By Jeff Munn
Every U.S. Open Golf Championship has a plethora of story lines. Can Dustin Johnson avoid another breakdown? Will this finally be the year Phil Mickelson wins? How long before the golfers complain about the conditions at Oakmont?
This year, though, the most pressure being felt at the US Open isn’t on the shoulders of a golfer.
It’s on a TV Network.
Last year, FOX was literally as big a story as Johnson’s collapse and the Chambers Bay course layout. That wasn’t a good thing. In it’s first year showing the USGA’s Championship events, FOX was criticized loudly for everything from Greg Norman’s analysis to not being able to follow the ball as it rolled in the fairway to Joe Buck admitting he really didn’t know the people he was working with. Fans of NBC’s coverage, anchored by Dan Hicks and Johnny Miller, warned us this would happen. The network that revolutionized NFL coverage appeared completely out of its element in what is considered by many to be golf’s version of the Super Bowl.
FOX has already made changes prior to this year’s event. Norman and studio host Curt Menefee won’t be back, and anchor Joe Buck has no doubt pored over tapes from last year, and he’ll work alongside Paul Azinger and Curtis Strange, two experienced analysts. Technical glitches have reportedly been fixed, and golf insiders say the USGA’s familiarity with Oakmont will help FOX anticipate the quirks of the course.
FOX has to get this one right.
How did they get the rights to USGA events away from NBC?
Money, of course.
FOX has proven in the past, however, that money doesn’t buy you a good telecast. The network’s tenure with the Bowl Championship Series was deemed a failure because, while well-versed in covering the NFL, FOX had never done college football on a national level, and the telecasts often reflected that lack of experience.
FOX has dramatically changed the way we watch sports on TV, from the FOX Box to a pregame NFL studio show based as much on lighthearted humor as news, to the first down line. They also tried the glowing puck on NHL games, and were the first to use a strike zone to show where pitches were located in its Major League Baseball telecasts, but one thing they have not been able to do in the past few years is distinguish themselves positively from their competitors. Their NASCAR coverage? Looks a lot like NBC. Baseball? People are still angry at FOX for hiring Pete Rose to work as a studio analyst. And their college basketball coverage hasn’t grabbed much attention due to a lack of marquee games. It’s also stunning that a network that craves young viewers has never had a rights deal with the NBA.
Their all-sports cable channel, FS1, will carry the majority of the first two rounds of the tournament. In nearly three years, FS1 has failed to fulfill its mission statement of standing toe-to- toe with the reigning champion, ESPN. As was the case in the days of Fox Sports Net, its attempt at sports banter (And The Crowd Goes Wild) flopped. It’s answer to SportsCenter, Fox Sports Live, has failed to find any traction. While its anchors, Jay Onrait and Dan O’Toole are generally considered to be funny and creative, their show is still being tinkered with.
FS1 has also become a safe haven for former ESPN employees, but few have achieved the success they had in Bristol.
The saddest moment for the cable channel came on the night of Muhammad Ali’s passing. At the moment the news broke, ESPN, CNN, MSNBC and even FOX News Channel stopped regular programming to go to extended coverage. FS1 stayed with a motocross event, and Ali’s passing didn’t even make the bottom of the screen for 30 minutes.
FOX has a chance to get back some of the momentum it lost last year at Chambers Bay, and resestablish to the rest of the sports media industry that they are still a cutting edge operation with a strong performance at Oakmont. They also know they’ll be under an even stronger microscope than they were last year. They have to make sure golfers are the only ones worried about a collapse this weekend.