TV ratings down for PGA Tour’s Saturday finish, but there’s reason for optimism
This past weekend marked the PGA Tour’s first-ever planned Saturday finish. The big question: How’d it go? Well, there’s good news and bad news.
The bad news is that the ratings weren’t stupefyingly great. The good news is that … there isn’t more bad news.
On Saturday, CBS’s broadcast of the Farmers Insurance Open final round drew an audience of 2.6 million, roughly a half-million shy of the mark set by last year’s final round from Torrey Pines, and a half-million better than the mark set by last year’s third round.
Call it ratings spin, but with those numbers in mind, it’s hard to see how our friends in Ponte Vedra, Fla. could view the PGA Tour’s first-ever Saturday finish as anything other than a modest success.
Sure, it would’ve been a great story if Saturday’s first-ever finish bested last year’s Sunday ratings. That viewers were so hungry to consume the first-ever mid-weekend finish — so relieved to avail themselves of the choice between the NFL and PGA Tour — that they flocked in droves to their televisions on Saturday afternoon to watch the final round from Torrey Pines.
But of course, that didn’t happen, nor was it expected to. Even if the Farmers Insurance Open had remained a Sunday finish, it’s likely the tournament’s ratings would have paled in comparison to 2021, a culmination of both shifting demographics and a shifting schedule. On the topic of demographics, the rise of streaming has slashed linear TV ratings across the board, resulting in modest decreases in overall viewership for the last several years. And as for scheduling, the Farmers had the NFL’s decision to expand regular season to 17 games to thank. The schedule shift pushed back Conference Championship weekend an extra week, meaning the Farmers went from its sweetspot — the NFL’s pre-Super Bowl bye week — to direct competition with the league’s second and third-biggest broadcasts of the year.
So, the Tour did something that should be applauded: it changed course, encouraging the tournament’s title-sponsor, Farmers Insurance, to sign off on bumping up the tournament schedule by a day — defusing a contentious exchange in the process.
“Do you really want to know?” Farmers Insurance CEO Jeff Dailey told the San Diego Union-Tribune. “It was presented as a choice at first. Do you go with Wednesday through Saturday? Or do you go to NBC and keep the Thursday-Sunday format? My initial, ‘upset’ reaction was, let’s go to NBC. Then cooler heads prevailed.”
The decision was not without risk. In changing the schedule, the Farmers risked alientating golf fans conditioned to watch the final round of play on Sundays. Moreover, there was no guarantee the move would be a ratings success. There was little precedent for shifting the schedule of a significant Tour event, and most of it (years of weather-driven Monday finishes) wasn’t good for viewership.
The result for the tour was not a slam-dunk ratings bonanza, but something potentially more relevant: a proof of concept for more schedule shifts.
It won’t be easy (and, in fact, may well be impossible) to convince PGA Tour brass to surrender one of two prime weekend TV slots during the winter months, but with proof that ratings won’t freefall, it’s something the Tour and its broadcast partners should at least consider. The product is better served when there’s a broader audience willing to watch it, and with the NFL cannibalizing sports TV ratings on Sundays in the fall and winter, there’s very little to be gained by continuing with the current schedule.
If the goal is merely to make the money required to keep the lights on, then keep the schedule as it is all the way through the wraparound schedule. But if the aim is to continue growing the game — even during its de facto “offseason” — the tour’s best interests aren’t being served picking a fight against an opponent it can’t beat. Rather, the tour is best served acting as it did with the Farmers — being nimble, flexible, and willing to do what’s necessary to maximize the viewing interest of its audience. Sure, it might not mean better ratings, but in a world decreasingly driven by TV ratings alone, perhaps that’s not the worst thing.
Of course, that means television deals will have to be rewritten, network partners will need easing, and an entire nation of golf fans will have to learn a new biological clock. These are significant hurdles, significant enough to halt even a good idea. Maybe for the PGA Tour, adopting a Saturday finish isn’t worth the effort.
But after the Farmers, it’s sure worth finding out.