Golf Channel Tees Up Ad-Friendly Site

Revamped platform still in beta

NBCUniversal’s online golf destination, GolfChannel.com, is getting a much-needed overhaul, boosting its editorial and video content to provide fans a much more comprehensive user experience—including Facebook and Twitter tie-ins.

Completed to coincide with the 2011 U.S. Open, the redesign marks the first major digital rejiggering since the NBC Sports Group was restructured. (In the wake of February’s Comcast-NBCU merger, newly minted group president Mark Lazarus took on oversight of Golf Channel. Three months later, Lazarus was named chairman of NBC Sports Group, succeeding Dick Ebersol.)

While the site is still in beta—some video links lead to “404/page not found” placeholders—NBC Sports is prepping an in-house marketing push to draw golfers to the improved site. Teasers for it will begin airing on the cable network and by the end of the month, visitors to NBCSports.com’s golf page will automatically be redirected to GolfChannel.com.

The site now logs more than 1 million unique visitors each month, making it the top-rated site in a field that includes PGA.com and Golf.com.

The fully realized GolfChannel.com will be up and running before the 2011 British Open tees off on July 14. “By midsummer, we’ll have 6,000 minutes of clips from 250 shows ready for viewing online,” said Mike Lowe, senior director, business & strategy for GolfChannel.com. “We’ll also be consolidating all of our blogs into one tour blog, ‘Golf Talk Central.’”

In the second quarter Golf Channel has seen a slight (2 percent) ratings bump, averaging 91,000 viewers throughout the day. On Saturday morning (11 a.m.-1 p.m. EDT), the network drew 435,000 viewers with its early telecast, Live From the U.S. Open.

Lowe believes the meteoric rise of 22-year-old Irishman Rory McIlroy may go a long way toward restoring the luster that was lost after Tiger Woods fell from grace. In a dazzling display, McIlroy won the U.S. Open with a record score of 16 under par; in so doing, he earned comparisons to the likes of Ben Hogan, Jack Nicklaus, and, yes, Woods.

“Rory got off to such a fast start, and people have been quick to crown him golf’s new savior,” said Lowe. “Guys like Graeme McDowell are saying that he’s the best player they’ve ever seen. It’s understandable because he really does have the full package…and he’s just a great kid on top of all that.”

One of the last orders of business will be to integrate the tee-time booking service GolfNow.com with the Golf Channel site. An online concierge for avid golfers, GolfNow in 2010 generated approximately $156 million in online revenues for its partner courses.

Unfortunately, Golf Channel faces a particularly daunting challenge in the sluggish economic recovery. Across the country, private courses are getting squeezed as cash-strapped golfers decide against re-upping their memberships. Many public courses have had to slash their greens fees; those that choose not to cut their prices often throw in a premium (free lunch, a sleeve of balls, etc.).

Therein lies another aspect of McIlroy’s appeal. Like Woods before him, the new U.S. Open champ is likely to attract a greater concentration of Gen Y players to the sport. There’s already a groundswell; since 2007, golfers 18-29 have upped their spending on course fees and in the pro shop by 27 percent. According to American Express, in Q1 2011 that same demo increased spending on golf equipment and apparel by 10 percent.

Despite the ravages of a stalled economy, Golf Channel remains a divining rod for wealthy consumers. With a median household income of $84,500, the network reaches one of the most affluent audiences on TV. As such, Golf takes in more ad sales revenue than every other sports network but ESPN. According to SNL Kagan estimates, Golf last year netted $122.6 million in sponsor sales, an improvement of 3 percent from the previous year.