Fulfilling Palmer’s Vision
By Carl Kotala
In a country full of ravenous sports fans, it was the first of its kind. In fact, it is so well respected in its community that the street where its headquarters are located now bears its name. Take that, NFL Network.
The Golf Channel has been around for nearly 20 years, and as the last three years of ratings have shown, the Orlando-based network is only getting more popular.
“There are people who play golf who watch, obviously,” Golf Channel President Mike McCarley said. “Then there are a lot of people who watch golf on television who don’t play. We get a good mix of both of those people. The very basis of a good television show is good, quality storytelling. A good story, told well, goes a long way and golf is rich with great stories and great characters.”
A History of Success
With original programming like “Morning Drive” and “Golf Central” to instructional shows and, of course, tournament coverage, the Golf Channel can be seen in 120 million homes across 83 countries.
Since joining the NBC Sports Group in 2011, the Golf Channel is the fastest-growing cable network, with a 54 percent rating increase over that time – including a 14 percent bump in 2013. In fact, last year the channel averaged 108,000 viewers per minute. On top of that, the network recently received four Emmy Award nominations, the most in its history.
“We’re in a business that is really competitive, and if you’re a competitive person you’re kind of drawn into a business like this,” McCarley said. “We’re literally given a scorecard every single day. When the ratings come in, you know how you did versus yesterday, and you know how you did versus the same day the previous year.
“What we really focus on is improving on what we did previously. And if you focus on that, and you’re looking at it – looking at the scoreboard – you can improve. One day is better than the next and then all of a sudden, one month is better than the previous month, and a year is better than the one before it. You keep that going, and all of a sudden you’ve put together three years that have improved on each other.”
Secrets of Success
While ratings may be king, what really drives the bus at the Golf Channel is the creation of a healthy, positive working environment. McCarley has labored very hard over the past few years to make the network the kind of place where the nearly 700 employees can look forward to coming in each day.
“Most people who work here would be able to tell you why the things that they do every day matter, and why they help the company succeed,” he said. “I spend a lot of my time making sure that at every level of the company, the person who could be doing a really mundane task understands how that one task helps the company succeed. I feel like that’s important because you feel like you’re brought in. You feel like you’re part of a team. And when the team wins, you win.”
As part of the network’s continuing success, the headquarters is undergoing a remodeling project that has already seen a new newsroom, and a new studio set unveiled in the past year.
In the spring of 2012, Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer was part of a ceremony that officially changed the name of the street where the network is located from Commerce Center Drive to Golf Channel Drive.
Close to Home
It was founded in 1995 by media entrepreneur Joe Gibbs and golf legend Arnold Palmer. The Golf Channel’s Orlando setting works perfectly because a number of the game’s top players call Central Florida home, making it easy for them to come to the studios to make appearances.
According to McCarley, Palmer, who made Orlando the “center of the golf universe” when he settled here in the 1960s, used to come to the network for meetings in the morning, and still have time to play Bay Hill in the afternoon.
In April, the network put on a three-night special titled simply, “Arnie,” in which it chronicled how the golf legend “revolutionized and transcended the game” during his remarkable career. When Palmer and Gibbs first decided to create a cable channel dedicated exclusively to just one sport, there were people who told them they were crazy.
Now, there are not only channels dedicated to professional football, baseball, basketball and hockey, but there are also networks dedicated to one collegiate conference (the Big 10 Network, for example) or a single school (the University of Texas has the Longhorn Network).
Palmer may not be as involved as he once was, but as the Golf Channel gets ready to celebrate its 20th anniversary next year, it’s only getting better.
“I think he’s around in spirit quite a bit,” McCarley said of Palmer. “He and I talk a lot. I see him a lot. He comes to the office when we need him to, and he’s always available, which has been invaluable. It’s been incredibly beneficial to call him and talk to him about what the original vision was. He’s told me the way he sees the channel now is as close to that original vision as it ever has been. That’s been rewarding for sure.”