How the Ryder Cup went from nothing to coveted TV property for NBC

It’s Ryder Cup week, one of the biggest weeks in golf. The event will get wall-to-wall coverage on NBC and the Golf Channel.

It wasn’t always that way. During the 1980s, the Ryder Cup barely registered with the networks.

It might have stayed that way if NBC hadn’t lost its Saturday afternoon baseball package. But it did, and the network found itself looking for sports programming in September.

NBC took a flier on the 1991 Ryder Cup at Kiawah. However, it generated little interest from sponsors, and the network had low expectations.

Well, it turned out to be the greatest Ryder Cup ever, captivating the entire country. Suddenly, the event became a hot TV property.

NBC Sport Jon Miller, president of sports programming for the NBC Sports Group, tells how the Ryder Cup became the Ryder Cup.


Jon Miller: The Ryder Cup had been on USA Cable with a taped version on ABC. It never was a big event. It took place in the fall. ABC had college football. We had baseball. There was no home for it.

NBC baseball made a decision not to extend baseball deal in 1989. We needed to fill 26 weeks of programming.

Since we were out of baseball, we made a deal with Joe Steranka (of the PGA of America) for the Ryder Cup. We had two sponsors: Cadillac and IBM. We wanted to create a Masters feel.

The plan was to show three hours a day on Saturday and Sunday, and three hours on USA Network on Friday. It was big deal at the time.

In Jan., 1991, Operation Desert Storm happened. The economy suffered greatly. There were management changes at IBM and GM, and both companies walked away from the deal. In the spring of ’91, we had no advertisers and were facing big production costs.

Suburu was exclusive car advertiser for $500,000. We went to Wally Uihlein (the president of Titleist). He said nobody is going to watch a golf tournament in September. He offered us 25 cents on the dollar.

We ended up with major, major leakage. There was no way we came close to breaking even on it.

We get to Kiawah. The first day’s matches were exciting. Seve and Azinger get into it.

Then there was fog on Saturday morning. Nobody could play until 9:30. When we come on the air at 3, the afternoon matches just started. By the time we got to 6, all four matches are on the course. Great matches.

We ran all of our commercials. We knew we had an hour to 90 minutes left. I called (NBC Sports president Dick Ebersol), and we decided we’d stay on the air. Since we ran all of our commercials, we ran last 90 minutes commercial-free. The matches were terrific. It was amazing television.

On Sunday, it came down to the last putt (Bernhard Langer missed to give the U.S. the victory). The next thing you know, Kiawah became “The War by the Shore.” The overnight numbers were OK, but it didn’t come anywhere close to showing the kind of passion and heat that the event generated (among viewers who watched). People talked about it, and the Ryder Cup went to another level.

I don’t think American TV viewers had seen golfers get this nervous under this kind of pressure. It was so compelling.

For the 1993 Ryder Cup in England, we changed our strategy. We increase the number of hours. We sold five advertisers and we’re were off and running.

It’s been a great marriage ever since.


For more, Classic Sports Network has a complete breakdown of TV and the Ryder Cup.


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