Not long after this year's Masters, ABC golf analyst Curtis
Strange called his counterpart at CBS, fellow Wake Forest alum
Lanny Wadkins, to vent. Strange was frustrated by ABC's
unwillingness to commit to a long-term contract, especially since
the deal he had was set to expire in December. Rather than stay
in what looked like a dead-end job, the 49-year-old Strange told
Wadkins that he'd rather bolt so he could focus on joining the
Champions tour in January. ¬∂ "We talked two or three times about
his plans after the Masters," says Wadkins. "He's exempt on the
regular Tour, so he'd have time to play and get sharp.
If he's serious, then I think he's going about it the right way."
The question is, Can the same be said of ABC? Last month Strange
abruptly quit, disrupting the network's otherwise quiet and
concerted effort to upgrade what for years has been the
lowest-rated coverage of the PGA Tour by its three broadcast
partners. (In 2003, for example, ABC had an overall rating of
2.4, while CBS pulled a 3.1 and NBC a 2.9.) "It is one of my top
priorities," says Mike Pearl, senior vice president and executive
producer of ABC Sports, who came over from Turner Sports in July
'03. "I spoke to people at other networks. I spoke to golfers'
agents. I spoke to Tiger's agent. The general consensus was that
there was room for improvement."
The network's horrific decision--in its first tournament without
Strange--to abandon the Buick Classic in the middle of a
three-way playoff to air a rerun of America's Funniest Home
Videos is a perfect example of how far ABC still has to go.
It is a Friday morning in Beverly Hills, Calif., and Pearl is
talking shop at a place that hasn't changed in decades--Nate 'n'
Al's coffee shop on Beverly Drive. "I don't believe in going in
and blowing things up," says Pearl of his vision for golf. "I
believe in making subtle changes, and then a year or two later
people turn around and say, 'This is different.'"
Yet there was nothing subtle about the first major change he made
shortly after returning to ABC. (He had worked there for nine
years in the 1980s.) Within a month Pearl surprised many by
firing golf producer Jack Graham, a 25-year veteran of ABC Sports
who was responsible for the look and feel of the network's
coverage and who had hired Strange and Strange's understudy, Ian
Baker-Finch. Graham says his parting "was amicable and those guys
treated me well," but one former member of his team, who wishes
to remain anonymous, said Graham was blindsided by the dismissal
because he had signed a four-year contract extension with the
network in '02. Although the contract included a proviso that
gave ABC the right to drop him after only a year, Graham had been
assured that the clause wouldn't be exercised. "It has to be
really rough when you've been working at something for 25 years,
you think you're doing a good job and then they tell you they
don't want you anymore," says a current member of ABC's on-air
crew, who also did not want his name used.
To replace Graham, Pearl selected one of Graham's deputies,
37-year-old Mark Loomis, who also produced college football.
"Mike said, 'Try to make it the best you can,'" says Loomis.
"It's still an ongoing process."
How that process plays out is a source of anxiety among ABC
staffers. If Loomis is to upgrade ABC's telecasts, replacing
some--maybe even all--of the current announcers is at least a
possibility. Loomis plays down such talk by saying, "I've known
these announcers for a long time. I wasn't coming in with an
agenda to get rid of him or her." But the veterans on the ABC
team were unnerved by the firing of Graham, and then were stunned
by Strange's unexpected resignation.
Whether Strange jumped or was pushed is open to debate. Loomis
and Pearl may have planned to re-sign him after his contract
expired in December, but at the time of his resignation they had
refused to begin negotiations and had indicated that they would
definitely not give him any assurances beyond 2006, when the
network's contract with the Tour expires. "We never do
commitments past the extent of our PGA Tour deal," says Pearl.
"We wanted to see how things were going and get through the
British Open before we talked. Curtis decided to return to golf,
so it became a moot point."
Strange declined to comment, but shortly after his resignation he
told the Associated Press, "If they were asking for the next two
years of the current TV contract, which are my best two years on
the senior tour, I wanted a commitment back on the next contract.
Strange's departure affected the ABC team in various ways. "I'm
devastated from a personal standpoint," says golf host Mike
Tirico. "He was as close a friend as I had." A source says that a
sense of competitive anxiety began to seep into the atmosphere.
ABC brought Andy North over from ESPN as an on-course analyst,
causing longtime correspondent Judy Rankin to worry that she
would no longer walk with the last group, a plum assignment that
had been hers since 1984.
Baker-Finch moved into the top analyst's spot but has not been
given the job permanently. The switch actually was a last-minute
reprieve. As part of his effort to change the way ABC approaches
golf, Loomis had begun playing with the idea of putting more
reporters out on the course and making them the focus of the
telecast instead of having one main analyst in the booth, the way
the network had done with Strange. Not long before Strange's
resignation, Loomis had informed Baker-Finch that he'd be moving
onto the course, an assignment that Baker-Finch reportedly
disliked, although he now says, "It would be nice to take the
opportunity to be the lead guy, but I'll do whatever the producer
thinks I'm best at and whatever's best for the team."
If Loomis does decide to go with a lead analyst other than
Baker-Finch, he won't lack for options. Some names that have been
floated include Paul Azinger, Brandel Chamblee, Fred Couples and
Lee Trevino. Hal Sutton, the U.S. Ryder Cup captain, is in the
midst of a nine-event tryout with ABC that started in February,
but his thick Louisiana accent and tendency to use words such as
fixin' and y'all haven't played well. Earlier in the year Corey
Pavin was impressive as an on-course reporter at the Accenture
Match Play Championship, and last week he joined Baker-Finch and
Tirico in the booth after he had completed his rounds at the Booz
Allen Classic. Pavin has plenty to say and is not afraid to say
it--"It's a fine line [analysts] walk with the players, but it's
something I could do," he says--but at the Booz Allen his voice
was barely audible in conversations with the more experienced
Baker-Finch and the polished Tirico. Azinger was to try out at
this week's Western Open.
Other possible changes could involve Tirico, Rankin and on-course
commentator Steve Melnyk. They have contracts through 2005, but a
contract simply guarantees income, not employment. The versatile
Tirico, who is a mainstay on ABC and ESPN's college football and
basketball and NBA telecasts, "hasn't been embraced by America
with the same kind of warmth people feel for Jim Nantz," says an
ABC insider. Rankin, an LPGA Hall of Famer and a 20-year ABC
veteran, is lauded for her grandmotherly rapport with players and
colleagues, but her delivery is tepid, and she can't match the
entertainment value of people such as ABC cohort Peter Alliss or
CBS's David Feherty and Gary McCord. Melnyk, a seasoned but
uninspired pro-turned-analyst who joined ABC in 1992, has added
little to the telecast except another thick Southern accent.
"Like anything in our business, it's very subjective," says
Pearl, defending his roster. "What I like may not be the same for
Loomis won't get into specifics on the talent, saying only, "To
succeed, you need to get the group of people who you think is the
best and play to their strengths." Such comments, while neutral
on the surface, haven't squelched the sense of impending changes,
which go beyond personnel.
At the Booz Allen observant viewers heard more upbeat theme
music and saw additional player profiles. And Loomis broke from
ABC's tradition of employing only one tower, manned by Tirico and
the lead analyst. For the first time ABC added a second tower, on
the 17th hole. Alliss and Melnyk were perched there. (CBS
typically has towers on four holes; NBC, three.) In TV circles
this is viewed as a step in the right direction. "NBC and CBS
have the main tower, but they also have outer towers and
walkers," says a broadcast expert who asked not to be identified.
"With Peter Kostis or Gary McCord, you feel they have some
autonomy. What happens to ABC is that if you walk into its booth,
there's a mood, and it's hard for the other announcers to
Loomis is forging ahead with his plan to give the on-course
analysts more significant roles. North, for example, was very
informative in that role at the Buick Championship the week
before the U.S. Open and at the Booz Allen.
"Golf is a very traditional sport, and it has been covered the
same way for a long time," says Gil Kerr, senior vice president
of broadcasting for the PGA Tour. "ABC is looking at it with a
fresh, open-minded view, which is positive."
As for Pearl, he remains relaxed and patient, with a firm grip on
reality. Although ABC broadcasts 18 Tour events--the most of any
network--its only major is this month's British Open, the
least-watched of the four. "We can only do so much with the
presentation package and promotion to bring people to the TV and
keep them interested," says Pearl. "We still can't control
whether Tiger is in an event, whether he's on the first hole of
sudden death or whether he's 10 strokes behind."
Pearl can make viewing more pleasurable, though, and he can make
sure that the entire tournament is aired.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY DAVID WALBERG HANGING IN THERE Rankin, a 20-year veteran, has a contract but no future guarantees.
TWO COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY DAVID WALBERG NEW ROLE North was brought in to shore up the on-course troops. On Sunday he followed and interviewed Adam Scott.
COLOR PHOTO: DAVID SNYDER/WIREIMAGE.COM AUDITIONING As soon as his rounds ended, Pavin reported to the ABC booth. Azinger was to do the same this week.
"Mike said, 'Try to make it the best you can,'" Loomis says of
his mandate from Pearl. "IT'S STILL AN ONGOING PROCESS."