More people will have their eyes on Hazeltine National Golf Club this weekend than you’d think. The Ryder Cup, golf’s greatest grudge match, may not have the pomp and circumstance of a Super Bowl, but the event that tees off Friday in Chaska doesn’t need Katy Perry roaring at halftime to draw reporters from around the world.
“I’ve covered five Olympics and this is Olympic-esque,” said KARE-11 sports director Eric Perkins, looking over a putting green Monday from the balcony of the club’s media center, a tent city welcoming journalists from Sioux City to India. “I’ve been telling people that if and when they get here, they are going to freak out.”
It will be the most-watched sporting event held this year in the United States, with the U.S. audience complemented by millions more worldwide.
So far, Ryder director Jeff Hintz and his team have authorized 1,200 media credentials — 20 percent more than any other major golf tournament — with 17 countries represented.
“Unlike some other sports that we love in America, golf translates well all over the world and it’s played in almost every country,” said Hintz, battling heavy winds and a nagging cough as his guests rolled in Monday. “You wouldn’t think Korea would be interested because they don’t have any players in the draw, but the level of drama and excitement has just grown exponentially.”
Four days before play begins, reporter Constanza Patino Donaggio had already settled into her assigned seat near the back of the makeshift newsroom while her production team from Golf Channel Latin America did prep work in one of more than 900 media trucks outside.
“We usually only focus on Latin American players, but the Ryder Cup has become very, very important,” said Donaggio.
Iain Carter, BBC Radio’s longtime golf correspondent, said the biennial men’s tournament is second only to the World Cup and the Olympics to his listeners. Sky Sports, a dominant player on the British airwaves, is providing 240 hours of coverage compared with the 170 hours of Ryder-related programming that NBC and Golf Channel are offering stateside fans.
It certainly helps that Europe has won eight of the last 10 times in a competition that dates to 1927.
“It’s not just sports fans. It’s tribal. It’s partisan,” said Carter, whose team consists of roughly 20 people, a tidbit he was reluctant to admit for fear that a London newspaper reporter nearby would pick it up and use it to criticize the government-owned network for excessive spending.
More interest doesn’t mean more access to the players. Locker-room visits and casual interviews with the dozen athletes from each squad are practically forbidden, with the captains maintaining tight ships.
“I don’t like it,” said John Feinstein, author of the bestselling “A Good Walk Spoiled,” in town to write a book on this year’s Ryder. “There are only 24 players and they’re all stars. They don’t need the publicity.”
Golf may not be as popular as football in the United States, but it’s still big business.
Fox Sports has signed a 12-year, $100-million-a-year contract to broadcast the U.S. Open. NBC and Golf Channel, both owned by Comcast, secured rights to Ryder coverage through 2030, one of the deepest commitments in the history of broadcasting. The last time the Ryder Cup was held on U.S. soil, in 2012, it averaged 5.5 million U.S. viewers, a significant number but well behind the 13.5 million for that year’s Masters.
This year, Hintz projects that nearly 500 million viewers worldwide will tune in to see how the greens play in suburban Minnesota.
By comparison, the NFL championship draws about 160 million viewers worldwide, compared with nearly 1 billion for World Cup soccer.
The tournament poses unique challenges, not the least of which is a lack of built-in commercial breaks. Producers are taking a cue from NASCAR coverage: they’ll employ a split screen during most of the ads, so viewers not dashing to the bathroom can still follow the action.
Golf Channel executive producer Molly Solomon said Ryder is also different in that coverage on the green is often secondary to the reaction from teammates and competitors after a missed birdie putt.
“The coverage of Ryder Cup is all about emotion,” she said. “There will definitely be an emphasis on handheld cameras that can get tight reactions.”
Then there’s the crowd. At most majors, attendees are conditioned to be as quiet as church mice. Not so during Ryder Cup. The sidelines at major holes can feel like tailgate parties with noise levels that can distract even the most veteran broadcasters.
“Normal rules and protocol are out the window,” said NBC’s Mark Rolfing, a golf analyst for more than 25 years. “Sometimes I can’t even hear in my earpiece what I’m supposed to do.”
Blame it on the fans — or the commotion caused by hundreds of international journalists rushing to the media center to meet their deadlines.
Neal Justin• 612-673-7431 • Twitter: @nealjustin