings as welcome news at PGA Tour headquarters in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., where officials gambled that shepherding the Tour’s digital media rights away from the golf-specific “PGA Tour Live” platform would prove both profitable and audience-expanding. The Tour’s shift toward a newer, bigger audience on ESPN+ was based primarily on the hope that both hardcore golf fans and casual sports fans would funnel toward a more widely available Tour streaming product — a hope that has proven true through at least year 1.
“Our goal entering the long-term partnership with ESPN was reaching more fans and providing them with more content,” Luis Goicouria, the Tour’s SVP of Media said through a spokesman. “We’re thrilled with what we accomplished in the first year and how our fans have embraced the ESPN+ platform.”
In seizing a prominent place in the ESPN+ platform and a sizeable production investment (tripling the number of streaming hours from the previous year), the Tour bet its product would thrive even on an ESPN+ platform growing increasingly crowded with other sports properties. That to this point it has been successful is a meaningful development — particularly as the Tour undergoes changes just a handful of years into a separate multi-billion-dollar pact with Discovery — but it might not be the only one. In addition to being good for the bottom-line, the ESPN+ deal might have the unintended benefit of helping the Tour to supplant its own standing in the golf world against LIV Golf.
Back in June when LIV Golf first burst onto the scene, its foray into streaming was no accident. Without a viable TV or streaming deal in place, the league moved to the medium that would provide it with the largest possible number of eyeballs: YouTube. In providing its broadcast commercial-free to viewers, LIV made the calculated gamble that its broadcasts would serve as a “proof of concept” for future partners.
But as those who have followed LIV closely know, a broadcast or streaming rights agreement has not come easily. After beginning the year with only a small number of potential partners — due in part to the PGA Tour’s own movements to sign broadcast contracts with most large media conglomerates — the list has dwindled even further, with big players like Amazon and Apple backing away from the bargaining table.
As LIV heads into the new year without a broadcast contract, the Tour’s first season on ESPN+ would only seem to harm those efforts further — not only in terms of shortening the league’s list of potential suitors but also in terms of the growth potential those suitors may see in LIV. With the PGA Tour owning the lion’s share of one of the sports world’s largest streaming properties, spending millions with LIV suddenly becomes a less attractive prospect. Goicouria went as far as to connect those dots himself in his statement, pointing to 2022’s streaming success as evidence of the Tour’s superiority in the space. (“We see the success of PGA Tour Live on ESPN+ as a reflection of the Tour being the most competitive platform in golf that showcases the biggest moments in golf,” he said.)
Of course, ESPN+ is just a small piece of the PGA Tour’s overall media portfolio — an audience-base that was old and homogenous enough to participate in LIV’s creation in the first place. But it is a particularly meaningful piece of that portfolio in the latest phase of the Tour’s battle against LIV; a battle that will be determined in large part, fairly or not, by the upstart’s ability to find a viable media partner.
There is still much that remains to be seen in golf’s great tour wars, but there is no question who will be easier to see in 2023. To that end, the advantage goes to the PGA Tour — with an assist to ESPN+.