Opinion: Pro golf tour should embrace livestreaming apps like Meerkat, Periscope, to attract new fans and show ‘missing’ action

The action starts here. Credit all photos: Paul Kapustka, MSR (click on any photo for a larger image)

The action starts here. Credit all photos: Paul Kapustka, MSR (click on any photo for a larger image)

Even as it ramps up its own official efforts to bring more live action to fans via the Internet, the professional golf tour should embrace the emerging “livestreaming” services like Periscope and Meerkat to expose even more live play to a wider and possibly younger audience.

Why? Because golf is unique in its ability to allow fans very close to the players, and combining that with the predictability of action makes for a perfect recipe for compelling livestream content, something that may not be possible at stadium-based events like baseball or football. And since golf itself is admitting that it needs more live coverage, why not open the gates as wide as possible, and see what happens? As I will explain below I think the downside is minimal, and on the upside there’s the opportunity for the world’s stodgiest sport to shed some of its historical knickers and attract a younger, hipper audience that it might need somewhere soon down the road.

Perfect for Periscope

That overall idea was my instant takeaway from a day at the World Golf Championships Match Play event this week at Harding Park Golf Course in San Francisco, where I strolled the grounds on Tuesday, when practice rounds and a pro-am event were taking place. While the almost non-existent crowd meant I could really get up close and personal, it struck me that even at crowded days at golf tournaments a good number of fans are extremely close to the players, making cell-phone livestreaming something you may actually want to watch.

Ian Poulter in fine form on Tuesday at WGC.

Ian Poulter in fine form on Tuesday at WGC.

Even with my limited photography skilz I was able to get some good shots Tuesday, including one stop-action picture of Ian Poulter’s perfect swing. I also spent some time watching Zach Johnson and Jason Dufner dial in their short irons at the practice range, and the thought occurred to me that golf geeks might really like being able to watch such “action” via a livestreaming service. So why not allow and even encourage it? If you follow golf at all you are probably, like the rest of us golf fans, regularly frustrated by the lack of “live” coverage either on TV or online. Especially so since there’s now no real reason not to have as much live coverage as you can.

In the old days, it might have been cost-prohibitive and technically impossible to have TV cameras following every golfer on the course on every hole. But as cameras and wireless technology continue to improve, you’re seeing more and more flexibility and choice in “official” golf coverage, most recently with Tuesday’s announcement of PGA Tour Live, which later this summer will bring live coverage of some Thursday and Friday morning action to Internet viewers for a small fee. That’s great news for frustrated old-line golf fans, who will probably happily pay a few bucks a week not to miss early rounds, especially from players who may finish before the TV coverage comes on air.

But why stop there? Even the PGA’s new service will be extremely limited, only showing two “featured” groups each day. That means possibly half the field still won’t be seen, and who knows when someone will have a hot round? Even The Masters’ excellent online coverage only shows a couple groups at a time and a couple holes. Why not allow unlimited or at least PGA media-approved livestreaming, something that could expand Tour coverage while rewarding hustling reporters who scour the course for unknowns having a good day? From where I sit the opportunities seem to far outweigh the negatives.

Remember: Online is additive for regular TV coverage!

After Tuesday’s press conference I briefly chatted with PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem and asked him about livestreaming apps, which are popping up at other pro sports events, like baseball. Though he doesn’t seem like someone who spends a lot of time on Twitter Finchem did know what Meerkat and Persicope were, and said “we’re looking at it [livestreaming] since it raises obvious issues.”

At the WGC social media tent. They wouldn't let me carry this on course to hold behind Sergio.

At the WGC social media tent. They wouldn’t let me carry this on course to hold behind Sergio.

Those obvious issues, of course, are that livestreaming clearly violates broadcast rights agreements and circumnavigates sponsor advertising, two big items in the PGA’s revenue list. But like other sports, golf isn’t really concerned with livestreaming right now since the guess is that most fans want to watch the action and not spend minutes holding up their phones so the Internet can see what they are seeing. That’s probably a safe bet but I think golf should go the other direction and encourage livestreaming, perhaps from golf media professionals already covering events or from sponsors themselves, who are also already providing social media coverage of their sponsored players. Instead of looking at livestreaming as something that takes away from its professional, sponsored coverage, the PGA should see the new services as a valuable promotional tool, one more likely to be consumed by an audience that doesn’t watch much golf now — young, hip, tech people who live on services like Twitter and might find golf cool if they could watch some live action on their phone, for free.

Already this week some golf media professionals with good social media skills, like Stephanie Wei, have done some livestreaming from Harding, but why not have more? Livestreaming could be a way to bring more exposure to up-and-coming players, who might never be part of an online “featured group” and who almost never show up on broadcast coverage, unless they shoot a hole in one. By and large the professional golf TV coverage is wonderfully produced, but it’s also predictable and as stuffy as sports gets: Tiger, Phil, commentators with British accents. What golf could profit from is some kind of Men in Blazers coverage, which might be a way to get younger fans for the twentysomething stars like Jordan Spieth and Rory McIlroy who are now No. 2 and No. 1 in the game respecitvely. Livestreaming could be a simple, fun and cheap experiment that’s worth a shot.

It also doesn’t have to be revenue-free, since the PGA could allow sponsors to livestream their logoed players — I’m thinking here that the excellent social media crew at Callaway would jump on such a chance and probably be ready to do so by next week. Maybe the PGA could sell a few approved livestreaming spots to the highest bidders? Maybe then I will finally get the 24/7 TigerCam that I’ve always wanted — and I think that other golf fans, new or old, would appreciate as well.

BONUS: More MSR photos from Harding below.

Masters champ Jordan Spieth relaxes during practice round.

Masters champ Jordan Spieth relaxes during practice round.

Zach Johnson dials in short irons on the range.

Zach Johnson dials in short irons on the range.

Mobile device use is still limited and confusing.

Mobile device use is still limited and confusing.

Sponsor plug! No test drives were available.

Sponsor plug! No test drives were available.

In case you need help with your tweet or Instagram.

In case you need help with your tweet or Instagram.

Don't quite understand why we weren't given the keys to this cart.

Don’t quite understand why we weren’t given the keys to this cart.

MSR finishes the WGC with a 1-up win.

MSR finishes the WGC with a 1-up win.

MLBAM to power new PGA Tour live action online service

MLBAM's Bob Bowman (L) and PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem announce the new PGA Tour Live service at the WGC Match Play event. Credit all photos: Paul Kapustka, MSR (click on any photo for larger image)

MLBAM’s Bob Bowman (L) and PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem announce the new PGA Tour Live service at the WGC Match Play event. Credit all photos: Paul Kapustka, MSR (click on any photo for larger image)

SAN FRANCISCO — Finally, golf fans will get a chance to see those early morning Thursday and Friday rounds that are never on broadcast TV, thanks to a new online live-action service announced Tuesday by the PGA Tour.

At a press conference held on the scene of this week’s World Golf Championships Match Play event at the Harding Park course, PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem said the tour is partnering with Major League Baseball’s Advanced Media entity (MLBAM) to produce a service called PGA Tour Live that will bring live Thursday and Friday golf coverage to any digital device for a small fee.

“I think you can see the possibilities” for such a service, said Finchem, who jointly presided over a press conference announcing the service with Bob Bowman, president of business and media for Major League Baseball. Finchem noted that at several recent PGA events there were some early rounds that fans couldn’t watch since they happened before the scheduled broadcasts came on air. With PGA Tour Live, he said, fans will be able to use phones, tablets or laptops and desktops to watch live action via the Internet.

Masters champ Jordan Spieth gets in some practice shots at Harding Park Tuesday.

Masters champ Jordan Spieth gets in some practice shots at Harding Park Tuesday.

According to MLBAM and the PGA the service will eventually be available from more than 30 events per season, and will show two “featured groups” from each event, similar to how many of the bigger tournaments like the Masters currently use online outlets to show live action. The service (you can sign up to get notified about its launch) is expected to launch sometime later this summer.

When asked the key question — how much this would cost — Bowman replied that the price wasn’t yet set, but that he thought it would be in “single digits” per event, meaning less than $10.

“Great content is not free, but I think this should be in single digits,” said Bowman, looking across the podium at Finchem to see if the tour’s boss agreed. “Lower is better.”

Bowman said in an interview after the press conference that the PGA would handle the content capture part of the service, and then would send the content to MLBAM for coding and processing on the Internet. While MLBAM already makes hundreds of millions showing live baseball action online, there are some extra hurdles to jump over to get content out from golf courses, which typically don’t have as much installed infrastructure. But Bowman also noted that at major events like the WGC tourneys, having mobile equipment isn’t a problem.

“If you look around here, you’ll see something like 40 [equipment] trucks,” Bowman said. “These are major media events, and it won’t be a problem [getting video from the courses]. This isn’t your grandfather’s golf tournament anymore.”

Time for The Masters — the best digital experience in sports

Gary Player (R) congratulates Jack Nicklaus after Nicklaus' hole in one (Sam Greenwood/Augusta National)

Gary Player (R) congratulates Jack Nicklaus after Nicklaus’ hole in one (Sam Greenwood/Augusta National)

There’s no small bit of irony in the fact that The Masters, one of the few places left on earth where you absolutely cannot carry a working cell phone, offers perhaps the best digital experience in all of sports. I’m biased, because I like golf and like the tradition and history of the Masters competition, but I would challenge you to find another event, team or league that offers the breadth and depth of the online/mobile experience brought forth by The Masters, CBS and IBM.

With live competition beginning Thursday morning, I’m not worried that I won’t be next to a TV set for the excellent, mostly commercial-free broadcast (Thursday-Friday on ESPN, Saturday-Sunday on CBS). That’s because if I am online or on my phone I will have access to no fewer than five different live feeds from Augusta, including featured groups as well as focused coverage on “Amen Corner,” the classic stretch between the 11th and 13th holes of the famed Augusta National course.

What makes the online and mobile experience so good? Production that parallels the TV broadcast, for one. No need for cable contract authorization, for another. That The Masters is like Harvard with its endowments — and as such doesn’t need to pander to advertisers — is nirvana for all golf fans, but especially so for those of us who watch a lot of sports action these days online. While TV commercials are easily endured (or muted, or skipped) it seems of late that broadcasters are doing their best to reclaim eyeball turf online, by subjecting digital viewers to more and more invasive ads.

During the recent NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament there was a lot of praise for the online product, but nowhere did I see anyone report the fact we found out — that when you were watching online or on your phone, during commercials the Turner/NCAA folks kindly blocked your ability to mute the sound on the screen controls. On my phone during the great regional game between Kentucky and Notre Dame I also saw a small button with a Pizza Hut logo remain on the left side of the screen during play. You would never try that on a broadcast offering, but for many events it seems OK to smack the online viewers around for any profit possible.

During the Masters, that’s not happening. (Or at least it didn’t last year! Hope I’m not jinxing things.)

Anyway — when play starts Thursday just go to Masters.com or download the app, watch away and see if you don’t agree. If there’s another online experience that’s better, I’d like to hear about it.

BONUS: Watch the Golden Bear back one up for a hole in one during the par 3 contest.

Watching Golf this Week: The British Open, and the Tiger Internet Channel debut

Screen Shot 2014-07-10 at 11.21.37 PMIn honor of ESPN fulfilling our longtime wish for continuous coverage of Tiger Woods at a golf tournament, we are bringing back our Watching Golf this Week feature. And for this weekend’s third major of the season, the British Open (aka the Open Championship) the viewing guide is easy: Just check ESPN, both on the tube and online, because the worldwide leader will give you wall to wall coverage of the action that starts Thursday morning at Royal Liverpool in Hoylake, England.

So what’s the deal with the Tiger Cam? We haven’t interviewed anyone at ESPN but it’s easy to see how this idea came about: With Eldrick finally returning to the pro golf majors scene for the first time this year after back surgery, there is an incredible amount of pent-up Tiger interest. Still easily the biggest draw in golf — just go to any tourney he’s in and watch where the crowd goes — Woods is an even bigger interest item this week, with everyone wanting to see if he is A) recovered enough to play competitively, and if so, B) if he’s good enough to start the Nicklaus majors-hunt in earnest.

While ESPN will most certainly cut to Woods whenever possible during normal telecast coverage, the idea of putting a camera on Woods only and using ESPN3, one of the company’s “Internet channels” to show streaming coverage is a masterstroke. Not only will you lure in potential “casual” viewers who might not give a hoot who Martin Kaymer is but who will watch Woods, you will also likely get golf nuts doing the two-screen dance, with the TV on the regular coverage and a phone, tablet or laptop following Woods. At the very least it’s a great experiment and one we expect will be copied (at least we hope so) in other sports, soon.

But while you might not want be so fired up to watch something like a “quarterback cam” or a “third baseman cam,” individual player coverage in things like golf tournaments is a perfect idea. In fact, most online golf efforts for the majors over the past few years have had “featured group” channels online, where they follow attractive pairings throughout a round. This is not really much different except for the focus on Woods, which some will no doubt say is unworthy, since Woods is only a single player, he’s not bigger than the game, blah blah blah. Tiger fans get it, and will (I predict) turn out in the millions to watch every shot he takes over the weekend. Here’s hoping for Tiger, ESPN and for golf that the cams stay on through Sunday. Plus you can watch it mobile, via the WatchESPN app. Good on ya, ESPN.

There will, of course, be other stories from Liverpool, including whatever magic defending champ Phil Mickelson can conjure, and whether or not we will see Major-winning Rory McIlroy finally fulfill his Open dreams, or whether he’ll continue to sputter in the big events. If I could I’d bet a few pounds on American Ricky Fowler, who has been steadily doing well in majors this year. Is this his breakthrough event? Are the British ready for an all-orange winner on Sunday? Or will Sergio Garcia finally come through? It all gets underway Thursday, and for once we’ll have a way to watch and see exactly everything that Tiger does.

BONUS: Doug Ferguson penned an excellent, technically correct article about Wi-Fi at Royal Liverpool. Hello Augusta, can you hear me now?

THE OPEN CHAMPIONSIP

ESPN COVERAGE
This is long, but worth it… what follows is the entire ESPN lineup of content from The Open (all times U.S. Eastern):

Screen Shot 2014-07-16 at 9.58.08 AM

FACEBOOK PAGE
Get yourself close to the Claret Jug at The Open’s Facebook page.

TOP TWITTER FEEDS TO FOLLOW
The Open’s own Twitter feed.
Geoff Shackelford — well known golf writer. If you’re not following Geoff you are missing the online boat.
Golf Channel — official Golf Channel feed
@PGATOUR — official PGA Twitter feed
@StephanieWei — great golf writer who is a Twitter fiend.
Doug Ferguson is the lead golf writer for AP. Good Twitter insights that often aren’t part of your wire-service lead.

TOURNAMENT APP
One of the better event apps, the Open’s App has everything you want in a handheld device app. iPad, iPhone and Android, even Windows. You will still need the ESPN contract to view live video, though. Still, well worth the download especially for the Thursday-Friday times when you may be at work.

WHAT’S THE COURSE LIKE?

Everything we’re reading says that Royal Liverpool (aka Hoylake) will play much differently than it did back in 2006, when Tiger did his 1-iron stinger thing, hitting only one driver all weekend en route to victory. According to an AP story today Tiger says the greens are soft, which might mean that American players unused to links golf might have a better chance. To us, it really doesn’t matter which course they use for the Open Championship. We’re so tired of TPC layouts by this time of the year that basically anything links-like is a refreshing slap in the face, like an ocean breeze. Fore, gentlemen.

WHO WON THIS THING LAST YEAR?

C’mon, do you need to ask? HEFTY!

FEDEX CUP LEADERS
1. Jimmy Walker, 2,322 points
2. Bubba Watson, 2,135
3. Matt Kuchar, 1,725
4. Dustin Johnson, 1,701
5. Jordan Spieth, 1,636

WORLD GOLF RANKINGS
1. Adam Scott; 2. Henrik Stenson; 3. Justin Rose; 4. Bubba Watson; 5. Matt Kuchar.

And… for those of you late risers who miss the Open coverage, don’t forget to watch Annika take on Michael Jordan and John Elway in Tahoe at the American Century Classic:

AMERICAN CENTURY CLASSIC TV
Friday, July 18 — NBC, 4 p.m. — 7 p.m.
Saturday, July 19 — NBC, 3 p.m. — 6 p.m.
Sunday, July 20 — NBC, 3 p.m. — 6 p.m.

The U.S. Open’s last hurrah on NBC, ESPN — last chance for good online golf?

If there’s one thing that’s been a bonus of ESPN’s coverage of the U.S. Open golf championship, it’s the fact that for those of us on the West coast, coverage starts at 6 a.m. local time. That means that by the time most of us are at our computers Thursday or Friday, there’s already live golf to be found. For one last time, we’ll enjoy it as the lads tee it up at Pinehurst No. 2 starting Thursday morn.

Will it be the same next year when Fox takes over? Though Fox did a decent job of the Super Bowl online this past big game, there’s no telling how good or how bad Fox’s golf broadcasts will be, and much less how much Fox will devote to online efforts. If the past is any clue, we may see a regression of sorts when it comes to online options from Fox. For this year, anyway, we’ll still have the rich options usually available from ESPN (including the WatchESPN app) as well as the above-decent online offerings from NBC for the weekend play.

You can, of course, also use the official U.S. Open apps or mobile websites to get mobile/online coverage of two featured groups and featured holes, a la the Masters but with less depth. And if you can stand the amount of time it takes for all the dumb features to load, the PGA’s new home page will certainly be kept up to date with scores and video highlights, as well as pointers to where you can watch live stuff.

NBC, which earned all kinds of honors recently for its online coverage (especially its Olympic streaming efforts) still, in my book, is learning how to do all this. Yes, there was lots of Olympics stuff online, but you had to hunt really hard to find the actual live programming late at night from Sochi — and when you did, the NBC window could spoil the results for you, since the integrated Twitter feed was usually a minute or two AHEAD of the NBC “live” online broadcast. Still, NBC and the NBC-owned Golf Channel should have more info and analysis than you could possibly want all weekend.

If you are watching on an actual television set, the ESPN coverage on Thursday and Friday goes from 9 a.m. Eastern to 3 p.m. ET, then you switch over to NBC for two hours, and then back to ESPN for the last two hours of coverage. On the weekend, it’ll be the last call for Johnny “63” Miller as lead broadcaster, as NBC covers things from noon ET to 7:30 p.m. Saturday, and Sunday from noon until the winning putt drops. Or until there’s a tie and an 18-hole Monday playoff.

The Players Championship keeps major-like online viewing options

Island green at TPC Sawgrass, home of the Players Championship

Island green at TPC Sawgrass, home of the Players Championship

It’s still not recognized as one of professional golf’s majors, but this week’s Players Championship tournament nonetheless has majors-like online coverage, with multiple ways to watch golf online during a weekend when almost all of the top players are competing.

In addition to having big-event features like being able to follow featured groups of players throughout their entire round and to watch every group play the famous island-green hole, No. 17, the Players online options also include the PGA’s whizzy Live Maps feature, which lets you look at an interactive Google map of the course and then click on the group you want to see shot info for. For desktop jockeys who want to keep an eye on golf during Thursday and Friday, such option are what make online sports worthwhile.

HERE IS THE LINK TO PLAYERS CHAMPIONSHIP ONLINE VIEWING

As we did last year, however, we can’t heartily recommend the PGA app for mobile devices, unless your mobile device is made by Apple. We’ve tried the PGA app on several of the Android devices we have around the MSR headquarters, and have found it still spotty — sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. The other confusing thing about trying to watch golf online is the weird handoffs that sometimes happen due to network coverage issues.

What do we mean? Sometimes the golf is available online only, and sometimes you have to open the NBC app because the coverage is live on broadcast TV. Though it seems like you can always get there, the hoops and jumps seem like a confusing Kludge. Why golf (and other sports) can’t figure out the rights issues between themselves and just make it one-click easy for the fans is beyond me. But it’s a little reminder that we are still at early days for online and mobile sports viewing, and at least for me the value of being able to watch online or on a mobile device is worth the tradeoff of having to figure out how to configure my device or launch the right app. But it should be easier, and better.