Leadership / 08.18.20
How the PGA TOUR Is Holding Par in the Pandemic Era
The coronavirus pandemic basically shut down professional golf for three months earlier in the year. Heck, in most parts of the United States during March, April and May, Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy couldn’t even find a miniature golf course to break out the clubs and vie for birdies. But the PGA TOUR used that down time to regroup, adapt and, ultimately, return.
According to Vice President of Communications Joel Schuchmann, the PGA TOUR dedicated a business unit to developing a comprehensive “Return to Golf” plan that has since become regarded a best practice in professional sports. “It included a revised schedule and a host of additional changes,” he says, “the most significant being the health and safety portion of the plan. This was developed over the better part of three months with input from PGA TOUR medical adviser Dr. Tom Hospel, an expert in infectious diseases from the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health and the Federal Coronavirus Task Force, as well as other specialists and laboratory directors and in consultation with the other professional sports leagues. And, of course, we depended heavily on the support and cooperation of local and state governments in the markets where we are invited guests each week.”
Obviously, there were many unknowns in dealing with a health crisis the likes of which the world had not seen in more than a century. From the outset, the PGA TOUR said the health and safety of all involved with its events and the communities in which its golfers play was the top priority.
“While we had a plan in place we felt very good about,” Schuchmann says, “we also knew — given this was an unprecedented situation — we’d have to make a number of changes from an operational and protocols standpoint based on our experiences and new insights from the medical community. We’ve done that to this point and will continue to adjust as necessary going forward. While we are not claiming victory by any stretch, we are very happy with the testing results and the overall program to this point.”
Best of all, all concerned are once again feeling positive about the future and looking forward to what is ahead. For instance, the 2020 Masters — originally scheduled to be played April 9-12, is now coming up in November. Of course, whether in person or on TV, it has been a bit weird watching the likes of Jon Rahm and Justin Thomas compete without hundreds of fans crowded around them and hanging on their every shot. But there have been several positives in presenting the game to TV audiences with no fans.
“We certainly miss spectators on-site,” Schuchmann says. “Our players rely on their support, enthusiasm and encouragement. That said, we’ve been thrilled with the support we’ve received from our fans watching the PGA TOUR at home. They certainly get a more intimate look at the action, including more conversations on the course. Given the smaller footprint of our media partners on-site since the Return to Golf, the new technology being used also bodes well for the future of our sport as we trend toward viewers having multiple menu options when watching the PGA TOUR.”
He adds, “Since the Return to Golf, we have been overwhelmed with the support and interest we have seen from not only our core fans but from a new audience who had been looking for live sports to watch. As a result, our consumption metrics as they relate to the weekly telecast, PGA TOUR LIVE and the Tour’s digital platforms are all up significantly. Growing a larger and more diverse group of fans has been one of the Tour’s top priorities, and we have a great opportunity to build on this momentum as we head into the FedExCup Playoffs in August.”
Schuchmann also says he and his colleagues are greatly pleased with the support and understanding of the players. All came ready to play right out of the gate. “The list of winners since the Tour’s return in June tells that story: Justin Thomas, Dustin Johnson, Jon Rahm, Bryson DeChambeau, Collin Morikawa — all players in the top 10 in the Official World Golf Ranking,” Schuchmann says.
And the players were among the most supportive of the policies and precautions that PGA TOUR has implemented for those allowed to be physically present on the courses. Working with an advisory group that has included leading medical experts, the PGA TOUR implemented a health and safety plan that includes, but is not limited to, the following aspects: 1) social distancing (pro golfers are fortunate to play outdoors across hundreds of acres); 2) limiting people on the grounds to essential personnel only; 3) keeping the athletes segregated from others at the golf course/hotel/charter flights; 4) aggressive use of disinfection protocols and PPE; and 5) a layered approach to screening to mitigate as much risk as possible.
This fifth point includes at-home testing prior to travel, RT-PCR nasal swab testing before gaining access to tournament sites upon arrival, daily thermal screenings, and a saliva test for those players and caddies taking the PGA TOUR charter flight to the next tournament.
Schuchmann says another challenge has been the marketing side of the sport. How has having no spectators changed the PGA TOUR’s fan outreach? “First,” he says, “we had to completely reinvent marketing in the face of this pandemic. We had to stop first and assess what our tone and messaging needed to be at the start of the pandemic in the U.S. and then throughout the spring and summer. Our first ‘campaign’ was really delivering messages from our players to our fans talking about how much they missed seeing our fans and that they wanted the fans to stay safe and healthy. Then we had to switch gears again with our return to competitive golf with our ‘Back on the Tee’ campaign.”
He continues, “Second, one key theme to our marketing since the pandemic began is that we couldn’t show fans interacting with players since that isn’t happening right now and isn’t appropriate for the health guidelines we’re all living under today. So, we made a switch to showing our fans still enjoying our great sport, just doing so at home in a socially distanced way. We adapted every aspect of marketing — our tone, our messaging and our creative/visuals.”
But, of course, the goal is to get the fans back on the courses with the players enjoying the game of golf as it has been for decades. The PGA TOUR has had the option to have fans present in certain markets. “But, out of an abundance of caution,” Schuchmann says, “we have not done so to this point. We plan to gradually phase in spectators in partnership with tournaments under the guidance of local and state governments when we feel it is safe and responsible to do so.”
Special thanks to Ryan Meyer, INTIX member and Director of Ticketing Services, Golf Technology at PGA TOUR, for setting up this interview with Joel Schuchmann.
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Tags: Sports , Leadership , COVID-19 , Coronavirus