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If video did indeed kill the radio star then it best have its head on a swivel. Doesn’t it know that the hunter becomes the hunted?

And so it goes that, having dominated our behavioural habits and living rooms for decades, the humble television finds itself approaching a critical inflection point. It no longer has our undivided attention. We’ve changed. So have the times. Lives that once used to fit around the telly schedule are no longer beholden to the box.

You may have noticed an increase in chatter about the decrease in audiences for golf on TV. According to Sports Business Journal‘s Josh Carpenter, the final round of The Masters last Sunday drew 9.589 million viewers for CBS – down 20% from 12 months ago when Jon Rahm won the Green Jacket.

It was the lowest final round of The Masters since 2021, when Hideki Matsuyama secured his maiden major, and continues a worrying trend for golf viewership in the States so far in 2024. The Valspar Championship, for example, experienced a 27% year-on-year drop of its own.

“Golf in crisis” has been the prevailing riff and not without some justification. TV ratings have long been considered a decent, if imperfect, benchmark of popularity.

But should we be panicking? Are the ratings more of a “golf” issue or a “golf on TV” issue?

The answer, infuriatingly for those of us more invested in solutions than problems, is that it’s likely a little of both.

Breaking it down, there are five clear and obvious factors at play.

The first is the whole PGA Tour / LIV Golf omnishambles, a melodrama so objectively ridiculous it wouldn’t look out of place on a telenovela.

It’s hardly the stuff of original observation to note that the division in the men’s professional game has diluted what C-suite types like to call The Product™. What that basically means is that the star power of some PGA Tour events, in particular, is not what it once was.

It would take a staggering amount of intellectual dishonesty to suggest that the US circuit is better off without big personalities and talents such as Bryson DeChambeau, Brooks Koepka, Jon Rahm and Patrick Reed. With no disrespect to Austin Eckroat or Jake Knapp, there’s not a needle outwith their own inner circle that is appreciably moved by them winning a tournament, and no amount of feel-good, happy-tears is ever likely to change that.

Secondly, and somewhat related, golf fans have been exposed to the true colours of countless of the game’s biggest names over the last two years – as well as several of its rank-and-file – and, frankly, they don’t like what they’re seeing. It’s easy to root for somebody to win a major; much less when you know their primary motivation is to convert their millions into billions.

The greed of the most gifted, and the pathetic willingness of their enablers to satisfy them, has harmed the sport’s reputation beyond measure. Remember the good old days when people watched from afar and concluded it was the preserve of stuffy old sexists? It is now perceived as ugly, craven and obnoxious – charges that are hard to dispute – and the court of public opinion is passing judgment in the most damning way it can: by turning off.

Factor number three, and this is important: the rise in non-linear viewing platforms. The Masters, for example, has one of the most sophisticated apps in sport, never mind golf. Users can watch coverage of their favourite players in real time and, crucially, without advert breaks. It’s the type of convenience and content that an increasingly impatient world demands and which television, so far, can’t compete with.

As such, it’s demonstrably false to look at falling television ratings and conclude that golf as a sport is in peril. It’s not. It’s just becoming consumed by new, future-facing and exasperatingly hard-to-quantify means. As a metric of popularity, TV viewership is now obsolete, no different to measuring the marathon in cubits or barleycorns. And we shouldn’t ignore other factors here, like catch-up television, DVRs and other such watch-it-later devices, as well as account sharing and black market fire sticks.

And let’s not forget the part the cost-of-living crisis has played in this whole thing. Inflationary pressure and other such fiscal misery has forced many households, particularly in the US and UK where golf audiences have been historically strong, to dispense with luxuries like pay-per-view TV. In the second quarter of 2022, for example, it was reported that Sky lost over a quarter of a million subscribers. Given that virtually all live golf in the UK is now paywalled, that will, of course, impact viewership. Ergo, the sport is more collateral damage than intended target.

Last but by no means least, there’s this very simple truth: there’s only so much sport a person can watch. There are tight title races in both the English and Scottish Premier Leagues, as well as the start of the F1 season, an unexpectedly close Six Nations, the FA Cup, the Champions League, EURO 2024 qualifiers, the Grand National, Cheltenham, the Super Bowl, ‘March Madness’ and so much more. Come Sunday afternoon or evening, when the golf is getting going, a lot of people are simply “all sported out”.

So, challenges abound, challenges that are by no means unique to golf, but which do seem to be accelerating with worrying haste.

The next round of negotiations between the tours and their various broadcast partners is sure to be fascinating. Logic would suggest that whatever deals do get struck won’t be as lucrative as they have been of late – but then, which part of the last two years in golf has been in any way logical?

A penny for the thoughts of John Logie Baird. All this, one presumes, was never part of his plan.

Michael McEwan is the 2023 PPA Scotland ‘Columnist of the Year’ and ‘Writer of the Year’


author headshot

Michael McEwan is the Deputy Editor of bunkered and has been part of the team since 2004. In that time, he has interviewed almost every major figure within the sport, from Jack Nicklaus, to Rory McIlroy, to Donald Trump. The host of the multi award-winning bunkered Podcast and a member of Balfron Golfing Society, Michael is the author of three books and is the 2023 PPA Scotland 'Writer of the Year' and 'Columnist of the Year'. Dislikes white belts, yellow balls and iron headcovers. Likes being drawn out of the media ballot to play Augusta National.

Deputy Editor

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