A three-hour weather delay won’t necessarily put a damper on this year’s special autumnal edition Masters Tournament, but Augusta National’s Thursday morning soaking serves as a reminder that 2020 isn’t terribly interested in accommodating even the most meticulously planned sporting event. And while club officials should be able to squeeze in the first round before darkness settles in—the field has been whittled down to 92 duffers, half of whom will begin play from the tenth tee—today’s sodden start may prefigure an equally uncertain finish come Sunday afternoon.
Having televised every Masters going back to 1956, CBS has the whole azaleas-and-dogwoods thing down pat. There’s not much that coordinating producer Lance Barrow hasn’t seen during his 24 years as the orchestrator of the CBS broadcast—he logged his first Masters in 1977, serving as a spotter for Pat Summerall, and his tenure at the helm coincided with Tiger Woods’ first win at Augusta—but the decisions that will have to be made in the event the final round runs long might test even the wiliest veteran’s mettle.
If all goes according to plan, the winner of the 84th Masters will be wriggling his arms into the green jacket shortly after 3 p.m. ET Sunday, which would give CBS plenty of time to bask in the tourney’s singular tradition while three of its NFL broadcast crews get set to call their respective 4:05 p.m. games. In a perfect world, Tiger Woods is in the hunt and sporting the red polo shirt and black pants that comprise his Sunday work uniform, and CBS has itself a spectacular lead-in for that trio of late NFL games. But if you got this far into the year expecting perfection from any corner, you haven’t been paying sufficient attention.
Should Sunday’s round run late, CBS has a contingency plan in place, as you would expect. But Sean McManus isn’t eager to disclose the specifics of that plan. (The CBS Sports chairman’s reticence may well echo Barrow’s somewhat superstitious manner; a few years back, when asked if he’d faced any unexpected challenges while producing a major PGA event, Barrow replied, “Knock wood,” and gracefully sidestepped the question.)
“We’ve been discussing that and there’s going to be a scenario in place if that happens,” McManus said earlier this week. “There’s a good deal of padding between the final putt and when the NFL window starts. We’ll be ready and will work with our partners if [there’s a delay].”
CBS has a few options to mull over if the Masters bleeds into the NFL window, and given the informal relationship the network has maintained over the years with the famously fastidious Augusta, none of these would seem to involve shifting its golf coverage to one of its corporate siblings. While it makes perfect sense from a holistic perspective, sending any bonus coverage of the Masters over to the cable outlet CBS Sports Network is a no-go, as it remains unrated by Nielsen and its distribution is nowhere near as broad as the flagship network’s. With a subscriber base of 44 million, CBSSN is dark in nearly 65% of all U.S. TV homes.
Nor would CBS look to provide a soft landing for a long-running final round on one of the more widely distributed ViacomCBS entertainment channels. MTV may reach nearly twice as many homes as does CBSSN, but the home of Floribama Shore and 16 and Pregnant most assuredly won’t be the place golf enthusiasts will turn when the grand sartorial tradition is enacted inside the Butler Cabin. The same applies to VH1, Nickelodeon and Comedy Central, unless there’s a Crank Yankers crossover in the mix that we’re not privy to.
No, CBS will stay trained on Augusta until Jim Nantz signs off for the 35th time. The Masters is too sacrosanct a property to tamper or otherwise fiddle with, and the unequalled value of the CBS-Augusta collaboration is evident in its unparalleled structure. While CBS execs never talk about the mythic arrangement, the late Pat Summerall spilled the legumes in his 2008 autobiography.
As the broadcaster wrote in Summerall: On and Off the Air, CBS maintains the rights to broadcast the Masters as part of a “year-to-year handshake agreement with the club.” As part of this unconventional arrangement, CBS agrees to forever do things the Augusta way, limiting its commercial breaks to four minutes of air time per hour (roughly a quarter of the average broadcast spot load), while keeping a tight grip on the language of the guys in the booth.
According to Summerall, CBS broadcasters aren’t allowed to mention the Masters’ $11.5 million purse or acknowledge the existence of logos worn by the golfers. “To this day, announcers can’t mention what brands of shoes or clothes a player is wearing or what equipment he is using,” Summerall wrote. “That would be free advertising.”
Speaking of which, the fleeting ads you’ll see over the course of the Masters are limited to messages from three sponsors: IBM, AT&T and Mercedes-Benz. The three brands serve as virtual producers of the event, in the Hollywood studio sense of the word. They pony up around $24 million to air their spots in the clutter-free environment Augusta provides, enough of a cash infusion to defray CBS’s broadcast bill. If CBS can scrape together a small profit from the enterprise, all the better, although the money’s not the point.
To CBS, the Masters is the plummiest of TV’s most prestigious sporting events, and the fact that it doesn’t sell air time around the tournament on the open market is a testament to the old-fashioned idea that revenue isn’t the only hallmark of value. Setting aside the sentimental value of its 65-year affiliation with the tournament, there’s tremendous upside to hosting golf’s most storied event. If CBS’s ad sales team isn’t exactly raking it in at Augusta, imagine the sort of traction CBS Sports sales bosses John Bogusz and Tony Taranto get when they’re shepherding a big-spending client across the Hogan Bridge.
Should a hang-up occur on Sunday afternoon, CBS’s regional NFL coverage could shift to the cable sports network or perhaps even step-sibling broadcaster The CW without causing too much disruption to the football food chain. Affected advertisers who might balk at any disruption of their Sunday flights can be made whole in other regional games, of which there are 40 from which to choose between now and the end of the season.
As for how this uniquely situated Masters will play out in the Nielsen ratings largely depends on whether Tiger Woods is swinging a club in the final two rounds. Last spring some 19.2 million viewers bore witness to the golfer’s unlikely apotheosis; in winning his fifth Masters title and his first major championship in 11 years, Woods provided the comeback/redemption story few sports fans truly believed they’d ever get to see. In so doing, he served as a reminder that live TV remains as relevant as it’s ever been during moments like this.
CBS’s lead golf analyst said the long-dormant Woods is unlikely to shock the world again. “Unfortunately, things are more difficult for Tiger,” said Nick Faldo. “He’s a little bit older and he hasn’t been able to put the reps in. It’s a physical walk. Bottom line… I don’t believe he can flip the switch on that.”
Perhaps the robotically competitive Woods somehow got wind of Faldo’s scouting report and is using it as bulletin board material, because through the front nine he’s shooting three-under.
If that’s the case, CBS should still be able to deliver at least 10 million viewers on Sunday afternoon—although given the structure of its broadcast deal, the size of the TV audience isn’t terribly important. As is the case with the Super Bowl, the Masters is one of those exceedingly rare sporting events that isn’t covered by a ratings guarantee. That said, a Tiger-free Sunday round that goes head-to-head with a five-game Fox NFL slate would face an uphill battle.
For his part, McManus said he isn’t in the forecasting business. “I never predict ratings; I don’t like doing that,” he said. “I think the ratings will be good, but we do have competition on Saturday and Sunday…. But the Masters will still be highest-rated tournament of the year by a wide margin.”
Of course, it wouldn’t be 2020 if CBS didn’t have to deal with at least one major rift between expectation and reality. While the plan was for Saturday’s round to lead into CBS’s coverage of the 6 p.m. Alabama-LSU showdown, the game was postponed Tuesday after a number of Tigers tested positive for the coronavirus. That leaves CBS without an SEC game and a ragged hole in its afternoon broadcast schedule.