ORLANDO, Fla. -- Golf Channel president Mike McCarley was working the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach for NBC one morning in June 2010 when he got a call from NBC Sports icon Dick Ebersol.
"Are you watching this?" Mr. McCarley recalled Mr. Ebersol as saying.
"Watching what? It's 7 o'clock in the morning."
"Golf Channel," Mr. Ebersol replied. "It's great, what they're doing out there. They're showing the putting green, telling stories about the mystique of Pebble, the lodge, the Northern California fog. Great stuff."
Perhaps it was coincidence that nine months later, in February 2011, NBC would become a partner with Golf Channel and Mr. McCarley, 39 and one of its best idea men, would take over as president. The exponential growth that followed has made Golf Channel the fastest-growing network in television two years running, going from an average of 70,000 viewers per hour over a 24-hour period in 2010 to 95,000 in 2012.
This week, the Orlando-based network is moving into an expansive new studio in time for next week's Masters.
"For the sports fan," Mr. McCarley said, "the week of a major championship is about getting exactly what they want, to be able to see what's going on at any given time. No one can do that like we can."
CBS and ESPN have the broadcast rights to the Masters, but Golf Channel has become such an integral part of PGA Tour coverage, fans know it's the one network that will be Masters-intensive 24/7.
Launched in 1995 by Birmingham cable operator Joe Gibbs and Arnold Palmer, Golf Channel in its formative years relied on shows such as "The Big Break" and what was then the Nike Tour [now the web.com Tour] as well as commentary and insights on the PGA and LPGA tours to attract what was then a niche audience.
"There was a time back in 1997 when Tiger used to come [to the studio] to look at his swing," senior vice president of programming Tom Knapp said. "He would sit by himself in a little room and see how he was doing. That was how familiar and small it was at the time."
Change began to come in 2003, when Golf Channel replaced CNBC as broadcast partner of the Champions Tour, and expanded its coverage with both pre-game and post-game shows. Then in 2007 came the shot heard 'round the golf world, a 15-year deal with the PGA Tour to carry Thursday and Friday rounds live, with replays the same night.
"It surprised everybody how successful it was," Mr. Knapp said. "This was largely before DVRs became popular, so the affluent business-leader fan of ours who was busy during the day could come home, have dinner, put his feet up and watch golf. The viewer of those rounds became the youngest, most affluent viewer in the history of the PGA Tour."
Given those demographics -- the network says its viewership is 73 percent male with an annual household income of just under $70,000 -- high-end sponsors such as BMW, Acura and Cadillac were soon to follow.
The partnership with NBC, which occurred when Comcast acquired NBC Universal, came in 2011. The result has put 20 TV networks including Golf Channel, Weather Channel, CNBC and MSNBC under the same umbrella. NBC's golf coverage was rebranded as Golf Channel on NBC, with the same commentators, logos and graphics on both networks.
"Golf Channel started 18 years ago at one end of one building," Mr. McCarley said. "Now we have three buildings and it's closer to feeling like a campus setup with state-of-the-art facilities that will rival any studio in the country."
"Big Break," which will launch its 19th edition May 15 from Mexico, now is one of many staples in the lineup; others include "Morning Drive," a news and information studio show; "School of Golf," instruction featuring Ibis Country Club teaching pro Martin Hall; renowned teacher Hank Haney's "Haney Project," currently with Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps; and "Feherty," a one-hour interview featuring CBS commentator David Feherty.
"In the early days we were looking for ways to fill 24 hours," Mr. Knapp said. "[Now] we are bursting at the seams.
"Tournaments are the engine, but everybody's favorite golfer is themselves. We want to say, 'Here's what Tiger did here, here's how you can do what he did.' There's no better way to get close to the golfer."golf - tvradio