By Liana B. Baker
(Reuters) - NBC's Golf Channel on Tuesday said it plans to air 300 hours of Olympic golf coverage from Rio de Janeiro in August, 130 of them live, but several top player no-shows could dampen interest.
As an event returning to the Olympics after more than 100 years, some industry experts are concerned that the withdrawal of key names could turn off casual fans who might watch golf for the first time during the Olympics. In the U.S., the event will mainly be shown on NBC's Golf Channel.
In the past few weeks, Australia's Adam Scott withdrew, as well as South African golfers Louis Oosthuizen and Charl Schwartzel, drawing criticism from nine-time major winner and South Africa golf team captain Gary Player who said, "many people have fought tooth and nail" to return golf to the Olympics.
Former world No. 1, Fiji's Vijay Singh, also said he plans to skip the Games. Most golfers have cited scheduling conflicts or family time as reasons for withdrawing, but the threat of the Zika virus in Brazil has also loomed over the Games for months.
The players who do not show up may end up regretting it, said Jim Bell, executive producer of NBC Olympics.
"I agree with some of the legends of golf and the Olympics, who have the benefit of a lifetime of experience, that some of these players may look back at this decision with some level of regret," Bell said.
Golf Channel is touting other players who say they are excited to compete for a spot in Rio such as U.S. golfers Jordan Spieth, Bubba Watson and Ireland's Rory McIlroy.
But some viewers may be turned off if more notable golfers are not in the lineup, said Michael Neuman, managing partner at the in-house sports marketing division of Horizon Media. "There is an audience for Olympic golf but Golf Channel's ability to deliver a sizable audience would be curtailed by the volume of high profile golfers not competing," Neuman said.
Golf was chosen by the International Olympic Committee eager to tap new markets and win fans. The channel will begin coverage Aug. 8. The men's tournament runs from Aug. 11-14 and the women's from Aug. 17-20. No high-profile women golfers have said they were withdrawing.
The network said it will also stream the competition through NBCOlympics.com and the NBC Sports Group App. While the live events will appear primarily on the cable channel, broadcast network NBC, a unit of Comcast Corp, may air live "look ins" on the course at key moments.
(Reporting by Liana B. Baker; Editing by Bernard Orr)