- The Match, a made-for-TV golf game, will pit PGA Tour rivals Bryson DeChambeau and Brooks Koepka against one another.
- Turner Sports has been playing up the feud between the golfers that began in 2019 and escalated earlier this year.
- "I think they've leaned into the idea of having some fun with this," said Craig Barry, Turner Sports' executive vice president and chief content officer.
Following a day that families will spend trying to steer clear of politics and avoid fights, Turner Sports is counting on conflict and drama to lure viewers to its Black Friday golf showcase.
Turner's network TNT is airing the fifth installment of The Match 5 on Nov. 26, a head-to-head game between PGA Tour golfers Bryson DeChambeau, 28, and Brooks Koepka, 31, who have emerged as heated rivals in the past couple years. The event starts at 4 p.m. Eastern time.
The made-for-TV golf game began in 2018, when Tiger Woods teed off against Phil Mickelson. The two PGA icons helped Turner Sports, which is owned by AT&T's WarnerMedia, draw the highest-viewed golf game in cable history last year, in the midst of a pandemic and extended pause in live sports. This year, there will be plenty of fans on the course as well as at home.
In TNT's 30-second promotional video, each golfer hypes up the match with Queen's "You're my best friend" playing in the background. In one clip, DeChambeau is taking a practice swing and Koepka's head becomes the ball. After blasting the shot, DeChambeau says, "I'm coming for you, Brooks."
At the end of commercial, DeChambeau says, "Friendsgiving is going to be just a little bit different this year."
"They know what's going on, and there is a rivalry there," said Craig Barry, Turner Sports' executive vice president and chief content officer, admitting that he laughed when he saw the video. "I think they've leaned into the idea of having some fun with this."
The event resembles a championship boxing match. It's set in Las Vegas at the Wynn Golf Club, which typically charges $550 per person, and features a12-hole match, instead of the normal18 holes. The golfer who wins the most holes wins the exhibition.
On the PGA Tour, and excluding international competition, DeChambeau and Koepka are tied for career wins with eight. Koepka is ahead in total earnings, at $36.7 million to roughly $26 million for DeChambeau.
Their feud began in 2019 in a dispute involving the pace of play, and Koepka's criticism that golfers like DeChambeau take too much time between shots. Things got more heated at the PGA Championship in May, during a Koepka interview that went viral on Twitter.
With the camera rolling, DeChambeau walked near Koepka and appeared to say something under his breath. Koepka was distracted and gave a dramatic eyeroll on camera, grabbing the sports world's attention.
Barry expects the tension to spark competitive play for viewers to soak up the day after Thanksgiving.
"What kind of gets lost is who is the better golfer," he said. "I think these two going head-to-head in their own right is an interesting narrative."
In a separate promo for the match, Turner filmed DeChambeau hitting a ball from the roof of the Wynn Hotel in Las Vegas and onto the golf course, where Koepka's face was painted as the target.
"I just nailed Brooks' big head," DeChambeau said after hitting the shot, which was more than 500 yards away. It took him a number of tries to hit the target. "Now it's time to go beat his butt in a real match," DeChambeau said.
Turner Sports has found a successful formula with the format.
In May 2020, Woods and Mickelson paired with National Football League favorites Tom Brady and Peyton Manning to play The Match 2. It generated the highest golf ratings in cable history with 5.8 million viewers and raised $20 million for Covid-19 relief.
Barry said that figure is approaching $40 million as Turner Sports aired two more installments of the golf game, which helped raise money for historically black colleges and universities last November.
The Match this week will again include challenge holes for charity dollars, including the ninth and 11th holes. Each is worth up to $2 million for a hole in one.
The Monday Night Golf experiment
Match play in golf has been around for decades.
The historic Skins Game ran from 1983 to 2008, giving golf fans a high-profile event to watch in November or December after the end of the PGA Tour season.
Woods then tried his hand at made-for-TV golf, teaming with ABC to launch an annual match in 1999. ABC called the program Monday Night Golf, an attempt to mimic the National Football League's Monday Night Football, a perennial ratings crusher.
The first event in 1999 was called "Showdown at Sherwood" and pitted a then 23-year-old Woods against David Duval. Woods won the match and was awarded $1.1. million. Battle at Bighorn in 2000 paired Woods against long-time rival Sergio Garcia, and was perhaps the most memorable Monday Night Golf game. Garcia beat Woods, taking home $1.1 million in prize money.
Battle at Bighorn drew a 7.6 viewership rating at that time. Out of the estimated 105 million households with TVs in 2000, more than 7 million tuned in to watch the match.
But Monday Night Golf started to sink in viewership as the novelty wore off.
The second Battle at Bighorn in 2001, featuring Woods, Duval, Annika Sorenstam, and Karrie Webb, dropped 19.7 percent in viewership. Over the next two years, the ratings fell to 5.1 and 4.6, respectively.
The event was scrapped in 2005, just as Monday Night Football was moving to ABC sister network ESPN, which took over with a $1.1 billion annual agreement.
"They made it feel special," Barry said, referring to the initial years of Monday Night Golf. "That's the hardest part about building a franchise is continually giving people a reason to watch."
Where Battle at Bighorn struggled is it "didn't feel as special as it did the first couple times," he said. "I think we focused on making sure that we've created a narrative where we felt like each match was special in its own right."
What's the value of The Match?
Turner hasn't revealed how much it's spending on The Match. The second installment last year with Woods attracted $5.8 million in ad spending across four WarnerMedia networks, according to ad-tech firm MediaRadar. Sponsors include Capital One.
Bryan Zuriff, co-creator of The Match, told CNBC last year that the program's "ads dollars are higher than our expense."
For 2021, Turner negotiated ad deals in-house, used Brady's production company and turned to Woods' agency Excel Sports to help coordinate event operations at the Wynn.
The Match's third event in 2020 averaged roughly one million viewers, and the fourth, which featured DeChambeau, Mickelson, Brady, and fellow NFL star Aaron Rodgers in July of this year, averaged 1.9 million. That outperformed other cable golf events, including ESPN's coverage of the 2021 PGA Championship, which averaged an estimated 1.3 million viewers in May.
"I think it will get a sellable, attractive demo, and I think sponsors will pay to reach that market," said former CBS Sports president Neal Pilson.
Will Funk, the executive vice president of sports partnerships at Turner Sports, called The Match a "proven brand."
"I think we showed that we can build our audience and deliver sponsors, corporate partners, and revenue in conjunction with that," he said. "It's a very good business for us."
WarnerMedia will also use The Match as an opportunity to promote its new streaming service CNN+, which is scheduled to launch in 2022.
The event will air on WarnerMedia's TBS, HLN and TruTV, along with TNT, and some elements will stream on Bleacher Report. Like with its predecessor matches, the network will use cameras on golf carts and have microphones on DeChambeau, Koepka and their caddies.
"That makes it more attractive to people," said Pete Kowalski, a former communications official at United States Golf Association. "They want to hear what a player is saying when he's thinking about a shot. They want to see the little things."
Barry said that Turner will get to compare the entertainment value to the recent events that had golfers paired up and chatting with each other.
"It's going to open a brand new door to let the fans into these conversations," Barry said. "This will be an interesting case study for us."
Viewers will get added entertainment from the broadcast booth, as NBA legend Charles Barkley is joining with Mickelson. Both are known rabble-rousers.
"These two guys have an interesting track record of comments and background of antipathy – some of it may be make-believe, some of it may be real," said Pilson. "But I think the public will be curious about what these guys may say to each other."
Kowalski, a self-proclaimed golf "purist," admitted he's never been a fan of made-for-TV golf matches. He said the intrigue around this particular competition might have worn off, in part because DeChambeau and Koepka were teammates at the Ryder Cup last September and have publicly downplayed any tension.
"I'm not sure that feud was as much a feud as it was portrayed to be," said Kowalski.
Beyond the game, DeChambeau and Koepka both benefit from bringing exposure to the sport. The PGA Tour has a new Player Impact Program, an incentive plan that divides $40 million among high-profile golfers who help boost the brand and drive viewership to events.
Barry said The Match on Friday will give Turner a good sense of the value of this type of event going forward.
"It will teach us if this format is interesting to the fans," Barry added. "And if it's interesting to the fan – it becomes more interesting to us."