Ahead of its sixth edition starring Tom Brady, Patrick Mahomes, Aaron Rodgers, and Josh Allen, co-creator Bryan Zuriff explains the origin story of “The Match.”
With millions of viewers and tens of millions raised for charity, The Match golf exhibition series featuring golf, NFL, and NBA legends taking the course and talking trash for the world to see and here has been an unquestioned success.
Launched on Black Friday in 2018 with Tiger Woods vs. Phil Mickelson, the sixth edition of The Match takes place Wednesday on TNT with an all-quarterback showdown featuring the Buccaneers’ Tom Brady and the Packers’ Aaron Rodgers against Patrick Mahomes of Kansas City and Josh Allen of Buffalo. Charles Barkley, himself a former competitor on The Match, and future Pro Football Hall of Famer JJ Watt will be part of the commentary team.
Bryan Zuriff, an acclaimed executive producer on shows and miniseries like Ray Donovan and Escape at Dannemora, co-created this recurring spectacle that’s since taken on a life of its own as one of the most successful made-for-TV sporting events of its generation.
And to get the full story behind The Match as both a cultural event and a business unto itself, Zuriff took Boardroom back to a fateful day four years ago.
On March 4, 2018, Mickelson won the WGC-Mexico Championship in a playoff for his first PGA Tour win in five years, while Woods was on his way back into the public’s good graces (and back in the public eye in general). Zuriff had an idea to re-create the Skins Game, an annual made-for-TV golf event around Thanksgiving weekend in Palm Springs that he’d attended for years with his grandparents, and was able to raise $12 million to fund the plan. His friendship with Mickelson helped him get on board to the concept right away. Woods and his agent, Mark Steinberg, eventually agreed to participate as well.
“It’s amazing now how he’s so revered again, but at that time, he really wasn’t,” Zuriff told Boardroom. “This was a lucky moment that we were able to get him when he’d be willing to do something like this, because it’s not easy to get him to do stuff.”
Zuriff then had a six-month window with Tiger and Phil to shop around a concept to different networks starring the two all-time greats.
“Originally, we were gonna do something with ESPN and that fell through because [Jimmy] Pitaro and [Kevin] Mayer were kind of going in different directions,” Zuriff said. “So I met [former Turner Sports president] David Levy in New York and he told me when the AT&T merger happened he would buy it.”
Phil defeated Tiger after 18 holes and four playoff holes on Nov. 23, with Mickelson claiming the winner-take-all $9 million purse. To follow that up, Zuriff and his co-creators had an idea to create an event called Monday Night Golf, which would take place the Monday before The Memorial, an annual PGA Tour event founded by Jack Nicklaus in Ohio. The stands would already have been built and there would have been a charitable element with ticket sales going toward Nicklaus’ foundation.
But Zuriff had grander ambitions in mind than just running back Tiger vs. Phil.
After the first Match in 2019, Zuriff was at Riviera Country Club in Los Angeles, where he was a member along with Tom Brady and his father Tom Sr., with whom he was friendly. So he approached Brady with his idea for the next Match iteration.
“I literally went up to him on the driving range and said, ‘Tom, I wanna do Monday Night Golf with you,'” Zuriff said. “He goes ‘dude, that’s fucking cool.’ And I go, ‘what do you think?’ He goes, ‘I want to do it with Peyton Manning.’ Literally that’s what happened.”
Zuriff went to Manning’s agent. Peyton was in as well.
“We had established a brand, it had worked, he loves golf, and he got it,” he said. “I know it’s absolutely insane that it was that easy. We literally got into a contract negotiation with him within two weeks of that range meeting.”
Then, in the spring of 2020 COVID-19, sending everything up in the air.
Zuriff was devastated, thinking this deal was dead. If Mickelson, Woods, Brady, and Manning weren’t under contract, there wouldn’t have been anotherThe Match special. He then woke up in April and started working very closely on resurrecting the foursome for the ages, golfing and quarterbacking legends facing off for the entire country to witness.
The pandemic ended up changing everything to the point where Zuriff claimed that if not for all the circumstances surrounding COVID-19, none of the subsequent iterations would’ve occurred.
“I woke up one morning and was like, ‘Phil, we gotta do this for the country. We need to do an event during COVID,'” he said.
Zuriff then reached out to Turner Sports president Lenny Daniels and former executive Jeff Zucker, who bought into the concept of having the first live sporting event since COVID began with a charitable element benefitting communities deeply damaged by the pandemic crafted by a crew led by Turner Sports chief content officer Craig Barry.
The Match: Champions For Charity was played on May 24, 2020 in Florida and raised more than $20 million for pandemic relief efforts in one day. It drew 5.8 million viewers, becoming the most-watched golf telecast in cable TV history.
The charitable element made it a friendly place for brands to participate, becoming more than just famous people golfing against each other, something that’s lasted over the subsequent editions of The Match.
Turner also made sure to broadcast golf differently than your run-of-the-mill PGA event on CBS or NBC; mic’ing up the players and putting cameras on the golf carts was a must to make the product more appealing to a younger demographic. It worked when Mickelson and Barkley defeated Manning and Stephen Curry that November, when Mickelson and Brady fell to Rodgers and Bryson DeChambeau last July, and when DeChambeau defeated rival Brooks Koepka last Thanksgiving.
Zuriff said Mickelson could be a production partner in Wednesday’s version if he wanted to, but he’s taking a pause on everything in life right now per a conversation Zuriff said he had with Phil on May 16.
“He’s in amazing spirits and he wishes us the best and will come back with us when he’s ready to come back. And he has an open invitation to come back with us,” Zuriff said. “Phil is very respectful of the money we’re raising and the things that we’re doing and doesn’t wanna hurt anything that we’re doing and only wants us to be successful.”
The only person who’s ever passed on an invitation to play in The Match was Mahomes, who was too injured to play last July when Zuriff and company wanted to re-create that year’s Bucs-Chiefs Super Bowl in Big Sky in 2021. When Mahomes and Allen take on Brady and Rodgers, it’ll be the first golf event without actual golfers participating, though Zuriff said every telecast they put on is to create the most compelling, dramatic matchup possible.
At a time in which PGA competitor organizations like the Icon Series or the Saudi-backed LIV Golf Series — the latter of which Mickelson has been linked to directly — are trying to get off the ground, Zuriff said the main distinguishing element is the quality.
“You cannot make it compelling when you have 12 people, 20 people, or 40 people. There’re not enough stars in the world,” he said. “We’re popping on Bleacher Report because it’s Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Patrick Mahomes, Steph Curry, Charles Barkley. These are the biggest people in the business. We’re only focused on four people. When you spread yourself thin, it’s just not gonna work. Because now you’re really competing with the Tour, and you’re not gonna be able to compete with the Tour.”
Zuriff and WarnerMedia/Discovery are thinking even bigger for the future of The Match, looking to grow the franchise internationally and maybe bring in Formula 1 drivers, he said.
“We just look at what’s working in the world and try tapping into the zeitgeist of people and what they care about,” Zuriff said. “I’m trying to stay in touch with what’s relevant in sports and entertainment. Maybe it becomes Marvel vs. DC or Chris Pratt vs. Tom Holland. I don’t know. I just need to find what’s gonna work and hopefully, Craig, Lenny, and the fabulous team at Turner believes in what we’re doing.”
Looking ahead, Mickelson remains in the fold. Manning has done the event more than once. Rodgers is participating a second time this week. And even if he may not be retired from football just yet, it’s hard to keep TB12 away from the links for too long.
“Tom is coming back for his third event,” Zuriff said. “Think about that. That tells you we treat our people well and they enjoy working with us. I have a ‘no douchebag rule’ in my life. I just need to work with people that are enjoyable. Life is too short.”