Behind-the-Scenes at the Players Meeting: the Commish’s 2009 Income, Tour Media Coaching and Sabbatini Unplugged
By Stephanie Wei under General

The PGA Tour held a mandatory players meeting on Tuesday evening at Quail Hollow. But apparently “mandatory” means optional for the world’s number-one and -two, Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson, who were both no-shows — to which one player shrugged and said, “as per usual.” Does anyone know when the last time they bothered coming?

A second player (who wishes to remain anonymous for obvious reasons) dished some details of the hour-and-a-half lecture and Q&A session. Here are the paraphrased highlights:

*Commissioner Tim Finchem opened with glowing remarks about the state of the PGA Tour. There was even a PowerPoint presentation! He was very pleased to announce the Tour’s solid financial performance. Beaming with delight, he imparted the numbers, revealing the 2008 total purse value at $281 million was the highest in 30 years. My source couldn’t recall the exact numbers, but said that the figures for 2010 were lower than 2008 with a slight boost over 2009. According to an AP report last December, the purses dropped to $274.7 million in 2009, and my rough calculations estimate the number is around $275.3 million this season.

*I imagine Finchem’s spiel went something like this: “Given the economic downturn in the past two years, companies are reducing their marketing budgets as much as 50 to 70 percent, and we’ve managed to stay in them. That means the Tour drives value versus dollars spent for their sponsors — which says a lot about our successful business model. Our efficient marketing power and the valuable relationships with our partners have made us equipped to succeed. And one of the upshots, as you players may have noticed, is the total playing opportunities is consistent with the last couple of years.”

*The Commish’s 2009 salary including bonuses was revealed to the players and the magic figure is — wait for it — $4.7 million. Reaction? The room exploded with grumbling and snickering. A tour official told everyone to simmer down and pointed out that compared to commissioners of the other major leagues, the number was actually quite reasonable. I mean, in 2008 the MLB’s Bud Selig made $17.5 million and the NFL’s Roger Goodell took home $10.9 million. It’s worth noting (or just logical) Finchem swallowed a pay cut from 2008 when he earned $5.3 million. But sheesh, such tough economic times! That said, I have been very impressed with the Tour’s success in securing new sponsorships, etc.

*Speaking of greenbacks, Finchem reminded the players on the importance of their amicable participation in pro-am events. 49 of the 50 pro-am groups may finish their rounds praising the meaningful connection they made with their player, but if just one individual fails to understand the value generated in this relationship, then it defeats the entire purpose. (Dramatic!) Finchem noted if the pros treat the sponsors properly and make sure they’re happy, the payoff is competing for (even) bigger bucks.

*Finchem expressed the significance of players giving positive messages during TV interviews. Don’t forget — sponsorships are tough to come by these days! And it’s especially crucial to support The Players Championship and the FedEx Cup on-air. The Tour’s version of the playoffs hasn’t quite caught on (shocking!), so to increase support and TV viewership, promote the FedEx Cup whenever the opportunity presents. The Tour’s suggested script: Mention that every tournament leading up to the FedEx Cup is super important and all the players feel the same way.

Oh yeah, I can see it now — when Peter Kostis asks Tiger how felt he controlled his emotions, he’ll reply, “Pretty good. But I really want to talk about how excited I am about the FedEx Cup. It’s just a solid concept and I’m looking forward to reclaiming my title as the champ.” The $10 million bonus check isn’t so shabby either.

*Oh, I loved this — beware of the big, bad media. It was advised players should try to avoid sending negative messages or anything that can be construed as such. Especially regarding the FedEx Cup. In other words, think twice before you speak. A few guys might be innocently griping over a course, but next thing you know a reporter has the conversation on tape and spins it into some unfavorable story. It only takes one sentence for the wily media to do harm. Maybe if we weren’t given so many boring, robotic answers, that wouldn’t happen. And controversy isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just saying.

*Officials mentioned two options for players to help enhance the TV coverage — of course, on a voluntary basis. It was encouraged they give mid-round interviews, like the seniors do on the Champions Tour. Um yeah, good luck with that! And the whole mic’ing caddies and players experiment during Thursday and Friday rounds was the other possibility. Again, the room exploded with laughter and a player was overheard saying, “You’d have to have the bleep button ready!”

*During the Q&A session, Rory Sabbatini brought up the slow play problem — which comes up every year. He said something like, “I know I’ve had my run-ins with slow play, but I think we need to change the policy.” (See incident with Ben Crane in 2005.) He suggested officials start to dole out penalty strokes instead of slapping fines on the offenders because clearly that hasn’t been effective. A Tour official said it would be discussed at the next Player Advisory Council meeting.

(Aside: the last player to receive strokes for slow play was Dillard Pruitt in 1992 — who still remembers the precise details. Interestingly enough, he is now a PGA Tour rules official. But given he knows how crappy it feels to receive penalty stokes, he’s probably not inclined to inflict them on players.)

*Sabbatini wasn’t finished yet, calling for improvements with the broadcast commentary. Specifically, he thinks the TV announcers should make their analysis more insightful and entertaining, saying (again paraphrased), “When I want to take a nap, I turn on the Golf Channel.” He feels they should focus more on the positives instead of pointing out such topics like the technological advancements with equipment. His point was the announcers don’t highlight enough of the seemingly boring shots that are actually huge momentum-changers. While I’m not sure I agree with the presence of much negative commentary, I think we can all agree the telecast can knock even the most avid fans into a deep slumber. Or throw things at the TV and hit the mute button.

*Daniel Chopra wailed about the increased number of mudballs in the fairway because of the weather conditions so far this season. He adamantly argued that if you hit the ball in the fairway, you shouldn’t be punished. With the big money they’re playing for, it’s their livelihood on the line. Say you’re in the fairway with 120 yards into the green guarded by a water hazard, an unfortunate mudball can result in a chunk into the pond — which is costly and just not fair! Solution? He suggested the Tour adopt the “lift, clean and place” rule more often. Apparently it’s a prevalent practice on the European Tour because it levels the playing field. A Tour official responded that usually preferred lies come into play when either there’s a casual water issue or to ensure a tournament finishes on time. In other words, suck it up, Chopra.

Well, I believe that sums it up, folks. Exciting stuff, right? There were heaps of the usual It’s-Alway-Sunny-on-the-PGA-Tour-Commish-speak, but the over-the-top emphasis on saying cheery things about the FedEx Cup raises some red-ish flags — like, trouble on the sponsorship front? (Uh-oh.) Oh, I almost forgot — more good news — the players’ retirement fund investments are booming. Ah, what a relief to know that most tour pros won’t be forced to grind it out while toting an oxygen tank on the Champions Tour.